Philosophy, recent, The Totalitarian Philosophers

Why We Should Read Rousseau

This the second instalment in a series of essays by Matt McManus examining the work and legacies of the totalitarian philosophers.

At the end of January I wrote an article entitled “How Should We Read the Totalitarian Philosophers” for Quillette. I argued that liberals, whether classical or egalitarian, can find insights in the work of authors who—rightly or wrongly—have come to be associated with illiberal and even totalitarian movements. The four authors I examined were Rousseau, Marx, Nietzsche, and Heidegger. Although the general point that these authors contribute ideas of value was well received, the article was justifiably criticized for summarizing each individual’s positions too quickly. This resulted in a loss of depth and left some readers wanting a more thorough account of what was valuable in each author. 

Over the next few months I will be publishing an article on each thinker, presenting an argument for their enduring contribution. Since even a few thousand words is hardly sufficient to scratch the surface of each thinker’s complex positions, the interpretation I will be presenting will be highly qualified. I will begin each article with a brief discussion on the controversy surrounding the individual author, and why their writing is associated with totalitarian movements. After evaluating whether this association is fair or not, the articles will conclude with a few points that I think even liberals can take away from their writing. 

The Controversy Surrounding Rousseau

Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. Here’s one who thinks he is the master of others, yet he is more enslaved than they are. How did this change come about? I don’t know. What can make it legitimate? That’s a question that I think I can answer.

~Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract

As I mentioned in the original article, it can be very difficult to criticize the positions of Rousseau due to their consistently protean quality. One never knows whether one will encounter the stern and even puritanical Jean-Jacques, or the rhapsodic and sentimental Rousseau; the Enlightenment defender of Geneva, or the proto-Romantic critic of liberal individualism; the revolutionary defender of freedom and equality, or the frightening demagogue demanding all submit to the “General Will.” Part of these difficulties spring from the unsystematic way Rousseau presents his positions. He was emphatically not a systematic philosopher, and probably would have scorned the thought of writing like one. Rousseau was always a man determined to stand apart, and at times this even seems to have included from his own work (or at least certain popular interpretations of it). Another difficulty arises in spite of, and even because of, Rousseau’s literary power. Unlike many authors in the Western canon, Rousseau is a brilliant writer. His immense imagination and passion flows onto the page, and one is struck not by reasoned comparison but by powerful imagery and the thought of titanic struggles against injustice. This certainly makes reading him anything but boring, but poses problems when trying to engage in sober evaluation. History is a useful guide here, since we can look to it in order to determine where the accusations against him come from.

It is certainly the case that Rousseau was not an unambiguous friend to the liberal Enlightenment. His first major political writing, the prize-winning “Discourse on the Arts and Sciences” was a sharp rejoinder to the eighteenth century claim that the furtherance of reason was leading to improvements in human life and moral behavior. Rousseau would come to inspire generations of counter-cultural figures with his observation that liberal civilization could often be corrupting, venal, and lead to growing self-involvement at the expense of deeper and communal human attachments. This, by itself, need not make him an illiberal per se; many liberals from Kant to Amartya Sen came to accept the concern and sought to defend or adapt a richer and less purely self-interested liberalism to answer this charge. Such qualifications become more challenging later in Rousseau’s work when he broke more sharply with the classical forms of the liberal tradition.

Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, a sequel of sorts to the “Discourse on the Arts and Sciences,” moves from the relatively benign realm of cultural critique into the much more radical terrain of history and political economy. The so-called Second Discourse is sometimes parodied, as it was in its day by no less than Voltaire, as calling for a return to pre-civilization. This characterization is unfair, however, since it was clear that the aim of the book was to correct for the future rather than return to a past which was forever gone. Despite this, the Second Discourse is radically troubling. Rousseau argued humankind’s natural benevolence was being corrupted by the formation of private property and growing inequality. Where once we existed harmoniously with others and felt a beneficial degree of self-love (amour soi-meme), as civilization and inequalities deepened so too did our feelings of relative inadequacy and worthlessness. We came to compare ourselves to others, and developed our sense of self-worth and superiority (amour propre) not through our individual accomplishments but how we measured them in competition with others. This dissolved our natural pity and empathy for our fellows, making it easier to establish exploitative and unfree political systems where the most corrupted often occupied the top of the social hierarchy. This obviously has revolutionary connotations, and strongly implies that the rights to private property defended by liberals such as Locke, and the inequalities which come with them, may be tremendously damaging.

Rousseau’s solution to these problems was to break with the liberal representative theory of government, and argue for a more democratic political system to replace it. In The Social Contract, or Principles of Political Right, Rousseau echoes the Second Discourse by observing that in monarchical and even liberal societies with representative politics many individuals remain subject to control by others. In systems of representative government, citizens are often forced by a technical majority—or even a powerful minority able to hedge the voting system—to accept laws to which they have not consented. Consider the 2016 American election, where a minority of the population took control of all three branches of government and enforced its will on a majority which may have very different political preferences. For Rousseau, this is wrong not just because a certain group gets its way at the expense of others, but because huge segments of the population are forced to conform to laws which they did not choose or support. This in effect makes them little more than objects manipulated by a will that is not their own. 

Unfortunately, Rousseau’s solution to this problem with representative systems is not convincing and, as Isaiah Berlin pointed out, it sometimes smacks of proto-totalitarianism.  Since any system of democratic governance, even a direct democracy, must involve one group—even a super majority—enforcing its will onto others, Rousseau is compelled to say that the real will of the demos isn’t even the aggregated, but still discrete, wills of all the individuals who are making a political decision. The true will of the demos is instead the “General Will.”  What this General Will is remains quite mysterious, but Rousseau makes it clear that it in some senses transcends and is more legitimate the aggregated discrete wills of individual political actors.  Conformity to the General Will means conformity to one’s real desires, properly understood, which means there seems to be no contradiction in Rousseau’s claim that subordinating one’s individual will to the “General Will” involves a higher kind of freedom. “Forcing” dissidents to be “free” by demanding their conformity to the “General Will” means ensuring that all are truly ruled by laws which they have given to themselves. Interestingly, the demands of this General Will needn’t be interpreted directly by the people or their representatives. A monarch or aristocracy will do, and may even be preferable if direct democracy will lead to chaos and an inability to efficiently enforce the demands of the General Will.

The Social Contract was an imaginative work which inspired generations of revolutionaries, despite it being very unclear what Rousseau was trying to say. For commentators like Kant, Rousseau hit on a very liberal and important point which he was unable to express correctly. Namely, we must continuously have a say in the laws which govern us for a political system to retain legitimacy. Forcing laws upon an unwilling population, even for apparently benign reasons, violates their autonomy and makes them little more than slaves. But others have indeed interpreted Rousseau in darker ways. The Nazi theorist Carl Schmitt argued, most notably in Constitutional Theory, that Rousseau established the sham of representative democracy and provided support for a strong man who would create a true General Will through the enforcement of social and cultural homogeneity. Interestingly, despite their hostility towards equality, many postmodern conservatives today are curiously close to invoking these dark interpretations of Rousseauan tropes.

Conclusion: What Can We Learn From Rousseau?

