The Social Contract, which was originally published under the longer title On the Social Contract; or, Principles of Political Right, is a much-misunderstood book. Like many books, its ‘ideas’ are more familiar than the specific contents of the book itself. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s 1762 book is often regarded as a rousing call for liberty and revolution, but in many ways, The Social Contract is quite different from this, and even opposed to it.
So what arguments does Rousseau actually make in The Social Contract? And why is the book so often misinterpreted? Let’s take a closer look at what he actually says.
The Social Contract: summary
The Social Contract begins with the most famous words in the whole book: ‘man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains’. Rousseau is interested in how modern society takes us away from this freedom we’re born with. He asserts that there exists a ‘social contract’ between the individual and the state, and this cuts both ways: just as the state must respect the individual’s freedom (where possible), the individual must subordinate their own wants in the name of the collective good of society.
For Rousseau, society as a whole is the ‘sovereign’: more important than any actual sovereign, such as a king. The needs of this ‘sovereign’ collective are the primary goal of civilised society. Individuals may have their own will and their own wants, but these are trumped by what Rousseau calls the ‘general will’ of the rest of society. In other words, what the ‘sovereign’ wants is more important than what an individual member of the sovereign might want. I may want to opt out of paying my taxes and keep that money for myself, because that’s in my best interests as an individual, but it’s not what’s best for the general will of society.
Rousseau outlines what the government of such a society should look like. The sovereign collective should have power over what laws are implemented, but it is still necessary to have a government to administer them. Despite arguing against the absolute power of the monarchy, Rousseau nevertheless professes a monarch to be the best leader of a society, with aristocracy providing stability. It is important that people have their say in the running of society by meeting regularly to vote on important issues. Although dictatorships should be avoided, in emergencies they may be required, with temporary powers given to them to uphold the common good.
Rousseau concludes The Social Contract by considering the place of religion in this society. All citizens should be required to observe a single, public religion (on pain of death) because this brings individuals together as a collective and is therefore for the common good.
The Social Contract: analysis
The Social Contract is best-known to people who have never read or closely analysed Rousseau’s book for its famous line, ‘Man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains.’ This makes The Social Contract sound as though it’s going to be a rallying cry for liberty and revolution (it’s perhaps inevitable that this quotation is often misattributed to Karl Marx), but in reality such a view couldn’t be further from the truth.
This is because The Social Contract, whilst taking freedom as one of its primary subjects, is more a blueprint for totalitarianism than it is for individual liberty. Rousseau is often thought of as a proto-Romantic figure, whose thinking paves for the way for later champions of liberty like Percy Bysshe Shelley, but it makes as much sense to see him as a forerunner to twentieth-century communist leaders (and, on the other end of the spectrum, fascist politicians) who believe in some nebulous ‘greater good’ before whose altar every individual citizen must be brought to worship. The Social Contract could just as easily be cited in support of the status quo as it could be to light the touchpaper of revolution.
For instance, Rousseau argues that social decisions should not be made democratically, and that it isn’t even necessary to consult the rest of society before leaders make those decisions. Indeed, public discussion – because not all members of the public can be relied upon to be in full possession of the facts about a particular issue – can be a threat to society.
At several points in The Social Contract, Rousseau appears to advocate for what might be called state propaganda so that the ignorant masses might be ‘guided’ into forming the ‘correct’ opinions. That sounds less like informing people and more like manipulating them for one’s own ends, what we’d now call ‘nudging’, for all that Rousseau publicly professes a dislike for coercion.
At the same time, Rousseau does outline some of the limitations that the General Will, and the community, should have when exercising their power over the individual. The problem with his limits, or conditions, on the General Will is that they are open to the charge of being overly idealistic and utopian.
For instance, in order for something to qualify as part of the General Will, it needs to benefit every member of society equally. Some examples which we might propose off the back of Rousseau’s essay, such as (proportionate) taxation or universal healthcare, seem uncontroversial and straightforward. But are they? Do they benefit every member of the community equally, and what further checks and balances might be necessary to ensure that the individual is not crushed under the wheels of the General Will? What if certain ideas are deemed ‘dangerous’ to society at large and are then silenced? Who decides what these are, and who decides on what qualifies them as dangerous?
It is not difficult to trace a line from Rousseau’s argument in The Social Contract to the idea (expressed by the Emperor in Ray Bradbury’s short story ‘The Flying Machine’) that it is better for one innocent man to die if it potentially saves a million lives. After all, that’s what putting the community ahead of the individual looks like. It’s also what totalitarianism looks like: even the right of the individual to live cannot be guaranteed if his death would (potentially) benefit the general will.
It’s worth bearing in mind that, in replacing an actual sovereign, such as a king or emperor, with the ‘sovereign’ collective that is society, Rousseau simply replaces one tyrannical figure with another. He also believes that the will of this ‘sovereign’ is absolute, and that anyone who fails to adhere to its demands should be put to death. It’s little surprise that Robespierre, who presided over the Reign of Terror, should have taken his inspiration from Rousseau’s ideas.
In the last analysis, despite Rousseau’s reputation as a thinker who embodied much of the Enlightenment spirit and paved the way for Romanticism, The Social Contract has little that is original in terms of ideas, is often muddled in its thinking, and fails to make much of an advance on the central precepts (which are also totalitarian in nature) outlined by Thomas Hobbes in his Leviathan over a century earlier. It should perhaps come as no surprise that Rousseau spent the last few years of his life gripped by a powerful and unhealthy degree of paranoia.