I’m not going to explain Rousseau’s Social Contract. Frankly, if you’re reading this, you can look up what better folks than I have to say about the Swiss philosopher meant or should have meant or maybe meant. Also, you probably have access to a public library. And if that public library is poorly stocked in terms of Enlightenment philosophy and commentary, there are university libraries. Maybe you can’t check out a book, but there is pretty much no barrier to simply going inside and spending a few hours reading up on the subject.
What struck me was how some of his remarks are quite prophetic in their implicit criticism of some of the structural problems affecting the American (and global) economy.
Very early on, he criticizes what today we might call rentier capitalism. In The Social Contract, he is speaking purely about land (possession of agricultural still being the avenue towards wealth and the source of the aristocracy’s wealth), but the idea is easily transferable to modern financial instruments.
Possession of land, he says, must, in part, be justified by ‘labor and cultivation.’ Modern financial instruments do little to actually invest in production or innovation or much of anything (if I buy AT&T stock, AT&T does not suddenly have extra capital to expand broadband access; rather, I have simply given money to the someone who used to own the stock). In other words, they do not participate in ‘labor and cultivation.’
Later, he also explicitly attacks finance directly, as a destructive force that drives government away from the business of public service and which replaces ‘community’ (though he references the city-state, which shouldn’t be taken too literally, but rather as a reference to Greek philosophy and an idealized, Athenian-style polis) with money.
On economic inequality:
It is precisely because the force of circumstances tends continually to destroy equality that the force of legislation should always tend to its maintenance.
His distinction between ‘will’ and ‘force’ are in the context of the difference between the legislative and executive branches, which is less interesting and, in one sense, posits ‘will’ as the act of legislation and ‘force’ as the act of execution of said legislation (later, he also says that separation of the legislative and executive is necessary in a democracy). But he is pretty explicit that will is a moral cause (using ’cause’ in a loose, but not too loose, philosophical sense).
He gets what Machiavelli was trying to do in The Prince. Ostensibly writing for a prince, but actually writing for a future, restored republic.
Rather interestingly, he notes that, sometimes, slavery was a necessity for a form of democracy. He notes that widespread use of slaves in ancient Sparta might have been what allowed Spartan citizens to be free to participate in the government and direction of their city.
It’s interesting because, more and more, it is clear that American democracy was built on the economic back of slavery – that only the economic benefits (benefits for the white, male elite who created American democracy) of slavery allowed for the existence of America, both intellectually and practically.
The old copy of the book that I read had a slip of paper in it (actually, a piece torn from an envelope), with an address in my writing to the Open Fist Theatre Company in Los Angeles. It’s not far from my old apartment in Hollywood, though I don’t remember going there.