In Reveries of a Solitary Walker, Rousseau wrote:

The conclusion I can draw from all these reflections is that I have never been truly fitted for social life, where there is nothing but irksome duty and obligation, and that my independent character has always made it impossible for me to submit to the constraints which must be accepted by anyone who wishes to live among men. As long as I act freely I am good and do nothing but good, but as soon as I feel the yoke of necessity or human society I become rebellious, or rather recalcitrant, and then I am of no account. When I ought to do the opposite of what I want, nothing will make me do it, but neither do I do what I want, because I am too weak. I abstain from acting, because my weakness is all in the domain of action, my strength is all negative, my sins are all sins of omission, rarely sins of commission. I have never believed that man’s freedom consists in doing what he wants, but rather in never doing what he does not want to do, and this is the freedom I have always sought after and often achieved, the freedom by virtue of which I have most scandalised my contemporaries.

Rousseau was a brilliant thinker who often presents uncomfortable or wild solutions to the problems he identified. I think the argument that he was a proto-totalitarian thinker is in many respects unfair when evaluating the whole of his work, the very influential arguments concerning the “General Will” notwithstanding. This is because even this argument contains substantial insights that we can recognize, even if we interpret them in a different manner. In this final section, I will provide three key points I think even liberals can take from his work and profitably apply.

Firstly, Rousseau was among the first to note how technology and technical refinements are not simply neutral developments which better enable us to pursue our goals. In the “Discourse on the Arts and Sciences,” he notes how the tools we use to interpret the world and to pursue our ends can often have a transformative effect on our interactions and preferences. This often occurs without our notice, since we become so embedded in technologically driven ways of engaging in the world that we tend to naturalize their effects and assume that such is simply the way things must be. A whole host of later thinkers, from Marshall McLuhan to Stephen Hawking, follow in his footsteps in that regard. While the normative evaluations they apply may be very different and less technophobic than Rousseau’s, they acknowledge his key insight that the tools and forms of reasoning we use often shape who we are. Generating such reflection on technological developments—especially now, in an era where genetically engineering the unborn becomes possible—is more important than ever before.

Secondly, Rousseau alerts us to a major disconnect between the theory and the practice of representative democracy. In The Social Contract, he observes that many of us believe we are fully free and uncoerced in a liberal democratic society. But, in spite of this, we are often subject to laws supported by only a minority of citizens. Or even, as Martin Gilens argued is often the case in modern neoliberal societies, a small collection of powerful corporations. While his solution to the problems of representation were wrong, Rousseau was correct to observe that this disconnect between a theory which positions us as lawmakers and highly unequal and coercive practices will inevitably produce political tensions. And, indeed, with the emergence of illiberal democracies across the globe spearheaded by populists claiming to truly represent the “General Will” of the people, we are witnessing the consequences of not taking the insight seriously enough. Ignore the more benign lessons of Rousseau, and we may well find ourselves facing the darker undercurrents of his work. 

Finally, Rousseau drew attention to how much our sense of self-worth and identity depends on comparisons with others. This remains true at the extreme ends of the equality spectrum. The arguments of more economistic authors, like Milton Friedman in his more vulgar moments, was that rational actors needn’t concern themselves with how others were doing. Consequently, rampant inequality would be tolerated by rational economic actors so long as they were personally doing better year in and year out than before. A rational actor doesn’t compare himself to the billionaire class in Malibu, but only on improving his own lot. And his sense of self-worth flows from how far on the path of improvement his is able to get. Whether a society of such purely self-interested actors would be desirable or not is a question I will not take up here. Whether good or bad, I think it has become increasingly clear that Rousseau’s comparative understanding of identity and self-worth has proven more realistic. Many of us do frame our sense of how we are doing not just by looking at our personal lives, but through interpersonal comparisons with those around us and alternate lifestyles we are exposed to. This has obvious consequences since it means that tremendous inequalities which individuals come to regard as unfair or unjustified, will wear away at their sense of identity and self-worth. On the opposite end of the spectrum, some individuals can be so driven to maximize wealth that they acquire more even when it has little practical use value to them. As Ian Shapiro observes, wealth acquisition at the upper ends of society has less to do with economically rational concerns about what one can buy—since what can you not acquire after earning a mere billion dollars—and more to do with the esteem and sense of self-worth associated with ever greater wealth acquisition. These points testify to the enduring relevance of Rousseau’s insights about inequality.

 

Matt McManus is currently Visiting Professor of Politics and International Relations at Tec de Monterrey. His forthcoming books are Overcoming False Necessity: Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law and What is Post-Modern Conservatism? He can be reached at garion9@yorku.ca or followed on Twitter @MattPolProf

80 Comments

  1. bumble bee says

    “Where once we existed harmoniously with others and felt a beneficial degree of self-love (amour soi-meme), as civilization and inequalities deepened so too did our feelings of relative inadequacy and worthlessness.”

    His supposition that there was ever a time where humanity existed “harmoniously” is patently false. Unless he is indirectly alluding to the biblical Eden, there is no point in time when his assumption holds true. Therefore, any attempt to imply that mankind has lost its way through what ever means, unless one gives credence to a biblical God and by extension sin, is putting forth an erroneous example that can never be achieved either through reason, logic, or any other method, now or in the future.

    • hmi says

      It is a near-certainty that Rousseau both understood this and employed the point the way he did just in order to be able to claim the (fleeting) existence of a Golden Age that came and went in the blink of an eye. He needed that claim in order to ground further claims about the origin and nature of inequality—but he deliberately and consistently undercuts his own assertions in order to make it clear to anyone paying attention that his account is as “mythical” as any other.

  2. bumble bee says

    So in a nut shell here, the author is using Rousseau to whine about the 2016 election results, and the inability to lawfully and intellectually come to terms with it.

    Now, if we take the election of 2016 and change the results to include a Clinton win, how would this article, along with Rousseau’s views, be applied? Well we would be reading how society, government would be living out (in fantasy) Rousseau’s line of logic and reason. There would be no acknowledgement of General Will, because to liberals their will is the only General Will that matters.

    I believe we need to discuss the plain and simple fact that we live in a society, which can be seen in its simplest form in the family unit. We can look to our brothers and sisters and realize that each one is a different person than ourselves. However, within these differences there is still a unit. A unit that is based on love, respect, and the understanding that everything cannot go ones way at every turn. We learn how to extend this to our friends, our co-workers, when we are out and about doing what ever. Those who cannot grasp this concept, are those who cause turmoil and confrontations which breeds more of the same in others. This causes a breakdown in civil society where people no longer value the unit and decide they will get what they want in any manner they want.

    What I would like to know is why has society turned into what it has become. Where election results are now considered life and death, when all throughout history we have seen the good and the bad, but have prevailed as a unit, as a society. Yes, society can always need improvement, but never have I witnessed the kind of pathological societal maelstrom we see today. So people do not like Trump, well its not like he is going to be in office forever so why do people believe it is the end of the world? Our election history shows the pendulum going back and forth from right to left, why can’t people just accept it. Instead society has become mean, ugly, vile, and intolerant of differences. Where has our ability as a society to tolerate, to understand that there are others who do not agree with everything we, you, I want. This belief that there is a utopia waiting around the corner if only certain people were in power, negates the fact that there is no utopia. The human condition, will not allow it because humanity is and ever will be flawed.

    • Saw file says

      @bumble bee
      Thx for the acute shredding.
      Better than I could have done.

    • E. Olson says

      This and above are very thoughtful comments BB – thank you.

    • lifeatan says

      Thank you Bumble Bee for a clear and concise debunking of this Utopian nonsense.

    • augustine says

      Thanks for these two lucid comments, and for showing restraint I could not have shown.

    • david of Kirkland says

      Also, the USA is a federation of states, not a democracy, so Trump’s win make sense because it’s states the elect the president, not a general election. True democracy has never worked for long because of tyranny of the majority who are mostly too uneducated and parochial to accept others as they are (except when they harm others).

