laps name lilies

AS/POLS 2900.6A
  Perspectives on Politics

February 10 – A New Social Contract: Democracy and the General Will

The outcome of Rousseau’s Second Discourse is largely negative. If we follow his reasoning, we are led to a thoroughgoing rejection of the liberalism of Hobbes and Locke, together with essential aspects of the society those thinkers justify as natural. But in the Second Discourse the question of what ought to be done remains unanswered. Rousseau himself is in that work ambiguous and ambivalent about the possibility of a solution to the problem of the loss of freedom, equality and the possibility of happiness he outlines. The human species appears to have fallen so low that he seems quite pessimistic about the alternatives open to us. One possibility would be for any individual who has not been thoroughly corrupted to save him/herself, the alternative of dropping out, of radical retreat from the world. The other alternative he mentions would be to attach one’s energies to the lesser political evils, wherever they can be found. Neither alternative appears satisfactory to Rousseau himself.

 Perhaps Rousseau might have welcomed something like a return to tribal forms of society, but he doesn’t really think this is possible. It also might amount to a denial of human perfectibility, thus to a denial of human “nature” in this new conception. Given the perfectibility (the as yet always unfinished character) of our social nature, the Second Discourse begs for a solution to the problems it analyzes. But this solution will not be able to appeal to either the versions of reason or nature endorsed by either the classics or the liberal thinkers.

The problem is somehow to construct a political order that “preserves” – or perhaps a better phrase might be “is true to” – the freedom, equality and happiness of the original state of nature. These have been lost in the course of “progress”, but remain embedded at some level as claims of our very existence as embodied beings with amour-de-soi, pitié, free agency and perfectibility. Yet obviously the solution cannot be the same animal freedom. Nor can it be the sort of freedom outlined by Hobbes and Locke; nor the classical philosopher’s freedom of near complete detachment from the cares of the body. For Hobbes and Locke, freedom is the absence of external constraint on the passions, ultimately on the desire “for power after power that ceaseth only in death”. For Rousseau, the internalization by the individual of this idea of freedom and his/her identification with it is actually a form of being dominated. It is perhaps one of the worst forms because it is a hidden system of demands that appear to the individual to be his/her most essential nature and freest will. The freedoms of the market society constrain us to act as though we are and eventually to become the sorts of creatures with the sorts of passions that Hobbes describes. We may even believe that this is our nature and resent any restraint on these apparently natural but actually fabricated passions.

So Rousseau is looking for an individualistic conception of freedom, but not in the individualism of Hobbes and Locke. In the Social Contract, freedom has a different meaning than that. It amounts to the beginning of a new conception of freedom as moral autonomy. Freedom is not the relative relaxation of restraint on the passions, but freedom from domination by the passions, especially domination by what Rousseau calls, in that work, the “particular will”, that is, a will for my own satisfaction without regard for the satisfaction of others. The mere following of appetite is a slavish dependence on it (the classics were therefore generally right about maintaining the soul in a certain distance from the passions). Dependence on appetite, no matter how “rationally enlightened” and long-run the selfish satisfaction sought, especially when that appetite is sociologically imposed, is not freedom but subjection. Real freedom must especially distance itself from the passion of amour-propre, the basis of the urge to dominate others and the passion which, in principle, can never even reach satisfaction. Rousseau therefore will understand freedom to mean “obedience to a law which I prescribe to myself”.

In taking up this view of freedom, you might notice that Rousseau is beginning to sound a bit like Plato. Freedom is being equated with doing one’s duty. But there is an essential and crucial difference. Plato finds the law of duty in knowledge of an unchanging realm of forms independent of the human being, attachment to which requires the extinction of the passions and which is attainable (if at all) only by a very few fully enlightened souls. The law that for Rousseau liberates the individual from the domination of the passions, primarily from the passion of amour-propre, is to be found in ourselves, is something that we can generate from out of ourselves. But obviously, this will not be an attachment to the falsely separate and exclusive sense of self developed out of amour-propre. It will be a law because it must take the form of a rule. As a rule, it will rely upon our ability to abstract, and therefore to a significant extent upon reason, upon our ability to take a distance form our own embodied attachment and for each of us to “see” ourselves as one embodied, vulnerable self among others, no more and no less. It will therefore be a  rule that universally assigns recognition to the needs of all, understood as equals,  to live and flourish.  From the standpoint of this detachment from the undeniable embodied existence of each and every human being, each may be recognized as demanding support and protection. This rational rule, which we can in a sense “derive” from our own reflection upon ourselves as amour-de-soi, is our own. It is more our own than the indifference to others for the sake of self-preservation  demanded by an always escalating amour-propre. To obey it is not to subject oneself to an alien power. Yet it requires effort and obedience, because our own desires will not always coincide with our moral freedom from those desires.

