(Fragment dintr-o prezentare susţinută la Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin)
Actually, it’s easy to take for granted our own sociological notion of society, but in Rousseau’s times the word, when it was used, did not refer to a totality of ‘the social’, but rather, more often, to a particular professional or political group; there are some lexicographical hypotheses that suggest that it might have been Rousseau who introduced, in the title of his Social Contract, the adjective, and, with it, the new, proto-sociological meaning. He also uses the noun with the specific intention of distinguishing between political and pre-political civilizations and stages of history: the savage societies are those who ignore the political domination and the private property.
The moralistic literature of the 17th and 18th centuries might have had an important role in revealing the social dimension of individual behavior, but eventually, there was another ‘science’ that would contribute fundamentally to the birth of the notion of society, and that was political economy, especially the political economy elaborated by the physiocrats. By adopting this new perspective on the production and circulation of goods seen as national phenomena, political economy was opening the way to a new systematic totality, not to be confused with the state. But still, according to the physiocrats, that state activity that was meant to develop the economy – as an extension of the political activity of the monarch – had to conform to a so-called ‘natural order’ and to the natural right.
Rousseau’s theory of the society is also strongly connected to the economical questions. (There is one more important dimension, the passions, closely linked to the economy, but I will not treat it here; it’s enough to mention that, since passions are an all-important agent of the social behavior, although they too develop in conjunction with society, they make Rousseau’s theory less economist than his theory of the development and consequences of property might seem to suggest.)
So, in contrast with other economic trends that would take off in the middle of the century, Rousseau’s work on the economy is, first of all, a theory about the simultaneously anti-naturalist and foundational character of property in the political society. As we know from the Discourse on Inequality, property is an unfortunate accident of history. An undenounced usurpation of what was previously held in common; but, once established, once recognized and generalized as an individual, exclusive right, property becomes itself the main agent of the formation of the political structure and one of the most sacred political rights, on which depends the conservation of the social order.
This double character might also explain the apparent contradiction between the texts that focus on the usurpatory origin of property – like the Discourse on Inequality – and those that plan to reinforce it as a right (Discourse on Political Economy, Émile). Reinforce it, indeed, but with one enormously important conditionfor the just and stable state that the social contract intends to establish. – It is true that the Discourse on Political Economy starts by taking up entirely the arguments that Locke deployed, in his first Treatise on Government, against the political patriarchalism of Robert Filmer (who identified all power with the power of the father, coming in direct line from Adam, empowered by God himself to master the earth and its creatures). Locke is right, political authority is absolutely distinct from the familial one. But, for Rousseau, this distinction cannot be completed if we leave the matter of property aside, as a distinct, private sphere, as Locke did. Property stands as a foundation of the politics, not just as an individual right to protect, nor as the mere basis of a national politics meant to consolidate the state, as for the physiocrats; property means, from the beginning, a division between those who have and those who don’t have, those who have beendispossessed and those who benefited from dispossession. Here, the origin is not a mere spectre that is haunting society, but it’s the effective source of both division and legitimation and, as such, it is embedded in the social body.
(We should just remember the lesson in which little Émilewas supposed to learn that property of the soil stems – as Locke had bravely discovered – from individual labour. It’s just that, very soon, the boy finds out that the land he had labouredon belongs already to somebody else and, therefore, his own labour too belongs to that landowner. - Labour and property do not converge, that’s obvious for Rousseau, for some get the labour and others get the property. Moreover, in spite of Locke’s pretension that there is always more land to occupy, Émile finds out that it’s been long since the last piece of land has been taken hold on; in modern societies, then, social mobility through labour is not possible anymore.)
This is why the state cannot play the role of a huge oikos – of a huge household: the interests of the rulers and those of the ruled do not converge in a natural harmony, as it happens, supposedly, in the family. Nor could such a convergence represent the indirect consequence of some large-scale commercial practices, as implied by the theories of le doux commerce and later by the notion of the invisible hand. There is no common economic interest: the wealth of the powerful is based on the poverty of the week. The harmony of interest, rather exceptional, can only be constructed by the art of legislation, and its sole instrument is the universal sovereignty of the entire body of the people, the popular sovereignty. The whole political question – how can we create the conditions for political freedom, how can autonomy and reason be built – has to take into account this particular form of denaturation of the modern man, the specificity of his society where generalized competition became a habitus, while personal distinction and enrichment became forms of obligation. Rather, the behavior of the ‘violent reasoner’, the one who refuses cynically to subscribe to a so-called general interest and to obey the collective decisions, is the true rational behavior in a society that is already built on inequality and deceit. In this kind of political organization, individual freedom would lead to a perfectly Hobbesian state of war, while order could only be built on coercion.
