Excerpt from General Will 2.0 - Rousseau, Freud, Google by Hiroki Azuma
First published in Hon January 2010 issue
Rousseau was a philosopher who called for the freedom of the individual. Yet, at the same time he was also a philosopher who argued for the absolute integration of the individual and the state. These two characteristics seem incompatible with each other.
There have been many explorations of this contradiction through the history of philosophy, and I do not intend to deny this legacy. But as I hinted at in the previous chapter, in this book I would like to read Rousseau from another angle. When viewed through the lens of the contemporary information environment, this “contradiction” of his appears not as a contradiction, but instead as a policy problem that must simply be overcome via technological means. In speaking of a dream of a future society, what I want to indicate is the possibility of such a change in perspective.
Let us begin by reading the text.
The Social Contract is not a lengthy book. The Iwanami Paperbacks edition of the Japanese translation contains less than 200 pages. The work is divided into four books, and the first three cover the social contract, the general will, and forms of government, respectively. The fourth book functions much like a supplement and is thus slightly disorganized. But as a whole it is a highly readable book.
It is not uncommon for the tables of contents of such books to embody their content. The Social Contract is no exception to this, as the progression of the book proceeding from the theory of the social contract in Book I to the theory of the general will in Book II and then to the theory of forms of government in Book III masterfully expresses the logic at the core of Rousseau’s social contract theory.
What does this mean?
Let us proceed by first going over the very basics. People were born as free and solitary beings. Yet, at some point, the natural state could not be maintained, and people began to live in groups, eventually being compelled to build a society. And so people enter into a “social contract.” This is the general outline of the social contract theory of Rousseau, or rather that of thinkers spanning from Hobbes and Locke to Rawls and Nozick in the 20th century.
For Rousseau, a social contract means “the total alienation of each associate with all of his rights to the whole community.”1 The social contract creates a society (community). What is born as a result is the will of the community as the aggregate of individual wills, in other words, the “general will.” According to Rousseau, the sovereign of this community is this general will, and as such, citizens must absolutely submit to the general will. I have already pointed out in the previous chapter that this idea brings to mind totalitarianism.
The important point here is that Rousseau’s social contract is by no means a contract between kings or aristocrats and their subjects, or in other words between a government (ruler) and its subjects (ruled).
The social contract that Rousseau imagined was not something that prescribed the relation between those who rule and those who are ruled, but rather, on a level prior to that, something that gives birth to a community in which both ruler and ruled reside. The general will stands for the will of this entire community. Hence, the question of who shoulders this will and carries out governance, in other words the choice of who ought to possess power belongs to the next stage. For this reason, The Social Contract is written in an order that demonstrates that there is first a social contract, which results in a general will being born, which in turn leads to the erection of an institution of governance.
For Rousseau, this order of formation, or in other words the difference between the “general will” and the “system of governance,” or the difference between sovereignty and government, was a particularly important one. In The Social Contract he repeatedly emphasizes this importance. For example, he writes the following: “Government [is] improperly confused with the Sovereign, of which it is merely the minister … What, then, is Government? An intermediate body (un corps intermédiaire) established between subjects and Sovereign so that they might conform to one another, and charged with the execution of the laws and the maintenance of freedom, both civil and political.”2
The government is merely the instrument of the general will. This means that there are many forms of governance for realizing the general will. For this reason, contrary to the generally held image, The Social Contract in fact does not in any way advocate “democracy” in the sense of citizens operating the government. For example, in Book III Rousseau quite plainly states that depending on the geographical or demographic conditions in which the state is placed, a monarchical system is more appropriate than a democratic one in executing the general will. For Rousseau, the formation of one will by all the people (general will) does not necessarily imply the operation of the government by all of the people (democracy). What is important for him is simply that the collective will of the populace constitutes sovereignty (popular sovereignty), while the particular agent that shoulders this sovereignty can be a king or the aristocracy or anyone else, if the populace so wishes.
Why was this distinction between sovereignty and government so important to Rousseau?
It was because this distinction is what guarantees for the people the right to overthrow the existing government—the so-called “right of revolution.”
