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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Reading Rousseau’s “Social Contract”: Part 6 – government and democracy

There are really two relationships that are discussed in ‘The Social Contract’: that of individuals with their society, and that of society and the state. So far I’ve been looking at what Rousseau says about the former, and from now on I’ll be dealing more with his views on the latter. This post is a sort of bridge, introducing Rousseau’s view of the state and the related idea of ‘law’.

(Rousseau’s use of words is a little different from what’s common: he uses the word ‘state’ as another word for ‘sovereign’ or, as we might say, ‘the people’, or ‘society’. For what we would call ‘the state’ he uses the terms ‘government’ and ‘prince’)

The essential distinction is that the sovereign – i.e. the assembly of all the people – is the sole legislative authority. It alone can establish the abstract rules according to which the affairs of society will be arranged. The government, by contrast, takes responsibility for the execution of these laws, and hence makes all concrete decisions, all decisions involving particular cases.

While the sovereign is bound to a particular form – a directly democratic assembly – the government can take any form that the laws (established by the sovereign) decide. It may be a democracy itself (in the classical sense), in which case the sovereign and government somewhat coincide. It may be a monarchy or an aristocracy, elective or hereditary, or any number of other forms.

The law also establishes when and how often the sovereign assembly is to be called together, which should be regular but practical. At such times the government’s authority vanishes and the sovereign decides whether to keep or change the current government, and whether to change the laws. The relationship between sovereign and government is essentially one of compulsory employment – the sovereign dictates terms to the government, which has no right to argue back.

Now, there are two questions we might ask Rousseau here. Firstly: why must the legislative power be exercised via. direct democracy? Secondly: why is it fine for the government to be a hereditary monarchy (indeed, Rousseau seems somewhat to prefer certain sorts of aristocracy to democracy, as far as the government is concerned)? That is, why does Rousseau insist on a very stringent sort of democracy in one case, but not in the other?

Given that so much of Rousseau’s argument up to this point has been concerned to affirm people’s equal freedom and the injustice of compulsory control, we might wonder why he doesn’t go all out for democracy.The challenge would suggest something like this: ‘in proportion as decisions are reached democratically, with the active involvement of the people involved, they are more legitimate and the people involved are more free. In proportion as government is taken out of the people’s hands, they are enslaved.’ What can Rousseau say against this?

I think the core of his response is something like this: if 6 people approach me in the street and propose a vote on whether I should be tied up and kept in their basement for a while, and I lose the vote 1 to 6, I am not thereby ‘free’ during my basement captivity. Any number of other people’s wills remain from my perspective an alien will, not a ‘general’ one. Hence, democracy per se is not sufficient for political freedom.

What does Rousseau think is also necessary? He says that “there is only one law which by its nature requires unanimous assent. This is the social pact…apart from this original contract, the votes of the greatest number always bind the rest.” That is, even if I don’t assent to every execution of every law, in entering ‘the social contract’ I essentially say ‘I agree to submit to whatever is the will of this society’s majority, whatever that shall be.’ Similarly, when the majority vote to endorse a given law, they give democratic legitimacy to every act which takes place in accordance with that law (including, e.g., the acts of whatever government it establishes).

So Rousseau says that there are three stages: the social contract itself requires unanimity, the laws require majority, and particular acts of government require only to be in accordance with the laws. The essential idea is that if someone agrees to an abstract principle, then even if they oppose a particular instantiation of it (e.g. one which is disadvantageous to them), this is not a conflict between their will and an alien will, but between their own ‘principled will’ and their own ‘particular desires’. And so in being forced to obey the principle, they remain free, and merely constrain themselves.

Now, the democratic challenger to Rousseau might agree that all of this is necessary for freedom – but not that it is sufficient. That is, they might grant his point that mere majorities of some group are not sufficient, but maintain that they are necessary. Rousseau, on the other hand, says that if there is assent by individuals and majorities at the origin, then this ‘transmits’ to every particular act.

This seems problematic though. Do people know in advance all the outcomes that will follow from a given law or from the social contract itself? If not, isn’t it sort of loan-shark-ish to use their past agreement as a ticket to compel and control them? And even if they did know what they were getting into, the passage of time leads people to change their minds and personalities, and after a certain length of time it seems increasingly unfair to treat every past decision as equally binding.

Rousseau does recognise this to a degree. Although he says that individuals assent to all the laws when they enter the social contract, he also says that “each citizen may renounce his membership of the state…on withdrawing from the country”, but this is heavily qualified both by the need to physically leave the country, which Rousseau admits is often, in ‘unfree states’, prevented by “family, property, lack of asylum, necessity or violence”, and in ‘free states’ “none may leave the country to evade his duty…in such a case, flight would be criminal and punishable.” But this takes us back to the issue of individual rights discussed last post.

He also says “it is not enough that the assembled people should have once determined the constitution of the state… [and] set up a perpetual government…in addition to the extraordinary assemblies that unforeseen events may necessitate, there must be fixed and periodic assemblies which nothing can abolish.” He is also, note, scathingly contemptuous of ‘representatives’. But the timing of these regular assemblies is left entirely open.

It seems that Rousseau would consider it binding for a group of people to set up as their constitution “we will select 1 person randomly and make them dictator for life, and hold another assembly either when they call it, or in 30 years.” If, 20 years later, that 1 person has become tyrannical and, armed with a team of lawyers, operates entirely within the law, but sadistically and gleefully, exploiting loopholes and abusin their powers – if they have 5 people thrown in prison on a technicality, are those 5 people ‘free’? Surely it would be absurd to say so. And yet by Rousseau’s principles it seems they are – stupid, no doubt, but suffering in the manner that one suffers while making a bad but free decision.

