Rousseau and Liberty V

The last post was concerned with the ways in which  Rousseau understands property and understands egalitarianism. The main aim was to communicate how Rousseau is aware of the possibility of both communal and private property within society and the shock that comes from the dividing up of communal property into private property. Rousseau does not recommend a return to communal property, and if anything underestimated the role that communal property and communal management of natural resources, along with public goods (benefits that just cannot be charged for, or cannot be charged for  without strongly undermining the existence of that benefit for anyone) since the original trauma of the loss of communal property. That original moment is mythical, and may well have been understood by Rousseau as a useful fiction rather than something  with anthropological-historical reality. On those lines we can thin of Rousseau as someone who directs us to the constant tensions between different possible forms of property, and the role that tension has  in human history. Since definable, widely understood and widely accepted rules of property are central to any thinking about liberty, Rousseau provided some very useful cues on thinking about property and liberty, and they should be acknowledged.

The other aspect of Rousseau’s account of the historical process (which is the beginning of history) in which private property emerges is the emergence of inequality, beyond the physical and moral differences that Rousseau believes emerge from nature.  Inequality beyond natural difference has a traumatic effect of its own, which conditions all human societies, though Rousseau believes it can be minimised on those rare occasions where the best possible republic can be put in place. The trouble with inequality in property is not just with any inherent injustice of distribution, from Rousseau’s point of view, but with the kinds of self-consciouness it promotes. That is the self-conciousness which moves from amour de soi to amour propre. There is no completely agreed understanding on the translation of these terms in Rousseau, so there is no avoiding the use of the French. Natural self-love and and self-conscious  love of self might be one way of understanding the difference, and I’ll use those terms for the rest of the discussion.

Natural self-love is the tendency to be concerned with ourselves, to give importance to our own welfare and happiness. It is something that can be found in thew savage state of nature, and is pat of the independence of others that Rousseau always values. Natural self-love does not lead us to seek the approval of others, or to dominate others, in order to feel good about ourselves. Self-conscious love of self is structured by the need for approval and superiority. It comes from the awareness of differences in property between individuals, which becomes differences in status. The status difference to a very large degree exists in imagination, and so is a large part of what defines the psychology of humans in society, and the way that society exists as an intersubjective dynamic. In our imaginations we compare ourselves in how much we have with others, and we imagine others making the same comparison. We feel bad about having less than others because we imagine them feeling superior to us, we suffer because of this and want the right to feel superior. A good deal of human misery results from this.

Whatever beliefs one might have about the desirability of economic inequality (and I’m certainly more more accepting than Rousseau of very large degrees of economic equality), Rousseau’s account is surely a very powerful one that has a lot of reality in it. It is surely one of the starting points for any kind of social scientific understanding of human interactions. Even those who accept economic inequality will surely concede that the psychology Rousseau describes is one one of healthy reactions to behaviour which demonstrates moral, social and personal contempt for ourselves. We are all in some way conditioned by the fears of such contempt and need ways to be reassured, reassurances that are inevitably temporary in duration and have to be renewed. We an certainly see some origin to Nietzsche’s account of ressentiment in On the Genealogy of Morality  in Rousseau. This is not the place to discuss Nietzsche, or precisely how Rousseau influenced Nietzsche, but it is important to note that a major anti-egalitarian like Nietzsche can find Rousseau to be a useful source.

Rousseau’s own view of the psychological disturbances created by inequality is that they are to be ameliorated by equality of property where that is possible, though he is not optimistic about achieving such equality i most societies. His belief that in all societies everyone should be equal before the law, and that all should participate in making law through the general will is a way of ameliorating the negative effects of self conscious love of self. Even in the medium and large sized nations where Rousseau does not believe it is possible for there to be completely pure republics, he believes government can be elected, ideally through an elective aristocracy, or maybe through an elective monarchy, again ameliorating inequality and self-conscious love of self. Even under a monarchy he sometimes seems to be believe that there can be economic equality between all except the monarch.

to be continued



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