Moving into the final book of Rousseau’s Social Contract, we see the final touches to Rousseau’s politics of unanimity and legitimization. This is the most important thing to recognize in Rousseau, and what separates him from Hobbes and Locke. Rousseau is thoroughly “democratic,” he seeks all persons to set aside their differences and personal pursuits and interests and come together in that common good which the social contract is meant to have embodied. If we recall from Book I, that common good was our common liberty and equality from the state of nature. Having lost this, and having a society that is fragmented, Rousseau’s task is to show how societies fragment and what can be done to restore unanimity – the unanimity of liberty and equality.
Before I go further I need to offer a brief commentary on the philosophy of libertarianism, of which Rousseau, not Locke, is a father of. Libertarianism and Anarchism, political traditions which emerged post-Rousseau in France, drew from Rousseau’s philosophy. Libertarian-Anarchism, that philosophy of voluntary self-association brought together by people who were interested in both liberty and equality, is Rousseau’s political message in a nutshell. As he says in Chapter 2 of Book IV, the social compact is the most voluntary association in the world. No fear, no compulsion, no conversion, etc., was levied to established the social compact and, therefore, society.
Unlike in America, and the broader English speaking world, Libertarianism in its original form (founded in France by the likes of Pierre Joseph Proudhon) was a voluntary egalitarian mutualist movement. “Libertarian socialism” (in a non-Marxist sense of socialism) is authentic libertarianism from a historical and genealogical analysis. From libertarianism emerged the philosophy of Anarchism, where everything is voluntarily agreed to, constructed, and acted upon. Libertarianism takes Rousseau’s general will to its logical conclusion: all associations are premised on want for equality and liberty and the two are not in tension but coexist. Anarchism takes Rousseau’s general will and social compact theory to its logical conclusion as well: to be truly free and equal is to have the “true democracy” which Rousseau speaks of in the latter half of his infamous text. Though Rousseau says no true democracy exists he, nevertheless, provided the template for that true democracy – libertarian anarchism – to emerge.
Sorry Americans and English-speakers, your understanding of “libertarianism” is just classical liberalism. The more conservative strand of libertarianism, which emerged in Western Germany in the free states and small republics exemplified by Justus Möser, was an organic libertarianism of free travel and association whereby you “found your place” in the already established customs of a certain society and its legal traditions. You embraced, freely, the values and norms of an organic culture which did not impose its ways and customs on you – you freely associated with it, becoming one with that culture and way of life, and then found your place within its system to the benefit of the whole and to your own self fulfillment.
Chapters 1-3: Liberty, Equality, and the General Will
When Rousseau speaks of the General Will being indestructible, and when he laments on the breaking down of social bonds (e.g. atomization and alienation) in society, he is not doing so from a conservative disposition (e.g. from a concrete cultural, social, and communitarian perspective). Instead, what he means is that the bond of liberty and equality (the only bonds of society since society is the voluntary construct of the social compact which aims at preserving liberty and equality). For Rousseau, the unanimity of any legitimate society rests on the legitimization of the social contract, which he already established in Books I and II as resting on the principles of liberty and equality which humans shared in the state of nature.
Hence, when society slacks and atomizes and alienates itself, what Rousseau really means is people stop caring about liberty and equality. The loss of common interest (liberty and equality) allows for powerful self or group forces to arise and exert their will over others. This is what despotism is. Because a true society only has one will (note how this is different from the plurality of wills that people like Aristotle and Augustine speak of in their political writings) a society can never fall into despotism if it adheres to the general will (which, being indestructible, is akin to God; political unanimity and belief is God in Rousseau’s political philosophy).
Societies that break down do so because the people, for various reasons, have been taken advantage of by nefarious forces (which Rousseau never really goes into explaining how they arise other than vague implications of economism) and loss the general will and common will of want to maintain and ensure liberty and equality. This is the paradox of Rousseau’s libertarianism: liberty and equality must be enforced! Without liberty and equality being enforced that common will and common good atrophies and allows for despotism to arise when a will is divided. The will, though divided, cannot be destroyed as Rousseau makes clear. Why?
Suffrage is the answer as to why the General Will is indestructible. For Rousseau, since all persons are moved to liberty and equality because this is our most essential nature, whenever despotism arises it will be counteracted by the will of the people rising up to restore the unanimity of liberty and equality which binds society together and people together in mutual trust, interest, and compassion.