    • Craig WIllms says

      @BB

      Nicely said. I too am baffled at the ‘crisis’ of Trumps presidency. His opponents are behaving like children throwing a tantrum. The opposition to Barack Obama was just that, opposition. They didn’t like that he won twice and many of things he did, but they didn’t declare a crisis and lose their minds.

      The crisis as I see it is that Trump’s successes will be the death blow to radical progressivism. They’ve nothing to counter with (except standing ovations for the right to kill babies).

      • Amin says

        @ Craig WIllms

        “but they didn’t declare a crisis and lose their minds. ”

        Huh? Really? Electing Trump? Choosing this complete narcisstic tool?

        “Trump’s successes”

        More likely, he would and is doing deep damage.

  3. Fickle Pickle says

    A riff on BEES and the collective hive-mind which patterns and controls every aspect of our lives.

    In essence human society is no different from a beehive or ant colony. In a beehive, the queen is simply pumping out eggs. And the other bees are “designed”, in the grid-pattern of that particular species, to have their particular functions. Each type of bee has its own genetic and chemical triggers, as a result of which it acquires a certain appearance and functions in a certain manner. Every bee unconsciously fulfills its pre-patterned role – including its participation in the necessary procedures of replication – and every bee eventually becomes obsolete, post-replication, in a pre-determined period of however many days or weeks.

    Human society functions in exactly the same manner There is a necessary biological replication-process, by which replacement organisms are made – and also a process of replicating STATES OF MIND AND STATES OF EMOTION – and then you, the temporary link, become obsolete and drop dead.What you always fearfully cling to as “you” is eventually shed, without a moments hesitation – like excrement. .

    • david of Kirkland says

      The “you” is all we have during our lives. It’s why we try to protect it because it’s short and thus better if lived as we choose than lived as another coerces.

  4. Fickle Pickle says

    Any attempted social analysis that does not take the fact that everybody is now more or less instantaneously interconnected is very much incomplete.
    And the function of TV, electronic media, and the advertising industry

    Re Matt’s first and second summary points.
    Every aspect of our existence-being including the “general will” is patterned and controlled by our technology and electronic media, especially TV and the advertising industry.
    Some references:
    A book titled The Four http://www.thefourbook.com
    The books Technopoly The Surrender of Culture To Technology, and How To Watch The News by Neil Postman.
    This Little Kiddy Went To Market The Corporate Capture of Childhood by Sharon Beder
    Captains of Consciousness Advertising and The Social Roots of Consumer Culture by Stuart Ewen
    Dollorcracy How the Money & Media Election Complex Is Destroying America by Robert McChesney
    Buy Baby Buy How Consumer Culture Manipulates Parents and Harms Young Minds by Susan Thomas.

    The Golden Golem of Greatness is of course the perfect “avatar” of the media created zeitgeist!

  5. ga gamba says

    Consider the 2016 American election, where a minority of the population took control of all three branches of government and enforced its will on a majority which may have very different political preferences.

    Is this accurate? Of the election, it’s only for the executive branch that the electoral college exists. In the cases when a viable third-party candidate ran for president, there have been numerous occasions where the electoral college winner didn’t win the 50%+1 of the popular vote, for example Bill Clinton in both ’92 and ’96, who won the relative majority, i.e. the plurality, but not the majority. The US doesn’t have a run-off between the two top vote getters like that in France.

    The elections of the all but two of the states’ representatives to Congress are first-past-the-post, which the winner of even a relative majority takes the seat. For the judiciary, the justices are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate (and this legislative chamber has only been directly elected by the people since 1913). You may argue that Trump’s minority nominated the justices (and the same is true for Bill Clinton’s minority), but the Senate’s confirmation is the will of the majority of the states.

    Moreover, this system has existed for decades. The framers of the Constitution did not want it to be exclusively simple majority rule because you run the risk of two wolves and a lamb voting for lunch. Just as there are checks and balances on each of the three branches, there are checks and balances on the majority and minority.

    Further, it used to be that to get a bill or a nominee through the Senate required 60% of the vote. The ratification of treaties required two-thirds approval, which is why the US has signed but not ratified many. Had cloture rules remained, neither of Trump’s two nominees would have made it to SCOTUS.

    All of the four ways to amend the Constitution not only require majorities, they require supermajorities, for example three-quarters of the states’ assemblies and two-thirds of the US Congress.

    • E. Olson says

      Another excellent comment GG. Funny how the author is so knowledgeable about a philosopher who died during the American Revolution, but seems to have no understanding of US history and the reasons for Constitutionally mandated checks and balances between the branches and majority bullying.

    • Farris says

      @Ga

      Spot on! In 2016 Hillary Clinton won the popular vote but her margin of popular vote came from one state, California, which she won by more than 4 million votes. This is precisely the scenario the U.S. founding fathers were seeking to prevent (where one populous state dictated policy for the entire nation) when it enacted the Electoral College.
      Simply put that is how the game is played. Democrats complaints about losing are analogous to saying in a baseball game, “yes, we scored less runs but we put more men” on base or in a basketball game, “yes we scored fewer points but we had a higher shooting percentage.”

      • Ga, Farris

        Correct, the US Constitution are the rules of the game.

        Up until recently, most people accepted the rules. But what are we to make of a powerful minority who feel it’s perfectly OK to change the rules in the name of some higher justice (like an umpire who can decide to give one team four strikes to make the game more “equal”)? And what are we to make of an apparently growing majority who have totally forgotten what the rules are?

      • Ga,Farris

        Correct – the US Constitution is historically an agreed upon set of procedures which bind our society. The Constitution establishes the rules of the game.

        But what are we to make of a pwerful minority who no longer accept its authority? To use the baseball analogy again, what are we to make of umpires who feel they can grant a batter four strikes in order to make the game more fair? And what are we to make of an apparently growing majority of citizens who have no idea the nature of the rules?

      • Ned Flanders says

        Or in a playoff series, “yes we won fewer games, but we scored more goals.”

        I had to throw that one in there.

    • david of Kirkland says

      Yes, we cheapened our rights and cheapened the checks and balances and then wonder what went wrong. Government being unable to act impulsively and based on excitable momentary human whims was on purpose.

    • y81 says

      Yes, the article would be much better without the author’s gratuitous comment about the 2016 election, which is somewhere between false and misleading. (Note that the Republicans won a plurality of the Congressional vote, and therefore control the House of Representatives.) I was going to send the article to a few friends, but in light of the stupid comment about 2016, I decided not to. So the author (who presumably writes to influence people’s ideas, not for money) cost himself a few readers with that bit of fecklessness.

      • giallopudding says

        I agree. The author’s statement about the 2016 election stood out like a turd in a punchbowl. When a bias that large is revealed, all potentially brilliant observations to follow are occluded.

        • y81 says

          As they say, it’s like the thirteenth stroke of the clock, which is not only itself doubtful, but casts doubt on every other stroke.

  6. Steve Sailer says

    Rousseau was not a good person, but he was a Romantic Age genius a half century ahead of the rest of Europe. The most comparable English language philosopher is Burke, but Rousseau was born 17 years before Burke.

  7. Christopher Martin says

    Rousseau is the godfather. It’s a straight line from Rousseau to Hegel to Marx and to Lenin.

