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Analyse the concept of the ‘general will’ and the role it plays in Rousseau’s political theory.

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“Sovereignty is inalienable, it is indivisible. For either the will is general or it is not; it is either the will of the body of the people, or that of only a part. In the first case, the declaration of this will is an act of sovereignty and constitutes law; in the second case it is merely a particular will” (Book II, Chapter II). Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s work, the Social Contract or Principles of Political Right. In this book, the concept of the ‘general will’ is the central and guiding concept as it is thoroughly considered throughout the work. The role of the general will within the Social Contract needs to be examined and explained by individual quotations especially from Books I and II where it is defined, and considered more generally in Books III and IV where the general will is applied to forms of government.

The importance of Rousseau’s childhood in Geneva on his moral and religious education is well known. Throughout the Social Contract, the references to Plutarch, Roman historians and the history of the Church shaped his way of thinking. On the other hand, the origins of Rousseau’s political education are to be found in his early recognition of his status as a citizen and simultaneously of the social and political divisions that shaped Genevan politics. According to his Confessions (book IX) completed in 1769, Rousseau aimed to create a great work on political theory called Les Institutions politiques, the title of which is a reminder of latin institutiones, which acted as Rousseau’s example; and although it was never completed, the two Discours, the article on l’Economie politique, the Social Contract and parts of Émile are all elements that were to make up this never completed work. Indeed, book V of Émile, about the political formation of the young man at the moment of his coming of age as a man and citizen, acts as a detailed summary of the Social Contract within the greater context of such a work as the Institutions politiques, which was to deal at length both with the political institutions as well as political law. The Second Discourse, or Discourse on Inequality, seems to propose a severe contrast to political society, as Rousseau concludes: “I have endeavoured to set out the origin and progression of inequality, the establishment and abuse of political societies, in so far as these things can be deduced from the nature of man by the light of reason alone, independently of the sacred dogmas that give sovereign authority the sanction of divine right” (Second Discourse, Part II). Introducing the Social Contract, quite contradictorily, he writes: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. … How did this change come about? I do not know.” (Book I, Chap. I) The author’s train of thought explains this contrast: first it is important to understand that inequality and domination are inseparable, as equality and liberty are in the same manner; however, moving away from the Second Discourse’s “natural right”, the Social Contract introduces the concept of the “general will”.

By comparing and contrasting the nature of man, made for freedom, and the consequences of the conditions of domination under an unjust civil state, Rousseau demonstrates that only a convention that is freely consented to can create a legitimate form of society. This convention, the social contract, consists in abandoning the liberty of independence of the state of nature for a civil liberty, that of the citizen, member of a sovereign people and co-author of the law. The sovereignty of the general will therefore follows the independence of the wills of each particular individual (henceforth “particular wills”). Free as a citizen, man should be obliged as a subject to obey the law and, by communal pressure, be constrained to do so. However Rousseau recognises the difficulties included in creating civil society: “There is often a considerable difference between the will of all and the general will: the latter looks only to the common interest, the former looks to private interest, and is nothing but a sum of particular wills” (Book II, Chap. III). In order to properly understand this notion, it is vital to recognise that the creation of the general will does not lead to the disappearance of the particular wills. These tend to present themselves against the general will (“Each individual may, as a man, have a particular will contrary to or different from the general will he has as a Citizen”, Book I, Chap. VII), or they present themselves within the general will (“for while the opposition of particular interests made the establishment of societies necessary, it is the agreement of these same interests which made it possible”, Book II, Chap. I), and must be respected by the general will as its limitation (“in addition to the public person, we must consider the private persons who make it up, and whose life and freedom are naturally independent of it”, Book II, Chap. IV). The “transformation” and “alteration” that this shift towards the civil state induces in the nature of man (Book I, Chap. VIII; Book II, Chap. IV) may entail new social characteristics and new behaviours, but does not do away with man’s nature or those rights that are thereby given.

The social contract, that is actually nothing more than the act by which a people is a people, is presented in Book I, Chapter VI under two successive formulations that explain each other. The first defines the content of its only clause: “the total alienation of each associate with all of his rights to the whole community”. The phrasing seems to be deliberately paradoxical and provocative. Alienation becomes part of the core definition of the contract; it is neither partial nor controlled, but is absolute. Man himself, his rights, his goods, the associate relinquishes all. The paradox can be explained by the very specific relationship between the parties that make up this connection: each associate on the one hand, the entire community on the other. Strictly speaking the two parties are equivalent to each other, the first displaying the individual parts, the second defining the entirety that these parts make up: “Each (so all), by giving himself to all, gives himself to no one”. The second formulation of the contract: “Each of us puts his person and his full power in common under the supreme direction of the general will; and in a body we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole”, cannot only be considered a dramatisation of the concept; rather it introduces the general will for the first time in the Social Contract. It is therefore very important to not misinterpret the general will before it is further developed and explained (Book II). At this point the general will acts as part of the formation of the social ‘pact’, giving the political body “its unity, its common self, its life and its will”. 