Society needs to be in harmony, and the only way to have harmony in Rousseau is through the unanimity of the common will: liberty and equality. People who act on behalf of the downtrodden and oppressed are, in effect, rising the consciousness of the oppressed to awaken their will for liberty and equality. When people have the right to vote, which is an expression voluntary directive, they always vote for greater liberty and equality because they recognize that this is what the social compact is truly about and that the forces conspiring against them are not acting in accord with the general will. From Rousseau’s earlier statements in Books I and II, a government is only legitimate when it follows the general will. For in following the general will it is living up to the promise of the social compact. When a society is divided “particular interests” arise, mostly in the form of the bourgeois capitalist or merchant who is only interested in their self-gain.
What one needs to recognize in Rousseau is that his call for liberty and equality entails universal homogenization. Division and difference is what allows for those particular interests to arise and destroy the common good and common cause. Hence, pluralism prevents unanimity.
At the same time, Rousseau’s theory of the democratic vote is equally novel and worth considering. Unlike modern political scientists, who are generally infected by economism and think people should “vote for their class/economic interests,” Rousseau argues that people vote based on their intrinsic nature: liberty and equality. Suffrage aims at restoring the original mission of the social compact and nothing more than that.
Another important idea to flag in Chapter 3 is how elections imply responsibility rather than privilege. For Rousseau, elected officials are bound to duties and responsibilities. It is not a privilege to serve you, in other words. It is my duty to make sure I discharge the responsibilities of the constitution, or social compact, namely the preservation and assurance of liberty and equality for all. It is a burdensome responsibility.
Chapters 4-7: How Rome Was Lost
Chapters 4-7 are an interesting historical rumination about the Roman Republic and how it collapsed. Rousseau was a self-taught classicist and had devoured Livy’s History of Rome. In reading the history of the Roman Republic, its rise and fall, Rousseau felt he had a story comparable to allow people to understand his political philosophy.
Rousseau is exploring, here, whether society is based on force and fear (Hobbes and Locke) or whether it is based on sacred law (Rousseau’s own view); thus he is revisiting the content and themes he had previously established in Book III. Rousseau ultimately argues that the glory of Rome was in her sacred laws and rule of law, which atrophied over time and the end of the republic was found in the use of force and fear which destabilized the republic. Thus, Rousseau uses his reading of the history of Rome to counter the arguments of liberal philosophers like Grotius, Hobbes, Locke, and Spinoza, whom are referenced and rebuked directly (Grotius) or esoterically (Hobbes, Locke, and Spinoza – though Hobbes is mentioned by name at the end of Book IV). The result of this atrophy into a society premised on force and fear is what leads Hobbes and Locke to imagine a state of nature where force and fear reign supreme, rather than a state of nature of law, equity, and liberty.
I want to also take the time to flag Rousseau’s romanticism that emerges in these chapters. He paints an idyllic and romantic picture of the Roman Republic – one not seen beforehand. He praises the countryside living and way of life of the patrician and farmer – the true source of Rome’s liberty and equality and greatness. He loathes the urban bourgeois man whom he feels is responsible, partly, for Rome’s collapse. He also praises, in another way (come Chapter 8) the traditional Roman pantheon as being the perfect example of a civil cult (civil religion) which provided the unanimity necessary for Rome to flourish.
The story that Rousseau tells in the rise and fall of Rome is the quintessential romantic tale. This is why Rousseau is also remembered as the “Moses of the Romantics,” a sort of early father to some of the themes and ideas that would dominate Romantic philosophy and thought in the 1790s-1850s. A lot of what Rousseau had to say is simply a-historical, so most of his commentary should be taken with a grain of salt here. Nevertheless, we shall explore what this story entails.
According to Rousseau, the comitias of early Rome were her source of greatness. The “committees” that dominated Roman life were best suited to being the closest thing to a true democracy that there ever was. Officials elected to their positions by every strata of society and working, by and large, in harmony with each other to produce the stability and order of Roman society which allowed people to live their lives as they saw fit under the common good of liberty and equality.
This, again, is Rousseau’s libertarian ideal. Order does not equate to tyranny or dictatorship, as he makes clear. Order is the byproduct of a functioning body politic and general will. When all people believe in liberty and equality, and political institutions actuate policies that safeguard liberty and equality, people will go about living their lives as they each see fit and not interfere with each other. When this system is threatened, the common will unites people (unanimity) to protect what they have. Rousseau’s ideal society is people living in their little regions, townships, villages, engaged in their working professions for their livelihoods, and that’s about it. What unites them is that common good of the social compact.
However, as Rousseau also makes clear, the comitia curiata (the committee of urban Rome) was the real problem that crushed the republic and resulted in its slippage into tyranny. For Rousseau, and perhaps surprisingly to some, the aristocracy is not the enemy. And neither are the common people. The aristocrats, united in their love of liberty and equality (with each other) acted as a collective group rather than “self-interest” (this is before the rise of Marxist readings of history mind you). Likewise, the common people, united in their love of liberty and equality (with each other) acted as a collective group rather than self-interest. The aristocracy and commoners act in a waltz with each other from time to time as well.