    • Christopher, if Rousseau is that godfather, I think it was as unplanned as any of the pregnancies his companion went through, only to see those infants off to the orphanage. Having recently read his autobiography, I was left with the impression that he had no ideology at all. He wrote always on a whim, forever contradicting himself. All he was really interested in was walking in the forest with his dogs, and ruminating upon the motivations of the people he saw as his persecutors. Hardly a word about politics or the evolution of his thought. A great read nonetheless.

      • david of Kirkland says

        That his ideas were variable shows he was an actual human who accepted that thoughts change as circumstances change.
        The reality is that people are all different from one another, yet similar. We are similar over time, but we change. That’s why we came up with liberty and equal protection, so that differences that must exist among people and even within a person over time are acceptable. Live and let live. Pursue your happiness. Let it be. First, do no harm. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
        Those who coerce others to their ways of thinking are just tyrants, which is a normal human instinct and is seen in all families, neighborhoods, tribes, businesses, religions, and governments.

    • I would argue that there is no straight line but rather a selective mining (encouraged by Rousseau’s charged rhetoric) that grabbed hold of the Social Contract and then read that back onto the 1st and 2nd discourses, discarding the critical foundations of Rousseau’s critiques of both modernity and antiquity. To my mind, the best explication of both Rousseau and his intellectual progeny is Strauss’s essay near the end of his Natural Right and History.

  8. dirk says

    Rousseau as godfather of the communism of Marx and Lenin? I see another godfathership: that of identity and etnocentrism critique, later taken up by Claude Levi-Strauss and Margaret Mead (and almost all other 20th century antropologists, am I right Emmanuel?). Not the modern comfortable life supported by science, technology and laws, but the simple villager or savage of the bush is the ideal we should strive at (ideals should be models, examples, not reality). Of course, what played here was, what hell you so called enlightenments heroes tell me, what do you think you can teach me with your ratio, science and laws, just look at the savages, then for the first time described as noble? This is called in french: epater le bourgois, and it is practiced quite oftn in France (and french territoria), less so in the US. Of course he had a point there, though it was not the full social truth (imagine, Voltaire said, we have to crawl again on hands and feet, and there he was also right) but his critique is still lingering in many sections of society: in pedagogy, romanticism, (geo)-politics, art, humanism etc etc.

    • dirk says

      And decolonialism, without Rousseau no decolonialism, or only much later.

  9. Alexander Allan says

    “And, indeed, with the emergence of illiberal democracies across the globe spearheaded by populists claiming to truly represent the “General Will” of the people”

    It is strange how progressives, such as the author, feel that political representation of the ordinary person is somehow anathema to democracy, when in fact democracy is meant to be government by the will of all the people, and not just the will of the establishment elite.

    The reality is that progressives, have been falsely claiming to “represent the “General Will” of the people” with a pseudo-choice of political representation, when in fact both left and right are almost identical, and only truly represent different factions of the wealthy and well connected in society. This is clearly evident by Trump being loathed by both the left and right of the American establishment and more pointedly seen in Britain with Brexit. With a clear majority vote of 52% to leave the EU, the majority of the progressives within the establishment have been spending the last two and half years trying to thwart, and looking increasing likely to doing so, the majority will of the people and stopping Britain’s departure.

    In fact the rise of alternative representation through new parties is the rebellion of the demos against the illiberal democracies of the liberal elite and desire to return to genuine democratic representation.

    • dirk says

      For this subject, A.A., read Tiqqun- Introduction to civil war-, it’s about dissolving antagonism of different sides and political parties. And whether this is desirable or possible, or ending in anarchism. Also here, Rousseau is the godfather, the great anti- Hobbesian.

  10. Diogenes says

    @ bee & gg

    If you would.read something for a moment before attacking it you might learn something. Matt is hardly unconditionally affirming Rousseau and he clearly relates that Rousseau was far from consistent. The 2016 election comment, with a little thought, can be reconciled with reality but I am not going to waste my time. You are smart enough to figure it out. Take off your ideological glasses if you wish to see more than half the truth. Your critique of intolerance is a self-critique.

    @ pickle

    Your bee analogy is penetrating, and truth be told, chilling.

  11. Interesting article but for the needless needling:

    -even liberals…
    -2016 as a minority takeover
    -illiberal democracies of populists
    -conservatives against equality
    -etc.

    What is the purpose of those comments? Oh right, it’s fear mongering. Sorry I should have said, oh left.

  12. Farris says

    “The Nazi theorist Carl Schmitt argued, most notably in Constitutional Theory, that Rousseau established the sham of representative democracy and provided support for a strong man who would create a true General Will through the enforcement of social and cultural homogeneity. Interestingly, despite their hostility towards equality, many postmodern conservatives today are curiously close to invoking these dark interpretations of Rousseauan tropes.”

    Is this a very bold statement the author cares to clarify and specify? Since no examples of these dark conservative interpretations is provided, it appears nothing more than a back handed way of calling conservatives Nazis. Too bad the author fails to appreciate that little virtue signaling nuggets such as these harm his credibility and detract from his thesis.

      • Farris says

        So your article is not an examination of Rousseau but rather an attempt to conflate conservatives with totalitarianism? Admittedly, it would be in a collectivist’s best interest to make such false comparisons.

        • Matt says

          That’s an awful lot to extrapolate from 2-3 sentences in a 2500 word article.

          For the record no, all forms of conservatism aren’t consonant with authoritarianism. But some are.

          • Farris says

            2500 words but yet conservatives and Nazis managed to appear within two conjoined sentences of one another. Thank you for recognizing that all forms of conservatism are not concomitant with authoritarianism but why doesn’t this distinction appear within the article? If a distinction exist why not mention it unless you’re trying to create the inference all conservatives are Nazis or authoritarians?This notion that everyone with whom I disagree is a Nazi, is not only old and tired but anti-intellectual. You may be correct to claim than it is an awful lot to extrapolate from 2-3 sentences. However that is why I made the point that nuggets such as those contaminate an entire article.

          • Mattt says

            Why? I would say they’re pretty consonant with Rousseau’s value as a political analyst. If we were talking about those who invoke “the people” or “the General will” in the 1910s I would say the various Marxist parties are his most clear heirs. Flash forward to the present day, and it is pretty clearly populists who are prone to constructing a general “people” and claiming their will must be respected. They even invoke the same rhetoric of elite corruption and inequality vs local purity and so on. This isn’t even specific to right wing populists like Trump or Orban; Amlo in Mexico is very prone to the same tactics.

          • Farris says

            @Matt
            In democracies the phrase “will of the people” is a rhetorical device used by politicians of all stripes as a way of puffing up their alleged support. When Hillary lost the Left claimed the “will of the people” had been thwarted. Universal health care was portrayed as being “the will of the people.” Whether or not one views use of the phrase “the will of the people” as a negative populist movement, simply depends upon who’s ox is being gored.

            For instance: “The men and women here today are on the front lines of protecting America’s interests, defending America’s values, and reclaiming our nation’s priceless heritage.”

            “It’s time to stand up,” It’s time to fight back. It’s time to reclaim our heritage, and it’s time and we are ready. …”

            The first statement was referred to as Nazi like because it was uttered by Trump.
            The second statement was uttered by Vice President Joe Biden in 2011.

            If I were to claim to write an analysis of the writing and speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, and then sprinkled that article with speculation about how Dr. King’s remarks were more akin to present day conservatives and that the Left had abandoned those ideals, wouldn’t you find my analysis claim a bit disingenuous?

          • augustine says

            “For the record no, all forms of conservatism aren’t consonant with authoritarianism. But some are.”

