Reading Rousseau’s “Social Contract”, Final Part

What overall evaluation can we give to “The Social Contract” on the basis of the reflections in the last 9 posts?

I found my attitude towards Rousseau becoming more negative as I went through the text; initially, I thought a lot of what he was saying was interesting and relevant to questions about freedom and control – I agreed with his arguments for thinking in terms of ‘contract’, I was interested in what his idea of ‘the general will’.

But at each stage, the conclusions he drew were either the most authoritarian ones that were consistent with his premises, or more authoritarian ones that weren’t. Lots of critics have called Rousseau a fore-runner of European fascism, and I’ve come to feel that this is essentially accurate, despite the complexities of his philosophy.

This made the book a bit of a puzzle to me. In essence, Rousseau seems to be pursuing conservative aims with liberal principles (or, alternatively, collective aims with individualist principles – which set of terms is more ambiguous?).

All men are equal, freedom is the first among values, and every constraint must be justified by the free consent of the constrained. But he’s clearly intensely hostile to most aspects of a liberal capitalist society – to urbanisation, to self-interest, to luxury or inequality of wealth, to diversity or cosmopolitanism. Against these, he desires a cohesive, homogenous, public-spirited society, where individual freedom is the freedom to obey the laws, where people’s primitive tendency to do what they like is re-moulded into a love of duty and custom.

But if that’s the case, if that’s his vision, why bother with deducing any of it from something so selfish and a-social as a contract, why bother with freedom and equality and so forth?

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