It is the bourgeois merchant, the “new man” or self-made man, which is the problem. Leveraging money as their source of political power, they only ever seek to gain more for themselves rather than help others. “In the case of the comitia curiata, where the populace of Rome alone formed the majority, their tendency to favor tranny and evil designs led them to fall into disrepute, so that even the seditious elements avoided these assemblies lest their presence should arose suspicion concerning their conspiracies.” Rome’s greatness was not actually “Rome.” Rome was simply the idea. The city of Rome itself was a putrid den of thieves, liars, vagabonds, and tyrants. A city of sophists, if you will. The urban centers, for various reasons, are always the centers were force and fear take root and infect the rest of society.
Turning his attention to the position of the dictator, who is simply protector, the dictator was both an important tool for Rome’s republican development but also became its downfall when the comitias made the mistake of not limiting dictator powers to a specific time table. The Tribunate, Rousseau tells us, arose to be the guardian of liberty and equality and law. Hence, the Tribunate embodied fear. Fear led it to embrace force. Thus, we have the dialectic between force and law. Sacred law loses out and fear and force take control.
In this transformation the Tribunate, acting as guardian of law, liberty, and equality, takes on powers it should never have. It becomes legislator and executor of laws. The Tribunate “degenerates into tyranny when it usurps the executive power of which it is only the moderator, and when it tries to make the laws it ought only to protect.” Likewise, and Rousseau is prophetic here insofar that his claimants, the Jacobins, fell into the same tyrannical trap, “Rome perished in the same way, and the excessive power which the tribunes usurped by degrees finally served, with the aid of laws made to defend liberty, to protect the very emperors who destroyed liberty.” Tyrants come in the guise of saving liberty and equality. How prescient! Beware of those who, in the name of “true democracy” (or true insert any political ideology), liberty, and equality, present themselves as saviors. They are probably tyrants. But isn’t this what Rousseau’s entire book is doing?
The problem wasn’t the office of dictator, per se. It was the collapse of sacred law. The end of law led to chaos and fear gripped people – especially those with the most to lose (in a material sense) and in rides the dictator who, in want for self-glory and power, becomes the martial dictator for life. We must remember that prior to Caesar becoming dictator the office of dictator was transient in nature. Something Rousseau saw as good and sometimes necessary. When the office of dictator became attached to the Tribunate with no way of disbanding it; that is when it became a problem.
These chapters, to simplify, show us Rousseau’s romantic picture of what an almost democracy looks like: local, tied to people, conducted in committees rather than large scale universal legislatures. Law, not use of physical force, is what binds society together and prevents it from falling into despotism. That law, however, is the law of liberty and equality which the social compact was established to defend. When law withers away we see the march to tyranny begin. The march to tyranny is usually in the form of a protector claiming to defend democracy, liberty, and equality. In reality those are the people whom are most likely to turn out to be tyrants. There is, in all honesty, a certain irony in this because the tyrants of the French Revolution were major fans of Rousseau – if Rousseau had lived to see the Jacobin Club at its height, the Committee of Public Safety and the tyranny of Robespierre, it would have been interesting to know what Rousseau would have thought of it all. Because we know what the Jacobins and Robespierre thought of Rousseau.
Chapter 8: Civil Religion
The eighth chapter of Book IV is Rousseau’s famous commentary on the need for civil religion. Rousseau is among the first philosophers to inaugurate the “great separation.” This is more than the writings of “tolerance” which came out from Locke and some earlier European theorists calling for toleration of differing practices of religions. Rousseau goes further by separating religion into two camps: the private religion and the public religion (the civil or civic cult). He also identifies religions as blending together private and public, but has these religions as his main target (Catholicism in particular).
It is important to remember the theme of unanimity in Rousseau. The principle applies to religion. And it is also time for a quick lesson on cult, culture, and religion. Culture means life, but in terms of being rooted in cult – which is what religion is – culture and cult are tied together. Cult simply means “praise.” Religion is about praise. Culture, meaning life, is about the praise of life.
Rousseau is no atheist. He abhors atheism for what it means for culture. In Rousseau’s mind, atheism will destroy culture as it gives people nothing to praise. Therefore, atheism not only destroys culture by destroying the very root and vine of culture: the cult (praise), it is also insufficient for unanimity. What does atheism offer to unite people in anything? Nothing. Having no religion is damaging to the body politic (just as it is damaging to culture). Since atheism praises nothing it is a poison to culture (culture = cult, praise of something; praise of self cannot unite so praising self is self-defeating).
