Sunday, November 13, 2011

"The social contract may look like a finished text, but should not be read that way": Reading Rousseau

This morning, November 13, the largest gathering of the reading group so far, some sixteen souls, took a critical look at the 2nd book of Rousseau’s The Social Contract and how it compares to the theory and practice of Occupy politics. Tomasz Kaye and Samuel Vriezen report:



The impetus for reading this text came from a Facebook discussion about concerns that a micro-bureaucracy might well have been born within Occupy. This happened just after decisions had been made in a general assembly about the right of peacekeepers to exclude those designated as 'troublemakers' from the square. By investing a group with such powers, there seemed to lie a danger of becoming the thing that the occupiers protest against. There was even a suggestion made at a G.A. to set up a tribunal (which was rejected). Assembly meetings, then, seemed to be moving into a territory of 'Rousseau-sized dilemmas' rather than issues of activism proper.

The Occupy Amsterdam group can be seen as a community that 'needs to be governed' (or, to phrase it in a Rousseau-like fashion, it might be a society ripe for law). Its pretensions to governance have in fact made the Occupy model a target for criticism, along the lines of: "Your model isn't perfect, so it's worthless!".

Actually though it’s already important that Occupy offers a 'critical counter-sound' to the widespread sense that our representative democratic governments fail to be representative (if 'representative democracy' isn’t even an oxymoron). By contrast, Occupy would then set an example of an 'extreme' democracy of unanimous assent. This can be seen as a performative gesture, a symbol, and not necessarily as a proposal for how the world should work.

Still, the consensus approach taken by Occupy includes certain tensions, not least of which is the possibility of social pressure on a lone dissenter to abide by the will of the majority. There might also exist internal barriers to participation, some hesitance to take part. Not necessarily out of shyness: there also exists a reticence for aesthetic reasons, as some people might feel more like observers than like participants in the process. (Certainly among artists, hesitations of this kind are endemic).

To help deal with these tensions, we undertake a critical reading of the tensions and contradictions within Rousseau’s thought.

Rousseau's position can be roughly characterised as: State power derives from the common good and is legitimised by its service towards that aim. Rousseau's critics have presented him as the 'founder of totalitarianism'. His vision does bring to mind Orwell's dystopia, and the brutality of the 'total state' in it's various forms in the 20th century. Similarly, some have expressed worry/fear at the direction of Occupy. Practices like the human mic can seem to have an oppressive character, pressure towards a uniform society. Fear that Occupy could be a proposal for how society should be ordered. The invocation of the '99%' also brings to mind the spectre of the 'tyranny of the majority'.

Still, studying Rousseau might be useful for a critical look at democracy or at assembly processes, starting from a central question that his work addresses: how can we understand general will?

Rousseau developed his theory of general will in opposition to Grotius and Hobbes, who both believed that the people surrendered their sovereignty to the state as part of the social contract. In contrast Rousseau believed that the sovereignty of the people (which he also calls 'the sovereign') was inalienable, and that a ruler's legitimate power could only derive from their service to the sovereign:

I hold then that Sovereignty, being nothing less than the exercise of the general will, can never be alienated, and that the Sovereign, who is no less than a collective being, cannot be represented except by himself: the power indeed may be transmitted, but not the will.


Though seemingly not identical to the common good, the general will is always good. However, Rousseau believed that the will of all the individuals comprising the people may not necessarily coincide with the general will. Therefore, the people will often need to be educated, 'enlightened', to correctly learn what they, as a people, really want.

This is cause for controversy. Why call it ‘will’, instead of 'the good' or something like that? Is this name an attempt to rationalise coercive government by framing it as a voluntary agreement? One answer might be found in Rousseau’s consistent opposition of “general will” to government, which can only ever derive from it; therefore, the concept of general will can as much function as an instrument for criticising power, as it might become an instrument of coercion.

But there is a further problem. Assuming that the general will exists, but that there's no guarantee that it coincides with what the people want, how can anyone know what general will is?

There is often a great deal of difference between the will of all and the general will; the latter considers only the common interest, while the former takes private interest into account, and is no more than a sum of particular wills: but take away from these same wills the pluses and minuses that cancel one another, and the general will remains as the sum of the differences.


Rousseau suggests that general will is derived from the 'cancelling out' of opposing particular wills. But how does this kind of equation work? And is this really compatible with the idea that the general will is always good – wouldn't a sufficient number of 'bad' particular wills threaten it? Can we describe a hypothetical simplified scenario where we detail all individual wills – we can use imaginary units to quantify intensity of felt desire if necessary – and the general will that results from them? If we can't do this, how do we actually know what general will is?

Rousseau’s use of metaphors from arithmetic and accountancy, being quite vague technically, raise at least as many questions as they answer: it is indeed hard to actually imagine a strict mathematical model for what Rousseau was imagining. In fact, in elaborating his concepts, Rousseau’s writing style often suggests that he felt the need to elaborate them as he was going along (witness the regular appearance of phrases exhorting the reader to patience, along the lines of “All my ideas hold together, but I cannot elaborate them all at once.”) The concept of general will even might be an unfinished concept in itself: one that is in continuous need of further elaboration.