Therefore, the objective of the social contract cannot be just the limitation of the royal power, or the elimination of arbitrary rule – which were, in general, the ambitions of those who asked for political reformation - , but the transformation of the whole structure of power, of the subject of sovereignty (the totality of the people) as well as of its object (all the constitutional conditions that define the life in a political community). A condition for the creation of the common interest is, then, to limit the class gap in such a way as to prevent the transformation of wealth into a means of domination, and the lack of survival means into personal dependency.
Property, and especially money, once the economic wealth has been converted into fluid monetary units, is in itself the most immediately productive dimension of the social life. Not only that money can multiplyitself infinitely, but, in its movement of infinite multiplication, it produces new forms of social life; without, though, revolutionizing the social structure in itself. ‘Money is the seed of money and the first guinea is incomparably more difficult to acquire than the second million.’ But, unless a radical restructuring takes place, the transformations are always in the same direction. Wealth and power go hand in hand as they reinforce eachother. But, as this is a very general principle, not a historical specific one, Rousseau does not explicitly distinguish between a ‘commercial’ society and a ‘pre-commercial’ one, so he has no reason to bemoan, as some political conservatives do, the social mobility of a new class endowed with ‘new money’.
Nevertheless, there is no need for Rousseau to talk about an already capitalist society in order to deplore the multiple disadvantages brought by the generalization of the market and of the monetary exchanges: firstly, agriculture, the main productive activity in society, is endangered and rendered precarious because the agricultural producers – who, accidentally, are also the main tax payers – need money for their taxes, so the constraint to obtain liquid money for their perishable commodities diminishes their capacities of negotiation. Besides, a market for luxury goods exists along the market for the products of everyday consumption, and, since the demand for the latter is much higher, their monetary value decreases as the value of those goods required for the social distinction increases. Therefore, the agricultural producers are ruined by this unilateral flux of money and goods drained from the country to the unproductive urban community, and thus the market and the monetarisation deepen the social rift and subvert the autonomy of all those involved.Instead of being an opportunity for the producer, the market is a constraint. Secondly, according to Rousseau, money itself is, for the possessor, rather an obstacle than an open path to the enjoyment of life, because it effectively alters the quality of the commodity for the consumer, exactly as the market deflates the exchange-value of the commodity for the producer. For that matter, a fragment from the Émile – which starts with aIf I were a rich man… - explains that, in order to enjoy his wealth, a rich man should find a very special way of well using his money such as to get access to those things whose value does not actually depend on money, to the priceless things.
Among the solutions to block this dynamics are, of course, the fiscal policies. Not only should the taxes be payed by everyone – that was far from being an universally acknowledged principle at the time -, but the ideal tax system would be, for Rousseau, not a flat one, but one which should reflect the inequal access to wealth and power. (And that’s just another dimension of Rousseau’s criticism of the ideology of `merit’: the fact that the rich man has a greater need of the State than the poor means he will have to pay a higher percentage in taxes). Here, a formal equality would only mean an expansion of real inequality.
Once again, the criticism of abstraction targets an abstract idea of equality manifested in the idea of amere arithmetical proportionality between the wealth of the rich and the purse of the poor.
Now, we could say that these are exactly these kinds of abstractions or fantasies that can, in Rousseau’s view, account for the lack of political realism – either if we talk about the aforementioned political ideas of Diderot, or about those of the physiocrats. (in a Letter to the Marquis of Mirabeau, 1767, he states that the physiocratical system was good just for the people living in the city of the Utopia, exactly like those projects intended to establish perpetual peace.) The political illusion does not consist in the fantasy of changing the social reality, but, on the contrary, in the fatalistic image one can have of the possibilities inscribed in the reality, in the conviction that the reality is the true measure of the possible.
And here, again, being too pessimistic – meaning not believing in the possibilities of change– and being too optimistic – believing that the social world can be changed by will almost immediately – are the two faces of the same abstract thought whose consequence is political unrealism. Naturalizing the present social landscape, the modern economic practices, and pretending that what is is more or less what should be – on the one hand; and not taking into account the social objectivity, the presence of what is, and pretending to build a totally new reality by reconciling morality with private interest and downplaying what is actually impossible to reconcile in this social order – on the other hand; indulging in satisfaction with reality and not recognizing the reality: these are both ways of suppressing the distance between the real and the possible.
Instead, the real potential of emancipation is inseparable from a good historical and social theory.And the political emancipation is always a struggle with and against reality.