So freedom for Rousseau becomes, in the Social Contract, a form of virtuous freedom. But this virtue is not the philosophic virtue of the ancients. For one thing, it requires that hierarchy be avoided and organicism be rejected.  Freedom here is obedience to a law that we prescribe to ourselves. It is not obedience to a social convention that appears to be natural. Nor obedience to social superiors or those with greater physical or economic power; nor is it obedience to the sacred traditions of the community or to the supposed “natural laws” of the market. From the standpoint of the ancients Rousseau would be perceived as hopelessly individualistic. But against Hobbes and Locke, his conception of freedom is positive, like that of the ancients. It includes a positive and basic duty to the community of which one is an equal member. His is therefore the first (and still in some ways the most suggestive) attempt to synthesize and therefore go beyond both the conservatism of ancient philosophy and liberalism. He does this by attempting to make free individuality and community conditions of each other.

Freedom for Rousseau is not something given to the human outside of and before his social and political existence, as it must be in some sense for Hobbes and Locke. It is instead a positive act, something to be accomplished and achieved, and something that can only be achieved within and in the creation of a certain form of community. Now, from the liberal point of view, which is in our society pretty much the tacit default position in our thinking, this appears to be a paradox. For the liberals, man in the state of nature, however necessary it might be to give that state up, is freer than in society. Obligation, including political obligation, is necessarily a sacrifice of freedom. It may be rationally necessary for the sake of self-preservation, security and material satisfaction, but it is always still a sacrifice. The central question for Hobbes and Locke is just how much freedom must be given up, and to what sort of agency, and under what (if any) conditions… But obligation is always a giving up, a renunciation of some degree of freedom.

For Rousseau, however, the freedom of the state of nature, both the state of nature of Hobbes and Locke and the state of nature that he himself postulates, is not human. Hobbes’s and Locke’s states of nature are not human states of nature because they are not truly states of nature; and the state of nature Rousseau describes is a state of nature because it is not human. (Obviously we are referring here to the first stage of the anthropological state of nature). Human freedom, like any other actual human attribute, appears only in society, or more accurately, in the histories of societies. Individual freedom (and unfreedom) cannot be conceived apart from the forms community takes on in history. To talk about human freedom is to talk about a collectivity (score another point for the ancients). The real question is not how much freedom must be given up to the state (in order to protect freedoms from each other), but what form of community allows, encourages, demands of individuals that they practice freedom as obedience to a law that they prescribe to themselves. So, for Rousseau, any state or political community, that does not allow, encourage and demand individual moral autonomy in a public realm degrades the human being.  

The development of human society not only creates a being who, by virtue of his/her self-consciousness, is subject to amour-propre, it also creates a being who, as a self-conscious being is capable of  taking up a stance to relative to themselves and all other such selves from a distance outside the separate self. This being is capable not only of invidious comparison, but of recognizing the equality of all selves. It is capable of judging himself, evaluating its own actions, examining its motives and relating itself as a person to rules.

The latest stage of historical development actually contributes in some ways to this and helps it along its way. Locke’s state of nature is one of ostensibly free and equal individuals not only capable of shifting for themselves but, as Locke says at times, imposing the law of nature on themselves. One thing that liberalism does do, seemingly once and for all where it has taken root, is to separate people from tradition and from traditional authorities. It breaks apart human communities that operate like a second, unquestioned nature. It forces individuals to aim at independence while denying them the means to realize non-dependence. Given that the original, animal freedom Rousseau describes in the Second Discourse must mean non-dependence, the question is how can non-dependence be combined with a social existence.

Rousseau’s answer is basically that we can only be free and non-dependent as human beings in the ethical act of recognizing all persons as equals (and therefore equally free). In the original state of nature “man” was free because he was only determined by nature. “Natural Law” meant only the impulses and appetites and instinctual behaviours of his/her own biology. Because each was free, completely self-contained, all were pretty much equal materially and psychologically. Where there is complete non-dependence, there can be no inequality. In a way, the Social Contract reverses this relation: we recover freedom in recognizing the equality of all. All are equals in a new form of interdependence. The fundamental act of justice takes place in this process of living together with others as equals, a sharing of power as equals that liberates us from the person-destroying contest of mastery/servitude.

So, by legislating this law of equality, by obeying this law of equality we impose on ourselves, we also recognize and establish our interdependence as human beings, which is the only way we can maintain, as human beings, any non-dependence. Individuality is thus dependent upon a true community. But this also: true community depends on the existence of individuals capable of this ethical act, of moral freedom.

Thus Rousseau begins with propositions remarkably close to those fundamental to liberalism, that humans are by nature free and equal, but arrives at a fundamentally different view of the relation of the individual to the community: individuality and community are not opposites – an enhancement of what is properly one is an enhancement of what is properly the other. By bringing these postulates fundamental to liberalism to this conclusion, Rousseau also goes behind liberalism to a view more like that of the ancients: political life is not simply a way of protecting myself, my appetites, my passions, my survival. It also has an ethical role in which the self (by virtue of what also makes amour-propre possible), now separate, ought to go beyond its separate existence. I cannot be completely human without taking on this role.

