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Thursday, 8 December 2011

The General Will?


A great number of liberal critics have charged Jean-Jacques Rousseau as one of the progenitors of totalitarianism insofar as Rousseau inspired GWF Hegel and Karl Marx thereby setting some of the wheels in motion towards really existing socialism. It is true that Rousseau was a critic of equality before the law and the notion of private property. The interventionist state implied in the opposition to the market society of individual property-owners seems at odds with fundamental ideas of liberalism.[1] The blunt advocacy of ‘force’ to compel people comes across as authoritarian. Let alone the distinction between the general will and the will of all seems to posit an opposition between what people might decide and what they should decide. The insistence on the indivisibility of sovereign power seems to eliminate any possible system of checks and balances which are given in a liberal democracy. We are lead, by this view, to see Rousseau as at least on the slippery slope towards authoritarianism.



If we follow on this line of thought we might take Rousseau as a proponent of positive liberty on the grounds that he holds happiness and freedom lies in the individual setting aside their own particular wills and finding their true freedom by aligning themselves with the general will of the people. It may be necessary to ‘force’ people to be free, specifically the people who did not realise that their best interests were in line with the Common Good.[2] It has been said that Rousseau’s outlook is much more complicated for the reason that the particular notions of freedom evoked in his work do not fit easily into the distinction between positive and negative liberty.[3] The rejection of slavery comes out of an adherence to a notion of freedom as non-subjection to the particular will of others and this seems in line with the liberal tradition of negative liberty. But Rousseau goes further to the claim that the basis of legitimate authority is ‘agreed convention’ and rests on this same basis of non-subjection.[4] The aim of The Social Contract was to uncover a ‘form of association’ in which each individual is as ‘free as before’.[5]




In The Social Contract Rousseau makes a distinction between three forms of freedom: natural, civil and moral.[6] Natural freedom is the absence of all restraints people experienced in the state of nature; the only possible impediments are the forces of the individual. Only the physical power of others could impede such a freedom, the only form of ownership was a form of physical possession but there were no obligations to others. When we become citizens of a society we forfeit natural freedom as to attain civil freedom. We can understand civil freedom as the freedom guaranteed by its limits, or more specifically, the general will. The limits imposed are the reason to associate in a civil state, the bi-product of this association rather than the reason for it is moral freedom. This kind of freedom should be understood as the submission to laws prescribed to oneself. It might be broken down as a formula: each person only obeys himself and remains as naturally free as before; each person only obeys himself and remains as civilly free as before; by these means each person remains as morally free as before.



It is important to note that moral freedom seems to presuppose a democratic system whereby we can prescribe laws onto ourselves. This is a bi-product of association in society rather than its ultimate aim, whereas civil freedom is the freedom maintained through the limitations set by the general will. This may seem dangerously close to the suggestion that the agreement we set into is not in itself a guarantee of freedom, but it might lead to a greater freedom by accident. But the general will arises out of the will of each individual, it is where we find our true interests, so submission to the general will is not subjection in the way Rousseau understood it. All of this seems to presuppose a democratic system and is in accordance with Rousseau’s emphasis on autonomy over subjection. It was the dependency of the poor on the rich, and vice versa, which was created and sustained by inequality. It would seem the idea here is that the citizenry should be bound by the laws forged in democratic participation, which they have participated in making, even if a citizen does not agree with them.



The point being to prevent the laws from being undermined by a particular will. The laws would apply to all and arise from all. There are no exceptions and any opposition to the laws would be intolerable as it would undermine the whole framework at a fundamental level. The law has to be enforced and since these laws have been self-prescribed there is no violation of freedom, at least in Rousseau’s terms. This seems to run against the individualism of liberal thought, if the law is one we prescribed to ourselves through collective decision-making then the opposition to it is not just ‘individualistic’. It is ideological because it is more so about the egalitarian order Rousseau advocated rather than the framework which is meant to guarantee such order.[7] Rousseau thought individuals might have to be ‘forced to be free’ in order to guarantee the conditions whereby individuals could coexist freely and equally. This is down to the trajectory of history, particularly in the last century, which saw the rise and fall of socialist states around the world. The need to refute Marxism in the Cold War went as far as looking to uproot the ‘seeds’ of totalitarianism to Rousseau and even as far back as Plato.[8]




As sovereignty is based on the citizenry through which the general will is expressed, it is directed towards the Common Good by the general will and cannot be shaken by the particular wills of individuals – which are preoccupied with preference rather than aimed at equality. Sovereignty is indivisible and inalienable; it derives its being from the sanctity of the contract into which the people have entered. The general will cannot be ‘delegated’ nor can sovereignty be transferred as it is the only legitimate form of representation.[9] The general will is the will of the body of the people, the will is either general or it is not. It holds legal authority because of its vital role in the establishment of sovereignty. This is where Rousseau states bluntly that the division of sovereignty, of power from will, of legislature from executive. The power to raise taxes, declare war and so on must rest within reach of the people, this is the application of sovereignty rather than the thing itself.[10] Sovereignty is really about the capacity of the people to deliberate and direct the state.



The establishment of society is only possible when the interests of individuals converge rather than stand in opposition. The Common Good is essential to the foundation of society and from there it is easy to see why society should be governed in the common interest. We are subject to no one’s will but our own in the sense that the laws enforced are those which we have willed. This is the reason that the general will is not a violation of autonomy and a notion of freedom as non-subjection can remain. Rousseau holds that once the citizenry become servile to a ‘master’ then sovereign authority comes to an end and the body-politic is destroyed. Consent remains important as the decrees handed down by a ‘master’ could pass for the general will, but only if the sovereign authority does not oppose them even though it is free to do so. The government is not the sovereign itself, rather it is the intermediate body between subjects and sovereign, whereby mutual correspondence is ensured through the practice of law and the maintenance of freedom.




