Political Thought Links: Parallels:
Community, Society and Education
While we may not want to accomplish his social contract with its
general will, we can use various aspects of Rousseau's philosophy
to explore the flaws in our society and possible ways toward reform.
Contemporary social philosophers loosely identified as "communitarians"
have increasingly voiced concerns like Rousseau's in their criticism
of American democracy and their calls for reinventing that democracy
to a form of politics in which participation is not seen only
as a means to an end (in which case it would almost necessarily
simply be a battle among competing interest groups for the prize)
but an end in itself (in which deliberation and concern for one's
fellow citizens becomes a pleasurable way of life). This certainly
would involve a re-thinking by many Americans who view politics
as dirty or inherently corrupt. Likewise, communitarians have
critiqued America's popular culture for encouraging crass individualism
Remember that Rousseau shuns representative democracy such as
ours for two main reasons. First, the sovereign will of the people
is the seat of the legislative power, and it literally cannot
be represented without being usurped. Thus, Rousseau claims that
once a people elects representatives it has already become enslaved.
Second, any representative legislative body must operate through
majority rule. But in a legislative session this always amounts
to what we call partisanship. One party wins and the other loses.
The losing party on any issue is not represented by the final
decision, and thus by consequence the losing party's constituents
are also not represented. Thus on any vote, there are people who
are not at all free because they disagree with the decision reached.
Rousseau's answer to these problems is a system in which the people
come together in assemblies periodically in order to decide directly
on the issues. This solution supposedly eliminates the problem
of representation. Next, Rousseau advocates a different form of
majority rule. He acknowledges that instantaneous consensus on
any given issue is next to impossible. However, the citizens'
attitudes should not be shaped by partisanship to see votes in
terms of "winners" and "losers." Instead, the people who were
not in the majority should reassess their decision and, thinking
always through the eyes of the general will, adopt the thinking
of the majority. In this way, true consensus can be reached and
every member of the sovereign can remain free because everyone
eventually agrees with the decision.
Before we reject Rousseau's proposed solutions to the problem
of representative democracy as "totalitarian," let us think about
how consensus is usually formed in smaller groups. Rousseau admits,
remember, that this system will not work in anything much larger
than a single city. If you have been in any group that regularly
achieved consensus and felt good about it, you already have some
inkling of the process Rousseau is advocating. It is easy to reach
consensus about certain issues if you are all there for the same
purpose and share the same general "values," or likes and dislikes.
Under such conditions, it is not difficult to achieve consensus
and for every member of the group to feel satisfied. If you are
a member of model train club, for instance, it is not difficult
to decide to rotate meetings among all members' houses so that
each member can show off his or her train. It is not hard to decide
to take a bus trip to the nearest model train or rail road event
when it comes along. If someone proposes creating an event for
children, the only problem is figuring out when most of the members
can be there to participate. In other words, if you all share
the same passion, making decisions unanimously is easy. This is
what Rousseau had in mind for civil societies.
Most advocates of participatory democracy today understand its
limitations and mainly call for bringing some of its methods to
smaller venues like city councils and town hall meetings. They
argue that if all the citizens come together to discuss improvements,
new laws, etc., that the same type of consensus can emerge as
it does among model train fans. Indeed, some liken the relationships
that would develop with regular contact of citizens with friendship.
If all voices can be heard in a town hall meeting, for instance,
and if leaders are tuned to the "general will" that begins to
emerge from the discussion, then the laws passed will truly reflect
the people's will and be what is best for the people. This would
truly be a positive development for many citizens today who feel
marginalized and have even ignored politics because they do not
Critics of the idea of participatory democracy are many and varied.
Some argue that even in small towns there is not the uniformity
of lifestyles, morals and opinions necessary to make consensus
easy. They see a dark side to the call for consensus; what Rousseau
called civil religion they call a propagandistic attempt to impose
the majority's values on minorities of all kinds. In fact, they
see more freedom in the rough and tumble of our representative
majoritarian politics, because at least people are free to vocally
disagree and state their case. No one will be "forced to be free,"
to use Rousseau's rather infamous phrase.
Another problem many critics see with consensus politics has to
do with group dynamics. While a model train club might have no
problem achieving true consensus, what passes for consensus in
many clubs and committees is more like the old maxim "the squeaky
wheel gets the grease." That is, there are some people who are
more inclined to speak up, more eager to lead, more opinionated.
