Rousseau and Liberty III

The two last posts have looked at why some widely circulated criticisms of Rousseau as lacking respect for liberty under law, including the separation between the social body and political institutions, are misconceived to a significant degree. That leaves open the question of why Rousseau becomes so much the target of those committed to liberty of the individual, and limitations on the power of any political body. There are reasons, however, misguided many anti-Rousseau tirades are. One issue is that Rousseau himself is not always careful in distinguishing between the social body and political institutions. The most important  reason though is Rousseau’s objections to what the eighteenth century knew as commercial society, and what we know as capitalism or as market society. Associated with that is Rousseau’s ‘primitivism’, his tendency to prefer the more natural, and to sometimes appear to idealise humans in their ‘savage’ or natural state.

It is certainly true that Rousseau was not happy with commercial society, though to a large degree it is correct to say that he considered commercial society to be something that we have to live with in the historical development of humanity, and make the best of, much as we might regret its inevitability. In that case, Rousseau can be taken to offer a way of thinking about how to legislate and govern within commercial society, and have things to say which are useful to the friends of commercial society, including associated understandings of liberty. It is difficult to isolate Rousseau’s view of savage man and his view of commercial society, which he sometimes refers to as political economy, so that the study of commercial society and that society itself are taken together. Since the study of political economy largely starts with justification of the commercial society it analyses, as in Locke, Hume, and Smith, that is a reasonable assumption. For Rousseau, the savage man lives in a state of nature and has a solitary existence, punctuated by the need to reproduce the human race. That savage man has a natural sympathy, or pity for the sufferings of other humans, rarely though he sees them. He acts outs of complete sincerity and spontaneity since he knows no other way of behaving. Rousseau certainly expresses admiration in some ways for the savage existence, but also comments on the non-development of the faculties of such an individual and the moral limitations of such an existence.

History begins with a move for individuals to come together in order to satisfy shared needs, which leads to what Rousseau sometimes refers to as the best stage of human development. In this stage, there are communities, but not with the demarcations of property and inequality of status which characterise human societies as we know them. At some point property is enclosed, and the trouble starts. Rousseau’s beliefs here are not obviously consistent. Though in general he greatly respects the small property owner who has enough to satisfy his own needs without creating dependents, but his account of the beginning of property give it a traumatic quality. His way of thinking on that point is that someone creates the lie that something belongs to himself and not the community as a whole. This is one of the moments which gives non-socialist readers of Rousseau a  bad feeling, and the wish to berate his influence. Rousseau’s account looks like a counter to John Locke’s historical account fused with justification of property when he refers to the correct procedure of taking no more than leaves sufficient property (clearly meaning land) for everyone else. This is expanded by an account of the social benefits of trading in the products of land which makes large scale landed property socially useful. Locke gave the classic account of the liberal view of property, and Rousseau here necessarily loos like the enemy of liberalism.

Though it would not do to put Rousseau forward as the perfect liberal, there are important qualifications to be made to his rejection of liberalism as it had developed in his time. As stated above, Rousseau generally expresses great respect, love and admiration for the man of modest property, who does not have to accept any other man as his master, and does not make himself master of any other man. What lies behind the apparent contradiction in Rousseau’s thought about property is a feeling of the trauma of separating out communal property into individualised portions of property. While Rousseau’s comments on the history of human development are founded as much in his imagination as in established facts, he is not wrong to think of private property emerging from communal forms of property. Roughly speaking there is a historical movement  from communal to individualised property. The conflicts between white Europeans and native American Indians on the western frontier of the United States were in part a conflict between those two visions of property. Now the communal form of property is more appropriate to a society with very little, if any, surplus beyond bare subsistence, and private property is necessary to the development of societies where people can live beyond that minimum. Communal property does not just disappear, though its continues in more abstract forms as ‘public goods’, benefits which are available to all and cannot be charged for without undermining the existence of that benefit for anyone. Policing services and a criminal justice system are the most obvious examples. Rousseau’s greatness is to feel the trauma of the loss of communal property, and the deep psychological appeal of sharing everything as a sign of a good person. The most radical libertarian capitalist does not deny that it is a virtue to voluntarily share what we own with others.