If sovereignty is equated with the government, the theory of social contract cannot justify overthrowing a government. The clearest example of this is Hobbes. In his famous Leviathan, he argued that the state (commonwealth) is only established when the people entrust all of their rights to a particular individual (king) or an “assembly.”3 In other words, for Hobbes, the individual and the government exist separately, and a social contract is subsequently established between them. Thus, according to his theory, as a matter of principle, the people cannot change the form of government. This is because here the people already know who the ruler is and what he will do, and agree to submit themselves to his protection for the sake of a peaceful life; the social contract is understood according to this order. To put it bluntly, it means that since you entrusted all of your rights knowing that this man was king, you have no right to complain.
Meanwhile, Rousseau’s framework leads to a different outcome since what the people produce through the social contract is only the general will and not a particular government. The government is nothing more than a provisional institution for the execution of the general will. And so the people may always replace it. Rousseau clearly writes: “Thus when it happens that the People institutes a hereditary Government, either monarchical in one family, or aristocratic in one order of Citizens, this is not an engagement it enters into; it is a provisional form it gives to the administration, until such time as it pleases to order it differently.”4 This argument prepared the French Revolution.
The social contract is only something that is entered between individuals and not between an individual and a government. Sovereignty lies in the general will of the people and not in the will of the government/ruler. This is the logic at the core of The Social Contract.
Now, I wonder how my readers felt about these distinctions between sovereignty and government, the social contract and forms of government, and the general will and its institutions. Perhaps you thought it was comprehensible in theory, but rather abstract.
In reality, we live under a particular government, take on duties, pay taxes, and receive protection. It is certainly easy to understand this relation as a “contract,” and precisely because we in fact feel this way, the theory of social contract has attracted interest for many centuries. Hasn’t the country taken care of you? Then perform your duties as a citizen—even today we often encounter such “vulgarized” versions of the social contract.
However, as it is clear from our discussion so far, the social contract that Rousseau elaborates is far removed from such a stance. His social contract is a peculiar one that cannot be understood according to correlations of right and duty or merit and demerit. According to his thinking, the social contract refers to “the making of society” itself. Without even realizing it, and in a manner that is at first unrelated to governments and institutions, we exchange an abstract contract, form a community, and generate something called the general will. That is what Rousseau envisioned. The general will is a highly idealized construct, and precisely because it is an idealized construct, it provides real grounds for correcting the depravity of existing institutions. What Rousseau developed was this rather intricate logic.
As such, we could also draw the conclusion that Rousseau’s concepts of the social contract and the general will are in the end no more than fictions meant to change reality, namely, that they’re “ideals” in the Kantian sense.5 In other words, the general will does not exist and is merely an expedience for enacting a revolution. Academically speaking, this is likely the most common view.
However, as I have repeated many times, in this book I would like to venture to read Rousseau’s text straightforwardly and unassumingly.
Rousseau remarked that the general will exists apart from all the actual systems of governance and that the state should always be conscious of it. In the case of present-day Japan, for example, the “general will of Japan” would, most certainly, exist apart from the Diet, government offices, political parties, bureaucracies, and other such massive organizations.
Then where does it exist? What kind of thing is the general will in the first place?
Let us think about the definition of the general will.
What is the general will? It is the collective will of the people. Such is the common understanding.
Following this definition, what probably comes to mind for many readers is what is vaguely called “public opinion.” In fact, Rousseau positions the general will alongside public opinion in a certain passage in The Social Contract.6 Thus, if one takes the general will as something that refers to public opinion, it would not be a bad place to start in understanding Rousseau.
When we actually read Rousseau’s writing, however, we notice that what he stipulates is something quite different from what we imagine through words such as “collective will” or “public opinion.”
For example, Rousseau insists that “the general will is always in the right, and always tends to the public welfare.”7 Rousseau does not say this because he has an overly abundant faith in the goodness of the masses. According to his theory, the general will itself creates the standards for good and for the public sphere, so erring in this regard is by definition impossible; this is how his logic is constructed. Meanwhile, if someone told us that public opinion “is always in the right, and always tends to the public welfare,” it would confuse us. It seems that what Rousseau calls the general will is more abstract than what people call “public opinion.”
So once again, what is the general will?