The chapter in relation to the Sovereign (Book I, Chapter VII) must also be understood in connection to the concept of the general will. The general will fixes the respective limitations of the powers of the sovereign, made up of the citizens, (later mentioned again in Book II, Chapter IV, “Of the limits of Sovereign Power”) and of the subjects. The sovereign is limited by the very nature of the contract (its sanctity). The raison d’être of the contract is the conservation of each of the sovereign’s members and of their freedom; it implies that the members should preserve all personal independence, that they should be dealt with by laws according to strict equality, and should be confirmed as citizens in this exercise of sovereignty. To violate one of these principles would be to violate the contract itself, leading to its dissolution, and reinstating each member back into natural liberty. The subjects, on the other hand, are bound to the authority of the laws, which in turn are the result of the deliberations of the general will. While Rousseau affirms that “whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be constrained to do so by the whole body; which means nothing other than that he shall be forced to be free”, one must recall the necessary link between the obedience of the subjects due to the law and the sovereignty of the citizens considered as a body. The sovereignty of the citizens is the only foundation for the obedience of the subjects; equally, the obedience of the subjects depends on the consistency of the sovereignty. 

Chapter VIII of Book II, “On the Civil State”, displays how Rousseau continues the tradition of the ‘great divisions’ of civil law, issued from Roman law: of things and persons. Personal right is based around relinquishing any man’s dependence towards another, and property right is based, quite obviously, upon the concept of property. In order to function, both must obey the law. The balance between these, Rousseau argues, must be kept strictly in relation to individuals, regarding both their persons and their belongings. Civil liberty therefore is the liberty of civil law, not that of political law, that of the subject and not that of the citizen. It is only in this context that this chapter must be understood; it would be absurd for Rousseau to limit the liberty of the citizen to the general will. The liberty of the citizen, as is that of the sovereign of which he is a part, is without any other limitation than that of the nature of the contract. In earlier versions of the Social Contract, Rousseau wrote “juridical title” instead of “positive title”, demonstrating his understanding that there was no other law possible than positive law; however principles of law and the law itself must in this instance not be confused.

Rousseau defines the concept of the general will and its insoluble relationship with private interest in Book I. By developing his theory in Book II, Rousseau demonstrates a very negative approach to their harmonious cooperation: the author envisaged the opposition between the particular will and the general will. In Book II, Chapter I, he re-examines the notion of private interest in the context of the theory of sovereignty (in other words, the exercise of the general will). The aim of the general will is that of common interest, that is not equivalent to particular interest. Hence the paradox: the opposition of private interests made the establishment of societies necessary, the agreement of these same interests made societies possible, the general will being the expression of these implied interests. Thus it is not simply about modifying the nature of particular interest: these two quotations demonstrate the conflict: 1 “the agreement of these same interests which made the establishment of societies possible”; 2 “What these different interests have in common is what forms the social bond”. At this point Rousseau makes the essential differentiation between the ‘motor’ and the ‘brakes’ in the instance of proposition and control within a political body: the agreement of particular interests allows, common well-being forms the social bond, making a logical difference between the power and the action. Rousseau hereby displays three layers of political thought that are built upon each other: 1 the opposition of particular interests causes the necessity for the social bond, 2 their agreement makes it possible, 3 the realisation through the general will of the common interest forms the bond. In relation to sovereignty, Rousseau completely inverses the meaning of ‘inalienable sovereignty’ by giving the people the sovereignty, rather than it being only exercised upon them. Therefore the inalienability of the general will is but a particular case of the inalienability of all wills (Book I, Chapter IV).

The influence of the general will, as it had been the basis of the differentiation between sovereignty and government, becomes the basis of the law and of decrees. The usage therefore of the law is split into two: for the object (the people rule over the entire people), and for the subject (the entire people rule). This is the main subject of Book II, Chapter II. Each deliberation of the general will is double. It contains in itself, by the very act of deliberation, the formation of the social bond. This action in turn obeys the law of unanimity, which is the reason why all voices must be counted, as Rousseau argues in this chapter and beforehand in Book I, Chapter VI. At the same time this action is a deliberation of a law, and thereby obeys the law of the majority. Hence Rousseau simultaneously writes of the general will and of a general will. The general will is not a faculty but a power, a power of demanding. This power is only known and effective in the course of the deliberations it takes. Each is general because it is the deliberation of the sovereign in its generality (as action of the general will) and because its aim is common well-being (which in turn is a general will). 

