THE SOCIAL COMPACT
If then we discard from the social compact what is not of its essence, we shall find that it reduces itself to the following terms:
“Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole.”
- Jean Jacques Rousseau, “The Social Contract”, G.D.H. Cole (trans.),
Great Books of The Western World, Volume 38.
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I knew it was R before I saw it was. It is a deficient statement and the primary reason why the Terror took root. Constitutional democracy recognizes the fallibility Peirce perceived as pervasive.
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I view it more as a Condition On The Possibility Of Democracy —
it may be a Be-All but it’s never an End-All.
Spelled out codes and codicils have their place for a People so fallible and forgetful of their constituted principles, but Socrates’ warning on writ without wisdom applies here as everywhere. For all their instrumental utility, graven contracts and constitutions will not preserve a People from perdition if they lose their Three Musketeerial Spirit Of Democracy.
A friend & colleague of mine — now up at Rockford, IL but not NIU — gave a paper once where he presented an argument about the totalitarian tendencies of that statement. And, to be sure, it certainly bares some uncomfortable parallels with the language used in various fascist texts (especially the “corporate” terminology, as the “body” of the “people.”)
I can see how the Grand Inquisitor or the Borg Queen might interpret it like that, but it would be just like them to miss the whole point of its reciprocal commitments: one to all and all to one. Those ones are indivisible, irreducible, never the zeroes to which the Totalitarian Order ever tries and ever fails to reduce its subjects.
Well, I don’t mean to suggest that such horrors were ever what R intended or imagined. The unfortunate thing about his language was that it invited misinterpretation, especially given the events of the 20th C.
Today, I’d be more inclined to turn to Royce &/or King for a discussion of the centrality of community, what Royce called (and King picked up from Royce) the Beloved Community. In Rousseau’s language, the individual is swallowed by the Totalizing Whole. Royce understood that the whole was the possibility from which the Individual might emerge (Dewey also got this). King translated this into the foundation of the American Civil Rights movement.
Interpretation is in the I of the Interpreter. It is true that the Totalitariat will constantly try to represent itself as representing the General Will, but the General Will will generally beg to differ. The General Will is no Leviathan — no 1 is swallowed, no 1 submerged.
“…we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
The ‘General Will’ is one of several manifestations of what in one discussion on LI was called ‘Meta-Values’ that were suggested to guide decisions for such collective issues as climate change. (I took that discussion up with a reference to a longer post on the use of criterion functions on my WordPress AbbeBoulah blog, and a thread on Facebook’s Ecology of Systems Thinking). A frequent version was ‘The Common Good’. I share the concerns about such top-down approaches to collective decisions that tend to sweep individual concerns under the rug if not denounce them as ‘doctrinal blindness’, uninformed opinions, mental deficiency issues, counter-revolutionary or treasonous tendencies and even outright suppress them. The urgency to react to crises encourages acceptance of such top-down but often neither common nor good interpretations of the Common Good; especially in situations where trust in the interpretations of public officials has been eroded.
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