            Because authoritarianism is like the personality of an ideology at a given time and place, related more to the actors and conditions than to the principles involved. It applies equally to liberalism at times, though I cannot recall your having stated any concerns about similar dangers from the left.

  13. “I have never truly been fitted for social life”

    Rousseau is among the earliest and most articulate embodiments of that uniquely modern phenomenon of alienation. Rousseau realizes that modern society’s ways of socializing human beings can be soul deadening. Much of his thought, it seems to me, revolves around this issue of alienation.

    Modern man is alienated from nature – Rousseau never doubts the existence of nature as a necessary power. For Rousseau, one of the earliest manifestations of our growing alienation is the emergence of the shallow self centered “bourgeois”.

    Rousseau’s critiques of the “bourgeois” in a way can been seen as conservative, even hyper conservative because he is concerned with man’s alienation from his true natural self. And we tend to forget that many of the great critics of the modern world (Joseph de Maistre epitomizes this) are from what we think of as the “Right”. Indeed, many of the great poets and writers of the 19th century were of the Right in this regard (Dostoevsky, Baudelaire, Nietzsche etc.). They too are concerned with this problem of alienation (Dostoevsky’s underground man, for example, is the epitome of modern alienation). And significantly the great critics of Enlightenment liberalism from the Left (e.g. Marx) are also fundamentally concerned with alienation.

    It seems to me, Rousseau invents the term “General Will” as a kind of binding principle which allows for the natural individual to be reconciled with society. In other words, the General Will reflects an imagined way of resolving modern alienation.

    It turns out this “General Will” can mean pretty much whatever we want it to mean and justify whatever we want to justify (such as the Reign of Terror). Reflecting our need to resolve our alienation, Roussseau’s mysterious and ill defined General Will has shape shifted from one ideological fantasy to another.

    Prof. McManus uses the term “General Will” as a perjorative desciption of contemporary populism, yet contemporary populism could characterize themselves as a rebellion against the tyranny of the General Will of globalized bureaucracies. . . It seems we now live in a time of competing ideological fantasies, competing visions of General Will, competing ways of resolving alienation.

    Ironically it is Rousseau, so concerned about man’s alienation from nature, who gives birth to an abstraction which would encourage modern human beings to indulge their ideological fantasies and, in effect, deny the very existence of nature.

    • david of Kirkland says

      “General will” and “national interests” have lead to more deaths and destruction than any other notion humans have ever adopted.

    • Tersitus says

      Seems to me authoritarianism is not so much ideologically determined as it is personally— a yielding to, a taste for the temptations of power. In our incessant jockeyings for the instruments of it, those who sense themselves losing it feel the increased weight of the gainers by. But the fact that so many complain of it so much, so loudly, so publicly, and have little concern or fear of pointing and naming in doing so, seems to me to indicate just how much short of real authoritarianism we are. When we go silent, time to fear— or maybe, past time. We are the canaries in the room. Cats make us flitter and twit.

  14. “I have never truly been fitted for social life”

    Rousseau is amongst the earliest and most articulate embodiments of that uniquely modern phenomenon of alienation. Rousseau realizes that modern society’s ways of socializing human beings can be soul deadening. Much of his thought, it seems to me, revolves around this issue of alienation.

    Modern man is alienated from nature – Rousseau never doubts the existence of nature as a necessary power. For Rousseau, one of the earliest manifestations of our growing alienation is the emergence of the shallow self centered “bourgeois”.

    Rousseau’s critiques of the “bourgeois” in a way can been seen as conservative, even hyper conservative because he is concerned with man’s alienation from his true natural self. And we tend to forget that many of the great critics of the modern world (Joseph de Maistre epitomizes this) are from what we think of as the “Right”. Indeed, many of the great poets and writers of the 19th century were of the Right in this regard (Dostoevsky, Baudelaire, Nietzsche etc.). They too are concerned with this problem of alienation (Doestoevsky’s underground man, for example, is the epitome of modern alienation). And significantly the great critics of Enlightenment liberalism from the Left (e.g. Marx) are also fundamentally concerned with alienation.

    It seems to me, Rousseau invents the term “General Will” as a kind of binding principle which allows for the natural individual to be reconciled with society. In other words, the General Will reflects an imagined way of resolving modern alienation.

    It turns out this “General Will” can mean pretty much whatever we want it to mean. Reflecting our need to resolve our alienation, Roussseau’s mysterious and ill defined General Will has shape shifted from one ideological fantasy to another. Sometimes we see it as our salvation, sometimes our destruction . . . For Prof McManus the General Will becomes dangerously embodied in populism, while populists would claim the malignent General Will is embodied in Globalism . . .

    Ironically it is Rousseau, so concerned about man’s alienation from nature, who gives birth to an abstraction which would encourage modern human beings to indulge their ideological fantasies and, in effect, deny the very existence of nature.

    • Matthew McManus says

      CA

      Yes, I would say the specious invocations you mentioned have pretty much been a constant since Rousseau published his works. In some respects this stresses the importance of understanding him.

      Appeals to the “people” and their enemies occur across the political spectrum. One of the mysterious things about this is of course who the people are is rarely specified.

      • Tersitus says

        Thanks, Matt, for continuing the discussion of great but problematic thinkers. It’s been a great while since I read Rousseau, but there was a time…
        Is not Rousseau’s General Will really a term (ideological construct, whatever) for the idea that (1) there exists somewhere out there a “truly right” choice or act or course of action that (2) may or may or correspond with particular individual or collective choice, and (3) is, in effect, most nearly ascertainable by superior intelligence(s) (however Rousseau might understan such). In other words, a veritable “God’s Will.” Have we really progressed much from Plato’s idea of “philosopher kings”? Priests? Elites? Technocrats?
        And have we really advanced the discussion of the problems presented in democratic political action beyond Tocqueville’s and JSMill’s reflections on majority (or minority) tyranny and the Framer’s efforts to build in protections?
        If we haven’t, all the more reason to hope and pray and strive to have those bulwarks shored up and anchored deep.

      • I think Rousseau is essential in understanding the modern world for many reasons. His writings make manifest the issue which has bedeviled modern human beings – the lack of an experience of meaning.

        Living close to nature and experiencing the imperatives of nature humans tend to experience their acts as necessary, which is to say meaningful. With our modern abstraction from nature, from necessity, we long for some great organizing principle, some General Will which will give our lives meaning. This need has manifest itself as various abstractions before which we can kneel: The Logic of History, Racial Purity, Free Markets, Equality, Global Warming etc.

  15. Robert Franklin says

    “Rousseau argued humankind’s natural benevolence was being corrupted by the formation of private property and growing inequality. Where once we existed harmoniously with others and felt a beneficial degree of self-love (amour soi-meme), as civilization and inequalities deepened so too did our feelings of relative inadequacy and worthlessness. We came to compare ourselves to others, and developed our sense of self-worth and superiority (amour propre) not through our individual accomplishments but how we measured them in competition with others. This dissolved our natural pity and empathy for our fellows, making it easier to establish exploitative and unfree political systems where the most corrupted often occupied the top of the social hierarchy.”

    What about the fact that this is all utterly false? Our “natural benevolence?” We once “existed harmoniously with others?” Our “natural pity and empathy” have been “dissolved?” That’s all arrant nonsense and any philosophical point of view based on those concepts is wrong from the outset. We may not blame Rousseau for not knowing the facts about human evolution or even about hunter-gatherer societies existing at the time, but that doesn’t make the basis for his criticisms of Enlightenment liberalism any more cogent or sound.

