Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract, and the Will of the People

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract may very well be the most fervently democratic work of all the early political treatises.  Rousseau follows in the tradition of Thomas Hobbes, and postulated a variant of the social contract theory; including a unique version of man’s early origin that sets out to negate Hobbes’s savage state of nature, and redefine the whole of political theory to align with his belief in populist governance—where true legislative power resides solely with the masses.

The Genevese philosopher opens his famous discourse with the words, “Men was born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”[1]  The diction used in this opening sentence is very important to understanding Rousseau’s entire philosophical position.  “Man was born free,” specifically stated in the past tense to indicate a contrast from mankind’s present state of existence.  This is then followed by the second part of the sentence, “and everywhere he is in chains.”  Notice now the switch to the present tense, is meant to describe our current condition.  To thoroughly explain the motivation behind Rousseau’s word choice here, one must dwell a little deeper into the man’s personal philosophy.  Rousseau, like Hobbes, believed that prior to the advent of social communities, man had resided on a plane that can be called the state of nature.  However, unlike Hobbes, Rousseau envisioned this state to have been one of harmony and peace, rather than cruelty and war, where each individual led a solitary life, with no infringement on his will by any other person [this is discussed in greater detail in his Discourse on Inequality, 1754]; hence the reference to man having been born free in the past.  Furthermore, he believes that it was mankind’s removal from this tranquil existence, through the forming of cities and nations, that has caused humanity to spiral into a perpetual mode of degradation, a trend that can only worsen as civilization progresses (since all progressions will only take humanity farther away from his ideal state of being); this degradation serve as our chains.

Yet, despite these claims of mankind having had once enjoyed a serene peace in his solitary state, Rousseau does acknowledge that at some point in the development of the human species the obstacles to men’s self-preservation became too great for the single individual to overcome.  Therefore, “the original state can then subsist no longer, and the human race would perish if it did not change its mode of existence.”[2]  The result was the implementation of the social contract, in which originally each individual puts his power in the common good under the supreme direction of the general will, but no single individual is put into a situation in which their person is subjugated by the will of another.[3]  Rousseau’s reasoning here is to establish the basis that any form of executive that seems to undermine the will of the public is by definition unlawful, because “those to whom the executive power is committed are not the masters of the people, but its officers.”[4]  Thus, the objective of all government ought to be to yield power to the people, whose collective will serves as the true sovereign of the state.

It’s not difficult to see problems with Rousseau’s logic, even if one agrees with his reasoning and conclusion.  Firstly, if mankind started out solitary, and this was his ideal state of existence, is it not more reasonable to propose that humanity ought to abandon communities altogether, rather than argue for a populist democratic rule?  The answer one can imagine Rousseau giving to such an objection is to maintain that man has been removed from the state of nature for too long to return, thus establishing popular democratic rule is a means to bring modern man as close to his perfect form as possible.  In fact, the sort of state that Rousseau is proposing seems to not be much of a formal state at all.  Instead, it can more aptly be understood as a social gathering, “The state which is thus governed needs very few laws; and when it becomes necessary to promulgate new ones, the necessity for them is universally understood.”[5]  Rousseau is convinced that as long as the general will of man is not stifled by authority, his naturally peaceful nature will create a symbiotic unity with the will of his fellow man:  “There is never any question of vote-catching or speech-making in order to make it a law to do what everyone has already resolved that he will do himself, once he is sure that others will do the same.”[6]  But again, the question can be raised why a people ought to bother having a state at all, if they can so readily reach a consensus simply by the merit of having everyone’s general will consulted, and made clear?[7]  Why bother with having a government at all?

Once again it is important to try and understanding the program Rousseau is presenting from the philosopher’s point of view.  Earlier he mentioned that conditions of life are so that man could not subsist in his state of nature forever, thus his consenting to the social pact to ensure preservation.  It is the nature of this contract that must be explored to understand Rousseau’s reasoning.  He states that, “there is one sole law that by its nature demands unanimous consent:  it is the social pact.”[8]  Therefore, the social contract (or “pact”) is the only obligation that any individual is sworn to, but is never subjugated by:  “If therefore when the social pact is agreed there are those who oppose it, their opposition does not invalidate the contract, but merely prevents it from being applied to them:  they are foreigners among citizens.”[9]  This is in stark contrast to Hobbes’s covenants, whose obligations are to be enforced authoritatively, if necessary; any person in Rousseau’s society can simply opt out of the community, if he so determines.

Now, one major point still remains to be addressed by Rousseau, what happens if someone who freely reside within the community, and has consented to the social contract, finds himself in the minority opinion of a particular issue?  Rousseau approaches the question by first stating, “a majority vote is always binding on all the others; that is a direct consequence of the contract.”[10]  However, this statement seems to be irreconcilable with Rousseau’s stance on the inability to subvert someone’s general will to that of another.  The philosopher tries to rationalize this objection away by replying, “The citizen consents to every law, even those that are passed against his opposition,”[11] because, “the constant will of all the citizens of the state is the general will:  it is through the general will that they are citizens and have freedom.”[12]  But this is now starting to sound an awful lot like Hobbes’ position that the sovereign, acting as the proprietor of the social contract, gets to enforce the rules of the covenants on the citizenry, except that in Rousseau’s system the masses collectively occupy the role of the sovereign, instead of just one ruler.  Moreover, the outcome will still involve the undermining of an individual’s will by another (in this case the majority).  Rousseau is not ignorant of this disparity, and attempts to sooth it by clarifying, “When an opinion contrary to mine prevails, therefore, it proves only that I had been mistaken, and that the general will was not what I had believed it to be.”[13]  And in what way is this not an example of one individual having to subvert their will to the will of others?  Saying that because you find yourself in opposition to the general will of the majority the only conclusion is that you’re mistaken on the issue, does not negate the fact that you are then being forced to undermine your solitary will to that of the community (lest you be deemed to have forfeited your citizenship [see footnote 9]).

The main problem Rousseau fails to consider in The Social Contract, is that in such an environment, there is no reason to believe that it will be the solidarity of the people’s general will that will govern the community, rather than the fear induced conformity.  And in an environment like that, the difference between a system governed by a unified majority, and a system corrupted by the whim of an influential minority, is not as readily noticeable as one might think.  In fact, in cunning hands, the will of the people, can easily be swayed to serve the will of the few; and the people might never even be the wiser.

[1] Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Social Contract. “Book I: Chapter 1,” Oxford University Press (New York: 1994), p. 45.

[2] Rousseau, p. 54.

[3] Rousseau, p. 55.

[4] Rousseau, p. 132.

[5] Rousseau, p. 134.

[6] Rousseau, p. 134.

[7] Rousseau, p. 135.

[8] Rousseau, p. 137.

[9] Rousseau, p. 137.

[10] Rousseau, p. 137.

[11] Rousseau, p. 137.

[12] Rousseau, p. 137-138.

[13] Rousseau, p. 138.


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