The fact that The Social Contract does not introduce the concept of the general will on its own provides us with a clue. In Book II, Rousseau delineates the particular characteristics of the general will through a comparison with the “will of all (volonté de tous),” a concept that is similar to the general will, yet decisively different. If we translate this French phrase literally, it would be “everyone’s will.”
According to Rousseau, the general will and the will of all (everyone’s will) are no different in terms of being a collection of wills of multiple individuals, or in his words the collection of “particular wills (volonté particulière).” Yet, while the general will (generalized will) never errs, the will of all (everyone’s will) does err at times. This is the case that he makes. The distinction between the general will and the will of all is the keystone of The Social Contract and appears throughout the book. For example, though I will only briefly mention it here, Rousseau writes that a “Lawgiver” must embody the general will and guide towards a correct direction those citizens who lapse into a false will of all. Speaking in terms of this distinction, what is often called “public opinion” would be the will of all, and not the general will.
In what way, then, are these two different? Rousseau puts it thus: the general will consistently relates to shared interests, while the will of all is only the aggregate of private interests.
Yet, this is also a very abstract definition. With only such a definition at our disposal, we cannot seem to get past the understanding that the general will is nothing more than an “ideal” and an unachievable target, and the only thing that exists in reality is the will of all (everyone’s will). Can there not be a different definition?
In fact, there is.
And this is what provides us with the first steppingstone for the vision of this book.
Apart from the conceptual stipulations that I referred to earlier, Rousseau in fact speaks about the difference between the general will and the will of all using mathematical expressions.
The will of all is a collection of particular wills. Rousseau defines it as being the “aggregate/sum (somme)” of particular wills. This word itself brings to mind arithmetic, but it does not end at being a simple metaphor. That is to say, Rousseau goes on to define the general will as the following. “[B]ut if, from these same wills, one takes away the pluses and the minuses which cancel each other out (ôtez […] les plus et les moins qui s’entre-détruisent), what is left as the sum of the differences is the general will.”8
The will of all is nothing more than the sum of particular wills. Yet the general will is defined as the “sum of differences (somme des differences)” that remains after those that “cancel each other out” are removed from the simple sum.
What does this mean? Rousseau wrote this text more than two centuries ago in the mid-18th century when many concepts of modern mathematics had not yet emerged. As such, this passage is written intuitively and is hence difficult to understand. Yet, if we look at it through the lens of present-day common sense, we can rephrase what Rousseau tried to say in a clearer way, even if we only possess a high school-level knowledge of mathematics.
For example, we are familiar with the concept of vectors, unlike Rousseau (the concept of vectors was formulated in the 19th century). As many people learn in high school, vectors refer to a mass that bears magnitude and direction. For example, since there is direction to velocity and acceleration, this would mean that they are vectors. Adding 50 km/h to 50 km/h would only appear as zero velocity to an external onlooker if we moved southward at 50 km/h on a plane that is moving northward at 50 km/h. On the other hand, there is no direction to volume or weight. Such things are called scalars. If we brought together two people who each weigh 50 kg, the total weight would simply be 100 kg. I believe that this distinction between vectors and scalars provides a significant clue in understanding the distinction between the general will and the will of all.
Particular wills possess direction. In other words, they are vectors. Yet the will of all is nothing more than the sum of scalars. Is this not what Rousseau is trying to say? If the will of all is something that effaces direction, even if a pair of particular wills were facing in completely opposite directions—to offer a clear example from present-day Japan, if one constituent desired the bolstering of welfare for the elderly (reform of the healthcare system for the aged) and another desired the bolstering of welfare for the youth strata (establishment of a child allowance policy)—this difference in direction would not be considered. In other words, if both desires were included in policy commitments without consideration of how to design the shape of the country, social security costs would simply balloon. On the contrary, Rousseau tried to grasp the general will as a different sort of sum that faithfully cancelled out such differences in direction. If we understand the “sum of differences” as the sum of vectors instead of a sum of scalars, there is nothing ambiguous or mystical about Rousseau’s description.
It goes without saying that I am not attempting to argue that Rousseau discovered a clear formula for computing the general will, nor that he anticipated the history of mathematics. Rousseau was not a mathematician and my interpretation is nothing more than the idea of an amateur.