  16. Robert Franklin says

    “Forcing laws upon an unwilling population, even for apparently benign reasons, violates their autonomy and makes them little more than slaves.”

    Fine, but what does this mean in fact? Who is this “unwilling population?” What if 20% of the people don’t want such and such a law, but 40% do and 40% don’t have an opinion? What if 51% want the law and 49% are bitterly opposed to it? What if it’s the late 19th century and the great majority of the population thinks Jim Crow laws are just fine and dandy? The idea that there is entity called a “population” that can be readily identified as “willing” or “unwilling” about any given subject is dubious at best. There are many issues about which a minority is indeed right and should be allowed to lead. There are many issues about which the previous is not true. The subject of who governs whom is far more complex and variable than Rousseau was willing to admit. That’s why he came up with his fantasy of a “General Will,” i.e. something that rarely exists at all and, even when it does, is likely to be impossible to clearly identify. The idea of a General Will served one purpose only – to get Rousseau out of a philosophical corner into which he’d thought himself.

    • david of Kirkland says

      To add insult to injury, there is no “the law” and there are exactly zero people who know the law. We have courts that interpret the laws, but they don’t change the law directly. There’s no feedback between enacting a law and how it’s handled daily by courts, giving us a legal system based on cases rather than statutes, along with the nutty notion that ignorance of the law is no excuse while 100% of the citizenry do not know the law, and every surprise decision in court proves that “beyond a reasonable doubt” doesn’t even have meaning in practice.

  17. D.B. Cooper says

    Professor McManus, in keeping with the standards of your profession, it seems only fitting that an assessment of your piece be evaluated by letter grade. Content Quality – A; Prose – A; Elucidation – B; Objective Analysis – C; Final Grade – B

    The passages that follow encompass the Good, the Bad, and the Biased…

    Rousseau was always a man determined to stand apart, and at times this even seems to have included from his own work (or at least certain popular interpretations of it).

    It’s difficult to describe this sentiment as anything but correct. While I wouldn’t claim to have much more than a passing appreciation of Rousseau, from what I’ve read of him, this seems to capture a fairly accurate description of his work in its totality. Admittedly, it may be an unfair characterization of his work, but if it is, the sheer incongruity of his work would suggest it’s not off by much.

    Rousseau would come to inspire generations of counter-cultural figures with his observation that liberal civilization could often be corrupting, venal, and lead to growing self-involvement at the expense of deeper and communal human attachments.

    On the face of it, this statement is obviously – at least in my estimation – true. That said, much of its veracity is predicated on the underlying assumptions inherent to “communal human attachments.” To understand what I mean, consider that, at base, communal human attachments can be understood in one of two ways; which I would describe as ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’, but I’m sure there’s differing opinions on the matter. In any case, legitimate and illegitimate human attachments would both include such things as one’s family, friends, community, social network, etc. The distinguishing difference between legitimate and illegitimate attachments are largely a function of voluntary freedom of association and involuntary (forced/coerced) association. As for which is which… well, as they say, “If you gotta ask?”

    Consider the 2016 American election, where a minority of the population took control of all three branches of government and enforced its will on a majority which may have very different political preferences.

    It was at this point that my inability to ignore the paucity of objective analysis got the best of me. It’s hardly worth stating that biases are an emergent quality of the human condition. That is, I have no real expectation bias won’t invade in some form or fashion. Having said that, I do, however, expect people to recognize their own biases and then adjust accordingly. I don’t believe it’s unreasonable to expect myself and others to consider how biases may incautiously affect our productions.

    Just to give one example, it is beyond dispute that I am a really great guy. I earnestly believe this by the way. In fact, it’s one of my oldest and most deeply held convictions. I believe it so thoroughly that I have no reservations about announcing my eminence, unsolicited no less (see previous two sentences). And if that wasn’t impressive enough, I’m also an extraordinarily humble guy, although you’ll have to take that on notice.

    But having assured you of my illustriousness, I hope we can both agree that I didn’t really assure you of anything at all. Similarly, when you informed the reader that the 2016 election resulted in a minority of the population enforcing its will on a majority of the population, you didn’t really inform them of anything. At least nothing of consequence, aside from smuggling in your biases in a misbegotten effort to treat the 2016 election as definitive, when it’s clearly not.

    But hey, if you don’t like Trump (or Republicans) that’s fine. There’s plenty not to like. Besides, there’s nothing wrong with having a preference. Everyone does. But what is a problem – in my humble opinion – trying is trying to overlay your biases with an honest dishonesty. It’s not a good look. You should leave that type of sly duplicity to people like me in the comment section. What do I mean?

    Well, it’s certainly true that the presidential election of 2016 resulted in the situation as described, but so did the presidential election of 1912, and ‘48, and ‘68, ‘92, ‘96, and 2000. It’s like, all minorities are minorities, but some minorities are more of a minority than others. Aside from Bill’s atypical cigar habits, it’s hard to imagine anyone describing either of his elections as a tyranny of the minority. But maybe you would. Who knows? In any event, given the frequency of such elections, taking a jaundice view of the 2016 election hardly seems like a salient point.

    Conformity to the General Will means conformity to one’s real desires, properly understood, which means there seems to be no contradiction in Rousseau’s claim that subordinating one’s individual will to the “General Will” involves a higher kind of freedom. “Forcing” dissidents to be “free” by demanding their conformity to the “General Will” means ensuring that all are truly ruled by laws which they have given to themselves.

    I’ve always thought Rousseau’s unbalanced appeal to the ‘General Will’ was a near perfect illustration of a philosopher running up against the hard limits of reality, while pretending to himself (and his readers) he hasn’t. Logic does not cease to exist with ever increasing levels of obfuscation. A reasoned exposition of principles with a proper elucidation of one’s premises and conclusions are still the best thing going. It matters not how brilliant a thinker or prose stylist you are, knowing more than you can prove is not analogous to squaring a circle. In short, Rousseau’s ‘General Mill’ is a caustic attempt to arrogate a position which it is not in the least bit able to fill.

    The conclusion I can draw from all these reflections is that I have never been truly fitted for social life, where there is nothing but irksome duty and obligation, and that my independent character has always made it impossible for me to submit to the constraints which must be accepted by anyone who wishes to live among men.

    This is perfect. Honestly, ask yourself, have you ever met a true Leftist who didn’t at least attempt to exempt themselves from the constraints of their own reasoning? It’s like hypocrisy is a prerequisite for holding left of center views.

    The arguments of more economistic authors, like Milton Friedman in his more vulgar moments, was that rational actors needn’t concern themselves with how others were doing. Consequently, rampant inequality would be tolerated by rational economic actors so long as they were personally doing better year in and year out than before. A rational actor doesn’t compare himself to the billionaire class in Malibu, but only on improving his own lot…

    Whether good or bad, I think it has become increasingly clear that Rousseau’s comparative understanding of identity and self-worth has proven more realistic. Many of us do frame our sense of how we are doing not just by looking at our personal lives, but through interpersonal comparisons with those around us and alternate lifestyles we are exposed to.

    Mr. McManus, this is just poor form. Milton Friedman was, by any definition, a gentleman and a scholar. But putting aside your injudicious description of Professor Friedman, it’s worth noting you’ve committed faulty reasoning here.