to be continued

Rousseau and Liberty II

The last post look at some reasons why there has been a tendency for those to be concerned with liberty (particularly in the more individualistic senses in which that word is used) have often criticised Rousseau as an advocate of subordination of individual liberty to the the political body which represents the social whole, or claims to do so. The main point I have in opposition to that, from the point of view of an individualistic conception of liberty, is that Rousseau was centrally concerned to distinguish between the social whole, when organised as the general will, which makes laws, and the political body that governs the social whole. The point of criticism directed against Rousseau is the point he is most particularly aware of as a danger, the danger that the political body will be confused with the general will. These criticisms were directed against Rousseau in his own lifetime, and he indignantly repudiated them. The problem with Rousseau here, to some degree, is that he liked to express himself in a provocatively paradoxical way (we are forced to be free, man is born free but lives everywhere in chains) which have often been taken as justification for  a transformation in which the individual completely subordinates the will to the total legal and governmental authority of the political body, in order to be ‘free’ in a sense which ignores the importance of being free from the power of the political body, or the social whole.

In some of this, I was addressing some of Hayek’s less careful moments in his reading of 18th century political thought, though Hayek does sometimes recognise the value of Rousseau’s conception of law, and that Rousseau makes a distinction between the general will as legislator and the government. eve in his most careful moments Hayek fails to notice how close Rousseau’s conception of law can be to his own. In his anti-Rousseau moments, Hayek even condemns Rousseau as an advocate of rationalist law made up by the state from abstract principles rather than ideas of justice shared within a community, which is the proper source of law for Hayek. He puts Rousseau into an absurdly sweeping line up of villains who are apparently behind an increasingly over mighty state because they put forward interlocking ideas about pure rationalism in philosophy, top down planning in politics, and a conception of law as just the facts established by the will of the state. Really this kind of sweeping generalisation is absurd, and should not be the basis of anyone’s view of law, politics and liberty. Anyway, Hayek does not seem to have been a careful reader of Rousseau on law. I think what he probably does is take the chapter on the ‘Legislator’ in The Social Contract, and assumes that it is about some isolated rationalist genius making up laws to suit his own system.

The trouble with this is that Rousseau does not suggest anything like this, he suggests that the ‘legislator’ creates a system out of the existing pattern of laws, customs, morals and so on. The legislator is more the systematiser as the person who tidies up and makes more coherent the customs and morals of a political community. Rousseau always attaches the most extreme importance to maintaining the customs and common principles of justice as they exist in everyday awareness. The Rousseauesque legislator does not create, he is more like the idealised version of Hayek’s judge who discovers law by comparing existing law and previous judgements with the particular facts of a case. Rousseau’s legislator and Hayek’s judge are one hand. That is open to debate, but it is worth taking that absolute statement as a stating point, certainly in preference to the sorry trivialisation of an already weak argument in Hayek, at the hands of his most strident fans. That is the argument which regards legislation in Rousseau as the product of arbitrary political will. The examples of legislator that Rousseau takes are the law givers of ancient republics (Lycurgus in Sparta, Solon in Athens, Numa in Rome) and religious leaders (Moses for the ancient Jews, Mohammad for the first generation of Muslims, Jean Calvin in Rousseau’s city of Geneva). These are all very different examples, for some of them their very existence is a matter of doubt, though for others their life was a very real and well recorded process (Mohammed and Calvin).

If we are going to criticise Rousseau for anything it should be from the point of view of rationalistic state made law, of what Hayek calls legislation as opposed to law properly speaking. Hayek’s interest in ‘law’ has good motives behind of concern for liberty and feeds into worthy attempts to think about how law can be properly formed. It is a failure though. The enthusiasm for law as custom was shared by Karl Marx, and is not a all specific to those tinker sin classical liberal and libertarian spectrum. Rousseau was great at what was really a late attempt to rescue customary law, as Hayek was great at trying to think about the revival of liberalism in its original form  in an increasingly statist, administrative and regulatory world. In both cases, the theory of law is inadequate to a political community of the present, and rests on an over idealisation of some political communities of the past.

