Politics in Minutes (2016)

Rousseau: the general will

In the Enlightenment period, political philosophers proposed freedom and equality as the foundations for modern society in place of the old order of monarchs and subjects. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, however, saw things from a different perspective. In his view, civil society does not promote freedom and equality, as it is designed to protect private property rather than rights and liberty. Because of this it actually creates inequality. Left to their own devices, people in a ‘state of nature’ are free, but become enslaved by the restrictions of society. For them to become free again, they must act and make decisions collectively, so that individuals submit to the ‘general will’ of the people. This depends on each member of society being equal in status, which cannot be achieved until they also abandon their right to private property and treat resources as being available for all. Writing in the mid-18th century, Rousseau anticipated the basic elements of socialism that emerged with industrialization and the inequalities created by capitalist ownership of mills and factories.