I have already dealt in an earlier post of the central concept of "The Social Contract" by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, which is the "General Will". But many of the terms used by Rousseau in explaining his ideas are confusing to us, because he employs words which have rather different meanings today. (Once again I am relying on the translation by Maurice Cranston, published by Penguin Books)
For Rousseau, the whole body of the citizens is always the final sovereign authority, and its supreme function is the passing of major constitutional legislation. Such laws have no validity unless approved by the citizens. Rousseau envisages the citizens all assembled under a tree for this purpose, though he admits this is practicable only in very small states. He does not approve of the election of delegates (such as Members of Parliament) to carry out this function. The modern equivalent of Rousseau's sovereign authority would be the Annual General Meeting of a company or society. I suppose Rousseau today would approve of binding referendums being held on all important questions.
2. Laws and Republics
When Rousseau and his contemporary political thinkers talked about "laws", what they actually meant was what we would call "constitutions": the fundamental rules that regulate how a state, or any other organisation, is to be run. The key function of such laws was that they clearly laid down what the state could and could not do. Eighteenth century writers thus distinguished between states governed by "laws" and those governed by "arbitrary power", in which the government could do whatever it liked. It was the proud boast of English people that the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688-9 had made them a "free people", in a state governed by laws. Even King George III believed this, and spoke frequently of "our matchless constitution". Rousseau points out that constitutional laws would have to be drawn up by someone he calls a "lawgiver", who must be motivated by pure altruism rather than by the desire for personal gain. There can be no doubt that both Thomas Jefferson and Napoleon saw themselves as lawgivers in the Rousseauist mode. Rousseau calls any state governed by laws a "Republic", regardless of its form of government.
In Rousseau's system we have a dual aspect: as citizens, we all have a share in making the laws, but as subjects, we have a duty to obey the laws. The government he sees as an intermediary body between subjects and citizens; enforcing the laws that the citizens have made. But this has nothing to do with sovereign authority, which always abides with the whole citizen body. He insists that we have no duty to obey the government as such; if the government breaks the constitutional laws and behaves in an arbitrary fashion, we no longer have any duty to obey. Rousseau follows Aristotle in dividing governments into three kinds, but as always his definitions seem unusual :-
This means "government by the people", but Rousseau uses it to mean what would now be called "direct democracy", in which the whole people take all governmental decisions, as with the peasants in a village all meeting together under a tree. There is no doubt that Rousseau thinks that very small states are the best. He admits, however, that "A government so perfect is not suited to men".
Most political writers would call this "oligarchy": a system whereby governmental power is held by a small group of people. But how are this governing elite to be chosen? The worst system, Rousseau thinks, is to have a hereditary ruling group, and he uses several traditional arguments, going right back to Aristotle, to make this point. A much better system, he thinks, is to have an "elective aristocracy", in which the people choose their governors; but even this is less than ideal, since any ruling group will tend to give its own sectional interests priority over the good of the whole people. Rousseau would therefore call the British (or American) political system an "elective aristocracy": every few years we are able to choose which bunch of bosses we want to rule us, but this is the limit of our involvement in legislation. It is better than nothing, but, thinks Rousseau, it should not be confused with democracy. He makes this memorable comment on the British political system:-
"The English people believes itself to be free; it is gravely mistaken; it is free only during the election of Members of Parliament; as soon as the Members are are elected, the people is enslaved, it is nothing. In the brief moments of its freedom, the English people makes such a use of that freedom that it deserves to lose it". (Book III, chapter 15). I refrain from any comment!
To Rousseau, this is a sytem where all power is held by a single person. Rousseau might therefore describe Hitler, Stalin or Mao as "monarchs". He would surely also point out the hereditary character of the governments of, for instance, North Korea and Syria.
As with "democracy", the word "dictator" was not current in Rousseau's day: they were terms used in classical antiquity which he revived. Rousseau's near-contemporary, the English radical John Wilkes, never uses either word in his writings, though he was, in our terms, denouncing royal dictatorship and demanding more democracy. It is therefore no surprise that Rousseau uses the word "dictator" in an entirely Roman sense: someone who is given extraordinary powers as a temporary expedient to deal with a grave threat to the state. Rousseau might therefore call Churchill in the Second World War a "dictator", without using the word in any condemnatory sense - and, in the true Roman style, Churchill surrendered his powers once the war was over, though in his case involuntarily, since he was heavily defeated in the 1945 general election.
To Rousseau,true religion is an intensely private thing: what I believe in my heart. He is totally opposed to any organised church which is separate from the state, and may be in opposition to it. He praises Tsarist Russia and the Turkish caliphate for having churches firmly under governmental control - but says this is useful as a mechanism for social control, just as long as we don't confuse it with true religion! What I choose to believe in my heart is no concern of the state: I am answerable only for my actions, not for my beliefs. He throws in the gratuitous comment, "Christianity preaches only servitude and submission: its spirit is too favourable to tyranny for tyranny not to take advantage of it" (Book IV chapter 8). We can easily understand why the book was condemned not only by Catholics in France but also by the Calvinists of Rousseau's native Geneva!