To be continued

Rousseau and Liberty

Following on recent posts about a new edition of Rousseau (On the Social Contract and Other Political Writings, Penguin, 2012), some remarks about the bad name Jean-Jacques Rousseau has been given with regard to questions of liberty. He has sometimes been nailed as a leading suspect in the intellectual origins of totalitarianism. Isaiah Berlin’s book Freedom and Its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty (based on BBC Radio lectures of 1952) is the epitome of this sort of thing, which is not at all respectable in history of ideas and history of political thought circles any more. Berlin not only drags Rousseau up to the defendant’s stand to be harangued for his thought crimes, but subjects Fichte and Hegel to the same treatment, that is two philosophers who took significant inspiration from Rousseau, though they are certainly combing that influence with many other factors.  Though Berlin was rather social democratic in inclination, this kind of shrill assault on those suspected of subordinating individual rights to collective homogeneity inevitably has particular appeal to those of a conservative or classical liberal-libertarian (where  I find myself)  disposition, or those anyway who seek some comforting east narrative on who the baddies and goodies are.

Though no one of Berlin’s stature would write such a book now, and no one who does serious work on Rousseau (or Fichte and Hegel) would find this kind of approach at all tolerable, it does linger on in a semi-respectable way, and not just in libertarian or conservative circles. Philip Pettit’s influential work on republican political theory, focused around his 1997 book Republicanism, which is very egalitarian liberal-social democratic in orientation regards Rousseau’s suspiciously as the kind of republican who subordinates the individual too much to the political collective, a category of republicans who are too republican for Pettit, which includes Civic Humanists and Athenian Republicans.  I have all kinds of problems with Pettit’s account, but sticking to Rousseau, there is some element of justification for the kind of concern Pettit expresses, but there is no need to single Rousseau out as this is a genuine issue for serious political theory, and not something to be just dumped on Rousseau and some other precursors of the totalitarian state. A lot of this comes from a failure to think about the provocative paradoxes through which Rousseau often expresses himself, and he is not always able to totally command them himself.  The more obvious way this kind of Rousseau bashing lingers on is right leaning journalist which more cultural pretension than capacity who like to refer to Rousseau as a convenient object of abuse, and in a slightly more refined ways assumptions about Anglo-Scottish Enlightenment versus French Enlightenment and English political liberalisation versus the French Revolution.  The political history aspect goes outside the scope of this post, I will just say that the violence of the French Revolutionaries in a concentrated period is easily matched, and exceeded, by the violence the British state used from the Glorious Revolution of 1688 (the apparently moderate constitutional revolution), which had a particularly violent effect in Ireland, to the attempted repression of the American Revolution, with the violence and cultural repression directed against gaelic speaking Scottish Highlanders after the jacobite Uprising of 1745, as something of an intervening highlight.  The 1745 state violence was what underpinned the Scottish Enlightenment.

The issue of Enlightenment brings us back to Rousseau’s thought. A large part of the source of lingering semi-respectable Rousseau bashing is what Hayek said some of the time about Rousseau and the French Enlightenment, and which does not represent the totality of his thought on those matters. What Hayek sometimes says, in one of his less interesting riffs to my mind is that the French Enlightenment was too constructivist and rationalist, too inclined to top down utopian state planning and the subordination of justice properly speaking to state made laws. This is compared unfavourably with England, or the Anglo-Socttish Enlightenment which supposedly favoured a free civil society based ın the gradual consensual evolution of law, morality and economic orders. This is highly unsatisfactory for all kinds of reason. To state some particularly obvious problems, French Enlightenment was strongly influenced by Locke, this kind of account leaves out the Physiocrat contribution of political economy, Montesquieu is not accounted for, the bad constructivists for Hayek include the very English Thomas Hobbes (strongly condemned by Rousseau), Jeremy Bentham and John Austin (the legal thiner). Bentham was close to Hayek’s way of thinking about economy and the state, and so we see that the contrast is ill conceived. It is nevertheless greatly admired for those admirers of Hayek whose enthusiasm is not matched by discerning critical faculties, and who ignore those parts of Hayek which do not fit the pattern they like to find in  Hayek. The other side of what Hayek says is that Rousseau had great merits with regard to thought about law and liberty, but was too inclined to go against his own distinction between the general will, which makes laws, and the political body which governs a society under laws. The tendency to forget this distinction is for Rousseau deep in human social existence, and thought about this aspect of Rousseau suggests that he was sensitive to some issues that libertarians-ckassical liberals have at heart.