    Consider your claim, that rather than not being concerned with how others are doing, many of us do frame our sense of how we are doing by interpersonal comparisons with those around us. I actually agree with you. I don’t think you could argue otherwise. People do judge their well-being on a comparative scale. But that being true doesn’t in any way invalidate Professor Friedman’s claim. In order for it to invalidate Friedman’s claim, you would have to grant that IT IS, in fact, rational to judge one’s well-being by way of interpersonal comparisons, but you never claimed that it was rational, you simply claimed that many people do base their well-being off of comparative judgements. Whether or not it is rational to do so, is never addressed. Furthermore, I would bet you don’t think it is rational to do so.

    Friedman on the other hand, simply claims that RATIONAL actors needn’t concern themselves with how others were doing. And further, that inequality would be tolerated by rational actors so long as they were personally doing better year in and year out than before. Do you disagree with that? Do you not think that a rational actor would make objective rather than subjective measures? It seems obvious they would. And if so, Friedman is correct. As to your claim of his vulgar moments, well, that might be your biases coming through. You’re clearly a Lefty and that’s okay. I have many friends (close friends) who are, but we need not attack our opponents with such language simply because we disagree with their prescriptions; which I might add in this case you were wrong about.

    • D.B. Cooper –

      Regardless of whether or not I endorse your Final Grades, you are to be congratulated for the clarity of your thinking.

      • D.B. Cooper says

        @CA

        You cut deep CA. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the compliment, I do. But how could you equivocate on the endorsement of my Final Grades? I’m fair arbiter. A disinterested party, if ever there was one. I don’t even believe my own opinions, that’s how committed I am to fairness. I would simply ask that you reconsider.

        • D.B. Cooper

          I recently ate a salad and halfway through I found a worm in some spinach. I picked out the worm and finished the salad. I found no more worms. However, the second half of the salad was not as enjoyable as the first.

          I suppose I would grade most of the ingredients of my salad as “A”, a few “B”. But what grade should I give the worm . . ? I have nothing against worms . . . but in my salad?

          • D.B. Cooper says

            Alright, so we’re going to pencil you in for an ‘A’ because that awesome. I don’t know where that worm story inched up from, or even if it was true, and I don’t care to know on either account; because I want to believe it’s true, and so it is.

            I don’t really have anything to match that, so I just want to commend you one last time for both the story, and for having the sac to finish the salad. Well played.

  18. dirk says

    About the illustration: in the first article, Matt chose a portrait of a conventionally dressed, rather civilised Rousseau, in the current one, he is dressed up in fur hat and trim, Armenian style, by the british painter Allan Ramsay. R. visited, as a fugitive, scottish philosopher Hume, who arranged the painting, but the hat and trim was Rousseau’s own choice, rather unconventional and rustic, half wild, anti-fashion, whimsy, as was R. himself of course. Hume saw it all as a symbolic dress, and even thought to see in it his tendency towards an absolute lifestyle (because, unlike in changing fashions, R. explained that he would never abandon the habit to wear it).

    The dress also reminds me of Carl von Linnee in an outfit of a traditional Lap (with wild flowers of up North in his hand). Something was brooding at the time in the European nations, that’s quite clear. And it was more a jump back- than forwards into Enlightenment (the one of Steven P.).

    • Matt says

      Just by way of clarification, I don’t have a say in the illustrations used. This is probably for the best since my taste is generally terrible.

    • dirk says

      Said in another way: Rousseau, by wearing this odd Armenian fur, “othered” himself out of the ongoing Hegelian stream of ordinary mankind, that of the gold and the lace and foibles on the portrait of Hume, also painted by Ramsay. A habit that only much later would be embraced by the hippies, but there it was just a superficial, rebel without a cause habit, I fear it was. And where to place the Maga hats of Tersitus?

  19. Tersitus says

    Thanks for the interesting bit of art history, dirk…. an area that always seems to enrich thoughtful discussions and broaden our understanding of people and times. (Foucault’s opening discussion of Velasquez’ Las Meninas in his Order of Things— wow). From our Birkenstocks to our hoodies and MAGA hats, how we show ourselves off speaks symbolic volumes.

  20. Owntown Dart Scene says

    Stopped reading Rousseau at “Man is born free”. A pretty drastic misconception of infancy, in my experience. And yes, I checked with my mom be sure.

    • dirk says

      Then, owntown, you better neither start reading the International Declaration of Human Rights.

    • …but is everywhere in chains. The human race. Ontology, not physiology.

      • Owntown Dart Scene says

        Eh, I will cop to posting that in a flippant, semi-humorous mood. But now that you’ve made me think about it, I believe I may have inadvertently made a serious point. Just what is the ontological status of this “human race” born in “freedom”? Surely an abstraction that contradicts the experience of every one of its constituent members.

        Freedom is no less a worthy ideal even if it’s something that needs to be grown into, rather than a mythical original state.

        • dirk says

          Rousseau even did away with the christian Original Sin, Owntown, we only need to feel guilty for the sins we commit ourselves. Quite modern again, I think it was. His noble savage, btw, was more a projection backwards of an ideal to follow (even if partly?), than a historical or antropological reality.

  21. giallopudding says

    Hierarchies exist in nature, including within human societies. Inequality is not a sign of an unfair political system. Some people are smarter, better looking, live in better climates, are morphologically dissimilar, and have more wealth than others. The sooner the IYIs of the world acknowledge this fact, the sooner the scourge of totalitarianism induced from riling up class and group animosities can be eradicated.

  22. X. Citoyen says

    On the first point, Rousseau was right that technology has changed our “way of being in the world,” though people seem more interested in this idea as a posture than an insight. Authenticity, its modern incarnation, is a lifestyle and social status marker more than a way of life. Jacques Ellul made the most persuasive case about the influence of technology, though he was talking about a way of thinking about the world, technique-thinking, not technology as such.

    On the second, liberal democracies weren’t exactly thick on the ground when Rousseau wrote in 1755, and the sort of class inequality he talked about doesn’t exist anymore. Wealth and rank don’t confer moral worth, except perhaps in the natural way that obsequious types fawn over and toady to the wealthy and famous. No one is forced to worship vapid celebrities, for example, but they do. That has to be classed natural inequality on Rousseau’s account. (Since you’ve already been beaten up—and rightly so—over characterizing “populism” as antidemocratic, I won’t bother piling on.)

    On the third point, history and psychology both attest that Rousseau was not all right and Friedman all wrong on the effects of inequality on self-worth. Tocqueville pointed to the two spirits of equality, one that seeks to brings others up and the one that seeks to bring others down. How people understand inequality matters, whether they see it as a natural result of fortune or the unnatural result of the connivance of others dictates its effect on their self-worth. How they see themselves also matters. The narcissist or the egoist taught to resent his status will balk at any and all real and imagined inequalities.

    A stroll through Emile might’ve been a better for your stated purposes. Rousseau’s influence on education is a much-neglected topic.

    • X. Citoyen

      I think you are correct about the importance of Rousseau and education, I think specifically Emile is instructive, which is sort a thought experiment on how a child grounded in nature can function in and not be crushed by society. I think this is quite relevent to today’s issues.

      Unfortunately it seems Rousseau’s ideas are always vulgarized. I was recently talking to an elementary school art teacher about some current ideas about how to teach art. Apparently young students who are, for example,drawing a flower are encouraged to ignore conventional names for parts of a flower. The presumption is that their own naive interpretations have a kind of inherent (natural) purity which is contaminated by language (a social construct). Better to know nothing than have their pure little imaginations stifled.