But what is important here is the following fact, even if his expression was ambiguous and instinctive: Rousseau believed that the general will is something that is mathematically computable.
In fact, Rousseau uses different mathematical expressions in various key passages in The Social Contract. For example, he employs the words “relation” and “proportion” to express the relationship among sovereignty, government, and people.
As I stressed earlier, sovereignty and government are strictly distinguished in Rousseau’s theory. The people give birth to the sovereign/general will through the social contract, and under its stipulations, a government is founded as an executive institution, creating a state. What is, then, the optimal size of a government? Interestingly, Rousseau presents a simple formula.
According to him, what is important is the ratio of “power” among sovereign, ruler, and people. He argues that since the government is something that adjusts the power relation between particular wills (people) and the general will (sovereign), the proportion between the people and the ruler and the proportion between the ruler and sovereign should be as close to equivalent as possible. For example, in a state consisting of ten thousand citizens, the sovereign exists as a single body (as the general will) and therefore reigns as a giant existence that gathers the power of ten thousand people. At the same time, because people (as particular wills) exist separately, the ratio between the power of the sovereign and that of the people would be ten thousand to one. The ruler stands between them. As such, wouldn’t the square root of the number of citizens, one hundred, be the most adequate number of governors?9 Rousseau presents such a formula and proceeds with his sections on forms of governance based on this principle.
As Rousseau himself admits, population serves only as an example to grasp the “power” of the sovereign and the people, and his formula is nothing more than something based upon intuition. “[T]he ratios about which I am speaking are measured not only by numbers of men, but more generally by the amount of activity, which is the combined result of a great many causes.”10 To repeat, what is important is not whether Rousseau’s formula is useful for the realization of actual policies or not, but the fact that he believed that the general will, or rather the relation between the general will and the power of the people, could to some extent be formulated mathematically.
The general will is not just a pretext. It was formulated as something that could be mathematically derived from the will of people, or the power relations of people.
Rousseau’s The Social Contract, in other words the text at the basis of modern democracy, allows for such an interpretation.
The general will is not the will of the government. Nor is it the sum of individual wills. And it is not simply an ideal either. The general will is a mathematical entity.
If we may interpret Rousseau’s text in this manner, we can use it as a point of departure in fundamentally rethinking the nature of democracy.
To think about the social contract of the future while taking as our premise the information technology of the 21st century. As I wrote in Chapter 1, this is the purpose of this book. For many readers, this probably brought to mind ideas related to the reform of government, for example the adoption of electronic voting, making policy debates more transparent, or implementing collective intelligence in budget proposals. This is not necessarily wrong. As I write this I do have such individual reforms in mind as well.
However, as it is apparent from the discussion thus far, what is really important here may in fact not be reforming government. This is because as long as we faithfully read Rousseau, the general will is something that ought to exist outside of the government. It is something that ought to be outside of what we usually imagine to be “political.”
The dream of this book begins there.
1 The Social Contract, Book I Chapter 6, 50.
2 Ibid, Book III Chapter 1, 82-83.
3 Leviathan, Chapter 18.
4 The Social Contract, Book III Chapter 18, 118-19.
5 See “The Conjectural Beginning of Human History.” There, Kant touches upon both Emile and The Social Contract and offers a response to what Cassirer would later call “The Question of Rousseau.” In a word, it’s an attempt to understand the general will (though he does not refer to the concept itself in the piece) as the “ultimate moral end” for the purpose of “end(ing) the conflict between the natural and the moral species.” Immanuel Kant, On History, ed. Lewis White Beck (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Library of Liberal Arts, 2001), 60-63.
6 The Social Contract, Book II Chapter 12, 89-90. Here Rousseau differentiates law into four categories: “political law” or “fundamental law” that regulates the relation between the sovereign authority and the state; civil law that regulates the relation between members; criminal law that regulates the relation between members and the state; and lastly, “moral standards, custom, and above all public opinion,” which are the “most important of all laws,” and those which are “graven […] in citizens’ hearts.”
7 Ibid, Book II Chapter 3, 66.
8 Ibid, Book II Chapter 3, 60.
9 Ibid, Book III Chapter 1, 84.
10 Ibid, Book III Chapter 1, 85.