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Are Rousseau's ideas essentially democratic or totalitarian?
on 4 February 2011
It is not difficult to portray Rousseau's ideas as authoritarian or totalitarian. He denied citizenship to women (though this was normal for thinkers of his age). He used language such as" forced to be free" and "trained to bear with docility the yoke of the public happiness". The Censorial Tribunal and the insistence on a civil religion seem illiberal to the modern mind. He argued that monarchy (single ruler) is best in large states, and elsewhere aristocracy (preferably elective) is generally best because democratic governments often suffer internal strife: "If there were a nation of Gods, it would govern itself democratically. A government so perfect is not suited to men." He requires citizens to cede all rights to the community, whereas modern democracies invariably stress rights. Finally, Rousseau condemns representative government and dislikes political parties and pressure groups, for they tend to create mini general wills that make it difficult for the General Will to emerge.
Some of these points can be countered more or less successfully. On the question of language Rousseau is employing rhetorical flourish. On democratic government, Rousseau's preference for aristocracy is not all-important because the democratic elements of his theory concern the sovereignty of the people, not the form of government. On pressure groups and political parties, Rousseau wishes to discourage rather than ban them, and Rousseau has certainly not been the only critic of representative government.
In what ways is Rousseau's thought democratic? The elements are consent, participation and majorities. Locke had postulated consent in the Social Contract and "tacit" consent thereafter, but for Rousseau consent requires all (male) citizens to meet regularly to determine the laws, for only thus could a general will emerge through which men find true freedom. Though this direct democracy is impractical in modern states (too large), the concept of participation won many supporters in the second half of the 20th century who argued that modern representative government provides inadequate opportunities for participation. The claim that people - all the people - must be the author of the laws is Rousseau's greatest claim to be a democrat. Others were later to assert that a "general will" existed in society without reference to a popular assembly, and Rousseau would have had no truck with that.
One idea that makes Rousseau seem very modern is his claim that freedom requires sufficient economic equality for no man to be dependent on another: that freedom and equality are inseparable. Not all modern democrats follow Rousseau in emphasising equality but an important group does.
Of the arguments for seeing Rousseau as authoritarian or totalitarian the most important is the extent to which Rousseau assumes each man's interest are synonymous with the common good. Rousseau says men must vote in the assembly on what they believe to be the general will and if in a minority should tell themselves they were "mistaken" rather than simply on the losing side. It is true that Rousseau constantly reminds us he is writing of small and homogeneous states, but even in the smallest states there are surely greater differences of wants than Rousseau supposes, and greater differences of opinion as to what constitutes justice.
The key feature of an authoritarian state is that decisions are made by a minority without majority participation in the previous discussions. The tools considered necessary by modern liberal democrats for "participation" and "discussion" are missing in Rousseau, for he discourages interest groups and political parties. However, the reason they are missing is because he insists on popular sovereignty, with the participation of all citizens in making the laws to establish a "general will". On the other hand, it is in this concept that elements of totalitarian democracy appear. Pluralist democrats assume men differ and that politics is the resolving of conflict between them. Rousseau assumes that politics is consensual, with a solution (a general will) waiting to be found. The word "authoritarian" is perhaps inappropriate, but his collectivism surely has totalitarian overtones. Yet Rousseau is perhaps more democrat than totalitarian by modern standards, arguing as he does that "each citizen should come to his own opinion." I don't think Stalin, Hitler or Mao ever said that.