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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