But the ethic that politics must embody to be liberating is, completely unlike the ancients, an ethic of equality, and an ethic of equal power. If you will remember, one of the criticisms I offered a long time ago of Plato’s idea of a good community was that in some ways he had in mind a community of benefits, but it was not a community of power. In Rousseau’s view of individuality, to deny a person power is to deny them responsibility. And unless it is a taking on of responsibility, ethical freedom is not real. So for Rousseau, all of Plato’s non-philosopher-kings are not only perhaps subordinated, they are irresponsible and therefore unfree.

If political freedom is to be ethical, is to be obedience to a law of equality that I prescribe to myself, I must, if it is to be meaningful, share equally in power. Since I cannot recover the non-dependence of the original state of nature, I must, to be both responsible and free, have equal power with all others in society. To have equal power with all others I must, as much as anyone, be a legislator. The only truly legitimate political association must therefore be a fully democratic association in which each person has equal legislative power. (There is also the still somewhat muted implication in all this that ethics cannot remain a purely private affair, or else it becomes irresponsible. This sense of responsibility as being essentially political is important to many streams of political thought since Rousseau, and is shared by certain movements of the  right as well as by the left, a sense, that is, of the radical insufficiency of private morality; that moral problems are only open to political solutions.) So we arrive by a rather circuitous route at the structure, mechanics, institutions and problems of Rousseau’s  solution, but something like it is, I think necessary. We must have some understanding first of what he means by “freedom” before we can grasp the purpose and functioning of his theory of sovereignty and government.

The first five chapters of the Social Contract, like the Second Discourse, have a negative function. In them Rousseau dismisses certain grounds of individual obedience to the state. According to Rousseau political authority is not like the tutelage of the head of a family; nor is force ever sufficient to create a right to rule; nor are there natural superiors and inferiors among human beings. So far Rousseau is on grounds adequately gone over by liberal thinkers before him. But at this point a liberal like Hobbes or Locke would ground obligation on the self-interest of individuals conceived as rational maximizers of their security and power to accumulate.

At this point Rousseau introduces a distinction between the renunciation of power and its “alienation”. (But it is important to keep alienation in its special sense here separate from its larger sense as it might apply to the Second Discourse. The liberty that makes people human, according to Rousseau, is the potential they gain in society to govern themselves, to be self-legislating.  All previous forms of  social contract, according to him, have been renunciations of that right and are therefore invalid. Even Locke’s right of revolt does not really approach what Rousseau has in mind. The only legitimate transfer of powers is, for him, not a renunciation of the power of self-legislation that individuals have, but the “alienation” he has in mind. The only legitimate political society is the one where all retain the legislative power. Yet, obviously, they cannot retain it as individuals in a state of nature. Instead, there must be an alienation, an exchange of one condition for another. The only way self-legislating individuals can form a political society, without renouncing their power to legislate for themselves is by each individual giving over the power to legislate to a community in which he is an equal legislator.

This new condition should not be conceived of as an exchange of power for protection or security. It is instead an exchange of one way of life for a better way of life that not only protects the safety of individuals, not only provides security, but also the way to attain moral freedom, that is, through equal participation in the power of making laws. Individuals here become free by becoming equal legislators in a community of benefits and power. In Rousseau’s language, this takes place when all individuals place themselves under the sovereignty of the General Will.

Now, a General Will does not mean any or every law issued by a de facto government or legislature. It is a law or rule aimed at the common good, and is the active determination by an assembly of equals of a formal rule governing all of them as equals. Rousseau takes the basic political power to be the power to make law, and the only “legitimate law”, the only law that rightly deserves the name of law, is such a general will. It is formed in assembly by each person asking himself what would be right for each of us, understood as equals,  to do or not do. As Rousseau says, “they all bind themselves to observe the same conditions and should therefore enjoy the same rights.”

The General Will can only be expressed as a general formal law. It cannot, as Rousseau says, “rule on a man or a fact”. It must, he says, “come from all and apply to all”. It is also not a compromise, not a bargain struck between competing interests, but is instead the whole community of equals legislating for the whole community of equals. It is essentially different from a compromise between two or more particular wills, i.e. wills that aim exclusively at a private, exclusive interest. And it is formed only when each individual legislates for all, including himself, as an equal. In this mode of legislating a general will, I would only impose a rule on others that I would be willing to impose on myself.

Now Rousseau also says some striking and even shocking things about the General Will – in particular that it is “infallible”, “absolute”. But we will look at these attributes a little more closely next time in examining Rousseau’s participatory democratic solution as a new set of problems.

Back to Lectures Schedule.

York University Copyright © - Asher Horowitz - All rights reserved