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.

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