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Posts Tagged ‘Rousseau’

I actually started writing this a while ago, not long after we finished reading Rousseau, so some of this may seem fairly obvious now that we’ve begun reading Marx. Either way, I think this should be helpful for drawing parallels between the two writers.

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The issue of inequalities between people has been the focus of the vast majority of our readings this semester. Indeed, the main job of government (according to some) is to negotiate and solve these issues of inequality. Two political theorists in particular, who’s works we have read in this class, address this issue, but do it in radically different ways. The purpose of this post is not to make an argument about whether one stance is better than the other, but instead to compare and contrast the political and economic (in the case of Marx) theories of Jean Jacques Rousseau and Karl Marx.

Rousseau, in The Social Contract, or Principles of Political Right discusses how to establish a government that will mediate issues of inequality in society. He sought to replace a hierarchical, dominating society (such as the vast majority of European monarchies) with an egalitarian government that was of, for and by “The People” (a concept that doesn’t really exist in Marx’s writing, which deals almost exclusively with Class.) Under a Rousseauian-style government laws are made by congresses of local people in accordance with the general will and are then enforced by an elected aristocracy who’s sole job is to enforce the laws, not to enact them. Also, he saw the development of human society as somewhat cyclical, in which every so often there would be new revolution to reestablish the aforementioned style of government. In a nutshell, Rousseau’s plan for dealing with the issues of war and inequality is a very direct democracy that is close to the people with frequent, somewhat low-level revolutions.

There are certainly similarities between the theories of Marx and Rousseau, but whereas Rousseau focused almost exclusively on a political solution, Marx advocated a more revolutionary cure for society’s ills. Marx claimed that capitalism, and the class struggle that it perpetuated was what was the cause for much of the negative aspects of the human condition.

While the economic situation is the crux of Marx’s philosophy, he does not neglect the political aspect of the strife of the proletariat. He argues that religion and political constructs are in place in order to keep the bourgeoisie in power over the proletariat. Essentially, the state was an extension of the wealthiest classes.

He viewed contemporary capitalism as creating tension between the laboring, wage-earning class (the proletariat) and the capital-owning middle class (the bourgeoisie). The inevitable conclusion of this tension was a violent (worldwide, ideally) revolution in which the proletariat overthrew the bourgeoisie and took control of the means of production. In Marx’s post-revolution world the end of capitalism would cause private property and class to slowly disappear, and because, according to Marx, the state exists to protect the property and wealth of the bourgeoisie government would soon disappear as well.

Marx and Rousseau were addressing the same issue: inequality between men. However, the chose to tackle the issue in similar, yet also very different ways. Both focused on the needs of the community and not the desires of the individual. Both also call for revolution, although Marx is significantly more adamant about the violent part. Where they differ is in how they view what drives the issue of inequality and where reform is most necessary. For Rousseau it was the political realm where change was needed. For Marx, radicalizing the economy (by abolishing it) would heal the wounds caused by inequality.

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Rousseau and the Modern Utopia

Many would say that the perfect society would be a world where everyone is treated truly equal and there is no crime or danger. While reading Rousseau’s discourse, I was led to believe that he believed an ideal state of nature is much like the utopia that many would like to live in. In Rousseau’s theory, our society started out as a utopia but over time move farther and farther away from equality. He says that there is no way now that we can go back to a utopian society; we are now at the point of no return. Rousseau has a very positive outlook on achieving a perfect society. It is no wonder his state of nature would be anything less than ideal lifestyle; a utopia.

In a Utopian society, the government and the people are all working for the common interest of doing what’s best for the general will. The laws are geared to treat everyone equally. When Rousseau writes to the Republic of Geneva he says, “I would have wanted to be born in a country where the sovereign and the people could have but one and the same interest, so that all the movements of the machine always tended only to the common happiness.” (pg 371) He thinks that if everyone is working toward making everyone happy in general, there will be less for people to rebel against. The government only does things that are in the people’s best interest.

Regarding the government, Rousseau does not believe in having multiple political parties. There cannot be a disagreement between two parties because there is only one way to help the greater good. Rousseau says, “In the state of nature, where everything takes place in such a uniform manner and where the face of the earth is not subject to those sudden and continual changes caused by the passions and inconstancy of peoples living together.” (pg 381) His ideal state of nature is where no one disagrees because the general will can only be benefited in a certain way. A utopia is usually portrayed in the entertainment industry as a place where there is no war or crimes being committed. People are happy to do what they are good at and contribute to society. They follow the laws and things are very harmonious. When many people think of a utopia, they usually think of a place such as described in the book, The Giver. Everyone happily does the same thing every day and they agree with everyone else. There is no disagreement among the society because they are told what to think by the government who ultimately makes the best decisions for society. They only believe in things and want things when it is for the betterment of everybody. This is similar to Rousseau’s belief in nature, as shown when he says society will be much happier when there is order in everyday life and where there is no disagreement between fellow citizens.

Rousseau said that the first civil society was formed as soon as someone got others to believe that they owned property. As soon as inequalities between men started to form because of differences in ownership, utopia started to fall apart. From that time, society has developed away from the perfect culture that used to exist. As he explains, “What crimes, wars, murders, what miseries and horrors would the human race have been spared, had someone pulled up the stakes or filled in the ditch and cried out to his fellow men: ‘Do not listen to this imposter. You are lost if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong to all and the earth to no one!’” (pg 395) This way of life before inequalities began to form between men is preferable because everyone in society is benefited, but it is virtually impossible to return to a utopia.

During my discussion section about utopias, everyone agreed that a utopia today could not be achieved. There are too many differences between people’s ideals and wants. People today are more geared toward self interest rather than the interests of the general will. Rousseau’s state of nature is the ideal state that people want to be in. The characteristics that have been given of a utopia by people today reflect much of what Rousseau was trying to get across in his state of nature. The perfect society described by many books, movies, and TV shows today is really what Rousseau was describing. Maybe Rousseau had it right all along, a utopia is where everyone works together for the betterment of the general will.

Citations:

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. “Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality among Men.” Modern Political Thought. Ed. David Wootton. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2008.

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