Turning to Christianity, however, Rousseau also thinks Christianity is insufficient because it is not “this worldly” enough. Here it is important to remember that Rousseau is still nominally a Calvinist. The “religion of humanity” which is the “religion of the Gospels” which fosters a spirit of brotherly egalitarianism is Protestantism (specifically low-church Calvinism) and is the good and true religion in matters of “the true theism.” Nevertheless, Rousseau still thinks private religion (which is what Protestantism is) is insufficient in forming unanimity.
Rousseau’s screed against Christianity (whenever he’s attacking Christianity) is Catholic Christianity (as he makes clear). When Rousseau assails Christianity in the negative sense, he is not talking about Protestantism. For Rousseau, the err of Catholicism (and other religions like Shintoism in Japan) is that Catholicism wants to be both civic cult and private truth. This creates division and creates a disconnect within the faithful practitioner: where does one loyalty lay? As such, Catholicism can never provide the unanimity necessary for a civil society from Rousseau’s perspective.
This is where Rousseau romanticizes the pagan cults as civic cults – though in reality these pagan cults never extended much outside of their city or region. Rousseau believes the civil religion needs positive dogmas. This is not the establishment of “be nice” religion. There needs to be teeth to the civil religion, but the main goal of civil religion is to unite all persons under a civil creed. To this end any religion that cannot unite men publically (Protestantism, even if it is “true theism”) or divides men’s loyalties between kingdom or republic (this world) and the hereafter (as Catholicism does according to Rousseau), then these religions are not good for the body politic. They cannot bring about agreement and uniformity.
Admittedly, Rousseau never really tells us what this civil religion would look like. But Americans might be familiar with civil religion: Belief in America as the chosen nation to bring liberty, democracy, and equality to the whole world. While this is bound up, in ways, with Protestantism, if you’re willing to overlook that fact then this is a good example of the kind of civil religion Rousseau had in mind. A belief system and praise system that could unite all people in a common cause and be the “public faith” of all people irrespective of what private religion they otherwise held and practiced.
Chapter 9: Conclusion
The ninth chapter ends Rousseau’s famous treatise and criticism of the social contract theory of politics. As he says, the goal of his work was to “set out the true principles of political right, and trying to establish the state on the basis of those principles.” Rousseau’s theory is ideological. It offers a roadmap of what to do in order to establish anew a legitimate political society rooted in liberty and equality.
But there remain many paradoxes within Rousseau’s thought. First is his individualism and libertarianism wherein liberty and equality is only retained by not becoming dependent on others. Yet, he also says that within a society we must collective enforce freedom and equality on everyone whether they like it or not. At the same time, he believes a good and orderly society that acts in accord with the General Will will, in essence, be the libertarian dream of a society of individuals simply going about their lives and work without interference from each other and be viewed as free and equal with all other members of society. Yet, this crypto-atomistic society is united in unanimity over the social compact of liberty and equality.
Furthermore, current political order is illegitimate in Rousseau’s mind. Thus, the art of politics is the collective restoration of liberty and equality which is what politics is supposed to be about anyway (because that is what the social compact would have been about). But there is no “progress” in the Whig sense from Rousseau’s perspective. There is only “restoration” and “legitimization” of political regimes and their orders when one rises up and restores the liberty and equality that is rightfully theirs.
Rousseau’s influence touched many. He influenced the Jacobins and the radical egalitarian revolutionary tradition which we might term “Leftwing” in today’s political jargon. He influenced the birth of left-libertarianism in France (proper libertarianism where the term libertarian emerged) and anarchism too. He influenced democratic theorists and democratic revolutionaries in the hope of achieving that illusive “true democracy.” He influenced socialism and Karl Marx, therefore, is also a hidden influence over Marxists who view the liberal capitalist system and way of life as deceitful, dishonest, and premised on force (which was Rousseau’s major critique of utilitarian liberalism as emanating out of Grotius, Hobbes, and Locke). At the same time he influenced the romantics, and by influencing the romantics, unexpectedly influenced romantic strands of conservatism that shared his concerns over the hypocrisy and dangerous nature of liberalism and the bourgeois type of life. He influenced anti-Clericalism and anti-Catholicism, and also is regarded among sociologists as one of the first theorists and promoters of the concept of civil religion as we understand that term today: the public faith (religion) that unites a country with its elaborate political rituals which win the praise of the public (e.g. democracy becoming the civil religion). He was also prophetic in his warnings about how tyrants are usually the people who claim to be saving liberty, equality, and democracy – and it’s hard not see that Rousseau may have predicted the Terror and the coming fragmentation of liberal societies which cannot be united by self-interested economism.