To be continued in the next post.

Seven Men: A recurring force in the rise of Parliament: 1258 and 1688

It’s recently come to my attention (via David Crowther’s History of England podcast series) that the thirteenth century emergence of the English Parliament (which included Wales, and became the British parliament from 1707, when Scotland gave up its own parliament and became part of a state union with England, not just a union of royal possessions, something which is still the case though Scotland has its own parliament again) included a decisive meeting in 1258 when seven barons presented demands to Henry III for the loosely structured  ‘parliament ‘ of discussion about advice to the crown, to become a more structured and broadly representative body with clear authority regarding laws and taxes. I cannot find a full list of names right now, but the group of seven was led by Simon de Montford,  who had baronial authority in Leicester, but as his name implies came from France. This way typical of the lords of the time, going back to the Norman Conquest which led to centuries of such connections.

The event which really finally secured the work of 1258 was the Glorious Revolution of 1688, followed by the Bill of Rights of 1689. Ever since parliament has sat regularly and has been regarded as the body that represents the nation, and is able to pass laws as well as raise taxes.  The seven of 1688 are known as the Immortal Seven, and their names are: Charles Talbot, First Due of Shrewsbury; William Cavendish, First Duke of Devonshire; Thomas Osborne, First Duke of  Leeds (commonly known as Lord Danby); Richard Lumley, First Earl of Scarborough; Henry Compton; Edward Russell; Henry Sidney, First Earl of Romney. They sent a letter in June of 1688 assuring William, Prince of  Orange (a Dutch aristocrat with a semi-monarhical role in the Netherlands) of their desire to see him take over from James II as King of England (along with Scotland and Ireland). William was married to James’ sister  Mary, who was heir to the throne in the event of James’ death or incapacity. The Immortal Seven assured William that an invasion would meet wit support within England, but should taken place soon to prevent James reinforcing his hold on state and military power. William did invade on November 5th, the English military were not eager to fight him, and James II fled into exile.

Like the seven of 1285, the Immortal Seven were among the most powerful and wealthy men in the nation, whose families were prominent before and after the period in question. Their reasons for rebellion on behalf of parliamentary constraints on the crown included a great deal of self-interest and a desire to preserve privilege. Their were religious aspects which are unpleasant for us now. Simon de Montford’s family played a large part in the Crusade against Cathars in southern France, in which a religious ‘heresy’ as destroyed with great cruelty, Simon de Montford himself expelled Jews from his personal lands soon after starting his career as an English aristocrat. The Glorious Revolution was as much about keeping the state church in England Protestant and limiting the civil rights of Catholics, as it was about representative political institutions.

The reasons we should not present the Seven of 1285 and the Immortal Seven as  heroes of pluralist liberal democracy as we understand it now are clear. Still we should remember what they did, and remember that they would not have seemed intolerant or cruel by the standards of their time. Whatever privileges they were defending, it is to their enormous credit that they recognised that such privileges could only be legitimate under laws agreed by a body representing the nation, when they could have sought advantageous individual deals with the crown.

Seven has a history as a number with special significance, as a number with something sacred or mystical about its powers. A tradition that goes up to Akira Kurosowa’s Seven Samurai film, the story of 7 wandering swordsmen of gentry class who elect to defend a village of persecuted peasants for no reward. We should not turn history into a romantic pageant of ideal heroes, like Kurosawa’s band of self-sacrificing misfits, but it is surely a fascinating detail of English and British history, that on two occasions seven men of aristocratic station risked all against royal power.  With all their faults they surely command some great respect for their achievements, and deserve to be remembered for their contribution to the growth of political self-government.

Reviewing Penguin edition of Rousseau’s Social Contract and Other Political Writings.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Of the Social Contract and Other Political Writings

Edited by Christopher Bertram

Translated by Quintin Hoare

Penguin Classics

Penguin Books, London. 2012

ISBN 978-0-141-19175-1


The recent series of posts on Rousseau has been based on studying the new edition of Rousseau which is detailed above.  I now reach the point of writing a review.

