The ‘general will, it is widely said, is the foundation of modern democracy. The truth of this claim lies on the plausibility of ‘the will of the people and for the people, attributing sovereignty to the people. (Heywood, A. (1992), Introduction to Political Ideologies pp. 269-273) But what is this will that is crucial for the individual to endure? What is the general will, such that it is general? Finally, why is the general will essential than the private will? Political philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712- 1778), had been credited by Hegel, for recognizing the distinction between the will of the individual, and the ‘general will’. This essay will explore the extent to which Rousseau’s theory of the ‘general will’, exemplified in The Social Contract, shapes his subsequent political direction. Firstly, it is important to explore the context from which he wrote them, so as to better understand his overall analysis. The second part of this essay will analyse the critics that sees Rousseau’s ideology as completely precarious and overtly impossible to achieve.
Rousseau was one of the key thinkers in the eighteenth century, a period of time which is now more commonly referred to as the Enlightment. (Friend C (2002) Internet Encyclopaedia: Jean Jacques Rousseau.) This important intellectual period in Frances history represented a gradual and yet monumental break with the past as thinkers began to reject traditional forms of authority in favour of the individual capacity for self determination and self government. (Apperley A. (2002) Interpreting Modern Political Philosophy pp. 24-27) More than this, the Enlightment was about a belief in progress through the application of science and reason to social affairs. All throughout Rousseau’s life the ideas of liberty and self determination remained close to his work. If it was true, for Rousseau, the old dogmas or religion and mysticism were being left being and they were being replaced, just as fast and in equal part, by the prejudices of science and reason, which for Rousseau, could result in a more deep and profound form of slavery.
The first claim that Rousseau had made in The Social Contract is that ‘man was born free, but everywhere in chains’. (Rousseau, J. J. (2004) The Social Contract, pp. 2) Such was his speculative vision of the state of nature prior to mans civilisation. For important thinkers of his time, such as Hobbes, in the natural state we would experience continual fear, danger of violent death: and the life of man, short, brutish, solitary and poor. 9 Jones T. (2002) Modern political thinkers and ideas Routledge, pp. 42-43) The necessary antidote, according to Hobbes, is to create a sovereign body that would arbitrate the dispute of the human conditions. The trade off was a straightforward one; life and the elements of liberty in exchange for obedience to the sword. (T. (2002) Modern political thinkers and ideas Routledge, pp. 44-45) However, for Rousseau, his perfectionist analysis of the state of nature markedly different as he choose not to believe these ‘bleak’ qualities that Hobbes talks of were instilled in the life of man. Rousseau believes that man is by Nature good, yet good does not prevail. (Muschamp D. (1986) Political Thinkers Macmillan, pp. 126-129)) It is the corruption of mankind engendered through the system of money and bad upbringing that locks him to his ‘chains’. (Forysth M et el (1992) The political classics: a guide to the essential texts from Plato to Rousseau Oxford University Press, pp. 174-175) He goes on to say that ‘this is when citizens have fallen into slavery…’ and the remedy for the individual to continue experiencing his liberty or free will is not by breaking off the chains. The task is, however, to render them legitimate’ (Strong T. (1994) Jean Jacques Rousseau: The politics of the Ordinary Sage Publications, pp. 74).
