Saturday, October 11, 2008

Rousseau and the Rise of the Corporate State

In The Social Contract, something fundamental changes in the development of modern liberalism that lays the foundation for modern corporatism. Corporatism is the modern belief in the unitary power of the all-encompassing State that is the provider of goods for citizens and the final authority in all matters political, economic, religious and moral. Corporatism can take a Fascist form or a Communist form, but it can also take a liberal democratic form. In the case of Fascism and Communism it becomes a "hard totalitarianism," but in its evolving liberal democratic form it becomes a "soft totalitarianism" or as Pope Benedict XVI called it: "a dictatorship of relativism." The seeds of "hard totalitarianism" are in Hobbes, but it is only with Rousseau that the groundwork is laid for the "soft totalitarianism" we see rising in the West today.

Rousseau agrees with Hobbes that all the evils of European society stem from Christianity and that the Church must be neutralized as a power in society. Thus, it appears that Hobbes' Leviathan is necessary because it takes up into itself both the civil power of the state and the religious authority of the Church. Yet, Rousseau is unhappy with this solution and finds Hobbes' Leviathan despotic; "horrible and false" is what he calls it. What is Rousseau's objection to Hobbes' police state? He objects that in such a state man lives only for the gaze of others, whom he hates. The individual is a slave and even those who command are slaves to opinion. There is no room for individuality. Modern liberal society makes men unhappy because this society is unnatural. As Manent puts if, for Rousseau (as for the ancients): "The good society can only be one that conforms to man's nature." (Manent, An Intellectual History of Liberalism, 73)

Now this seems, on the surface, astonishing! Is Rousseau advocation a return to the teleological anthropology of Plato and Aristotle? Is he perhaps going to advocate human rights rooted in the will and design of the Creator? Is he about to abandon the Enlightenment project? In a word, no.

Rousseau identifies human nature as what you have left once you have stripped away all "artificiality," that is, everything contributed by socialization into human society. The natural man is asocial and thus a cipher. Man is nothing in particular. As Manent observes, this is the "paradoxical moment when man's nature is most vehemently appealed to in the political debate, and when it ceases in fact to serve as its regulator and criterion. . . It is the point when revolution, in the modern sense of the term, becomes possible." (74)

Since a good political order (in Rousseau's view) must both enable individualism and also base itself on human nature, the solution is for the political order to itself become a perpetual revolution. The individual, whose essence is liberty, thus becomes one in essence with the State, whose essence is revoulution. The "general will" is the locus of all individual wills and is the new artificial individual (the State) with which all individual wills identify. The very process of change becomes a matter of the individual changing along with the State in a revolutionary process, which expresses the essence of man, namely freedom. As long as man is bound by nothing he may consider himself to be a free citizen of a free State.

Locke's property-owning individual citizens turn into Rousseau's citizens - Spartans. Rousseau's citizen is free in the sense of being autonomous but he is such only insofar as he is part of a State that is identical with his own nature by engaging in perpetual revolution. Manent comments:

"To say that with Rousseau modern political thought reached its limits is to say that after him there is no longer any political philosophy in the strict or original sense. As we have seen, once the idea of nature has been exhausted, the question of the best political regime conforming to man's nature can no longer be posed as such. Nature ceases to be the criterion, the reference, or the model. Two other criteria are going to take its place: history and liberty. All political considerations and theories after the French Revolution will develop within philosophies of history and will be subordinated to them." (78)

Rousseau represents the moment in Western civilization when the theoretical foundations were laid for the swallowing up of the individual in the maw of the corporate state. In a very important this represents the end of the West, that is, the end of that experiment in Europe in which the individual was held to precede the State and to be endowed with dignity and rights that come from Nature or God, but which the State could only recognize. With Rousseau the framework was put in place for the right-wing and left-wing horrors of the twentieth century.

No comments: