Friday, 29 January 2016

Brief Thoughts: Rousseau's Social Contract.

Rousseau's shadow history is that of an unwitting proto-apologist for 20th century authoritarianism. Considering this, how much of his work is salvageable from an anti-authoritarian standpoint?

To be clear, his idealism is frighteningly Orwellian. Most worrying is his concept of the sovereign will: a justification for a perfectly paternalistic government that enforces laws in the knowledge that, despite any individual protests, it really has everyone's interests at heart. The abstract notion of a perfect righteous governtment is itself not so troubling, more-so the fact that Rousseau thinks that such an institution is worth attempting to emulate in an imperfect concrete world. A quote by Vaclav Havel springs to mind:

"[There is] a direct and logical progression from beautiful utopias to concentration camps... [which are] ...but an attempt of utopians to dispose of those elements which do not fit into their utopias" - Havel quoted in John P. Clark's "The Impossible Community: Realizing Communitarian Anarchism" p. 131.

However, to view The Social Contract from this angle alone neglects the other points in his work where Rousseau acts as a pre-configuration of later left libertarian ideas.

For all its naivety, the book contains a number of perspicacious observations which still prevail in contemporary political thought. For instance, the noted distinction between socially constructed civil liberty and the baser, more solipsistic, "natural liberty". This distinction, which is nonetheless considered by its detractors a pernicious one that foists too much work on the shoulders of liberty resulting only in perversion, has had an explicit influence on the work of participatory democrats and finds many other parallels in anarchist thought.  

Other notable themes of contemporary interest are Rousseau's delineations of  the economic and political conditions necessary for wide-spread direct democracy and his post-classical interpretation of democratic subjects. Radical egalitarians, especially those with a love of democratic institutions, have often been quick to emphasise the incompatibility of inequality of wealth with harmonious and stable democratic arrangements. This is true for both for participatory democrats and for anarchists: though anarchists don't often argue for the harmony of egalitarianism via an explicitly democratic teleology. 

The "post-classical democratic subject", typically a response invoked to explain humans who are ambivalent to increases in their own access to democracy and liberty, is present and considered here:

"Aristotle was right; but he mistook the effect for the cause. Anyone born in slavery is born for slavery - nothing is more certain. Slaves in their bondage, lose everything, even the desire to be free." Rousseau, The Social Contract p.51-52

And a call for a revision of the classical political subject, which Rousseau's analysis is an early answer to, is found in Saul Newman's "The Politics of Post-Anarchism":

The crucial question raised by Deleuze and Guattari - "how can desire desire its own repression...?" - confronts all radical politics with a central ambiguity. The classical anarchists were not unaware of this problem; indeed, Kropotkin attributes the rise of the modern state in part to people becoming "enamoured of authority" and to their self-enslavement to increasingly centralised systems of law and punishment. However, this problem, while acknowledged, was not sufficiently addressed or theorised in anarchism. Yet it creates certain obvious difficulties for anti-authoritarian politics, unsettling the notion of the moral and rational agent who revolts against an immoral and irrational power.  - Saul Newman in "The Politics of Post-Anarchism" p.60 

So despite their notoriety Rousseau's ideas still have some currency: or at least there are ideas in his political philosophy that are not so offensive that anti-authoritarians discard them out of hand. That said, how do we separate the libratory Rousseau from the tyrannical Rousseau? Where does the problem lie, precisely?

The primary culprit would seem to be his uncritical endorsement of majoratarianism vindicated through his abstract soveriegn will. Rousseau's trust in the sovereign will excludes the possibility of it being usurped by interest groups or becoming exploitative of persistent minorities. Perhaps possibilities of abstention and conscientious objection, along with a greater cynicism towards majoritarianism and the power structures of the state, could render him more palatable?

Indeed modern liberatory writers who adopt his ideas are often markedly unanimous in their avoidance of the problematic concept of sovereign will, even while borrowing from the rest of his political canon. It seems while Rousseau's rhetoric is in places an unfortunate overture to the brutal regimes of the last century, many anti-authoritarians still owe him a philosophical debt. 

No comments:

Post a Comment