In the next chapter, Rousseau goes on to examine the limitations and errors of such popular deliberations. He recognises that there is a difference between “the will of all” and the “general will”; the general will is integrated within the will of all, but does not make the particular interest disappear. The mathematical reasoning presented (“What is left as the sum of the differences is the general will”) constitutes the underlying theory of the entire work:  the will of all is the entire sum of all particular wills, while the general will is their integral. The formation of associations (reducing the number of small differences by creating larger ones) is, in Rousseau’s opinion, the obstacle for this integration. Furthermore, the “deliberation without communication” described in this chapter ties back to the principle of the general will. In this instance, to communicate means to form a sort of “community of opinion”, that must have a common interest in order to be formed. Such a common interest is the basis of an association, that in turn is only of interest to a certain part of society; hence Rousseau defends the idea that, instead of deliberating by ‘communicating’ with a group of particular interest, each man must act according to his own reason and interests. It is at the end of this chapter that the concept of lawgiver appears, in the context of the ‘brake’ of society’s ‘motor’, as has been considered above.

After forming the concepts of the citizen, of sovereignty, of the general will and of law, Rousseau proceeds to the question of how the general will can publicly assert itself. The question begins at the first moment in the process of legislation: the proposition of law. “The law being but the declaration of the general will, it is clear that the legislative power of the people cannot be represented in it; only in the executive can and must it be the only force to apply the Law” (Book III, Chapter XV). It is therefore necessary to instate a “system of legislation” (Book II, Chapter XI) and a republic, and only then will this question be answered by “fundamental laws”. These laws can only be created by a popular ‘body’ that can pronounce the general will, which is the very role of the lawgiver. The status of this lawgiver, an “extraordinary man”, is one of the more delicate points in the doctrine of the Social Contract: the way in which Rousseau solves this problem can be considered to stem from deus ex machina, where a providential person unexpectedly turns up to solve the unsolvable; Rousseau describes this ‘man’ in religious terms. The lawgiver effectively is the organ of the general will, as he officially pronounces what the general will had declared. The ‘external’ or independent positioning of the lawgiver is required for the proper functioning of Rousseau’s political system; making the lawgiver simultaneously the sovereign would be to renounce the sovereignty of the people; making the lawgiver a magistrate would be to ruin the distinction between sovereignty and government. 

Government is the subject matter of Book III. Rousseau however does not simply consider various forms of government, but relates it to both sovereignty and the role of the general will. In order to apply the general will a force of the executive is required, which is the government. The author’s essential thesis is that the government is something of a ‘moral person’ or a political body, to which the entirety of the theory concerning political bodies applies; the only real power of the executive remains the general will, the government is therefore subordinated to it (Book III, Chapter X) and dictates its durability (Book III, Chapter XI). The entirety of this third book is shaped by a contradiction: the sovereign can only act through the government, whereas the government is driven by the tendency towards degeneration that eventually would usurp the sovereignty. As with the differences between the particular and general wills, Rousseau remains pessimistic about how perfect a government could even be formed, as in Book III, Chapter IV he remarks: “If there was a people of God, it would govern itself Democratically. Such a perfect Government cannot be suited to men.” Rousseau gives preference to what he understands to be an Aristocracy, as the people alone is sovereign: it makes the laws and decides who is to implement them. The government in an Aristocracy is made up of magistrates elected from among the citizens, to whom they must answer to once they are elected. Book IV develops this problematic concept concerning the endurance of government and its continued cohesion and functioning, which is based on the conditions of the expression of the general will (Book IV, Chapters I to IV), on the balance and the unity of the general will and the government (Book IV, Chapters V and VI), and finally on the formation of a single unified general will (Book IV, Chapters VII and VIII), to ensure the stability of the society and the political body guiding it.

The general will as a political concept remains one of central importance to modern politics as well as acting as the basis of civil law. This concept’s main aim was, and remains, to solve many societal problems, especially those of forming a community founded on equality and independence, as far as this is possible within a state of necessary dependency. The Social Contract, this pact that creates society, depicts an ideal solution that obviously differs from reality. Nevertheless, it recognises and examines the limitations that humanity poses to a perfect society, and how the general will is not only an expression of the common interest of a specific people, but also a compromise between self-limitation and ‘reasonable’ or safe freedom. As it was supposed to be part of a great work, the conclusion of the Social Contract is incomplete, which demonstrates that both the Contract itself and the general will as its component can be applied to a much wider range of political theories and issues that the author was unable to answer in this particular work.