Clearly there is a tension in the work between the democratic conception of general will as what the citizens of the state have decided together and the transcendental conception where general will is the incarnation of the citizens' common interest in abstraction from what any of them actually wants.[11]   We might be led to interpret the argument as specific of the right conditions and subject to the right procedures whereby citizen legislators may converge on laws that correspond to the common interest. The state lacks legitimacy whenever these conditions and procedures are absent. So the theoretical state, which Rousseau stood for, may exercise authority over its citizens even though really existing states fail to meet the criteria for legitimacy. This is where Rousseau might be tied in with the anarchist tradition. But it has to be noted that the transcendental conception seems to be more in accordance with Rousseau’s view that the best kind of government is an elective aristocracy. This has even more in common with the liberal system of representative democracy, where elected officials hand down decrees.[12]



It is difficult to say definitively whether or not Rousseau stood for an authoritarian state. It might be said that the conception is an authoritarian one insofar as it doesn’t affirm classical liberal doctrines of individualism, that the state may be a tool for shaping society, institutions and even people. There are problems with the institutions that Rousseau advocates and there are indeed illiberal aspects of his thought. But there are also similarities between Rousseauian ideas and the liberal tradition, we also shouldn’t lose sight of the anarchist strain running through Rousseau’s work. To some extent whether or not the supposed authoritarianism of Rousseau is problematic comes down to the political leanings we hold. Therefore it becomes a matter of whether or not egalitarianism as an end is worth so-called "authoritarian" means. If we are to take ideals such as liberty, equality and fraternity seriously then it means (to the chagrin of liberals everywhere) we may have to embrace the means as justified only by the end.




[1] Bertram, C: Rousseau and the Social Contract, Routledge Philosophy Guide to, (2004, Routledge) pg.190-203
[2] Thompson, Mel: Understand Political Philosophy (Hachette UK, 2010) pg.143-144
[3] The particular understanding of liberty is important here. Isaiah Berlin drew a highly influential distinction between negative and positive forms of freedom. The negative conception of freedom is defined by the absence of constraint on actions and aims which we can choose to pursue without such impediments. This is the standard conception originally defined by Thomas Hobbes and typically embellished in liberal thought. The positive conception is focused on the capacity of the agent to set their own goals and pursue what they wish to do with their lives.
Thompson, Mel: Understand Political Philosophy (Hachette UK, 2010) pg.131-153
[4] The possibility of an ‘agreed convention’ of slavery is dismissed by Rousseau on the grounds that a man does not ‘give himself’ but sells himself in such a scenario. Anyone who does so should not be considered sane, as Rousseau argues to give up freedom is to give up our humanity in terms of morals, rights and duties.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques: The Social Contract, A new translation by Christopher Batts (Oxford University Press, 2008) pg.48-53
[5] In simple terms, communism is an egalitarian order which emerges on the basis of the material proper material preconditions generated by advanced capitalism and after the development of socialism via the dictatorship of the proletariat. Communism has been achieved once a common ownership of the means of production has been established, where there is no exploitation of man by man and the state has "withered away". It is the ideal which anarchists strive for in the immediate breakdown of capitalism, whereas Karl Marx held that there has to be an intermediate phase. By contrast, Rousseau is out to draw up an alternative social contract to the ones put forth by Hobbes and Locke. This vision of a new society is not made to include the transition from society as it is to a new system. Instead the contract is posited in a kind of alternative universe, where what should have been is possible. Consequently Rousseau has had a great influence on the traditions of communism and anarchism, for the reason that the ultimate aim is a free and egalitarian order.
[6] Bertram, C: Rousseau and the Social Contract, Routledge Philosophy Guide to, (2004, Routledge) pg.190-203
[7] It is hardly allowed in a liberal democracy for people to decide not to follow the law and to step out of the political system of rights and liberties to establish a competing system. Theoretically, in a liberal society there is no space an exception as every individual is equal before the law in terms of rights and freedoms. We have to keep in mind that even at the origins of liberal thought with John Locke such an exception in order to justify slavery, slaves were not equal in terms of rights and freedoms because slaves were not counted as human beings. A much more relevant and befitting analogy is in the work of JS Mill, the ‘tyranny of the majority’ is specifically about an exception. The idea is that the majority cannot impose discriminatory or threatening laws on a minority, who are less powerful by the fact of being a minority.  The problem is that there are powerful minorities in society, whether they are politicians, intellectuals or economic elites. A Marxist would be keen to point to classical liberalism as superstructural to the economic base, with the privileged class falling back on the doctrines of property rights and individual freedom to insulate itself.
Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy: JS Mill, Social and Political Philosophy –
[8] Bertram, C: Rousseau and the Social Contract, Routledge Philosophy Guide to, (2004, Routledge) pg.82-89
[9] Rousseau, Jean-Jacques: The Social Contract, A new translation by Christopher Batts (Oxford University Press, 2008) pg.56-65
[10] Bertram, C: Rousseau and the Social Contract, Routledge Philosophy Guide to, (2004, Routledge) pg.97-127
[11] Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy: Rousseau, the Idea of the General Will – http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rousseau/#IdeGenWil
[12] Rousseau, Jean-Jacques: The Social Contract, A new translation by Christopher Batts (Oxford University Press, 2008) pg.91-117

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