None of the study I have done of the book has led me to any negative conclusions about the edition. Hoare’s translations emphasise readability and naturalness in modern English over very precise reproduction of Rousseau, and it works very well.  It reads well, sacrificing a little of the feeling of precisely provocative wording in Rousseau, but without introducing inaccuracies, or vagueness.  The book is evidently designed for an audience of undergraduates and others engaged in the beginnings of the reading and study of Rousseau, so issues of the very exact details of the translation are not really at issue here.

Christopher Bertram’s editorial apparatus is equally well suited to the volume.  There are very readable  introductions to the volume as a whole, and for individual texts, and a light scattering of footnotes which do not provide all the context for reading Rousseau, but enough to enable the new reader to be reasonably informed about the historical background.  Bertram is the author of the Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Rousseau and the Social Contract (2003), along with material about Rousseau and contemporary political theory.  He is a professor in the department of philosophy at the University of Bristol, where his homepage provides useful links. A podcast of Bertram speaking at LSE  on one of the Rousseau texts in the Penguin edition can be found here.  Bertram is part of the group blogging team at Crooked Timber,  a leading place for left leaning commentary on political theory and political events. An ideal background for editing Rousseau’s political texts, and he uses his knowledge very well, presenting it at the right level for what is likely to be a reader who has not encountered Rousseau before.

The only strong  criticism I have of this edition is the lack of an index, which is really very annoying. Penguin is a popular publisher rather than an academic press, but it is at the  serious end of popular publishing, and other classics of political thought, philosophy, etc have come with indexes. This lack could be a serious drawback for students trying to find a relevant quote of passage when fighting to finish a paper before the deadline. There is a Kindle edition, so maybe Penguin have decided that indexes are not needed anymore, and are pushing everyone towards using searchable e-texts. That would be a shame. Kindle editions are not available outside those countries which host Amazon operations, which is not many. It’s possible to get hard copy books from Amazon delivered to those countries which do not host an Amazon bookshop, but Kindle editions cannot be downloaded. This is of course a complete scandal. I suppose the reason is copyright issues, but how utterly stupid.  There is no other way of downloading those books in those countries, the failure of online sellers and publishers to resolve these issues is deeply deplorable. As I am based in Turkey, which does not host an Amazon operation, I am not able to download e-books versions of recent title. Thank you publishing and online distribution industries for cutting me off from a major source of texts.  And on the subject of indexes, they are not just for searching purposes. The choice of terms used and the names in an index is one way of providing an entry into a book, a perspective which should not be lost.

This edition will inevitably fill the role that the G.D.H. Cole edition of Rousseau for Dent/Everyman used to fill, that is a convenient text for first reading and undergraduate study of Rousseau, along with use as a desk copy for those with more advanced interests in Rouuseau. I had a copy when I was a teenager, but never took a course on Rousseau at any level. I have frequently taught Rousseau at undergraduate level though, directing students to photocopied sections of my battered Cole volume.  If they want to read the whole thing they will probably get another edition, though the Cole edition is still available from a very small publisher. Anyway, I don’t see it as a problem is students read a bit of the Cole edition for the class and then look at a more recent edition. The whole Cole edition has a particular flavour of the reading of Rousseau from the early 20th century (the edition was revised for s 1973 reissue), it was first published in 1913, when a young Cole was on the way to be  a leading Guild Socialist (Medieval nostalgia voluntary co-operative socialism). He was very influential in his time, but is a name from the past now.

The Bertram/Hoare edition is a worthy successor, though not a direct successor. Both volumes have Social Contract at their heart, but have different accompanying texts.  In Bertram/Hoare that is largely constitutional proposals for Corsica and Poland; in Cole the accompanying texts were largely the three discourses (on: arts and science, inequality, political economy).  This represents a shift from a selection across Rousseau’s writings on political theory,  social and historical theory, to a focus on Rousseau’s political theory. The brief ‘Principles of the Right of War’ is the main bridge offered in the recent edition into the world of the Discourses. Penguin currently publish a stand alone edition of The Discourse on Inequality: they would provide a great service to Rousseau studies, and the general understanding of Rousseau, if they were to publish all three discourse in one volume.  The shift in the Bertram/Hoare edition to a focus on political texts is very understandable, the ideal scenario would be for the three discourses to be available together in one popular but serious edition.

