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AS/POLS 2900.6A
  Perspectives on Politics

February 22 – The Sovereignty of the General Will as a New Set of Problems

The general will is the whole community legislating for the whole community as an association of equals. It is formed in individual minds when each asks how each and everyone ought to be treated, including oneself, as an equal. It is therefore not a will to perform a particular act, but a will to follow a rule that we prescribe for ourselves. It is not a compromise between particular wills, which are wills concerning what I might want for myself, no matter how that affects others. In the formulation of the general will everyone must be able to participate and, as a practical political matter, it needs the support of a majority in  the assembly. In placing myself under the rule of the general will, I am not subjecting myself to others. But I am denying my amour-propre, my desire to be recognized as superior. I am rising above my slavery to the passion of self-love and making my freedom effective.

But Rousseau also says that the general will is “infallible” and “absolute”. What could he mean? By calling the general will infallible Rousseau is not saying that the majority in assembly, even if they are genuinely searching for the common good, have god-like, absolute knowledge. He doesn’t in fact mean that people cannot make mistakes. Think of Rousseau as saying that what spoils political power is the use of it to pursue purely private interests. When people avoid the mistake of legislating their purely private interests and instead attend to the common good, they are making an authentic use of political power that preserves and enhances freedom because it recognizes each and every other as an equal. To have one’s selfish interest constrained by the good of all is, he is saying, radically different from being constrained by a law which expresses simply another particular will. (If, for example, in time of war or emergency, the law constrains me to ration my consumption of food, I don’t feel exploited by a private interest. If, when I arrive at the hospital emergency room in acute pain with a sprained ankle, I do not feel oppressed because the heart attack patient gets treated first.) The general will is infallible in the sense that it is qualitatively different  and better than the particular will.

Rousseau also says that the sovereignty of the general will is inalienable, indivisible and “absolute”. There is a formal similarity to Hobbes’s theory of sovereignty. The sovereign is not limited by natural law; the individual retains no natural rights against the sovereign. Despite this formal similarity there is a radical difference with respect to content, because the sovereign is each and all of us insofar as we are the legislators of a truly general will. There are also built-in limitations on the sovereign’s  “absolute”  power, for example in the generality of the rules that it makes (the sovereign can/should not act as an executive or judicial body; it does not implement or apply the law) and in the fact that the community may generate as many civil rights as it desires. It would be up to us to protect each other from ourselves.

Given  Rousseau’s idea of freedom, the only way it can be achieved in politics is for the people, considering themselves to be equal members of the whole, to legislate directly. “The people”, he says, “being subject to the laws, ought to be their author: the conditions of society ought to be regulated solely by those who come together to form it.” Rousseau is therefore saying that the only legitimate form of government is a (highly participatory) democracy. Only a radical, direct democracy could guarantee the rights of individuals, and it would be senseless, Rousseau thinks, for individuals or groups within that democracy to arrogate certain immutable rights to themselves. The community may legislate privileges or social rights, but only when it is an authentic act of the general will. It may protect minorities and civil rights as, for example, the rights of effective citizenship, but the most basic human right or “natural” right you have or need is to be an equal member of such a community. For Rousseau, as long as there is a genuine general will, there is no contradiction between absolute social power and individual power and individual responsibility. A true general will cannot impose useless fetters on the community, which is itself.

So the formal similarity with Hobbes, of an “absolute” sovereign,  has an essentially different content. There is also a formal similarity to Locke, in that Rousseau makes the executive power dependent upon the legislative. There must, according to Rousseau, be a separate executive, which in Rousseau’s technical vocabulary is called the “Prince”. But this executive is totally dependent on the people, since the legislative power is supreme. The executive should be separate because of the nature of law. Law must be a set of general rules. The question of the forms of government in the Social Contract resolves itself into the question of whether the executive power is more or less narrowly centralized. In all cases, it exercises executive power at the pleasure of the legislative. At one extreme, you have what Rousseau calls “monarchy”, in which executive power is concentrated in the hands of one person who delegates it to subordinates appointed from the center. We would probably call this a  “presidential” executive these days. At the other extreme, there is what Rousseau calls “democracy”, where most people in a society, in addition to being legislators, carry out executive functions. This would be closer to Athenian direct democracy. As a sort of golden mean between the two, there is what Rousseau calls “elective aristocracy”, where executive officers are relatively few in number, but are elected by the people. Rousseau thinks this is the best and most likely arrangement for most states. But it is important to note that the use of a term like elective aristocracy does not make Rousseau’s theory less democratic, because the executive is not the representative of the people and does not legislate.

