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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