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.


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