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Saturday, November 24, 2018

Rousseau’s Account of General Will and Freedom

A Painting of Rousseau (1753)
Rousseau’s communitarian vision of General Will can be seen as a forerunner of the Marxist vision of dictatorship of the proletariat. Both Rousseau and Marx believed that people do not subject themselves to any authority, except to the collective will of the people. For Rousseau, the collective will, is the General will; for Marx, it is the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Susan Dunn offers the following definition of General Will in  The Social Contract and The First and Second Discourses: Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Page 19):
Rousseau held that a democratic society possesses a General Will. This ‘‘will’’ reflects what enlightened people would want if they were able to make decisions solely as social beings and citizens and not as private individuals. Individuals may possess private wills that express their particular interests, but citizens must recognize and concur with the General Will that mirrors the good of all. The General Will is not tantamount to the will of all citizens. Nor is it the sum of all individual wills or the expression of a compromise or consensus among them. Nor is it the equivalent of the will of the majority, for even the majority can be corrupt or misguided. In other words, it is a theoretical construct. The General Will is general, not because a broad number of people subscribe to it but because its object is always the common good of all.  
Thus, hovering strangely above and beyond the wills of all, the General Will is ‘‘always constant, unalterable, and pure,’’always mirroring perfectly the common good of all members of the community. The ultimate authority—and ultimate sovereignty—thus reside not really in the people, who may err in their estimation of the General Will, unable to transcend their private wills, but rather in the infallible General Will itself—the power of Reason, the enlightened collective moral conscience.
According to Rousseau, true freedom is choosing to obey the General Will. He equates freedom with obedience. Susan Dunn explains (Page 20):
Rousseau recognized two different types of freedom. The first, enjoyed by people in the state of nature, denoted their freedom to act as they wished, in a variety of diverse ways. This was a negative form of freedom, freedom from constraints. But there is another, higher form of freedom, according to Rousseau, a positive freedom. This is not freedom from constraint, but rather freedom for some higher good, for the enjoyment of the good, moral life. This kind of freedom, more heroic and ambitious than negative freedom, can belong to the citizen who is able to suppress his private will and consciously choose the common good over his own desires and personal benefit. This individual has mastered himself, becoming a moral and hence a truly free being. The originality of Rousseau’s vision resides in his concept of freedom, not as the province of the autonomous individual but rather as that of the self-sacrificing citizen.  
Indeed, the more that people identify with the community, the ‘‘freer’’ they are. Whereas primitive individuals in the state of nature were thoroughly indifferent and unattached to one another, in Rousseau’s utopia, citizens are unreservedly involved with one another. The solitary independence that people may have enjoyed in the state of nature is not something that Rousseau aspired to recover. On the contrary, he wishes to see it transformed into its opposite—voluntary dependence and interdependence, happy obedience to the General Will.

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