In summary, the volume under review does its job admirably, and is an essential acquisition for anyone with interests in Rousseau, 18th century thought, and the history of political thought. Though the edition is suitable for those at an early stage of study of Rousseau, I think those with more advanced interests will find it highly useful as a desk edition, a book which can carried around to read on the move, can be taken to class, and so on.

Reading Rousseau: Considerations on the Government of Poland (and end of the sequence)

I have a copy of  a new edition of Rousseau.  I won’t mention what edition exactly until I’ve finished blogging on its contents, which will mostly be about Rousseau’s thought rather than the qualities of the edition.  I’ll comment on the edition after I’ve posted on its contents, bit by bit, by which time I should have the basis for a judgement.

Rousseau was invited to help reform the constitutions of not just one, but two, states.  First Corsica, as discussed in the last post, and then Poland.  Both states disappeared soon afterwards.  Corsica was absorbed into France, but has kept a sense of separate identity, now recognised in French arrangements for regional government.  Poland was partitioned in the late eighteenth century between Russia, Poland and Austria, with Russia as the major beneficiary.  Polish identity and national aspirations certainly did not disappear, and it was revived as a state after World War One, with an interruption for Nazi occupation, followed by a redrawing of boundaries. Anyway, Rousseau was unable to help preserve independence, and leaders in both states would have been better off thinking about emergency measures against aggression, rather than the reflections of  Swiss-French thinker, looking for the revival of antique republicanism.  The leaders probably spent little if any time thinking about Rousseau anyway, so we can’t blame him for their laxity in defending national existence.  Some kind of emergency dictatorial power imposing maximum national unity and military mobilisation, with the goal of defence in extreme depth ,in a total people’s war against foreign aggression, relying on popular insurgency and guerrilla operations as much as, if not more than, field armies, inflicting casualties and costs on invading powers that outweighed the political will behind invasion  would I suppose have been the only possible way of preserving sovereignty against vastly more powerful neighbouring and greedy powers.  Those ideas are really ideas that come out of the French Revolution, the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, popular and state reactions to Napoleonic occupation, and the subsequent military theorising of Carl von Clausewitz (and even that has a massive gap around popular guerrilla war). Rousseau perhaps touches on the military aspect, but more through nostalgic republicanism than through awareness of strategic realities.

The Considerations on the Government of Poland, make it clear that Rousseau was well aware of the precarious nature of Polish political institutions and the deeply dangerous weakness of the state compared with its great power neighbours, and show a strong awareness of the need to adapt his own political thought to Polish realities, so it would not do to just dismiss Rousseau as an irrelevant theoriser.  It has to be said that reading it just gives me the constant impression of someone who looks at Poland and then tries to think how he can make it as close as possible to the ancient Spartan and Roman republics. Reservations about the centrality of slavery to Sparta, even more so than in other ancient republics, which Rousseau displays at the end of ‘Principles of the Right of War’ are absent here. Rousseau does briefly note here that Poland gives peasants less than no rights, when also  he describes the aristocracy as having all the rights and the burgers (merchant class presumably) as having none.  There is a brief indication in that of disgust with Polish arrangements, and he does call for ways of integrating the population into the political system without attempting to abandon a political system that Rousseau could see would  not be abandoned by its beneficiaries whatever the likely risk it posed to national survival.

The risk came out of the notorious arrangement of the Polish Sjem (parliament) which consisted of aristocracy only, in which any one member could use a veto to end proceedings and annul all laws passed in that session. This is a fascinating example of the pride of feudal, or neo-feudal, aristocracy, which is one of the sources of  modern individualist thought.  Such pride, and the associated underlying political and economic arrangements which gave rise to it, was a constant source of destabilisation in the Middle Ages, and sometimes of struggle against monarchical tyranny. In the context of late eighteenth century Poland, aristocratic individualistic pride made the state so vulnerable that as Rousseau points out, the amazing thing is it still existed.

