Friday, March 9, 2012

The Tattered Social Contract

Society & Politics

Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. One believes himself the others' master, and yet is more slave than they. How did this change come about? I do not know. What can make it legitimate? I believe I can solve this question.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau,
Of the Social Contract: Principles of Political Right

Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Du contrat social ou Principes du droit politique, which in English is known as Of the Social Contract: Principles of Political Right, or simply The Social Contract. It was first published in 1762, and influenced the French Revolution [1789-99]. It has been a highly influential document, and depending on your political views, a good document that advanced individual humanity and the equality of individuals; or a terrible one in which the state becomes subject to the infallible will of the tyranny of the majority, or totalitarian democracy.
Source: Wikipedia
For many years democratic society has been ruled by a set of rules and theories that date to the 18th century Enlightenment thinkers such as David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Adam Smith and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, among many notables. Of the four, Rousseau, the Geneva-born French political philosopher, has been a polarizing figure, yet his theories and sentiments have greatly influenced Western thinking and democracy, despite his writings being misunderstood and maligned, notably by social conservatives.

For one, Rousseau has been wrongly credited for expressing the idea, "the noble savage," an oxymoron that dates in the English world to John Dryden, the English poet, in The Conquest of Granada in 1672. Rousseau never used the term and was not a primitivist. Quite the contrary. In Rousseau's thinking, a well-working society and a reformed system of education could make men good. Another point worth mentioning is that I have cited a much longer version of his famous phrase, which shows a more fuller understanding of his reasoning.

Needless to say, you can  and ought to read Rousseau's most influential work, known in English as The Social Contact (1762), whether in the original French or in translation. If you read political sites and writings, you will soon find that ideological conservatives don't like Rousseau and his writing. That in itself is telling.  One can rightly argue that there is much to dislike in his writing, including his views on women, the state and how his writings led to the excesses of the French Revolution. But, Rousseau, like his contemporaries, was a man of his time. How many of us today can say that our ideas are ahead of our time?

In other words, believing that participatory democracy in some form is an ameliorating force for good. One could rightly and fairly argue about Rousseau's thoughts on what form democracy ought to take, but not whether he considered it a valid political system. For Rousseau, democracy would being about a "community of equals," the opposite of the increasing move toward political elites and plutocracy.

In Rousseau: A Free Community of Equals (Oxford UP, 2010), Joshua Cohen, a professor of political science, philosophy, and law at Stanford University, writes:
In strikingly spare, intense prose, he gives us a picture of a free community of equals, a social-political world in which individuals realize their nature as free by living together as equals, giving laws themselves, guided in these lawgiving judgments by a conception of their common goal. Moreover, a free community of equals, Rousseau tells us, is not an unrealistic utopia beyond human reach, but a genuine human possibility compatible with our human complexities, and with the demands of social cooperation. (10)
Some would find this idea of equality perplexing, even scary and hard to fathom, considering a free community of equals a recipe for disaster if not anarchy, making it an untenable political system that is both absurd and undesirable. Yet, it's an ideal, and as such it's in view for all to consider, debate and criticize or try to put into practice in some viable form. For the critics of such a system, who have already made up their mind, it shows how far we have moved from the ideal, that we can't even dream it possible, let alone deem it so.

Sadly so, such views of equality and participatory democracy, which influenced the Western way of thinking in the 18th century, has been discredited if not torn to shreds, thanks to the work of hardened ideological conservatives in the United States, Canada and England. We have in effect a social contract that is in tatters, eviscerated of all meaning and intent.

In the face of globalization, increasing unemployment, poverty and the shrinking of the middle-class, the effect of the social contract's weakening, if not outright demise in moral spirit, is evident today. We ought to be in tears. The majority of us are poorer for it, even if we are unaware of the consequences.