      This all reflects the bigger modern issue of liberation – all form, all conventions, mores etc are arbitrary and inherently oppressive. Hence education is an education in this hyper awareness or what is misleadingly called “critical thinking”

      And the ultimate irony, which would have Rousseau rolling over in his grave, is that the very idea that there is such a thing as nature is itself oppressive. Apparently we are returned to our natural free and equal state only when we understand that nature is whatever we say it is.

      • X. Citoyen says

        CA,

        One minor point stuck in Emile stuck with me for years. Rousseau remarked that nurses swaddled infants’ arms and legs tightly the moment they emerged from the womb. He took this as the first chains of civilization, conditioning the child to live within the stricture of civilized life. Years later when I had children of my own, I asked the nurse why she swaddled the infant so tightly. She explained, first, that the infant had just spent nine months inside the womb and that the swaddling comforted them—observation bore her out. Second, she pointed out that newborns had no control over their limbs so they’d scratch and poke themselves with their sharp fingernails—again, observation bore her out.

        It occurred to me then that had Rousseau not been a deadbeat father, he would’ve known what every nurse has known since time immemorial. My experience raising children would expose Rousseau’s ignorance on many other things that he might’ve learned from observing his own children grow.

        Still, Rousseau is worth reading because of the influence of his idea of natural development and the natural world on education and child-rearing. Waldorf and Montessori are products of Rousseau; so is the inquiry-based (aka discovery-based) learning used in my school system and others. Much of this is bad, but there are also good lessons. The idea of developing the individual versus instructing the future generic citizen-worker in the essential skills and competencies required for optimal functioning is one of the good things.

        You’re right about Rousseau’s likely view of progressive education. The idea that children are putty to be molded into righteous forms to fit into the new social order is just an ideological version of the citizen-work pedagogy—the production function replaced with the social justice function, both subjugating the individual to the collective.

        Anyway, I suggested Emile to Matt because it (indirectly) gets to foundational ideas about human nature, human ends, and the role of the state. This is what philosophers want to understand about a thinker and where we want to judge him. Mining him for insights that happen to agree with our ideological convictions (i.e., “liberals, whether classical or egalitarian”) is not a philosophical standpoint.

  23. X. Citoyen

    I wholly agree that Rousseau raises elemental questions about what a human being is – though (and I’m by no means a Rousseau scholar) he seems to be contradictory on some issues. As you point our he does suggest even infants are immediately oppressed, yet his exaltation of Robinson Crusoe as emblematic of the individual learning in nature seems to affirm the reality that all learning involves some kind of adaptation and some kind of sublimation.

    I think the word “virtue” is essential in understanding education and ultimately citizenship. The etymology of virtue suggest “strength” or “power” which seems to be what Rousseau is getting at. However, more recent definitions of virtue suggest “conformity to moral law”. These divergent understandings of virtue explain a great deal about our modern world and the exaltation of the collective – the first definition suggests a kind of individual groundedness, the second suggests a need for conformity.

  24. McManus is being unfair to the “general will”.

    The idea of “Popular Sovereignty”, e.g. rule by the People, supplanted the notion of the Divine Right of Kings (legitimacy comes from God and passes along a family line). Without “popular sovereignty”, political form is limited to the non-constitutional absolutist monarchy with a heavy doses of theocracy.

    If you do have “rule by the people”, its not coherent unless the People have a will. If the People don’t have a will, then they are stuck with the arbitrary decisions of their elected representatives. Obviously, they basically are anyways, but in terms of political legitimacy, it does do much to say we are going to conduct a lottery and the winner of the lottery is going to make arbitrary political decisions that will affect your life, but suck it up because its better than living in a theocracy.

    The idea of the general will is integral to the legitimacy of representative democracy (but not a problem for direct democracy, as it reflects the majority of citizens). The legitimacy of representative democracy is integral to the Enlightenment project, as well as the objectives of any political Center-Right project. The down side is that you are stuck with the “general will” and the possibility of demagogues and tyrants appealing to the “general will” to carry out nasty acts.

    [Carl Schmitt’s interest in the “general will” came from his acceptance that modern governments could only be legitimized in terms of popular sovereignty, and thus the working-out of how to implement political absolutism on a modern foundation.]

    The real problem of Rousseau is his blank-slate epistemology and his sentimentality about “primitives”. Humans are not created equal in terms of talents and abilities, and access to education only increases disparities (just as access to gym equipment increases disparities between athletes). Hunter-gatherer societies mostly sucked, life was nasty, brutish and short, and only a masochist would embrace the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. The way forward is to build on what we have, not to romanticize a brutal ancient social system.

    • KD

      “The idea of the general will is integral to the legitimacy of representative democracy.”

      True, but in a representative democracy like the US the general will is embodied in the US Constitution which essentially affirms that no one particular idea of the general will shall dominate. The US Constitution is a way for competing ideas of what constitutes the general will to exist. Or put another way, the US Constitution protects us from any one dominant idea of the general will.

      • I don’t understand your comment. The General Will, I presuppose, is substantive.

        The Separation of Powers in the U.S. Constitution is procedural, not substantive, although the delegation of powers in theory requires different branches of government to implement the People’s will in different ways, I suppose.

        But in fact, Lincoln seized dictatorial powers, such as suspension of Habeas Corpus (although there was push back from the Supreme Court), and its easy to pass bills when your political opponents secede from the legislature, and FDR was a virtual dictator.

        The problem of the Divine Right of Kings is knowing the true Will of God. Popular Sovereignty solves this problem by leaving God’s Will out of the picture, but in exchange, we are left with the problem of knowing the true Will of the People. Further, tyrants simply invoke the Will of People when in olden days they would claim religious justification.

        • KD

          If I understand what you mean by “substantive” and “procedural” I believe the Constitution is both substantial and procedural. The Constitution serves the same function in a democracy as say the Divine Rights of Kings does in a monarchy. Both presume to represent the Will of the People which is to say the General Will. Both embody Law – in one the Will of the king is LAw, in the other the Will of the People is Law.

          Seems to me Rousseau is trying to figure out how individual particular wills can be harmoniously united in some General Will. Rousseau felt that societies become more oppressive as they increase in size thus he favors small communities. The US Constitution is a way for smaller communities (or called “factions” in Federalist Papers) to maintain a level of integrity and simultaneously belong to a greater union. This requires a kind of faith in the Law, in the authority of a set procedures we call the Constitution. This is presumably a way for particular wills to be united with a General Will.

          I wholly agree that tyrants have always abused power in the name of the Will of the People. It seems to me the whole point of the Constitution is to affirm the Rule of Law over the Rule of Man and affirming the Rule of LAw is a reflection of the Will of the People.

          • I appreciate your clarification. I think idea of the Constitution, especially how it is understood in the American and the British system, is as you say, integral to the function of Republic in both instances. However, it is fair to point out it is understood very differently in these cases.

            On the other hand, the American Constitution has undergone at least three major revisions, pre-Civil War, post-14th Amendment, and post-FDR. So we might ask which Constitution?

  25. TJ Andre says

    When reading Rousseau it strikes me that his observations consistently fail 2 out of the 3 “usefulness requirements” – those three requirements being identifying the “What?”, the “So what?” and the “Now what?” regarding what is being observed. As I was reading this piece it seems clear that the point is that Rousseau gets a lot of the “What?” correct. But all of the danger and damage comes in his “So what?” and “Now what?”. Making an accurate observation and then coming to absurd conclusions about why it’s important and what should be done about it is in most cases, as with Rousseau, at best of little value and at worst a spur to great mischief and evil.

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