The basic structure of what we could call the peace narrative has so far been quite clear. Saint-Pierre limits his cosmopolitan aspirations to Europe for pragmatic reasons and is chided by Rousseau for being insufficiently aware of the practical consequences of what he is proposing. Uprooting the present form of Europe and the private interests it is attached to would require a violent revolution that humanity should not pursue, even if the end of a peaceful Europe is in itself a good one. Rousseau continues his point by describing the ‘concert of Europe’ as a collection of both visible and less visible confederations. Europe has plunged itself into all manner of wars, but this is not for a lack of underlying unity. It is, in other words, only in terms of the violence needed to establish this unity politically, in such a way that it can bring a lasting peace, that Rousseau rejects Saint-Pierre’s project. In later writings, Rousseau takes on a much more forceful stance. The language of compulsion he employs in the context of discussing the general will suggests that if politics if to be anything other than ‘absurd’ and ‘tyrannical’ any deviations from the public good need to be corrected. This means that any concern for particular wills or private interests as such immediately vanishes as soon as a conflict with the general will occurs. The general will is thus posed as a moral finality of politics, which in depoliticizes the whole political edifice by putting it in its proper place.

Nothing could be more natural than to assign Immanuel Kant to the same category. His ethics is infamous for being uncompromising, with the categorical imperative providing an absolute measure for the morality of any action, directing our empirical drives in a direction that we should unconditionally follow[1]. Morality is in turn defined as the supreme principle of action, so that there is never a legitimate reason to deviate. For such reasons, Friedrich Nietzsche claims that “the categorical imperative reeks of cruelty [Grausamkeit])”[2]. In most of Kant’s writings, the application of such unwavering principles to politics seems rather straightforward. Like Rousseau, Kant favors a contractualist theory; like Rousseau, Kant sees the terms of the social contract as following from a “general (unified) will”[3]. His argument runs very swiftly here: legitimate right [Recht] is tied to law, and since a public law that conditions the legitimacy and illegitimacy of the acts of all persons is valid for everyone, it is necessarily the will of the people in its entirety, so that everyone in fact decides for themselves. For “only to oneself can one not commit an injustice”[4]. Legitimate right thus presupposes the form of a public law that in turn presupposes a general will.

Interestingly enough, Kant goes even further than Rousseau in making politics independent from any empirical starting point. As we have seen in a previous post, Rousseau politicized human nature by severing the relationship between ‘natural man’ and the ends to be achieved in politics: in fact, the nature of man is something to be achieved by political means. Rousseau later closes off this space by superimposing the general will onto it. Kant likewise abstracts from empirical conditions, but already begins to close his fist at the exact moment at which he opens it. The difference is that in Kant the general will itself directs the contract in completely ahistorical fashion. On his analysis, there is no handwritten contract that has been passed down to our present age and in that sense obligates us to honour its terms[5]. This is a potentially politicizing move: the absence of a handwritten contract means that politics cannot be restricted by any such document. However, for Kant, the absence of a handwritten contract is offset by the idea that the contract exists in another way and remains binding on all citizens. It exists as a “mere idea of reason [bloße Idee der Vernunft]”, which at the same time has its practical reality, since as the general will of the people, any political principle can be evaluated in terms of its possible correspondence to the will of the people[6].

We have to take stock of the multiple depoliticizing effects that are occurring at the same time. First, we here see the reverse side of the abolishment of handwritten contracts, namely the return of enforceable terms as ideas of reason. Second, we see that any political principle that possibly corresponds to the will of the people is thereby deemed legitimate, so that a broad spectrum of principles is immediately set at a distance from political contestation. We have to add to this that, third, Kant specifies that the judgment about possible correspondence is only the ruler’s to make[7]. There is no room for the people to contest any decision based on their own happiness or any other motive, since it is only legitimate right that has the potential to secure these conditions, so that obeying the law remains their duty[8]. Politics is thus circumscribed by principles that constrain it, which provide a broad basis of legitimation: and the decision about legitimacy is moreover restricted to the ruler alone.

[1] Kant 2010a, 99

[2] Nietzsche 2009, 55

[3] Kant 1977, 143

[4] ibid, 149

[5] ibid, 152

[6] ibid, 152-153

[7] ibid, 153

[8] ibid, 153-162


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