The Social Contract


Jean-Jacques RousseauHow shall we be governed? Philosophers have debated that issue since Plato and the question is more important today than ever, given the rise of right-wing extremism everywhere, especially in liberal democracies where there is an ongoing, concerted effort by several current political parties and non-government organizations (NGOs) like the IDU to subvert or overthrow Western democracies and replace them with authoritarian dictatorships; American Repugnicans and Canadian CONservatives among them*. Let’s look at the history, first.

It was Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) who first tried to systematically explore the intersection of governance, morality, and ethics. However, because the Catholic church gave him an unfairly bad reputation, his views about the threat of despots were mostly ignored for centuries. Unfortunately, his advice was recognized too late.

The philosophical study of governance was next explored by the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) in his book, The Leviathan, in which he tried to use a scientific approach to determine the best form of government. This was the start of the Enlightenment and science was all the rage. Hobbes believed human behaviour could be codified and measured like any data point in an equation.

Hobbes, the favourite of large-and-small-c conservatives everywhere today, basically believed that humans were incapable of governing themselves, and their natural state was one of constant, primitive, struggle and violence. Without the proper leadership, he warned, they’d live “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” lives, adding that only an absolute monarch was able to control things and provide safety and security. And to be saved from themselves, they’d have to forfeit a lot of personal freedoms to that monarch.

This fits well with the authoritarian ideologies of modern right-wing parties. But since public affection for absolute monarchs and the divine right of kings has long since evaporated, conservatives have favoured instead an absolute demagogue strongman, aka a dictator, in his place. Dictators since Lenin have appealed to conservatives, including, historically, Mussolini, Hitler, Castro, Mao, and the North Korean Kims, and more recently Putin and the wannabe dictators Trump and Poilievre.

And I do mean “his” because Hobbesian conservatives are also misogynists who want a patriarchy, not simply a dictatorship. Hobbes wasn’t a feminist. Although he considered women as equal in slavery to men, he didn’t see them as leaders. For Hobbes, a social contract meant the populace submitting itself to authority to legitimize the leader’s political authority. The role of government, in Hobbes’ view, was to control and protect people from their own base instincts. Law and order must be imposed on people to ensure stability.

But the fly in Hobbes’ ointment has always been how to prevent the Great Leader from abusing his power. Hobbes believed, naively, that the absolute monarch would behave properly because it was in his best interests, and humans rarely behaved contrary to their own interests. Optimistic, yes, but utterly naive and unrealistic.

As Lord Acton famously wrote (in a letter to Mandell Creighton, 5 April 1887):

Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.

Hobbes didn’t provide a mechanism or even reason to control the power of his leaders should they misbehave. Still, modern conservatives always rally behind their demagogic strongmen, even when they blatantly abuse their power and authority, as they always do, and even when they are criminals. Conservatives, even knowing the threat of despots to liberty and freedom, follow Hobbes.

John Locke (1632-1704), also English, pondered governance from another perspective in his Two Treatises of Government (1690). Locke began the tradition of liberal democratic thinking by challenging the idea of absolute monarchy, although not the institution of monarchy itself. In his Second Treatise of Civil Government, he wrote:

This freedom from absolute, arbitrary power, is so necessary to, and closely joined with a man’s preservation, that he cannot part with it, but by what forfeits his preservation and life together: for a man, not having the power of his own life, cannot, by compact, or his own consent, enslave himself to any one, nor put himself under the absolute, arbitrary power of another, to take away his life, when he pleases.

Locke also believed that people had inalienable “natural rights” of life, liberty, and property they could not surrender, and the monarch was there to enforce and protect these rights. And if the sovereign broke that contract, the people had the right to revolt and create a new government, along the same lines, of course. Government existed to secure individual property and liberty, not to control others.

Conservatives give much of Locke’s views short shrift as a result: they so much need to control others that in the USA and Canada, they collaborate closely with the extremist pseudo-Christian fascist organizations (aka “Christian nationalists”) commonly referred to as Talibangelists and Christofascists.