For Rousseau representative legislatures of the kind Locke had in mind are not legitimate legislative institutions, because “the general will does not admit of representation”. The people of England, he says, are only free during elections, and between elections they are slaves. In Locke’s theory, freedom was preserved as long as the executive was a delegate of the legislature, whose power was in turn based on the vague consent of a majority of property owners. Rousseau’s theory makes freedom an accomplishment that is only possible when  politics as the making of law becomes the active concern of all, taking part as equals in determining their own future. His accusation against Locke is that he “sacrifice[s] more for profit than for liberty, and fear[s] slavery less than poverty.”.

So far I’ve been looking at the Social Contract in terms of the most general principles it puts forward. At the most general level, Rousseau maintains that a free individual is a morally autonomous individual, but that such an individual is only the achievement of a political community of equal citizens in which the citizens legislate directly in forming a general will. Individuality is a function of true community. Against liberalism, Rousseau’s freedom cannot be adequately conceived as the relative absence of external constraint. Social determination, the social bond, is not something human beings can escape. The question of freedom gets posed in a new way. The problem is to find a form of social determination which is itself good and which we affect and even direct. A good form will undo the dependence of some individuals upon others and replace it with dependence upon the community as a whole, but only upon a community of individuals that respects all of its members as equals.

But where are such individuals to be found? Rousseau thinks that liberalism is producing a society in which the central claim of individuals and their central self-definition is to freedom and equality. It had already gone a long way in dissolving feudal ties of dependency, breaking up nature-like hierarchical communities, and forcing individuals to shift for themselves, at least in the marketplace. Liberalism was creating individuals who increasingly thought of themselves as free and equal; but it was unable to create community, or to realize freedom and equality.

Rousseau in the Preface to the Social Contract says his aim is to found a new political order “taking men as they are and the laws as they might be”. Some of the conditions for a community of free and equal individuals were in the process of being formed. But these preconditions were not sufficient. Bourgeois men take themselves to be free and equal, but they are divided between an ideal capacity  for moral autonomy (grounded in the claims of the market society that all are free and equal) and the reality that the full market society divides individuals against each other in the way that Hobbes’s theory illustrated. A struggle of competing interests comes to be sociologically imposed on the very same individuals who ideally can recognize each other as equals. Therefore, in society as it is (then and there), with “men as they are”, the same conditions that make for free and equal individuals capable of forming a democracy (“the laws as they might be”) also creates the opposition of particular interests with each other and with the general interest. Bourgeois society has historically created some of the conditions in which a reconciliation of the claims of individuality with community become conceivable, but realizing this reconciliation is extremely problematic.

Now, Rousseau seems to think that it would be occasionally and temporarily possible to effect this reconciliation, if a few other or different social pre-conditions were met. The first one of these concerns property. There must be an economic equality great enough to prevent the rise of powerful particular interests within society who would dominate the state. In the Second Discourse, Rousseau had said that it was private property that had inaugurated exploitation and unfreedom. So long as there were rich and poor, people would be guided by a class interest. In Book II, Ch. 11 of the Social Contract, therefore, Rousseau lays it down  that no citizen shall be rich enough to buy another and none so poor as to need to sell himself. Since he is talking about citizens, this appears to be not simply a prohibition of slavery (which he already did in Book I, Ch. 4), but a prohibition of wage-labour. Also, in footnote 1 to Book I, Ch. 9 Rousseau says this: “laws are always of use to those who possess and harmful to those who have nothing: from which it follows that the social state is advantageous to men only when all have something and none too much.” Chapter 9 of Book I also makes a moral case for only limited private property.

Rousseau is not a socialist or not quite a socialist. In the Social Contract he seems to have in mind a society of small property holders, what you might call a “one-class” society, rather than a classless society. This makes him a precursor of socialism . But given the state of economic-technical development around 1760, Rousseau was not yet in a position to conceive of the social ownership of the means of production. Or perhaps he might have been able to conceive of it, but unlike Marx 100 years later, it did not seem to be the overwhelming direction indicated by economic development.

The second pre-condition Rousseau gives for realizing the sovereignty of a general will concerns the power of associations within the state (interest or pressure groups, factions, parties). The best situation, he says, would be if there were none of them, since their activity detracts from the ability to form a truly general will. But if that is impossible, which he seems to accept it usually would be, then there should be as many of them and they should be as equal as possible, in the hope that the particular wills of one will at least cancel out the particular wills of the other.