For example, a more recent discipline like game theory can suggest other ways of thinking about how the universal aspect of the concept might work than were available to Rousseau. If the choice of a system of law would be like a game which one plays, and if one would play from a perspective of full understanding of society but without any knowledge of one’s own particularities, what kind of law would one choose? Obviously, not a law that would discriminate against certain characteristics, since there might be a chance that one would fall into that category oneself. General will, with regard to law, then, can be understood as that body of law which a (perfectly informed) person would choose to live under, if 'it' knew nothing about the particularities of ‘its’ situation (social class, sex, background etc).

The difficulty is that this assumes that a person can make decisions somehow independent of 'who he is' – which is a collection of particularities. Does this perfect observer finally choose to maximise wellbeing, for instance, or justice, or liberty or something else? Isn't it the particularities of the observer that locates their mix of preferences between these potential poles?

In fact, the concept of equality itself is historically constituted. Equality before the law doesn't prevent one person from being legally exploited, if that person is not recognised to be a member of the group of equals. (Witness the history of the emancipatory struggles even within democratic nations that were late to recognise the rights of women, abolish slavery, etc. – a contemporary challenge would be to recognise the political rights of “illegal” immigrants).

It appears that Rousseau’s cherished value of equality must be constantly challenged for it to retain its ethical force. The social contract may look like a finished text, but should not be read that way. Similarly, the Occupy concept of “consensus” can only retain its political force if it in fact is the expression of a political dissensus, a contrast with how democracy is more usually carried out, by ballet box.

To use the concept of general will today, then, might require an update, which includes an awareness of our imperfect understanding of it. At this point, different approaches were seen in the discussion group. One approach is skeptical: we may have to remain agnostic about the general will. Another suggests that a more full understanding of the general will would itself include this kind of agnostic distance as proper to it, which would yield something like a negative theology of the general will. This second, paradoxical, position again was criticised, since it might lead the concept of general will into an impasse in the postmodern manner, and so fail to realise the affirmative and creative potential of the concept of general will for activist opposition to existing styles of governance. Finally, general will might have to be seen as a concept to be constantly extended, as it undergoes permanent transformation through succeeding episodes of dissensus.

Now, however we understand Rousseau’s concept to work in practice, and whatever inadequacies such a practice might have, Rousseau does insist that the general will as such is infallible:

It follows from what has gone before that the general will is always right and tends to the public advantage; but it does not follow that the deliberations of the people are always equally correct. Our will is always for our own good, but we do not always see what that is; the people is never corrupted, but it is often deceived, and on such occasions only does it seem to will what is bad.


But in a footnote it is revealed that Rousseau's general will has a 'dirty secret': it is formed through equivalence and antagonism, 'the art of politics'. Agreement between particular wills is reached in the context of a third position which disagrees with both. This suggests that a universal general will cannot exist.

The strategy of Occupy however rather focuses on opposing its own form of politics to that of “the 1%”. In acting out its direct democracy, its claim is to do something that does more justice to the “general will” today than the “1%” do (alongside their sidekicks within conventional parliamentary politics). Basically, Occupy’s performative claim is that the conventional structures no longer serve the general will, but that they serve particular wills instead. To this, Occupy opposes a new universalist politics, one of shared opinion. This reflects Rousseau’s critical use of the term - general will was an antidote to absolute monarchy.

But if we would be willing to understand Occupy as more than a merely critical gesture, but as an affirmative gesture, what kind of politics would Occupy itself be the foundational gesture for, then? Here, the question of Law comes in, and its relation to the divine in Rouseau.

The general will acts as a principle that stands above the monarch, from which he derives his power. In that sense, the general will replaces God, by whose grace, traditionally, monarchs have explained their divine right to be rulers. At the same time, however, Rousseau saw God as the sole source of justice:

All justice comes from God, who alone is it source; and if only we knew how to receive it from that exalted fountain, we should need neither governments nor laws.


This divine source becomes of practical importance in the institution of the Lawgiver. The problem of the Lawgiver is that he can’t himself be part of the legal system, or the founding political law would not serve a general will. Therefore, Law essentially has to come from outside; and Rousseau notes that Law (as legal form of the general will) is in practice almost invariably attributed to a divine source.

In fact, it seems that God is necessary in two places: firstly, as the source of justice, which is an essential attribute of the general will, and therefore God is a condition for the existence of the general will; secondly, as the initiator of Law: the particular legal form that the general will takes. For Occupy, the question then would become what its equivalent of God might be.

Certainly, the institute of the general assembly, and its mode of operation itself, is often credited with a similar kind of metaphysical charging power. Thus, the existence of the general assembly as such has often been invoked in the practice of the artists working in the artists’ tent at Occupy. On the one hand, the artists are critical of the assembly, but, on the other hand, it is recognised as an institution without which the artists tent would not exist, and the artistic practice taking place (including the reading group itself) would not have meaning.

The divine, and the general assembly, are the inscrutable starting points by which the respective systems are able to come into existence. The whole project remains finally dependent on a leap of faith, since if the people don't know what general will is, and if we don't know a mechanism by which to derive it from particular wills, then how can anyone claim to know its content? This indeterminacy remains at the heart of Occupy as a critical political gesture. If general will must needs remain an open category and subject to dissensus, it should be part of the duty of the general assembly to keep its workings open. The critical, hesitant stance of the artists may have a role to play here.



Thomas Kaye / Samuel Vriezen

No comments:

Post a Comment