Moving to a New Blog

I’m back! But I’m not me!

I am reinventing myself with a new blog. The main difference is that this one is not pseudonymous but features my real name. This old blog is staying up, because people still seem to read some of the posts.

But my current, dynamic, real-time bloggage is now to be found at ‘Majestic Equality‘, one of those insufferable ‘snippet from famous quotation’ blogs. Old readers and new readers are equally desired.

Reading Rousseau’s “Social Contract”, Final Part

What overall evaluation can we give to “The Social Contract” on the basis of the reflections in the last 9 posts?

I found my attitude towards Rousseau becoming more negative as I went through the text; initially, I thought a lot of what he was saying was interesting and relevant to questions about freedom and control – I agreed with his arguments for thinking in terms of ‘contract’, I was interested in what his idea of ‘the general will’.

But at each stage, the conclusions he drew were either the most authoritarian ones that were consistent with his premises, or more authoritarian ones that weren’t. Lots of critics have called Rousseau a fore-runner of European fascism, and I’ve come to feel that this is essentially accurate, despite the complexities of his philosophy.

This made the book a bit of a puzzle to me. In essence, Rousseau seems to be pursuing conservative aims with liberal principles (or, alternatively, collective aims with individualist principles – which set of terms is more ambiguous?).

All men are equal, freedom is the first among values, and every constraint must be justified by the free consent of the constrained. But he’s clearly intensely hostile to most aspects of a liberal capitalist society – to urbanisation, to self-interest, to luxury or inequality of wealth, to diversity or cosmopolitanism. Against these, he desires a cohesive, homogenous, public-spirited society, where individual freedom is the freedom to obey the laws, where people’s primitive tendency to do what they like is re-moulded into a love of duty and custom.

But if that’s the case, if that’s his vision, why bother with deducing any of it from something so selfish and a-social as a contract, why bother with freedom and equality and so forth?

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Reading Rousseau’s “Social Contract”, Part 9 – civil and uncivil religions

As someone who knows almost nothing about Durkheim, I can say with absolutely no confidence that Rousseau’s view of religion is proto-Durkheimian, in that the objects of religious worship (‘gods’) are ultimately symbols of society and the social contract. Hence, he says, “a God was placed at the head of every political society…[and]…there were are many Gods as peoples….the provinces of the Gods were determined…by the frontiers of nations.” To put it another way, religion is naturally political, dealing with power, authority, and loyalty.

Consequently, there are roughly three dangers that Rousseau seems concerned to avoid.

  • One is the existence of multiple intolerant religions within society, each holding its own laws, and its own judgements about people’s relative worth, higher than any broader social laws. In such cases they form parasitic, or at unhealthy, ‘sub-societies’ within the larger society, dividing and thus weakening it by internal conflicts.
  • The second is the conquest of society by such a religious group, i.e. the domination of a group with its own interests and principles, that rivals or overrules the political authority. This again weaken society by giving people two conflicting authorities, and usurping the legitimate governmental forms.
  • Thirdly, though, Rousseau is hostile to even ‘un-worldly’ religions, those which reject no political rules or authority, precisely because they teach their followers to disdain worldly things and focus their attention on the afterlife, or personal enlightenment, or other such goals. Such a religion (which he identifies as the original Christianity of the Gospels) undermines people’s committment to, and enthusiasm to defend, their society and its laws.

What Rousseau advocates instead is the toleration of all religions which 1) tolerate other religions (in particular, not claiming that all infidels will burn), and 2) are consistent with ‘the civil profession of faith’: the existence of a providential God,  “the life to come, the happiness of the just, the punishment of sinners,” and “the sanctity of the social contract and the laws.”

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Pests and Pets: Historical Dialectic

On the one hand, one of the primary reasonx why household pests (such as mice) are a problem is that they

Edit: this post probably should have a picture.

can spread infectious diseases.

On the other hand, it’s well-documented that pets (such as mice) provide substantial health benefits to their owners, both psychologically, with stress or depression, and physically, with things like blood pressure.

On the third hand, the robust trend of developed societies is towards smaller and smaller dangers from infectious diseases, with an increasing proportion of health risks coming from either psychological disaffection (at least, these are becoming more often diagnosed…) or from illnesses relating to lifestyle rather than microbes, like heart disease.

This suggests that over time, the potential health benefits of animals living in houses become more significant, while the potential health risks become less significant.