The third pre-condition is the most problematic: it is for the moral transformation of the people by a charismatic leader. This is the figure Rousseau calls the “Legislator”. Such a person is able to lead people past the merely intellectual recognition of their equality. A Legislator would create social and cultural institutions that could instill a level of solidarity among people that would make it relatively easy to go beyond their particular wills. The Legislator is the creator of a patriotic culture that makes attachment and loyalty to the community into an emotional force for each individual. Here we can clearly see the pull that the model of the polis exerted on Rousseau – he realized that the instrumental rationality of Hobbes and Locke was not a sufficient social bond, but that the social bond is in fact based upon sentiment, on feeling and identification. (Here Rousseau is ironically the precursor of modern conservatism – in particular of Edmund Burke, who elevates the role of the non-rational, of custom, convention and tradition to the place assigned by the ancients to Reason). Yet it is important to realize that the Legislator is not a substitute for democracy or for the general will. His task is to mold and develop the cultural preconditions for democracy, and then to withdraw, as Solon did when he began the process of reform that eventually led to Athenian democracy. The Legislator does not rule, does not do the work of the legislative or the executive, but only sets the sovereign people in motion.

Given these three preconditions, it is easier to imagine how the problem of particular wills (both individual and group particular wills) constantly asserting themselves against the sovereign or general will could be managed, if not overcome. But, as I mentioned earlier, given the materials available to work with – i.e. bourgeois men  -- Rousseau does not think of freedom as realizable except punctually, now and then, under temporary conditions. If you follow through Rousseau’s handling of this problem of the conflict between particular wills and the general will in the Social Contract as a whole, it is pretty clear that Rousseau thinks in most situations (i.e. in countries like his contemporary England or France) the executive power, which has a corporate particular will of its own, will gradually encroach upon the sovereign, will more and more take over its function of making law. It will begin to rule in favour of particular interests, even though that fact may not be apparent to the members of society. At that point, a society may go on functioning for a long time, but freedom will have been extinguished because people will have, in effect, renounced their power and have traded comfort and security for responsibility and power.

This is probably why Rousseau gets so carried away with the Legislator and slips into the revival of many of the anachronistic features of the polis, including censorship and especially the civil religion. It is probably why in the Second Discourse, he stresses the need for ascetic rigour and self-denying moral virtue, as opposed to the main thrust of the Second Discourse and his other major work, on education, called Emile. No political theorist before Marx can imagine a revolutionary transformation of individual behaviour without the guidance of a single great leader who stands outside of and beyond society. In Marx’s theory of social change you might even think you have found a much more realistic and scientific substitute for the functions performed by Rousseau’s Legislator. In Marx’s theory capitalist production itself creates a growing social and political consciousness in a class which makes up the vast majority within society, and whose best  interests come to be the interests of society as a whole. 

This leaves us with a couple of final problems. I don’t think Rousseau was satisfied with the sort of solution he presents in the Social Contract. He seems to think that history had not yet gotten past the point at which a true reconciliation of individual and community could only be conceived (or begun to be conceived) and not accomplished. One can see this in two ways: in the Social Contract, freedom as moral autonomy and political democracy carries with it a form of virtue which is a significant burden. There is no substitute offered here for the happiness of the state of nature. Happiness and freedom remain to a significant extent in opposition.  Second, to the extent – and this will vary – that particular wills encroach on the general will, or even to the extent that the opposition of these two is an important part of life, alienation is not overcome, but simply assumes a new form. People in such a political democracy that has not solved the problem of particular wills would tend to live two lives. At one level they are members of a community of equals in power and in benefits; but at the level of the particular will, there is no community, only opposing interests. This pessimistic dimension breaks through at many points in the Social Contract: in the statement that Rousseau knows only how to make men’s chains legitimate (I,1); that men must be “forced to be free” (I,7); in his assertion that the people, because they are a “blind multitude” need a Legislator (I,9); in his unhappiness that his own logic leads to the conclusion that the general will could legitimately enact the death penalty for the most grievous crimes (I,5); in his harking back near the end of the book to simpler forms of community where the dream is a  politics as virtually the spontaneous self-regulation of peasants resolving affairs of state under an oak (IV, 1).

In spite of all this pessimism about his own solution (maybe even because of it), Rousseau’s achievement was tremendous. His conception of a reconciliation between individuality and community completely changed the nature of the debate, and of the debate about freedom and equality to this day. All of the great political thinkers of the nineteenth century, of the era after the French Revolution, are inconceivable without Rousseau. Kant, Hegel, Burke, Marx, de Tocqueville, J.S. Mill, even Nietzsche, are pretty much inconceivable without Rousseau. All are addressing problems that, even if he did not solve them, Rousseau posed in such a way that they could not be ignored.

It is time to move on to the first of the two thinkers on this nineteenth –century list that we will look at this year.

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