The concept of a Social Contract; namely, that the authority of the state is derived from the theory that we, the subjects, have in some sense promised to obey it; was already a commonplace of political philosophy by the time Jean-Jacques Rousseau published his book on the subject in 1762. But Rousseau’s social contract was not with any government as such, but with an abstract concept which he calls the “General Will”. As he puts it in chapters 6 and 7 of Book 1, it involves “The total alienation by each associate of himself and all his rights to the whole community”, and “Each one of us puts into the community his person and all his powers under the supreme direction of the General Will”. (I am using Maurice Cranston’s translation for the Penguin Books edition).
Bertrand Russell found the concept of the General Will “obscure”, so I would like to explain it by the following analogy. Supposing I was a member of a sports team; football, cricket, rugby or whatever; and I was asked what I hope for in the next match, I would reply that I wanted the team to win and that I personally should play brilliantly. Any other member of the team would of course give the same answer. In Rousseau’s terminology, my desire to play well is my “private will”, and the desire for victory, which is shared by all members of the team, is the “general will”. If I play in a team game, I commit myself to giving the success of the team priority over my personal ambitions. In any team, someone who plays just for his own glory, not for the good of the team, is not respected and is bad for morale. A member of the team who does not do his utmost to ensure victory for the team, may, as Rousseau says, be legitimately compelled to do so
A moment’s thought shows that this applies to the team captain just as much as to anyone else. The sole purpose of his position is to help the team to victory, and it is quite wrong for him to be swayed by favouritism or personal prejudice in his choice of tactics or team selection. Any captain who behaves like this is unworthy of his office and should be replaced immediately.
The notion of the General Will applies even more strikingly to armies, where a soldier is expected to surrender even his own life, if necessary, for the greater cause; and the army commanders must not be motivated by the search for personal glory. Similarly, the duty of a government leader is simply to be the “first servant” of his people, and must never choose policies on the basis of private ambition, favouritism or class interest. (Of course all politicians try to portray themselves like this, and many may even believe it to be true!)
The General Will is therefore “what is best for the team/company/state”. But how is it to be determined? Who ultimately makes the decision on what tactics or policy should be followed to ensure success? It is clearly unwise to entrust this to a hereditary monarch or self-appointed dictator. Rousseau believes that ultimately the most important decisions should be entrusted to the people. They will never reach unanimous agreement on what should be done, but we trust that the majority will choose the right way. This is the underlying assumption of democracy (democracy in our sense: Rousseau uses the word slightly differently). If the majority gets it wrong, however; electing a wicked or incompetent leader or voting for a disastrously bad policy; then the whole system has broken down and nothing can be done.
The question must be, however, how far this doctrine can realistically be applied to a state. For a start, Rousseau insisted that the social contract to serve the General Will must be entirely free and unforced. This obviously applies to a voluntary organisation like a sports team, and it can be applied to an army made up entirely of volunteers, but it cannot apply to a conscript army, and it is extremely questionable how far being a citizen of a state can be seen as a voluntary act. Then again, the General Will of a sports team is simple and straightforward (namely, to win matches), but the General Will of a country is much more complex and difficult to ascertain: in a large country like France or Britain, whatever policy may be adopted is bound to benefit some groups and disadvantage others, and cause deep antagonism. Rousseau was aware of this: his ideal state was no bigger than an ancient Greek or Italian Renaissance city, with at the most only a few thousand citizens, with a simple economy and no deep divisions between rich and poor. He thought that the larger, an hence more diverse, a state was, the more likely it was to be governed dictatorially.
One final sinister point. When Rousseau says that a recalcitrant person who refuses to subordinate his personal desires to the General Will, the expression he uses is that such a person “shall be forced to be free” (Book 1, chapter 7). This is an unusual definition of freedom; similar to the attitude of religious believers who say that someone who disobeys God’s command is not being free but is merely “a slave to sin”, whereas serving God is “perfect freedom”. Rousseau says in chapter 8 that “to be governed by appetite alone is slavery, while obedience to a law one prescribes to oneself is freedom”. This definition has proved very useful to dictators ever since: both Hitler and the communist leaders were speaking in a Rousseauist sense when they claimed to have “liberated” their people: treating independent thought as wicked perversity and mindless conformity as “freedom”. Hence Rousseau can be seen as the father both of democracy and totalitarian dictatorship.
(There is a later entry which deals with explanations and definitions of other terms used by Rousseau, and also one describing his year living in Staffordshire)