(Obviously assumptions are made here, e.g. that the comfort provided by a pet can be provided by a pest as well. But it seems that this would depend a lot on the details of interaction)

Reading Rousseau’s “Social Contract”, Part 8 – wealth, democracy, and the despised multitude

Ok, resuming this series after a short break. Today I want to talk about Rousseau’s approach to class and property; next post will probably say a bit about religion and censorship, and then the final one will be summarising and concluding and stuff.

Last couple of posts both argued that, according to his own principles, Rousseau’s democratic commitments should extend to all areas of life, and not just periodic legislative assemblies – and that despite this, he comes out strongly in favour of aristocratic government, for reasons that were left a little unclear. I believe that discussing the class politics of ‘The Social Contract’ will illuminate them.

Rousseau doesn’t talk much about economics or property per se – he discusses only the first principles (where property rights come from) and the last consequences (how class divisions impact political stability).

On the former topic, his account is not very remarkable – it’s similar to Locke’s or Kant’s, with individuals acquiring rights by their occupation, use, or production of things, and society then working to secure to them these property claims. Compared to Locke’s more famous account, he I think puts slightly stricter limits on how much each person can appropriate, and affirms more emphatically the right of society to interfere in private property under certain circumstances. But he never suggests that property per se is illegitimate or avoidable. (I’ve written a bit about these kinds of accounts, posts are here)

But the latter is more interesting. Consider, in particular, the extended discussion of the Roman Republic, in glowing terms, which he includes towards the end of the book. I’m qualified neither to comment on the actual Roman Republic or on the accuracy of Rousseau’s version of it, but what he sees fit to praise or condemn is very revealing.

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It’s been almost a week since I last posted. I will conclude the series on Rousseau soon (and even that was more an exercise in personal note-taking than anything else) but I think this blog is more or less going gently into that good night.

Reading Rousseau’s “Social Contract”: Part 7 – the monster in your bed

Last post began talking about Rousseau’s view of government. What I want to note here is how strikingly ambivalent it is. He says on the one hand that it’s necessary – to have a society without it would be impossible. And yet he also says explicitly that any government will eventually turn on its society and become a parasite and a cannibal. He writes “just as the particular will acts unceasingly against the general will, so does the government continually exert itself against the sovereign…sooner or later it is inevitable that the prince [government] will oppress the sovereign [people] and break the social treaty. This is the inherent and inescapable defect which, from the birth of the political body, tends relentlessly to destroy it, just as old age and death destroy the body of a man.”

This is bizarre, as though he were to tell us that we are required for our own good to invite a monster into our bed, despite knowing that it would eat our heart and then eat our brain. What’s going on?

Even his perhaps most unconventional and radical demand – periodic sovereign assemblies, in which the population assumes direct legislative power – does not prevent this inevitable corruption. For, he grants, “one cannot observe with too great care all the formalities required to distinguish a correct and legitimate act from a seditious tumult, and the will of a whole people from the clamour of a faction.” This is a more verbose way of expressing Blair’s (possibly apocryphal, don’t make me do research) comment on the million-strong anti-war march in London: that there are, after all, 59 million people not marching.

But immediately after making this concession, Rousseau explains that it gives any government “a great opportunity of holding his power in defiance of the people, without it being possible to say that he has usurped it. For while appearing to exercise only his rights it is very easy for him to enlarge those rights and to prevent, on the pretext of public tranquillity, assemblies designed to re-establish good government; thus he exploits the silence which he prevents men breaking, and the irregularities which he makes them commit.” Once again, we find ourselves wondering why Rousseau advocates the setting up of such sinister and dangerous institutions.

A further complication is that strictly, the need for some sort of government, on Rousseau’s terms, is only semantic – the people themselves, as the sovereign, cannot execute their own laws simply because then they would not be considered the sovereign. But they can get around this by simply constituting themselves as a government – i.e. making the government a full democracy. In such a case, for the government to ‘sacrifice the people’ to itself would seem impossible – and yet Rousseau regards this as unworkable. “If there were a nation of gods, it would govern itself democratically. A government so perfect is not suited to men.” So understanding Rousseau’s apparently contradictory stance on government requires an examination of what he says about different forms of government – democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy.

In sketch form, he regards democracy as an unrealistic ideal, and monarchy as close to the worst form of realistic government – though he calls hereditary aristocracy ‘the worst’. The best, he says, is an elective aristocracy. The relationship between such an aristocracy and a representative system such as Canada’s, which he despises as entirely missing the point of popular sovereignty, is not entirely clear, but I won’t consider that question. His three most extended evaluations concern democracy (too hot), monarchy (too cold), and the right sort of aristocracy (just right!).

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