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?

Read the rest of this entry »