Where There is a General Will

June 28, 2009 § Leave a comment

On the Social Contract (Rousseau, Jean Jacques)

Jean Jacques Rousseau‘s essay on what constitutes legitimate political authority is an essential and early milestone for anyone embarking on a quest to understand the world around them and how it got this way. Volumes have been composed about the influence of this book on the evolution of political thought and the history of nations – and I have nothing of substance to add to them. I will merely comment on the oddity of reading this 18th century book as a citizen of one 21st century democracy and a resident of another.

Statue of Rousseau in Geneva (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Writing in 1762 in a world still largely run autocratically by a dozen families, Rousseau’s main concern is to find “a form of association” whereby each associate is protected and by means of which “each one, while uniting with all, nevertheless obeys only himself and remains as free as before.” How can one remain free and yet unite? How can one unite and yet obey only oneself?

This is complicated by a conundrum surrounding the legitimacy of the majority vote. “The vote of the majority always obligates all the others,” says Rousseau. “How can a man be both free and forced to conform to wills that are not his own?” And elsewhere, “Unless the vote were unanimous,” he asks, “What would become of the minority’s obligation to submit to the majority’s choice? Where do one hundred who want a master get the right to vote for ten who do not?” Alexis de Tocqueville, visiting a democratic America in 1830, marvelled, in a similar vein,“How can a man claim to want to be free when in certain instances, he agrees slavishly to obey some of his fellow men, yielding up his will and his very thoughts to them?”

Rousseau waltzes his way around these philosophical pitfalls with nimble surefootedness. His partner in this dance is the Social Contract, an unwritten, abstract but essential construct in the circumvention of these paradoxes. The concept itself was not original.  I know Thomas Hobbes had written about such a contract in his Leviathan, a hundred years before Rousseau, in which every man voluntarily relinquishes his right to violence in favour of a ruler. In return for becoming the sole legitimate bully in the backyard, the ruler guarantees the safety and security of all his subjects – a political theory that would have earned Don Corleone’s unwavering approval. But then Hobbes took a distinctly dim view of human life, famously describing it as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Then came John Locke  a few years later, with a slightly less pessimistic view, apparently, and tempered Hobbes’ theory with reason and tolerance. Rousseau picks up from where Locke left, and refines the concept even further.

According to Rousseau’s Contract, each individual in the socio-political entity places himself under the direction of the “general will” and becomes an “indivisible part of the whole“. What does that mean? Just as a post-Newtonian Western Europe around Rousseau was in the process of embracing Scientific  Rationalism as its True Religion, Rousseau proposed Numbers as the True King. The discovery of the general will is by majority vote – but critical for the philosophical validity of the vote is the notion that when a law is proposed, what is asked is “not whether the voters approve or reject, but whether or not it conforms to the general will.” In other words, each voter is merely asked to state his opinion on what the majority of voters would want – not on what he himself would prefer. By this simple strategem, Rousseau resolves the thorny issue of freedom of the minority: “When therefore the opinion contrary to mine prevails, this proves merely that I was in error, and that what I took to be the general will was not so.”

Something in this answer reeks of sophistry to me. It is clever, but does it solve the problem? Even if people were to vote in strict accordance with this principle (which they don’t), the majority vote would not then capture what’s best for the society- only what the majority thinks most people want.  And it isn’t trivial that your guess was erroneous – you still have interests that are about to get trampled upon because the numbers stack up against you. The Social Contract, and all Rousseau’s eloquent reasoning, cannot protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority.

The questions that Rousseau examines in detail are most striking in that they seldom preoccupy people of our times. Not that these questions have lost relevance – quite the contrary – but it is almost as if politically correct answers to those questions have passed into our culture as shared beliefs and conventional ‘truths’, and so to question them now may almost be a subversive act.

By meditating on the fundamental realities of the model, Rousseau is able to arrive at surprisingly perceptive and prescient conclusions about the system. He is able to observe, for instance, that the moral and legal equality that covers all citizens, is only as good as the government itself. “Under bad governments this equality is only apparent and illusory,” he warns. “It serves merely to maintain the poor man in his misery and the rich man in his usurpation. In actuality, laws are always useful to those who have possessions and harmful to those who have nothing. Whence it follows that the social state is advantageous to men only insofar as they all have something and none of them has too much.”

 In saying this, he is echoed by Adam Smith, barely a decade later, who says, in the Wealth of Nations: “Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defence of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all.

Those words could get one branded a Communist and ostracized in places where, ironically, Adam Smith and Rousseau are set on a pedestal as Fathers of Libertarianism and Liberty respectively. Point to ponder, surely.

But I digress. Rousseau continues: what the government gets away with depends on the people themselves. “Where right and liberty are everything,” Rousseau warns, “inconveniences are nothing.” It is more pertinent, perhaps, to flip that statement on its head: where the people value convenience above all else and are most intent on avoiding unnecessary inconvenience, rights and liberty are usually trampled upon without compunction. “When the Nazis came for the communists,” begins Martin Niemoller, famously, ” And I didn’t speak up…”

Rousseau has one last home truth to deliver, one that hit me like a sledgehammer. He seems to be describing modern democratic society when he describes a strange and eerie social harmony that is caused “when the citizens, having fallen into servitude, no longer have either liberty or will. Then fear and flattery turn voting into acclamations. People no longer deliberate; either they adore or they curse.”
How infinitely simpler it would be for the governments  if people stopped deliberating! Little wonder, perhaps, that governments around the world would rather keep their people on a steady dose of bread and circuses, and not have citizens worry their pretty little heads too much with Rousseau’s fundamental questions. It reminded me of Marshall McLuhan‘s narration of the following anecdote in his collection of essays, Understanding Media.
After the Second World War, an ad-conscious American army officer in Italy noted with misgiving that Italians could tell you the names of cabinet ministers, but not the names of commodities preferred by Italian celebrities. Furthermore, he said, the wall space of Italian cities was given over to political, rather than commercial slogans. He predicted that there was small hope that Italians would ever achieve any sort of domestic prosperity or calm until they began to worry about the rival claims of cornflakes and cigarettes, rather than the capacities of public men. In fact, he went so far as to say that democratic freedom very largely consists in ignoring politics and worrying, instead, about the threat of scaly scalp, hairy legs, sluggish bowels, saggy breasts, receding gums, excess weight and tired blood.
Perhaps, in retrospect, Thomas Hobbes was a bubbly optimist after all…

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