The last point to consider in Rousseau is the general will, which is the concept that signifies Rousseau’s closure of politics. The general will identifies the common good and is the real will of all, in the sense of their well-considered interest. In some situations this means that we move beyond the realm of empirical wills and real consent into the threatening ideal space of authoritarian imposition of rule on others for the supposed good of those very others.

In order then that the social compact may not be an empty formula, it tacitly includes the undertaking, which alone can give force to the rest, that whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body. This means nothing less than that he will be forced to be free; for this is the condition which, by giving each citizen to his country, secures him against all personal dependence. In this lies the key to the working of the political machine; this alone legitimises civil undertakings, which, without it, would be absurd, tyrannical, and liable to the most frightful abuses. (Rousseau 1998, 18)

There are good reasons for this authoritarian intervention at the heart of Rousseau’s philosophy. He identified that doctrines like natural law and natural rule functioned in contemporary society as tools of abuse and sought an alternative that would carry with it the guarantee that sovereignty would not be imposed by one group on another, but would instead represent the rule of all by all. This is why Rousseau centres on the human will shared by all, the general will, as the solution to his problems (Melzer 1990, 178). But in making this move away from particular wills and even the sum of particular wills, which he calls the will of all and explicitly differentiates from the general will (Rousseau 1998, 106), Rousseau marks the danger involved in postulating a notion of the common good as the finality of politics, in terms of our political cases against ethics. The notion that the deviant will be “forced to be free” marks the violence inherent in an order that has to suppress a particular kind of subjectivity; and not only that, but all of politics. The general will is already known to all: it is indestructible, so that even under conditions of complete corruption everyone will know was is to be done, even though they will perhaps “mute” this insight (ibid, 105). Using the name of the common good, we presuppose the existence of the common as something that is readily available and thus able to ground the social without remainder. This remainder or un-common, insofar as it does for now exist, knows what it is doing because it, too, has access to the general will. It therefore deserves to be tried in the tribunal of history, or at least to be educated out of existence. (I here have in mind the goal of Rousseau’s Emile: to produce, through education, the kind of person that is not affected by the problems Rousseau signals in his own time.)

The philosophical tools to reflect on the ontology this presupposes only became available in the context of German Idealism. Hegel’s analysis of the universal occurs not by assuming it as given, but sees it as the result of a process of abstraction from various modes of concretion. His understanding of determinate negation allows Hegel to see the implication: universality is necessarily contaminated by the very concretion it seeks to differentiate itself from. Politically speaking, this means that a claim to “represent the general will, where the general will supersedes the individual wills of which it is composed” in fact exists at their expense (Butler 2000, 23). After all, the universality of the general will did not leave behind the particularity of individual wills, but remains contaminated by them. This means that the will of those who are excluded remains present in its political absence to haunt the institutions from which it is excluded. In Judith Butler’s analysis, this entails that government functions along the lines of a “paranoid economy” that has to declare that certain wills are unreal and undeserving to be represented, which results in a logic of suspicion and conjecture (ibid). This prefigures the insistence on the ontological impossibility of closure that we find in later authors. Hegel’s argument against pure universality is thus a strikingly contemporary refutation of Rousseau’s general will. But where do we go from here?

It is only in Nietzsche’s genealogy of morality that the historical, speculative and iterative project of Rousseau was resumed: this time without the element of closure that haunts Rousseau like an authoritarian spectre. Nietzsche offers a devastating critique of the kind of responsibility that is rooted in the experience of guilt, which turns the gaze of the common good and the direction of tribunalization inwards, towards one’s individual conscience. For Nietzsche this is something we are not born with: rather, we are disciplined into it. As with Rousseau, evil is not an original feature of human beings (there is no Ursprung, only Herkunft), but a trajectory without a decisive point, at the end of which we are the ones responsible for our own status as and morally faulty beings; but this time, also for being responsible, moral beings in the first place. Let us dive into Nietzsche.

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4 thoughts on “Depolcrit #10: Into Ethics, Rousseau (2/2)

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