But Locke was no rabid advocate for universal democracy as we know it. He favoured the form of representational parliament already present in Britain (with its King and hereditary House of Lords), and seats in Parliament only allowed for adult men of property and business. He didn’t believe the hoi polloi were fit to participate in government. Today, Locke would be called a right-centrist or “Red Tory.”

Similarly, his close contemporary, the French Charles Montesquieu (1689-1755), wrote The Spirit of the Laws (1748) about the purpose of government and proposed a separation of power into legislative, judicial, and executive branches, a form the USA would adopt after its revolution. Like Locke, he agreed that the role of government was to maintain the rights of the individual, as well as oversee law and order.

But it was the Swiss-born Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) who took it further in his work The Social Contract (1762), and since then the term “contract theory” has been used to describe these ideas.

Rousseau had earlier written about how the rich and powerful elites conned and forced the common folk into accepting them as rulers, taking away their liberty (a situation still present). In The Social Contract, he wrote that people owned their allegiance not to a king or cabal, but to the “whole community.” He believed in the public good (aka the “greater good”) in which the government made laws for the benefit of all. Security, liberty and property were protected by the state and everyone had a say in how those laws were created (Rousseau came from Geneva, which had a city-state form of participatory democracy which, pre-internet at least, was impractical in use in larger states).

Coercive power like that proposed by Hobbes, he wrote, could never be just: authority must be agreed upon and consented to, and no one has any moral obligation to accept a despot ruler. This was his social contract: that people agreed to be ruled in a society that benefited all, and where they had a say in how it was run. Civil duties were obligations and everyone had to participate for it to work. With such low turnouts in recent provincial and municipal elections here in Ontario, it seems clear that the majority of residents don’t feel any responsibility or obligation towards civic duties. This suits the conservatives well because it avoids their need to use the voter-suppression and voter-scamming practices they love.

Rousseau also believed people were not only capable of self-rule but would in fact be cooperative in creating their society, and their intentions would be for the greater good, even if they didn’t always make the best choices. Perhaps he was a bit naive in his thinking, but then he never imagined the sort of damage social media could do to people’s thinking. He wrote:

The general will is always in the right, but the judgement which guides it is not always enlightened.

Modern small-and-large-l liberals, as well as more left-leaning ideologies, tend to side with Rousseau because of his disdain for absolute power and imposing will on others, his passion for democracy, and his belief in the greater good. These are also the basis of every democracy. And for that, conservatives often despise him and denigrate his ideas.

In general terms, all of their ideas are still in play centuries later, and colour the ideologies of modern political parties, albeit modified by current political situations and views. Conservative and rightwing parties tend to favour Hobbes’ pro-authoritarian conclusions (usually melded with Ayn-Randian-libertarian views), while liberal and social democratic parties tend to favour Rousseau’s. Of course, there are shades in between, and no party or ideology is based solely on one writer’s work. But it’s instructive to examine, albeit briefly, what these ideas mean to our current politics.

Keep in mind that all of these men (and yes, they were all males) were writing at a time when monarchies — often absolute monarchies based on the belief in the “divine” right of kings — were the most common form of government. They wrote before the French and American revolutions, both of which overturned the idea of monarchial rule with their own semi-democratic experiments in governance. These writers were more than a century before the 19th-century writers Marx, Kropotkin, Bakunin and Rosa Luxembourg, all of whom rebelled against the basic notion of the rights of hereditary monarchy. And before the American Henry David Thoreau whose semi-libertarian ideas on governance were in his essay, On Civil Disobedience. Plus there are the thoughts of subsequent philosophers like David Hume (1711-1776, who debunked the idea of a “social contract”) and the much later John Rawls (1921-2002) who rewrote the idea. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves, and save that for a later post.

* While it might seem appropriate calling the American Republican Party “Repugnicans” to reflect their repugnant nature, the term actually reflects the Latin word “repugnans” which means contradictory, as in “repugnans tibi” or contrary to you. They are, after all, contrary to facts, science, common sense, diversity, women’s rights, inclusiveness, education, equality, fair wages, labour, ethics, morality… And using “CONservatives” for Canada’s CPC merely reflects their basic nature: to grift, scam, con, hoax, and lie.

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