Rousseau begins with some of his general points, such as that the executive must be subordinate to the general will, which is the whole people acting as the sovereign. States undergo an inevitable process of decay, as the executive power always usurps the power of the general will.  There is a familiar emphasis on the importance of legislation influencing the population through customs, manners, morals and so on.  As I’ve said before, this bit seems to me very important in understanding Rousseau’s mobilising myth of the general will, it is not so much a literal event, as a way of describing legislation that reflects the best customs and morals of a people and therefore can create institutions rooted in the population, and reinforcing its best aspects. Rousseau offers paradoxes of the kind to be found in The Social Contract, such as suggesting that the rue of law over men is fundamental, but is impossible to achieve.  One reaction to this would be that a document of advice for a state close to collapse is hardly the time or the place to display a passion for paradox (Kierkegaard’s view of philosophy), but it adds to the interest of the text for us.

Rousseau’s advice includes a central choice between: Poland continuing as a normal European power, with the pursuit of wealth, the arts, international influence and the like; and Poland becoming a modern Sparta, great in its isolation at the centre of the proto-Europe (how I like to think of the very loose community of ancient Greek states).  What this relies on is an opposition between corrupted wealthy cosmopolitan states which lack the natural vitality for self-defence; and small autarkic rural states  where natural strength is perfected and able to deter any invasion.  This is a reference to contrasts between the virtuous early Roman republic and the decadent late Roman republic, Greece against Persia, Sparta against the other Greek states.  A return to the ancient austere republicanism is Rousseau’s ideal, even when applied to the large aristocratic-monarchical state of Poland.  One problem with this is that Rousseau failed to notice what David Hume (who was a friend of Rousseau for a while) and Adam Smith (who was a reader of Rousseau) did notice, which is that ancient contrast between the natural strength of ‘barbaric’ peoples agains the cultivated weakness of ‘civilised’ peoples which had some power in explaining ancient history, could not explain the modern world where commercial states could use wealth to become militarily strong enough to prevent the ancient pattern of ‘barbarians’ raiding and destroying more civilised peoples.  Even looking at ancient history, we should note that Greece was as rich as Persia (or so economic historians now think) and that strong powers tended to be commercial powers (Athens, Rome, Carthage and others).  The impending emergency in Poland perhaps meant that a bit of Spartan spirit was needed, and that was what rescued the French Republic from foreign and internal enemies, but Rousseau is not talking about emergency measures, he is suggesting long term changes in the structure of the state.

Rousseau’s proposed changes for Poland often relate to quite detailed issues of how to make existing balances and separations of power much efficient and less prone to breakdown. This reminds me of Frederick the Great’s Enlightenment reforms in Prussia, they both created broader citizenship rights and reinforced old hierarchies.  Maybe Frederick Hohenzollern was the great Rousseau disciple of his time (not by design as far as a I know), and those reforsm strengthened the Prussian state that partook of the partition of Poland (all of the monarchs concerned were ‘Enlightened’ despots).  The most dramatic proposals from Rousseau for Poland include a voluntary withdrawal from peripheral territories to make the country more unified, and a regionalisation of the country2s political institutions to provide some kind of bridge between the local nobility and the monarchy.  The latter proposal, in particular, certainly undermines some lazy preconceptions of Rousseau the fanatic for unitary and homogeneous republicanism.

Reading Rousseau: Constitutional Proposal for Corsica

I have a copy of  a new edition of Rousseau.  I won’t mention what edition exactly until I’ve finished blogging on its contents, which will mostly be about Rousseau’s thought rather than the qualities of the edition.  I’ll comment on the edition after I’ve posted on its contents, bit by bit, by which time I should have the basis for a judgement.

Rousseau admired the republic of Corsica during its brief 18th century existence.  It had rebelled against the republic of Genoa, a major maritime city republic and enjoyed independent  existence for a few decades until conquered by the French monarchy.   It has remained part of France ever since, but there is still a separatist movement, and Corsica has special status amongst the regional governments of France.  For Rousseau the independence of this island with a rural economy separated from its previous rulers was an attractive possibility for establishing an ideal constitution.  He makes his interest clear in The Social Contract, and as a consequence was invited to prepare a constitution by a French army officer of Corsican background.  The constitution was never put into practice but at least allowed Rousseau to play the legislator as described in The Social Contract and gives us further material for evaluating his political thought.

