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?
Perhaps, being the good ‘historical materialists’ that we are, we could illuminate this contradiction by seeing Rousseau as trying to reconcile contradictory class interests or something. And there is, I think, a fairly obvious class contradiction in “The Social Contract”. But it doesn’t actually help us.
The contradiction is roughly as follows: Rousseau wants a unified, cohesive society, and is thus hostile to class conflict. Now, on the one hand, this requires ‘bringing everyone in’ – including all sections of society in the ‘sovereign assembly’ that will formulate the laws, so that nobody is alienated from the social body. This is why Rousseau upholds the degree of democracy that he does.
Yet he doesn’t oppose class society itself – he doesn’t oppose the existence of private property, or inequalities of status. Indeed, as we saw in Part 8, he’s fairly keen that the respectable, wise, and educated should keep the rabble in their place. As a result, class conflict won’t disappear, and a mechanism of suppression and control is needed – this is the role filled by the (ideally ‘aristocratic’) government.
Social unity, then, requires him to both empower and represent all classes (which ultimately supports the interests of exploited classes) while also establishing mechanisms to forcibly maintain order (which ultimately supports the interests of ruling/exploiting classes). This contradiction expresses itself in the conflict between the sovereign and the government, on which he is so strikingly pessimistic.
But this contradiction doesn’t really line up with that between liberal concepts and conservative vision: rather, it is intrinsic to the latter. Conservativism holds up the ideal of national unity behind the status quo. But unity demands accomodating the demands of the exploited, while the status quo demands quashing them. This tension may, in “The Social Contract”, take a form which is flavoured with Rousseau’s ‘liberal’ concepts and language, but it would arise whether or not that language was used.
I would suggest that a third, and even more interesting (as if anything could possibly be more interesting than the preceding 10 paragraphs) way to approach the book is through a feminist lens.
Now, of course, Rousseau is a misogynist. Indeed, the words ‘woman’ or ‘women’ appear only three times in the whole book – once in the phrase “excluding foreigners, women, children, or slaves”, and the other two times in commenting on relative fecundity in different climates.
But you might think that his ideas are not constitutively patriarchal – and there is a very significant section right at the beginning that might support that. Here he discusses the family aim (which is integral to his overall philosophy) is to deny that there are any substantive obligations or authority-relations stemming from the family: parents may have a duty to, and right to, look after their children but this is just temporary, based on their brief dependency.
It might seem, then, that if one simply correct the contingent fact that he doesn’t actually include women in his talk of ‘citizens’ etc., the basic structure is gender-neutral. But I think this would be mistaken. This is because, as I’ve argued in more length before, the sort of collectivism that Rousseau advocates replicates the male-female dyad in the relationship of collective to individuals.
As the sovereign, a group becomes active, assertive, supposedly rational and fitted by this rationality to govern and dominate that which is weak, passive, disorganised and irrational – namely, itself as a mass of individuals. In this, I would suggest, the same symbolic themes appear that in other areas characterise ‘masculinity’ as against ‘femininity’. And, in both cases, there is the risk that the dominance of ‘the feminine’/'individualism’ will bring weakness and decadence, will infect the muscular ‘virtue’ (latin for ‘manliness’) of ‘the masculine’/'the sovereign’.
Rousseau’s attempt to justify every form of dominance by the group over individuals then appears as an inherently patriarchal and gendered sort of dominance – and we might imagine what sort of practical policies this might lead to (men must not be sissified, or the state will be weak! women must not deny their femininity, or we will run out of babies!).
That’s the ‘conservative vision’ – but why, then, the ‘liberal principles’? I would suggest that this stems from that opposition to familial authority in Chapter 2. Taking this at face value, it is an endorsement of the rights of the young against the old. But if I’m right in the preceding paragraph, this is just as committed to male dominance as before. So it amounts to championing young men against old men.
Was there, over the last couple of centuries, a grand shift in power towards young men as opposed to old men, and a corresponding change in the sexual economy in accordance with their interests? If you believe some people, yes there was, and that is in fact the major ‘sex-class-revolution’ that has occurred.
Rousseau is no enthusiast for capitalism; but could he be seen as an enthusiast for this new style of patriarchy (what some have called ‘fratriarchy’)? I think that seeing him in this way makes a lot of sense.
To support this claim, I would suggest that one of the symptoms of the rise of ‘fratriarchy’ is that a lot of the role of maintaining order is taken away from the family (and from religious institutions), and given to the state (and, later on, the media). For example, families in developed countries have, over the 20th century, progressively lost more and more of their right to use violence.
Does Rousseau want to reduce the political significance of the family? Yes. Does he want to completely subordinate the church? Yes. Does he love the state? Oh yes.
So, my conclusion is something like this: Rousseau is not writing for liberal or emancipatory purposes, but for essentially authoritarian and conservative purposes – to hold together (class) society in spite of diverse and conflicting individual interests (and in spite of the contradictions, between democratic carrots and authoritarian sticks, that this involves). He is also not writing for an actively or enthusiastically capitalist sort of conservatism (one might suspect that this role belongs more to figures like Locke or Hobbes, but don’t quote me on that).
Rather, he is writing to express the sort of conservative authoritarianism that is possible in a ‘sexually liberal’ society, and hence where other conservative authoritarians might want stability and cohesion maintained by a powerful familial authority, he must look to a powerful state authority; where others might demand people’s devotion to religious ideals, he demands people’s devotion to the nation and its own mythology – the mythology of themselves as collectively the masters of themselves individually.