Then there are the rest, more interested in their private lives,
or just not courageous enough to take the social heat that comes
with opposing the self-selected leader. The "consensus" that emerges
in such groups is not real consensus, but a sort of grudging acquiescence.
It is not true friendship but a sort of conformity which develops.
Though perhaps human beings should not be so, many of them re
reluctant when it comes to standing up for what they think is
right in a public or group forum. If this is true, then the representative
mode of government would actually be more democratic, because
all citizens could elect leaders in the privacy of the voting
booth. These representatives would then be much more able and
willing to speak up for their constituents than their constituents
of participatory democracy might answer these criticisms by saying
that we must simply do a better job training our citizenry so
that they are capable of all truly participating equally in public
meetings. What kind of education would be involved? Would any
amount of education break through most people's reluctance to
The middle class in America is by far the largest class. Studies
also show that when asked, most people identify themselves as
"middle class" even if, by actual income measurements, they would
fall into the lower or upper class. In other words, most people
want to identify with the middle class-its style, its values,
its culture. Our middle class is indeed culturally dominant. Yet,
if we examined our middle class through the eyes of Rousseau,
how would it fare? By one of Rousseau's standards, it would fare
well. Rousseau said that a country is successful if its population
is prosperous and growing. However, by many other of Rousseau's
standards, our middle class and its ubiquitous popular culture
would fail miserably.
Let's just think about the primary transmitter of middle class
popular culture-television. What would Rousseau have to say about
the messages it conveys? Rousseau would no doubt see the crassness
of it, the vulgarity of the constant sexual innuendos, the dramatization
of aspects of the human personality he thought most regrettable-hatred,
jealousy, greed. Every ten minutes or so, there would be a string
of commercials selling everything from cereal to cars to theme
Think of what Rousseau would have to say about our consumerism.
Commercials tell us that we must have the latest and greatest
model of car, the newest food product, the best hair color. All
of the entertainment media sends the message that we must be beautiful,
according to its standards-- thin, healthy and wealthy-- in order
to think of ourselves as a success. Aren't these the very values
Rousseau was already disgusted with in the 18th century?
How much more disgusted would he be today with the sheer amount
of materialism in our popular culture? What would he think of
the many people swept up in fashion fads? What would he think
of the tendency of many Americans to prefer sitting on the couch
watching a sitcom to taking a stroll in a wooded park? Rousseau
would no doubt look at the lives of millions of Americans as a
living hell, devoid of true human sentiments and experience.
In some ways it is difficult to argue with Rousseau, at least
when our eyes are clearly open and we try to view our lives objectively.
It is hard not to see our culture as part of the reason for the
general decline in manners and sense of responsibility toward
our families and fellow human beings that is characteristic of
this age. Yet if one looks at the situation from an historical
perspective, it becomes more difficult to judge the American middle
class too harshly. After all, in Rousseau's day, there was little
or no middle class. Rousseau was criticizing the rich. Now we
have a large segment of our population that, because it is relatively
well-off, shares the vices of the rich that Rousseau found so
disgusting. Would it have been better for these people to have
remained in poverty? Perhaps Rousseau would answer "yes," but
few of us would follow him into poverty for the sake of virtue
with much enthusiasm. If the vast majority of people in the United
States live far better than the majority of people in his time,
if they have enough income, their tastes will prevail in the popular
culture. Though the specific forms of popular culture may be different
from his own times and arguably more vulgar, the vices spawned
by that culture are the same as they were for the rich of a few
centuries ago-materialism, greed, status-consciousness, faddishness,
overblown sexuality, and so on. One could say that this is the
inevitable price of raising the standard of living for so many
human beings who have at least escaped the degradation of poverty.
If Rousseau has some valid criticisms of the culture created by
excessive wealth, is there anything we can do to correct the culture
without throwing people back into poverty? Some might say that
the way to go is some form of socialism, a large scale abandonment
of capitalism and its values in favor of an even distribution
of property. This distribution would be based upon what people
need, not necessarily what they want. Some people would call for
greater restrictions and regulations on popular entertainment.
Should we expand the restrictions in place against nudity on network
television, against vulgar language? But even if we could do things
like this, how would we stop the values of materialism which seem
to be at the very heart of the problem for Rousseau? Perhaps Rousseau
would argue for public television, and nothing else, as a form
of "censorship" to provide people with only what was edifying