By exhuming Rousseaus principle of the free will, we shall be able to further his justification. There are two points that are substantial to be considered on Rousseau’s characterization of the free will. First of all, the free will is the interests of the individual. Such declaration involves the individual to recognize his existence with his freedom, or as Rousseau himself puts it, ‘to renounce one’s freedom is to renounce one’s status as a man’. (Neuhouser F. (1993), The Philosophical Review, Freedom, Dependence and the General Will, Vol. 102, No. 3 pp. 364) The second point formulates the most basic principle of his political ethos by asserting an essential connection between the individual’s freedom and the state; ‘the state is the realisation of freedom’. (Neuhouser F. (1993), The Philosophical Review, Freedom, Dependence and the General Will, Vol. 102, No. 3 pp. 364) Thus the key to understand Rousseau’s political thought lies in apprehending the nature of the connection between the individual and the state;
The justification of the rational state… plays an indispensable role in constituting human bearers of free wills and is therefore essential to the fulfilment of their nature as free beings’. (Neuhouser F. (1993), The Philosophical Review, Freedom, Dependence and the General Will, Vol. 102, No. 3 pp. 365)
Clarifying this basic thought of Rousseaus will involve, above all, specifying how the rational state realizes the freedom of its members. Rousseaus goal is thus, to create a social contract. Subscribing to the contract, each subject [individual] will recognize his existence from becoming a subject to a citizen of the rational state. (Muschamp D. (1986) Political Thinkers Macmillan, pp. 131-132) Moreover, in order to understand Rousseau’s idea of ‘what it means to be human’, we have to conceive the contract a ‘moral being’, a sentiment of ‘common existence’. It shall consist in acknowledging the equality among humans that was necessary for the contract to occur in terms of common existence. Thus, since a free society is characterized by a free will common to all, this will, he is quite clear, is the general will, by which all members of the state are citizens and free. (Strong T. (1994) Jean Jacques Rousseau: The politics of the Ordinary Sage Publications, pp. 76-78)
It is certainly important then to understand that the general will is something that each individual has, as an individual. It is as collective’ as I am and collective in the way I am. It is a will (one of the wills) of an individual, a will that one need not have, but which anyone can have. So what is the general will, such that it is general? It is certainly not to be thought of as having the same opinion (which would be the will of all) instead, as Rousseau affirm the ‘difference between the will of all and the general will….the latter considers only the common interests; the former considers private interest’ (Strong T. (1994) Jean Jacques Rousseau: The politics of the Ordinary Sage Publications, pp.81) and he adds that, ‘each individual can, as a human being, have a particular will contrary or dissimilar to the general will he has as a citizen’ . Thus the general will, Rousseau argues, cannot be as general to have anything to say about that which is particular, and which is not common such that it would effect me in the way that I am socially and politically different from you. More concrete, the general will can say that there should be taxes but it cannot say who should pay what amount. Hence, Rousseau concludes that it ‘must be general in its purposes as well as in its nature; that it should spring from all and apply to all’. (Strong T. (1994) Jean Jacques Rousseau: The politics of the Ordinary Sage Publications, pp. 84)
Rousseau recognized the difficulty for incorporating the will of the general with the particular. The particular will is only a part of a rational political order. The central concept of Rousseau’s political theory is the general will. For the general will is both a political concept – it embodies the principles of political association – and the principle that accounts for the freedom of the state’s individual members. The dual functions of the general will is expressed in the statement that ‘it is through their political attachment’, or ‘through the general will, that individuals exist as free’. (Forysth M et el (1992) The political classics: a guide to the essential texts from Plato to Rousseau Oxford University Press, pp. 184-185) Hence, conjointly with the acknowledgement of the individuals existence, the general will also regulates social cooperation or in other words, active political membership. Stemming from such justification, citizens will govern their lives by law that each of them has help to frame in accord with a shared conception of the common good. If this solution is to succeed, political membership not only satisfies the preconditions of realising individuals liberty; it will also embrace the embodiment of the social contract as a moral freedom’ . Furthermore, since the bonds of union rests in the civic virtue of men to become citizens, a citizen is a fresh kind of man whose identity depends on the state. Hence, as author members of the sovereign power men are citizens, but as men are obliged to obey the laws they are also (and at the same time) subjects. Nonetheless, there can be no clash of interest between citizens and sovereign power. The sovereign, Rousseau writes, by the mere fact that it is, is always all that it ought to be. (Muschamp D. (1986) Political Thinkers Macmillan, pp. 130-131) It is then, when required to submit to particular laws that do not conform to their own understanding of what the common good prescribes, Rousseau argues,
