TRIBUNE - True genius, the author of the Social Contract has nonetheless conceived an intellectual system which favored, after him, the thought ..
TRIBUNE - True genius, the author of Social contract Nevertheless, he conceived an intellectual system which, after him, favored totalitarian thought, argues the aggregate of philosophy.
What is most familiar to us is also the most foreign to us. Where does the force of laws come from? And the concentration of power? On what basis is the political reality established? To investigate the nature of what binds us to one another in a community of law is the task that philosophy has set for itself since the fourth century. The dialogue that such a question provokes is not purely theoretical: it is political, because, according to the answer that one brings to the question of the foundations of the power, one determines the legitimate measure of its extension on our lives.
Among the great answers that history has tried to offer to a question so decisive, the one proposed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau marks a break. The second Speech and, more importantly, the Social contract propose a genealogy of the political community that illuminates contemporary debates. It is a genealogy that is involved, since, according to Rousseau, politics has not always existed: it is not natural. In the natural state of man, the social bond does not appear. Trying, like all modern political thought, to draw a state of nature, Rousseau introduces us to man as a self-sufficient loner, without any link that brings him closer to his fellow creatures. He does not feel the need since, having no desire that exceeds the necessities of any animal, it would be useless to resort to others to obtain what is superfluous. For Rousseau, society is first and foremost the result of a catastrophe which has unfortunately brought us out of this state of ignorance, innocence and absolute bliss.
Learning to live together
Victims of this irreversible fatality, we must learn to live together. To prevent the clash of our freedoms from putting us at every moment under the threat of others, Hobbes asserted that the political pact is to create a power that holds us all in awe by the fear it inspires us. Against the Leviathan State, Rousseau proposes another definition of the social contract: each one of us must associate his freedom in a collective body, and so sovereignty must be granted to the general will. Let everyone recognize the public decision as their own decision: in this way, by obeying the law that the State deliberates, we will obey only ourselves, and we can continue to be as free as before.
By this, Rousseau is of course precursor of the French Revolution, which he is undoubtedly one of the greatest inspirers. It revokes the idea that the source of power should be sought in a form of natural or supernatural reality that would precede the act of our freedom. It is the will of the participants of the social contract which makes the general will come into being, which constitutes it as such: power finds its principle in the people themselves. The "immanentist" ideal of modern democracy is born, with the promise of freedom it brings. But despite this promise, and even at its heart, lies the major tension that will soon justify being threatened, imprisoned, deported, organized terror, and killed - we crush the individual, in the name of freedom.
Through it, in fact, Rousseauism surreptitiously installs an unprecedented form of transcendence. The general will is the principle of a new messianism; it is not contained in the addition of individual wills. The general will, Rousseau warns, is not even "the will of all". For the will of the people can be deceived if the people have not judged well; the general will, for its part, is always right and always tends to public utility. To this new transcendence, we understand that everything is due; it makes explode what Pascal called the "distinction of orders": for the Christian, political power reigned over "the order of the bodies", the conscience over "the order of the reason", and the faith alone over "The order of charity". The sovereign could demand an external obedience: everyone was bound to conform his action to the common rule. But the adherence of the heart was reserved for what surpasses "grandeur of establishment" and great of this world. Christianity wants to give back to Caesar what is due to him, but nothing more. Henceforth, everything must be returned to power, from which comes the very existence of every citizen. By expelling metaphysics from politics, Rousseau frees the place of God only to install the state, which will soon become a providence.
The social contract, source of totalitarian madness
Bertrand Russell, in theHistory of western philosophy, says that the ultimate result of Rousseauism is called Hitler. Such a shortcut is of course hazardous, and derisory: the reductio ad hitlerum is always too simplistic to honestly challenge a thought. But it would be just as derisory to dispute that the Social contract was one of the sources of totalitarian madness. The terrestrial redemption which he proposes, by the consented absorption of each individual liberty into collective freedom; the obligation of the citizen, to be recognized as such, to recognize absolutely as his own will the "general will"; death accepted as a just answer for those who, by distancing themselves from the sovereign decision, are reputed to become enemies of society ... Who can doubt that this political vision is conducive to the absolutization of power, which has manifested in the twentieth century like never before?
The ancient world knew that politics is the human condition, not a construction of humans; but in the irreducible contingency of the history of our cities, ancient democracy made dialogue the condition of just deliberation. The new world promises that everything is in our hands, but on condition that we make it the workings of the great march of history. The evident exhaustion of partisan divisions has raised our great and dangerous illusion: to oppose to power the necessity of the contradictory dialogue, would be to oppose the good running of the State. Rousseau asserted that the advent of the "general will" was threatened by "brigades and associations"; today, we are told that party pluralism prevents the necessary consensus. This is the very principle of what Popper regarded as the rejection of "open society": there would be only those who walk and those who would like to stop. It is to forget too quickly that the direction of our itinerary is not given evidence; and that to preach the liberation of the individual in the contractualist utopia does not always lead, far from it, to realizing it in the facts.
Former student of the École normale supérieure, François-Xavier Bellamy is the author of "The Disinherited, or the Urgency to transmit" (Plon, 2014).