The best cipher to understand Rousseau is to see his General Will as a secular retelling of the Christian doctrine of divine simplicity. Did Rousseau intend it like this? No. But it amounts to the same thing and in places he uses the same language. Imagine the Carolignian Shield. Place the General Will in the Center where the divine essence should be. The persons will be the state, government, people, etc. It doesn’t matter what you choose, since the only thing that matters is the General Will.
There isn’t much that is good in Rousseau, but I need to be fair and try. I think he recognizes the difficulty of “rights-language” and trying to speak of abstract rights. He also understands the difficulties a government faces when it tries to legitimize itself after a violent revolution. He also introduces categories like “alienation” which will be huge when we get to Marx.
Flow of the Argument
When I am alone, I have all my rights and freedoms. This is alienation from everyone else, though. If I band together with others, I (and they) have to cede my rights (and Rousseau is clear that you are ceding all of your rights, I.6). The result is when you give yourself to everyone, you give yourself to nobody.
General will: this functions as the divine essence for Rousseau’s politics. When each person cedes his rights to the general body, “this act of association creates a moral and collective body.” And you don’t have any choice. You are compelled to be free (I.7).
We need to see what is happening here. Rousseau is clear that you are giving up all of your property (1.8), but that’s okay: you are getting it back in the form of security. The state, however, is still “master of all their goods by the social contract, which, within the state, is the basis of all rights” (1.9).
Sovereignty is the act of the general will (II.1). The will itself is not divided; you only receive the effects of sovereignty. Does this sound familiar? This is concept-for-concept the Christian doctrine of divine simplicity.
He has some historical surveys on laws and republics.
One of the effects of this secular divine essence is the creation of a (divine?) person. This is the state, who has “absolute power over all its members” (II.4).
Out of nowhere Rousseau asserts that “representation” is incompatible with the general will. This seems to strike at the heart of democracy, but he’s right. If sovereignty lies in the general will, which is indivisible, then how can it be mediated through the people (III.15)?
This is totalitarianism. The General Will is never wrong. Rousseau says as much. “The general will is always right and tends towards the public advantage; but it does not follow that the deliberations of the people are equally correct” (II.2). Translation: anything bad that happens is because of the people, not the general will.
The General Will can never exercise particular actions, otherwise it would be a particular willing. Rousseau never really gets around this problem. This seems to imply that the General Will is too abstract to be useful. He doesn’t want to say that, though, since that would make his General Will irrelevant. (And as Cambodia showed, it was all too painfully relevant).
I don’t think he ever solves the problem, but he does raise a relevant point: the General Will must have a General Object. What is this object? I don’t know. I think, though, it is some abstraction like “freedom” or “democracy.” This kind of makes sense. Have you ever wondered how tyrannical states like North Korea, Revolutionary France, China, and Cambodia could call themselves “republics” and “democracies?” They were being consistent. If all democracy really means is the abstract object of the General Will, why not call it that?
1) His evidence for this primal state of man is tenuous. In fact, it is never offered and we have no real reason for believing it.
2) The moment is General Will acts, it is no longer general. It’s always going to be represented (which he says is impossible) by someone or group. As Gordon Clark noted, ““He seems to be torn between an infallible general will that cannot express itself and an expressed majority vote that is not infallible…” (Christian View of Men and Things, 121). This is why the elite classes in Communist societies were always very wealthy and well-fed. Communism didn’t apply to them.
This is a terrible book. It is even more terrible because it is very well-written.