Reading Rousseau: The Social Contract Book III

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 most 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 for a judgement.

Book III of The Social Contract has more to say on an issue I raised in the last post about the actions of the general will.  When  has anyone seen it?  Rousseau’s examples of legislation at its highest are of legendary Legislators using an aura of supernatural authority to bring about laws; on the other hand the morals and customs of a people seems to be where the general will is embedded.  However, the examples Rousseau gives in Book III do not end difficulties of understanding.  Paradoxes, evasions and unexplained shifts abound in Book III, though that does not male it a bad bit of writing in political theory.  Far from it.

The examples he gives of general will include the city assemblies of the city republic  of Rome, similar bodies in ancient Greece, and more vaguely citizen assemblies amongst the ancient Macedonians and Franks.  The reference to Franks is presumably to the Germanic invaders and conquerors of Roman Gaul in late antiquity.  They were a minority of the population, speaking German ruling over a largely proto-French speaking land of Celtic Gauls.  Over time they became the French speaking aristocracy and monarchy of a French state.  Rousseau is referring to traditional beliefs that Frankish kings, the first was Clovis, followed the laws of tribal assemblies.  I’m sure in practice what we are talking about is a a mixture of customary tribal law and the acclamation of kings by their subjects.  Whatever was going on with the 6th century Franks they certainly were not holding deliberative citizens’ assemblies to decide the law of the land.  I can only presume that Rousseau attributes something like the supposed Frankish history to the Macedonians who could very roughly be considered to have the same role in relation to the Greek city states that Germanic confederations had in relation to the late Roman Empire, though the Macedonians were connected with the subdued city states by language in a way that the Germans were not connected with the Romans.

Rousseau’s account of Roman history seems different from that earlier in The Social Contract where he gives a special role to Numa’s law, no he is more concerned with the citizens’ assemblies.  These are not inconsistent positions.  Rousseau, himself, in Book III, refers to the tactic acknowledgement of laws over time, though that seems to belong to periods of less activity in citizenship than of the Roman Republic in its healthiest phases.  As a matter of historical reality I’m sure that the laws of the Republic were not those of Numa, or certainly many changes had taken place.  Rousseau is presumably here relying on the picture of Roman history in Cicero’s Republic which is more of an idealisation than a critical historical study.  That brings us to another aspect of Rousseau’s political thought, the general will as the producer of pure law and the contingencies of political action.  The laws produced by the general will acting as sovereign stand above politics in a way that is itself ambiguous between pure rationality and systematisation of the customs of that community.  As we have see the general will stands above factions, which means it must stand above political parties, and political struggles of any kind as we normally understand them.  If Rousseau thinks he general will is active in the citizens’ assemblies of Rome, then he is incorporating a lot of very messy politics, and a rigged voting system to benefit the aristocracy.  While Rousseau recognises and insists on the difference between factual accounts and accounts of right, ge often loses the distinction in labyrinth of history.

Book III begins with an account of forms of government, in which he distinguishes between forms of government (democracy, aristocracy, monarchy), discusses variations within that three fold, filling out some of the detail later in Book III, and considers the historical beginnings of political community.  He refers to aristocracy as the beginning of political history.  First the aristocracy of the rule of the older natural community leaders, then an elective aristocracy, and then a hereditary aristocracy.  He suggests at one point that hereditary aristocracy is the worst form of government, which might lead you to wonder how he can be so favourable about the Roman Republic, given that it always had a Senate which was always hereditary.  Presumably the overall point is that a state based on a large body of people who cannot be removed and have a sectional interest is more dangerous than monarchy where there is only one person in power, or democracy where the whole people has its interests represented in government.

The status of democracy şs particularly strange here since Rousseau starts of Book III by putting on the list of forms of government, then quickly says it cannot be real as it requires men to be like angels, and then returns to democracy in very positive terms later in  Book III.  The definition of democracy for Rousseau is that the whole people govern as well as forming the general will, the sovereign body which makes laws.  The whole people acts as law makers and as the executors of law, over itself.  This makes Rousseau very uncomfortable, at least some of the time, since he believes there should be some separation, and that for the legislative and  executive functions to be invested in the same group is to demand very pure virtue.  At the beginning of Book III, his ideal is elective aristocracy, which looks close to what we mean now by representative or liberal democracy.  The election of the better sort of people to form the executive is the ideal way of applying the general will, rather than expecting the whole of the people to become the better sort of people except at the short moments when they elevate themselves into the general will.  Later on in Book III, he does however refer to Roman and Greek cities as democracies and thinks the system worked well for some significant period of time.  This is very compatible with a well worn account of a Roman Republic which is virtuous for centuries and is then corrupted by victory over the Carthaginians.  The increasing wealth in Rome corrupting the republic is in line with Rousseau’s views.  He thinks it better that a king should concentrate wealth in his own hands, rather than that a republic distribute the surplus above what is necessary to an austerely decent life amongst the population.  Nevertheless, Rome before victory over Carthage was something of an aristocratic republic.  Athens was closer to pure democracy, but even in its most democratic phase had dominant personalities, most famously Pericles, who was frequently elected  to military office.  By Rousseau’s definition Pericles was part of an elective aristocracy of military leaders, and was maybe even an elective king.  The difference between democracy and elective aristocracy becomes very blurred at some points in Book III, as is particularly evident when discussing England (which strictly speaking he should have referred to as Britain or Great Britain, though not at that time as the United Kingdom).  The English he thunders are only free when electing representatives and not under those representatives.  He overlooks the very restricted franchise of the time (about the top 5%), though that is strictly speaking compatible with democracy or elective aristocracy, as in the ancient slave states where only a minority had political rights.  Someone  who read Rousseau without contextual knowledge might well assume that nearly everyone (or nearly all male adults anyway) could vote.  More significantly he sometimes refers to the House of Commons as a democratic body.  This makes sense if we think of it as a people in its right, but surely by Rousseau’s own definition it is an elective democracy.  At that point his attention is more directed to the confusion he sees between the role of the House of Commons and tge House of Lords.

Book III also has two discussions which are likely to like very dated to readers now.  That is his discussions of the influence of climate on political institutions; and his discussion of the role of arithmetical proportion in working out the best form of government.  On the first point, the major issue is temperature.  On the second point, the claim is that the larger the population and size of the country, the more it should be ruled by a smaller number of people, so that aristocracy is appropriate to a medium sized country with a medium population density, and so on.  No one is going to find these discussions very adequate now, and the first discussion makes assumptions about character and physique in hot countries which would look very embarrassing now. However, these passages do deserve attention, as early attempts to put politics in the context of social science with regard to geography and institutions.

Finally, I note that Rousseau regards Machiavelli as a great republican thinker, who wrote the Prince to warn people against princes, and to inspire them to political virtue.  I find his analysis preferable to the kind of widespread analysis at present associated with Quentin Skinner and Philip Pettit in which there is no preference in Machiavelli between democracy and monarchy, just a desire for the maintenance of the state, and for rights of a non-political kind (Neo-Roman liberty or non-domination).  There is an attempt in this analysis to have it both ways, in that a very depoliticised non-participatory version of republicanism is put forward, while condemning ‘liberalism’ for being too restrictive and formal in its political understanding.  On this issue, it seems to me that at least some of the time, Rousseau is arguing for a very participatory democratic republic, though some of the time he does seem to be arguing for the inevitability of laws formed by a depoliticised general will, in a state run by an aristocracy.

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