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.

In one of the republic’s grand assemblies, voting was done according to groups called centuries, but these did not contain equal numbers of people: “it came about that the class with the fewest number of men had the greatest number of centuries, while the last [poorest] whole class counted only as one single [century], although it contained more than half the inhabitants of Rome…and what had been decided by a minority passed for a decision of the multitude.” No criticism is offered of this – indeed, “there is no doubt that the whole majesty of the Roman people was to seen only in [this assembly].”

On the other hand, in a different type of assembly (not the comitia centuriata, but the comitia tribute), “not only had the Senate no status in the assembly, but no senator had even the right to attend, and being thus forced to submit to laws in the enactment of which they had no voice, the senators were to that extent less free than the humblest citizen. This injustice was altogether ill-conceived, and alone sufficed to invalidate [the assembly’s] decrees.”

So when a minority is excluded from an assembly, this is injustice and invalidates its decisions; when a minority is allowed to overall the majority in an assembly, nothing it particularly amiss.

Other examples further show where Rousseau’s sympathies lie. The fact that “the patricians…could buy clients to influence numerical majorities” is called an “admirable institution…a masterpiece of politics and humanity.” Similarly endorsed is the rule that assemblies could be called only if the auguries were right, which “enabled the Senate to keep a restraining hand on a proud and restless people and temper the ardour of seditious tribunes.”

Reading his account of Rome makes it very obvious that he considers it more important to control the poor majority than to secure their interests against the rich minority. Certainly, he hates some rich people – especially the urban sort. He dislikes the selfish, divisive, ostentatious sort of rich person, and lambasts the “devouring greed, unsettled hearts, intrigue, continual movement and constant reversals of fortune” of modern people. An ideal society is one where “all possess something and none has too much”, and where there is “moderation among the rich and contentment among the poor.”

But he is equally hostile to the poor – again, especially the urban poor, the “rabble”, and this hostility allows us to grasp the subtext of his criticisms of democracy: “a government without government”, “the corruption of the legislator…from the pursuit of private interests”, “liable to civil war and internecine strife”.

His ideal is rule by the wisest, the just, the elevated, with “honesty, sagacity, experience”. This will usually, he clearly thinks, be members of the upper classes, most likely rural. Indeed, I was struck by the resemblance to Plato’s “Republic”, which is painfully, painfully upper-class, aristocratic book, and yet one which prescribes the substantial abolition of private property and hereditary privileges. The attitudes, culture, and power-structures of a class system are retained, even while the material wealth itself that realised them is hypothetically removed or opposed.

There is a bit more to say about what sort of class perspective in embodied in “The Social Contract”, and I’ll try to wrap it into my concluding post. For now I’ll just tie up the thread left dangling last post, about Rousseau’s relation to democracy. The fundamental idea of the book, the contract, the general will, the legislative sovereign, etc. is a strongly democratic one – and yet Rousseau is in practice largely hostile to democracy, more supportive of an elite government to control the immoderate passions of the mob.

It seems then that the this democratic starting principle functions not so much as a genuine premise, a pivot from which re-order or democratise society, but more a device to legitimise elite government (rather as one suspects elections do in most modern societies). Government for the people, oh of course – but not by or of the people.

But that is, after all, exactly what he promises in the first paragraph. “Man,” he says, “is everywhere in chains.” He does not then ask how this bondage might be abolished, but “how can it be made legitimate?”

2 Responses to “Reading Rousseau’s “Social Contract”, Part 8 – wealth, democracy, and the despised multitude”

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