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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