When the opinion contrary to mine prevails, that proves nothing except that I was mistaken, and what I thought to be the general will was not. If my particular opinion had prevailed, I would have done something other than what I wanted. It is then that I would not have been free’. (Strong T. (1994) Jean Jacques Rousseau: The politics of the Ordinary Sage Publications, pp. 84)
A body is needed to put the general will to work’. (Strong T. (1994) Jean Jacques Rousseau: The politics of the Ordinary Sage Publications, pp. 85) This body is what Rousseau calls the government. Each citizen, one might say, finds the acts of the legislator as part of himself. Hence, the purpose of the Social Contract is as well, ‘to seek a rule of legitimate and sure administration taking men as they are and laws as they might be’. (Forysth M et el (1992) The political classics: a guide to the essential texts from Plato to Rousseau Oxford University Press, pp. 173) Despite the fact, that government would have the power to administer the actions of its citizens, sovereignty shall perpetually sustain on the citizens. For Rousseau, sovereignty is the general will in action:
Thus it cannot be alienated, as common being, it can only present as itself because although power can be transmitted to or through another, the will cannot’. (Strong T. (1994) Jean Jacques Rousseau: The politics of the Ordinary Sage Publications, pp. 89)
The General Prosecutor in Geneva, Jean Robert Trochin, who was in charged of bringing the case against The Social Contract, had attacked Rousseau on precisely this point. He argued that Rousseaus conception of sovereignty would mean that there would be no restraint on the populace. Likewise, Ellen Meiksins Woods, argued that the precise location of the source and principle of generality was being transferred away from the monarch towards some other institution deemed capable of expressing its superior claims. In this fabrication, the act suggests that the absolute monarchys power is being transferred into the radically democratic alternative of absolute popular sovereignty. (Strong T. (1994) Jean Jacques Rousseau: The politics of the Ordinary Sage Publications, pp. 96)
Indeed, this is in fact true. Critics such as, Nannerl Keohane, writing in Philosophy and The State in France, claim that a society with an absolute monarchy shows the monarchy representing the general, as opposed to the partiality and peculiarity, of societys interests. In other words, the moral prescription was that the monarch work for the greater good for the kingdom. The idea behind the framework is evidently showing the single, superior and sovereign body acting on expressing the permanent and common interests of the entire nation. In the French context, it is a very much response to the specific historical conditions of societal instability that Hobbes perceived the state of nature would be. Furthermore, the monarch was designed to enhance, rather than to diminish the freedom enjoyed by the individual. (Boucher D. and Kelly P. (1994), The Social Contract from Hobbes to Rawls, Routledge pp. 115)
In Rousseaus defence, he does not reject representative government but he does reject representative sovereignty. Furthermore, he is entirely flexible on the kind of government monarchy, aristocracy, democracy, mixed or tempered that is available. His only wish is to adopt the form with the relative strength equal to the proportion of the state. Hence, ideally for his ideas to be fabricated, Rousseau would prefer a state whose geographical area did not exceed that of a small city. However, if this may not be the case, especially in contemporary western society, then deducing the powers of the government into smaller institutions, and accordingly balancing each others power to equal parts, is what Rousseau inherently favour. Sovereignty should be indivisible and should reflect the unity of the general will. It is also by definition infallible, for if things go wrong it merely means that people were mistaken in what they took to be the general will. (Strong T. (1994) Jean Jacques Rousseau: The politics of the Ordinary Sage Publications, pp. 99)
What marked Rousseau out from his predecessors was that they, unlike him, saw active sovereignty as being only the peoples temporary possession, as something that was to be handed over to the appropriate authority as soon as possible. Puffendorf, for instance argued that submitting to the contract is as well an understanding of the individual having to consent with each other to abide by the elements of the social contract. However, the act of the consent is done tacitly. Such was Puffendorf argument to Rousseau, in which he felt that citizens were under duress to make such an agreement. Indeed, I am not a ware of ever having consented explicitly. This is the problem of citizenship, and of the claims on me that as citizen I am obliged to acknowledge. As such, it is a modern problem in that it proceeds from the realization that there is a question about who I am politically. Likewise, even if people had indeed consented, the consent was absurd, eventually a form of slavery. In this sense, it can be claimed that Rousseau has been contradicting to himself towards his justification of the Social Contract. (Boucher D. and Kelly P. (1994), The Social Contract from Hobbes to Rawls, Routledge pp. 117)
