#08 Rousseau – The Social Contract

The trouble with any work of political philosophy is that, 250 years on, every idea the author proposes seems bloody obvious or bloody mad. The Social Contract demonstrates this neatly – once it had to be smuggled into the country of the author’s birth and now sits in the first week of political science reading lists. Let’s start with the bloody obvious, which in Rousseau’s day looked a lot more like bloody mad.

Rousseau starts with a sharp attack on the idea of any system of government founded on force or ordained by the divine.

“All power comes from God, I agree; but so does every disease, and no one forbids us to summon a physician.”

If there is no government based on either of these foundations, all power must instead be derived from the people! The people?! With about 250 years of democracy under our belt it is hard to think just how scandalous such an idea must have been. Never mind by-the-people, for-the-people and of-the-people – government was what Kings did and you accepted. What did the people have to do with anything?

Rousseau’s social contract sits at an idealised founding moment for the state, in which all of the inhabitants come together to form a common entity based on mutual advantage. Everyone must agree to its terms, and when they do their natural liberties are replaced by the rights that the signatories have all agreed. This, then, is the basis of all subsequent government. And, should the terms of the social contract be violated, the government is no longer legitimate.

All of which perhaps falls under ‘bloody obvious’. So why is it that my brother calls Rousseau an evil socialist and I had hitherto classed him as a dangerous anarchist? First, Rousseau doesn’t have much (read ‘any’) respect for established governments. Especially the one he was writing under:

“Whereas in republics the popular choice almost always elevates to the highest places only enlightened and capable men, who fill their office with honour, those who rise under monarchies are nearly always muddled little minds, petty knaves and intriguers with small talents which enable them to rise to high places in court, but which betray their ineptitude to the public as soon as they are appointed.”

You get a sense of why it was that Rousseau spent most of his life getting thrown out of different countries. All states will decline, he argues; they will fall into some form of tyranny and can only be reborn by being reformed – which implies he’s not to sorry to imagine his readers disposing of whatever governments they find themselves under.

But there is a more sinister turn to Rousseau’s argument. By my reading, it comes about for two reasons. First, since he sees the state truly founded on a social contract as highly legitimate there is no need to restrain its powers. Second, because he sees the vitality of the state as coming from strong Roman-style civic virtue, he sees it as vitally important to ensure the public behaves itself correctly. The upshot of this is that the book is filled with faintly chilling phrases like:

“Individuals must be obliged to subordinate their will to their reason; the public must be taught to recognise what it desires.”

“Men always love what is good, or what they think is good, but it is in their judgement that they err; hence it is their judgement that must be regulated.”

“If anyone, having acknowledged [the dogmas of civic religion], behaves as if he does not believe in them, then let him be put to death, for he has committed the greatest crime, that of lying before the law.”

There’s a very strong sense that people need to be made to live up to the ideals of Rousseau’s state. I feel this naïveté on the part of the author rather than malice – I don’t want to paint him as an apostle of totalitarianism. But though he complained about the ‘tyrants’ of the eighteenth century, his vision for a perfect government put him on the side of the tyrants of the twentieth.

I came to this book with a few preconceptions; but one thing I really didn’t expect was the quality of the writing. Rousseau is never sharper or more fun than when he is laying into authors with whom he disagrees. The first ten pages alone are a masterpiece of acid academic takedown. Even if you think he’s got blood on his hands, he ought to make you smile.


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