This, it seems to me, is a reductio of the picture of ‘freedom’ Rousseau presents, in which real consent is made something ‘transcedent’, separate from but justifying the day-to-day decisions of a government. He claims that it makes social constraint into self-constraint, specifically the constraint of one’s selfish desires by one’s rational principles.

But it’s not. The thing which is elevated and made to coerce the person is not ‘their reason’ but how they were reasoning on a particular occasion, with all the contingencies of emotion, circumstance, and ignorance that it involved. To be subordinated for years to yourself at one moment is just as much a sort of enslavement as it is to be subordinated to an addiction or compulsion or neurosis.

Hence, I conclude, the democratic challenge to Rousseau succeeds: it is not enough for the abstract laws to be made democratically every few years, or however long. If Rousseau is committed to re-making society so as to be consistent with freedom, then that same democracy must be present throughout the running of society. That leaves its precise form and limits unspecified – but it does at least rule out 30 years under a king or queen.

Rousseau is very contradictory on the subject of government. The contradiction we’ve considered here is one example of that – in my next post I’ll consider the curious ambivalence in his attitude towards governments, considering them both necessary and yet also sinister.

Rousseau’s “Social Contract” Part 5: unequal with yourself – individual rights and the group

I spent yesterday’s post defending Rousseau’s concept of the sovereign and the general will: today I want to attack it. In particular, I want to attack the apparently very unequal relationship he presents between the sovereign and the subjects (that is, between the group-as-political-unit and the individuals who compose it).

Firstly, “a public decision can impose an obligation on all subjects towards the sovereign…while, conversely, such decisions cannot impose an obligation on the sovereign towards itself; and hence it would be against the very nature of a political body for the sovereign to set over itself a law which it could not infringe.”

Secondly, “as the sovereign is formed entirely of the individuals who compose it, it has not, nor could it have, any interests contrary to theirs; and so the sovereign has no need to give guarantees to the subjects, because it is impossible for a body to wish to hurt all of its members…But this is not true of the relation of subjects to sovereign…subjects will not be bound by their committment unless means are found to guarantee their fidelity.”

So on the one hand, the sovereign need not bind itself to any guarantees, and cannot do so anyway; on the other hand, individual subjects can be thus bound, and must be. Even when Rousseau grants that subjects are entitled to expect the sovereign to not interfere with those parts of their life that affect nobody else, he swiftly adds that “the sovereign alone is judge of what is of such concern.”

Note, I am still assuming that certain problematic issues have been solved – I’m assuming that agreements are unanimous and expressed by direct votes (or, rather, if unanimous, by consensus-decision-making). Even in this case, though, why is it that this group-individuals relationship, which is after all one of identity (the group is the individuals), seems so skewed? I want to argue that it shouldn’t be – and that Rousseau’s reasons for holding it to be are contradictory.

So firstly, Rousseau says that while “a public decision can impose an obligation on all subjects…while, conversely, such decisions cannot impose an obligation on the sovereign.” Now this is trivially true, because he specifies that he is speaking of public decisions – i.e. decisions made by the sovereign themselves. So if the group can make the decision, it can un-make it. But the real question is whether private decisions can impose obligations on the sovereign – can I, just by deciding to do X, impose an obligation on the rest of society, for example to allow me to do X, or prevent others from preventing me?

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Rousseau’s “Social Contract” Part 4: the Infamous General Will

Rousseau asks ‘how can society, and the constraint it implies, be compatible with freedom?’

One response, which we might call ‘liberal’, is to divide the individual’s life into two domains, the public and the private, and be constrained in the former and free in the latter. This solution is not at all to be sneezed at – it may even be the best available. But you don’t have to be a fascist to suspect that splitting your life in half like this may not be ideal, and there are major worries about whether, and how, that split is drawn in the real world. Not only that, but it’s not clear how this approach deals with issues that are simultaneously political and personal.

So there are reasons to consider alternatives to this ‘liberal’ response, and I think Rousseau can to some extent be read as offering one. The essential proposal is that the constraint that society imposes is compatible with freedom, if the power that constrains comes from the subject who is constrained – if it is self-constraint.

To be free, it seems reasonable to say, is to act according to your own will. The sovereign, Rousseau says, is an ‘artificial and corporate person’, it has a will, what he calls ‘the general will’. This is “the balance that remains, when we take away from [individual wills], the pluses and minuses which cancel each other out.” What flows from this ‘general will’ is, for each individual, ‘their own’. Hence when they obey it, they are only obeying themselves – and, in that famous line, when they are coerced into obedience, they are being “forced to be free”.

This doctrine has come in for a fair amount of criticism, especially along the lines that it just confuses and obscures actual, literal, freedom, and thus justifies illiberality.

Now, I think there is certainly a lot we can criticise in Rousseau on this subject (and I intend to in coming posts). This ‘a lot’ includes:

  • How is the general will expressed – what political and social institutions actually tell us what is is?
  • How does the generality of the general will change over time – i.e. does the social contract have to just be made once, or renewed regularly, or what?
  • How does disagreement among members of the group affect the generality of the will – in particular, how sound is the distinction Rousseau draws between law (which deals with general cases in the abstract, and expresses the general will) and governmental acts (which deal with particular cases, and do not)?
  • What is the actual psychology of this act of collective identification, and what effects might this psychology have?
  • Why does Rousseau make certain of the actual claims he does, about for instance punishing rule-breakers, which seem contradictory or unjustified?

But I also think (once again) that there’s a kernel in what Rousseau is saying that’s worth getting at. In the next post or two I’ll hit him on the above points, but for now I want to consider the idea of the general will in relative isolation from messy reality.

What is the point of Rousseau’s talk of the general will? For this we need to examine the idea of ‘will’ and the idea of that social contract itself.

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