Examining the ideas of the Christian socialist Pierre Leroux, his argument against Rousseau was constructed from his observation towards the French Revolution. He believes that the aftermath of the French Revolution had not settled to provide a better society. However, the French Revolution had produced a societal anarchy. (Boucher D. and Kelly P. (1994), The Social Contract from Hobbes to Rawls, Routledge pp. 120) Indeed the impact of Rousseaus political ethos, Leroux contended, had destroyed the false bases upon which previous claims to sovereignty had rested (monarchy, aristocracy and theocracy) and are now rested to where it was meant to reside (within each and every person). However, such a system of government, Leroux claimed, would be a democracy where its guiding principle would be the sovereignty of the people and the problem arise on the premise of popular sovereignty that will produce nothing but tyranny and demagogy. (Boucher D. and Kelly P. (1994), The Social Contract from Hobbes to Rawls, Routledge pp. 121)
Rousseaus ideology had, of course collided with the traditional Christian doctrine. Joseph de Maistre believes that the origin of the sovereign was not to be found amongst the people but instead in God. The core of the argument is directed specifically Rousseaus conception that man was by nature sociable therefore it made no sense to speak of man existing prior to the existence of society. Furthermore, de Maistre argued, was the direct result of the will of the Creator who wanted that man should be what he had always and everywhere been. (Boucher D. and Kelly P. (1994), The Social Contract from Hobbes to Rawls, Routledge pp. 122) Hence, from the same token a people could not be said to predate the existence of sovereignty. A sovereign, according to de Maistre, was necessary to make a people and therefore society and sovereignty both appeared at precisely the same time. There was, de Maistre writes, a people, some kind of civilization and a sovereign as soon as men came into contact with each other. (Boucher D. and Kelly P. (1994), The Social Contract from Hobbes to Rawls, Routledge pp. 123)
Rousseau proclaimed that the sole legitimate government was one that he himself acknowledged was made for Gods, was suitable for small state and for a people with simplicity of morals. For Maistre, his general thesis was that human beings were relatively powerless and therefore incapable of any significance level of creative activity. They were also tainted by original sin and hence were not, as Rousseau believed, potentially perfect. From this Maistre found himself in agreement with Hobbes.
Society, he wrote, is in reality a state of war and here is to be found the necessity of government: given that man is evil he must be governed: wherever several people want the same thing there must be a superior power over everyone who can adjudicate and who can prevent them from fighting each other..a being who is both social and evil must be put under the yoke. (Boucher D. and Kelly P. (1994), The Social Contract from Hobbes to Rawls, Routledge pp. 123)
Another consideration to take note, is Rousseaus definition of the general will, is absolutely vague. Who are the people? only the educated? only the property owners? only the adults? Only male adults? Only (but all) those affected by the outcome of the decision? Then present and future Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland peoples must be allowed to express their wills on the matter of re-unification as must all of the people of Hong Kong about unification with China. Of what are the people citizens villages like Stansted or Elsenham or towns like Harlow or Broxbourne, cities like London or Manchester or nations like America or England? Or are people citizens of the world? How would one know and why should that answer be preferred to another.
Furthermore, it seems that Rousseau had failed to give a satisfactory account of the empirical methods of discovering the general will. Nonetheless, if the general will regulates the common interests, then this is a recipe for disaster. In other words, if there were no different interest, there would be no obstacle and hence consequently, society would not be progressive. Indeed, it is conflict that makes the society a better place. (Strong T. (1994) Jean Jacques Rousseau: The politics of the Ordinary Sage Publications, pp. 101-102)
In conclusion, Rousseau had been marked to be one of the founding father of modern democracy. We can see that Rousseaus idea and characterization of the social contact and his subsequent political direction is heavily related to his theory on the general will. The way in which he places the general will as the foundation of human society and the source of sovereignty in the state are conventionally combined. For contemporary thinkers at the time of his writing, such as Hobbes, Puffendorf and so on, who may view his works as hazardous, others such as Hegel have a significant amount of admiration towards Rousseaus work.
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