Monday, January 11, 2016

Cologne, Immigration to Europe, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau

“If you believe that an aging, secularized, heretofore-mostly-homogeneous society is likely to peacefully absorb a migration of that size and scale of cultural difference, then you have a bright future as a spokesman for the current German government.
You’re also a fool.”
                - Ross Douthat, Germany on the Brink

In the wake of the NYE violence in Cologne and other European cities the go to intellectual has been Michel Houellebecq and his dystopian novel Submission. But if you read Rousseau’s The Social Contract you can’t help but think of modern Europe and the path it’s chosen in recent decades.
Rousseau asks how we can exchange our ‘natural liberties’ and remain free. His answer is by submitting to a Sovereign who governs according to the general will, the will of all when they are willing correctly. The lawgiver is saying what everyone would say and so the citizen is simply obeying himself and thereby isn’t constrained.
Now it isn’t hard to see the authoritarian overtones in this, especially as Rousseau gets tagged for the French Revolution (dubiously in my very non-expert opinion), but it is interesting to note the many qualifications to this that appear in The Social Contract.

For one, while he has complete faith in reasons ability to ascertain the General Will he isn’t a Rationalist in the manner of Bentham confidently writing constitutions for all the nations of the world from his study. Unlike the philosophes, Rousseau is critical of Peter the Great for trying to make Russia like France. And there is an element of timing as when he notes the “French teacher who turns out his pupil to be an infant prodigy and for the rest of his life to be nothing whatsoever.”
Second, Rousseau’s models are not nations but the great city states of history, Sparta and Geneva for example, and he looks with promise not to France but to Corsica. To be sure, much of this has to do with his regard for direct, participatory government. But if I have not completely misread him, I think Rousseau is also saying that you can’t have a general will if you don’t have a shared understanding. Absent a common understanding we are back to either the precarious freedom of the state of nature, which is no freedom, or the chains of being ruled.

The point is nicely summarized at the end of Bertrand de Jouvenel’s Sovereignty:
“’Whenever the general will makes its voice heard easily, because beliefs and sentiments are deeply felt in common, it is possible for men to live under laws which are not felt as a burden because they correspond with the personal judgements of the subjects. When, on the other hand, the process of disassociation has set in the only expedient left is ‘Hobbism’ at its most complete.’…Rousseau attaches so much importance to the unity of beliefs that he goes so far as to say, notwithstanding his own protestant outlook, that the introduction of protestantism into France should, if possible, have been prevented—in his mouth a most revealing statement and one whose significance has been insufficiently realized.”

As another philosopher points out the ‘worth’ of philosophy is in the questions raised and the arguments not the conclusions (like math with the instruction “to show your work”), and that while it can’t tell us what to do it can clarify our thinking. One doesn’t have to go all the way to the end with Rousseau to accept the power and validity of his thought, to find The Social Contract a fascinating work of philosophy. “We hold these truths to be self-evident” is untenable as philosophy, but it does mark a Rousseauian, practical politics stop on speculation.

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