On the Social Contract (Dover Thrift Editions)

On the Social Contract - Jean-Jacques Rousseau, G.D.H. Cole, Cole G. D. H. The one star rating does not mean I don’t recommend reading The Social Contract. Everyone should. It’s that important, that influential and reading this was certainly eye-opening. One star does not mean this was tedious, dry or difficult. In fact this treatise is not long, is easy to understand and can be read in a few hours. And Rousseau can certainly turn a phrase. Lots and lots that’s quotable in this book. But I don’t simply not like the book (which on Goodreads means one star) I absolutely despise this book and everything it stands for. Leo Strauss called Machiavelli the “teacher of evil” and goodness knows I have nothing kind to say about Marx. But both feel clean and wholesome in comparison to Rousseau. Machiavelli at least is open about urging there is no place for morals in politics, but Rousseau is positively Orwellian. He begins the first chapter of Social Contract with the stirring worlds: Man is born free and everywhere is in chains. But though he speaks of liberty and democracy it’s clear that his ideal state as he defines it is totalitarian. Those who don’t want any part of his state, who won’t obey, should be “forced to be free.” Locke argued inalienable rights included life, liberty, and property; governments are instituted to secure those rights. For Rousseau, life, liberty and property are all things you give wholly to the state “retaining no individual rights.” Rousseau states: Whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body... the social contract gives the body politic absolute power over all its members... when the prince says to him: “It is expedient for the State that you should die,” he ought to die. Even Rousseau thought his ideal system couldn’t work in large territories. He ideally wanted direct democracy, with all citizens meeting in assembly such as in the ancient city-state of Athens, not representative democracy, which he doesn’t see as true democracy. (And the larger the state, the more absolute in its powers and more autocratic the government should be lest it fall into selfish anarchy.) Alissa Ardito says in the Introduction to my edition that: “Politics... is also about language, talking, negotiating, arguing; and for that Rousseau had no need and little patience. The goal in The Social Contract is always about consensus, and in the end one suspects what Rousseau finally wanted was silence.” You cannot have liberty or democracy while shutting up and shutting down anyone who dissents from the “general will.” And then there’s Rousseau’s urging of a civil religion, where one literally worships the state. What you get then is the obscenity of a state as the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” whose only nod to democracy is in the name, and where its leader takes on a quasi-religious status. Can I see any good in this treatise? I can see the form the United States took in the discussion of a mix between monarchy (President), aristocracy (Senate, Supreme Court) and democracy (Congress) and checks and balances between them. But such features are also discussed in Locke’s Second Treatise of Government and in Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws, both of which predate The Social Contract. In fact, Rousseau's categories of government can even trace its roots to Aristotle. So, what good I can see in it is hardly original. Well, and The Social Contract did argue for sovereignty being lodged in the people rather than a Divine Right of Kings--it’s supposed to have inspired the French Revolution, and its cry of “liberty, equality, fraternity.” If so, it’s easier to understand why the French Revolution turned into the Reign of Terror. I do consider this a must-read, and I’m glad I read it. It’s enlightening, like turning over a rock to see all the nasty things that were hiding underneath.