Jean-Jacques Rousseau – a complicated and irritating man, but one of the enlightenment philosophers who helped justify the state’s authority. Nowadays, he’s mostly known for the social contract, which was his work that established a basis for a possibly legitimate government.
I trust you noticed the “possibly” I slipped in there. Rousseau’s standard for what constitutes a legitimate government is pretty stringent and one can argue (as I will) that it’s impossible to achieve. All of that might be a problem for someone who wishes to assert that the state governs with the consent of the governed.
If you enjoy playing with questions about the legitimacy of the state, I welcome you as a fellow anarchist. It has always seemed puzzling to me that so many people can be fobbed off with “the state is legitimate because of social contract, duh!” and it seems as though their curiousity ends there. Monty Python explored the question of legitimacy brilliantly, in the scene in Holy Grail where Eric, the anarcho-syndicalist peasant, questions King Arthur’s legitimacy and Arthur has to resort to the ultimate argument of kings: an ass-kicking.
It’s tempting to think that the founding fathers of the USA were a cynical bunch of political hacks (as I do) but they may have been serious about the whole “political legitimacy through consent of the governed” thing – except you can’t both talk about consent and own slaves and expect anyone to take you seriously. My view is that the founding fathers talked a good game but were, ultimately authoritarians who established the framework of a constitutional oligarchy because they didn’t trust eachother; that was a bigger concern than achieving popular consent. But the appeal to the consent of the governed is a crucial thread running through the declaration of independence, which was a sort of amalgam of popular political blog-postings of its time.
The obvious refutation to a government’s claim to legitimacy following Rousseau’s principles is that one of the salient facts of government is that it does not exist at all, unless it is prepared at any time to do violence to the people. It’s really unsubtle hypocrisy to have armed spearmen standing around King Thag when he issues his decrees; if Thag governed through consent, the people would be throwing roses at him, but usually they’d throw something nastier if the spearmen weren’t there. In the Monty Python scene we see how, as soon as Eric makes an irrefutable challenge to the authority of the king, the only response the king can make is violence. So, it has always been. The second and less obvious refutation to Rousseau is that he appeals to a nebulous concept “the general will.” That’s the same dodge as the consequentialists use, only they call it “the greater good.” In both cases, the idea is that it’s possible to get a population of size greater than one to agree, or to understand anything well enough to be able to reason about the benefits of possible likely outcomes. Rousseau is scamming us; it always seemed obvious to me that he was a pernicious anarchist who wanted to destroy the legitimacy of all government by setting it a plausible-sounding standard that was actually impossible to achieve. [I think the consequentialists are just not very at thinky stuff]
For example, one could argue that there are plenty of opinion polls that show that 80% or so of Americans think that we should not spend so much on the military. If the poll stands in for a sampling of the general will, then the US government is illegitimate because it is ignoring the general will and merrily autocrating along. That also refutes “representative democracy” by the way; you cannot represent the people’s will by saying “but I know better” – that’s precisely missing the point.
What I do think Rousseau got right is the idea that the government exists to serve the people and that’s it: nobody wakes up one morning and says “I wish I had a king to order me around!” Plenty of people have woken up and thought “I hope our king shows up with his army and dislodges King Thag from my field before it’s completely destroyed.” That’s the reason that the founding fathers leaned on that “… establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity” thing. It’s Rousseau’s idea, they are trying to enumerate the properties of the common good. When Rousseau dropped this load of philosophy, there were perceptive people at the time who decried it as a recipe for revolution because the monarchs of Europe who held sway at that time rather obviously did not give a shit about the common good; they were concerned with their personal comfort and aggrandizement, and having enough cash left over to pay off their spearmen and attract a good crowd of toadies.
Now, let me shift gears and discuss a different work by Rousseau, namely the Discourse on Inequality. I think this piece is given less emphasis than it deserves, probably because it did not serve as a tool for politicians to justify their power. And, need I mention that inequality and political power tend to be connected? King Thag is the embodiment of inequality; as Eric the anarcho-syndicalist peasant asks King Arthur, “‘oo made you king, then, eh?” What is the justification for the inequality of the situation in which Arthur is king and has a fine horse and armor, and Eric is hauling filth?
Rousseau’s analysis of inequality keeps its hands off political inequality, sort of, by keeping it abstract. There are two kinds of inequality, he says:
- natural inequality
- moral inequality
I usually translate Rousseau’s “moral inequality” to “unfairness” or “social inequality”; let’s stick with “social inequality” for today. Natural inequality is when you’ve got an inequality that is a consequence of the situation we find ourselves in – suppose I am born four feet tall; if I want to be a basketball player, I am probably out of luck. We can point to the situation of the short basketball player and say “it’s unfortunate but it’s not unfair” There’s inequality but seeking a remedy is going to create more inequality somewhere else: you can’t reasonably overcome a natural inequality by hampering everyone to the same level. Kurt Vonnegut trolled that issue famously in his story Harrison Bergeron – a world in which everyone was brought to a level playing field through official handicapping. Vonnegut was being sarcastic but a lot of people appear to fall for Vonnegut’s troll: “you can’t get equality by holding people back!”
Harrison Bergeron brings into view social inequality: if a civilization adopted Vonnegut’s hypothetical approach to resolving natural inequality, then it would be creating social inequality in order to do it. Social inequality is things like: why is Thag king and Eric a peasant? Why does Arthur have a fine horse and a sword and Eric wears rags? Clearly, the situation is unequal – if only because Eric did not choose that situation. Neither did Arthur, but we notice that Arthur makes no attempt to remedy the social inequality by giving Eric his horse and some money.