Rousseau welcomed the loss of the nobility of Corsica in the break with Genoa, which followed disputes about the rights of Corsicans to bear arms in public, which had further origins in the Genoese attempts to control and to make use of the honour killings and banditry on the island.  Rousseau attributes those criminal traditions of the Corsicans to domination by Genoa which leads to idleness and boredom that breeds murder, and the financial vices which lead to robbery as a trade.  The removal of both the supreme power based overseas and the loss of the aristocracy creates conditions for a new political structure, just as the loss of connection with a trading republic creates for a new economic structure, issues which interact for Rousseau.  The new political conditions allow for democracy, though Rousseau had elsewhere said that democracy was impossible for men, only suitable for angels and so on.  At this point he sees that sovereignty and the people are part of the same thing, which seems to be the lead into, and justification for, the discussion of democratic institutions.  If so, Rousseau may have broken his own distinction between issues of law making by  the sovereign body, the general will, and issues of the form of government.  The general will is the people in a particular situation, and government is generally presented by Rousseau as something under the general will,  not as the whole of the people.  The state in which the government is the whole people was regarded as a fantasy elsewhere in Rousseau’s writing. In the case of Corsica, he argued that it was a suitable location for democracy as part of mixed government.  The mixture is that the state is an association of democratic communities under the weakest possible governmental centre in the capital city.  Only a city is suitable for an unmixed form of democracy.  The dispersal of people in rural localities across the island, make gatherings of all citizens impractical.  The political centre is not really defined, but Rousseau would normally regard elective aristocracy as the best form of government, and maybe envisages the central governmental power as being composed of those elected by democratic assemblies to serves as representatives.  This might sound something like the association of cantons, local republics, which makes up Switzerland, and Rousseau acknowledges that he regarded Corsica as like Switzerland before it became corrupted.

Rousseau thinks Switzerland was corrupted, when the soldiers who defended Switzerland from large neighbours, sold their services as mercenaries to princes.  The role of Swiss mercenaries in undermining patriotic virtue in Italy is described by Machiavelli in The Prince.  In general Rousseau has a view of the decline of republics associated with a decline of virtue, which is heavily based in his understanding of ancient history.  This particularly refers to the decline of the Roman republic,as a republic, after its victory over the Carthaginians, a well known topic before Rousseau and which we can see discussed in Montesquieu.  The fault for Rousseau is in the increase of agrarian wealth to an extent which undermines virtue, and the unity of the republic, so that by the time it was addressed in Roman politics, it was too late to change the concentration of wealth with regard to property rights and civic peace.

Rousseau thought that even an unjust property distribution cannot be changed without injustice, and aims to avoid this problem by creating barriers in any new republic, such as Corsica, to inequality.  For Rousseau, some measure of private property is absolutely desirable to maintain the independence of individuals and their families from each other. Beyond that he suggests limitations on the growth of individual wealth and the financing of the state through state ownership of property.  He claims that ancient states maintained themselves through ownership of a large proportion of the land rather than taxation (a very dubious claim).  Individual property accumulation is limited by banning wills disposing of property after death, so that property cannot be concentrated in any one heir.  Rousseau wants to avoid cash taxes because that requires individuals to accumulate cash, which he regards as corrupting.  He  argues for compulsory labour on public roads and son on, as preferable to taxes.  Economic ideas emphasise isolation, the bare minimum of trade with the outside world, the minimisation of trade within the communes of the broader republic, and even suspension of citizenship for those who move between communes.  There are various measures to link citizenship rights with virtuous behaviour.

What Rousseau presents in this text is an idealised form of the earliest ancient republics, where patriotism is stronger than money, and laws hardly exist as something separate from the virtuous customs of the people.  The virtuous behaviour and patriotic feelings are unified in state ceremonies, oath taking and so on.  We could see Rousseau as very backward loping, but his way of reverting to antique republicanism brings out the tension of the modern world, around commerce and the ascetic virtues, mobility and communities of shared customs, individual rights and recognisable communities, inner conscience and civic religion, etc.