Don’t conclude that I am holding Rousseau’s analysis up as some kind of brilliant panacea – far from it. I think the dilemma that he sets up between natural inequality and social inequality is very clarifying, but you should know that a lot of the rest of the treatise is packed with what can generously be called “bullshit.” Rousseau also launches an attack against modernity in general by asserting that men once lived in a “state of nature” free of social inequality, until civilization and money came along and made things unequal. Rousseau didn’t understand how early tribes of proto-humans probably co-evolved with “civilization” or his “state of nature” would have had King Thag in the middle of it: what if humans have always been socially unequal? Voltaire famously mocked Rousseau’s Treatise in a letter to Rousseau:
I have received your new book against the human race, and thank you for it. […] No one has ever employed so much intellect to persuade men to be beasts. In reading your work one is seized with a desire to walk on all fours. However, as I have lost that habit for more than sixty years, I feel, unfortunately, that it is impossible for me to resume it…
Both philosophers were circling around this issue of society’s role in inequality, but they never thought to ask King Thag, who was standing there watching the whole time. Thag would have said, “I like inequality because I am the king! If That were a peasant, he would want equality.” King Thag is a self-actualized, selfish, nihilist. I don’t know if it’s escaped your attention, but we live in a world that is full of them. America’s founding fathers were either honest enough with themselves that they saw and chuckled about their fine worlds about freedom, or they were seriously deluded by their own bullshit – it doesn’t matter. But when you sort through the rubble of all this, there’s a useful framework left in Rousseau, namely that regardless of whether your inequality is natural or social, inequality runs contrary to the greater good, which is the purpose for which society exists. A government/society that promotes inequality is illegitimate. It is a “failed state” because the purpose of the state is to help its weaker members, whether their weakness was a result of decisions of the state, or a result of the luck of the draw.
Where a lot of people, mostly of the “conservative” bent, get this wrong is they stop partway through: they conclude that the purpose of the state is to help preserve the status quo and to help (a bit) its members who experience a natural inequality. Those who are experiencing social inequality, well, let’s blame them for their condition and heap shit on them because they did not shovel so much filth so successfully that Eric the peasant is socially equal to King Arthur, somehow. If you think about it that way, it ought to be pretty obvious that such thinking actually only benefits King Thag and his toadies, who are drawn from the ranks of those same “conservatives.” Yes, I am drawing a direct line between the desire of some people to maintain social and natural inequality with their hope of eventually getting to serve as abject subordinates of authority. The mistake they are making, in their minds, is that they can be oligarchs – people who are comfortable and stand high, and who are not subject to the whims of the king or fate. But they are wrong: no matter how tightly they imagine they have constrained the power of the king, they are still subjects and can be summoned to kiss the royal ass on a whim.
“Conservatives” seem to like to go on about “entitlements” – how their social inferiors who participated in and consented to obey the system – expect the system to make good on its promises in return. When a wealthy man puts his money in the stock market, they expect a “return on investment” not an “entitlement” but it’s the same thing – there’s a presupposition that society is going to function the way that it’s supposed to. If it doesn’t, it’s a failed state. A failed state is one which has reneged on its part of the social contract and when it decided to waive its debts to its members, it also waived its members’ debts to it.
I can’t help thinking about this stuff, as I wander around the US nowadays and see the assholes in Washington trying to figure out how to cancel hundreds of thousands of people’s “entitlements.” Those are not “entitlements” they are the government’s debt to fulfill its side of the social contract. Governments exist only for mutual protection and support of the citizens but sometimes the creepy authoritarians in power mistake them for a giant cookie jar that they can take from, but anyone else who wants a crumb of cookie is an entitled loser who’s not working hard enough. They don’t realize who the entitled losers really are. Governments that are not purely authoritarian devolve to a system for discussing the sharing of goods and services; it’s as simple as that. The degree to which the government does things like – oh, say, – spend $1tn on offensive nuclear weaponry that the citizens really, really were not clamoring for – that’s the degree to which that government is a failed state that is not concerned with the “general will.” Rousseau and I stop at the same place: we declare the government illegitimate and, then what? Even if I don’t believe it’s legitimate, King Thag hired those spearmen for a reason, and they don’t seem to understand that they are instruments of oppression, or they don’t care.
The fact of the matter is that if you swapped King Arthur and Eric the peasant’s roles, Eric would make as good a king as Arthur did, and Arthur would pick up the trick of hauling filth fairly quickly. And the “conservatives” would praise King Eric and rain shit on peasant Arthur, who might attain some small measure of enlightenment, eventually.
If you find yourself discussing the state’s legitimacy with a “conservative” you should deploy the points from this ramble, namely, that a government that fosters inequality cannot be legitimate because it does not concern itself with the general good of the people. There are a lot of people who seem to think that saying “social contract” means they’ve won the argument, but they seldom realize that Rousseau’s social contract (and I think we can safely say he owns the idea) was a double-edged sword: you owe the state loyalty only when it is pursuing the general good. A snappier formulation would be that the people owe the state loyalty reciprocally; the state doesn’t get to demand loyalty from the people while showing loyalty only to the stock market.
Naturally, a state cannot be legitimate if it resorts to compulsion. Rousseau might say that the very fact that the state needs to have spearmen around to keep the people in line is a sign it is not a legitimate state. That is another fun argument to deploy at “conservatives.”
Rousseau’s approach to power is applicable outside of politics. An employer/employee relationship can be seen through the lens of a social contract. You agree to do certain things and they agree in return to provide a safe workplace and pay a certain amount. If either side breaks that agreement, the relationship has ended and needs to be re-negotiated. That’s another way in which Rousseau was threatening to the establishment: he exposes how management also has a debt to labor, it’s not uni-directional.