Saturday, December 15, 2007

Rousseau vs. Hobbes on sovereignty, citizenship, & the political

This was sent (in October 2007) to students in my seminar on social & political theory. It may be of more general interest.  [Also available as a PDF file here.]
—Jeff Weintraub

To: Members of PoliSci. 181-601 (Modern Political Thought)
From: Jeff Weintraub
Re: A final word from planet Rousseau ...
... before we move on to planet Burke

One advantage of reading Hobbes and Rousseau in close proximity is that they present us with especially radical and concentrated examples of two of the most fundamental and influential images of politics and the political realm—or, to put it another way, with two of the most fundamental orienting approaches to conceiving and thinking about politics—that have run through western social and political theory. As a shorthand, we can call these the image of politics as sovereignty and the image of politics as citizenship.

(Rousseau, of course, picks up the concept of sovereignty and incorporates it in his theory—but, as usual, in a deliberately paradoxical way that transforms its significance. I will get to that below)

You will often encounter arguments that mix together elements from these two orientations in various ways, so to get a clear sense of the basic differences between them and the inner logic of each, it can be illuminating to consider them in relatively pure form. Hobbes and Rousseau are useful for this purpose.

=> I explained this contrast to some extent in Ch. III of Freedom and Community, especially pp. 10-11 & 16-18 of that chapter, so I won't try to reproduce that whole discussion here. [I also address this distinction in pp. 10-16 of my essay on "The Theory and Politics of the Public/Private Distinction"—a condensed version of which can be found HERE.] But here is a quick summing-up of the basic picture.

Essentially, for the first conception, the central requirement and defining feature of a political unit or body politic is the existence of an effective sovereign power—that is, a more or less unified, concentrated, and exclusive center of political power and authority that stands above the society and governs it through the enactment, enforcement, and administration of laws. This orientation takes for granted the distinction between the rulers and the ruled, or sovereign and subject (and this is true whether a particular thinker winds up taking the side of the rulers or of the ruled).

In the approach oriented to the notion of citizenship, on the other hand, the underlying model of politics and the political realm centers on a process of collective decision-making and collective self-determination by a body of fundamentally equal citizens united in a self-governing political community. Ultimate authority is lodged, not in a sovereign that stands above the society, but in the community of citizens itself.

Each of these orientations generates a different problematic—that is, a different range of theoretical and practical problems, issues, and questions that are considered most necessary and appropriate for political theory and practice to address. And, of course, each tends to be linked (in complex ways) to distinctive images of human nature and social order.

=> Consider a few contrasts that flow from, or are linked to, the fundamental contrast between these two images of the political.

For Hobbes, the primary and essential requirement for a viable social and political order is the existence (or creation) of an effective sovereign. To put it slightly differently, in more colloquial everyday terms, the primary questions are: Is there a government? Is it in control? Who controls it?

Rousseau, however, insists that a set of otherwise disconnected individuals who happen to be dominated by the same ruler would not constitute a body politic but at most an "aggregation" (Social Contract, Book I, ch. 5, p. 147) that could dissolve as soon as the ruler's power faltered. The prior and more fundamental requirement is the existence of a people—that is, a community. Therefore, the most important questions have to do with understanding the kinds of solidarity that bind a community together, maintain it, and give it its identity. Or, to put it slightly differently: Is there a people? And what makes it a people?

Now, how about the meaning of "politics"? From both perspectives, one of the distinctive functions of political power and political action (though not the only such function) involves consciously considering public issues, matters of common or collective concern, and collective outcomes—and making binding decisions about them. For Hobbes, making such decisions is of course the exclusive role of the sovereign. Individuals in the society should attend to their own individual affairs and pursue their individual interests, while the sovereign power acts to construct the framework of laws and institutions within which they pursue their private interests and "to direct their actions to the Common Benefit" (Leviathan, ch. 17, p. 227).

In the model of politics as citizenship, on the other hand, the citizens themselves, acting as members of a community, ultimately have both the power and the responsibility to participate, directly or indirectly, in considering these collective issues and making collective decisions about them. In practice, this kind of politics will involve public discussion and debate and deliberation, political cooperation and disagreement, collective action, active solidarity and contestation, and so on. To quote Lincoln's lapidary formulation: "government of the people, by the people, for the people." One implication, of course, is that ordinary members of the society—acting as citizens—must have both the capacity and the willingness to actively consider public issues, collective outcomes, and the pursuit of "the Common Benefit." For this larger tradition on which Rousseau is drawing, the concept that captures this combination of capacities, orientations, and commitments is "republican virtue"—sometimes also termed "political virtue," "public virtue," and/or "civic virtue."

=> We might say that, in their different ways, both Hobbes and Rousseau see politics and the political realm as having a central role in the social order, both actually and ideally. By contrast, a thinker like Adam Smith—and the larger orientation which he represents—would like to reduce or de-emphasize the role of the political as much as possible.

Smith, as we discovered from Books III-V of The Wealth of Nations, certainly does see a necessary and important role for an effective sovereign power in helping to guarantee security, enforce contracts, maintain a legal system, construct necessary infrastructure, etc. But, for Smith, the sovereign is not the basis of social order; instead, its role is primarily to serve as a backup facilitating the "natural" operation of the market system. Ideally, government should be limited strictly to its irreducible necessary functions, and collective outcomes should be subject as little as possible to conscious decision-making by anyone (instead, they should be left as much as possible to the "invisible hand"). Nor, as you will have noticed, does Smith's theory place much value or emphasis on political participation, conscious cooperation, collective decision-making, community, or solidarity. In a sense, one might almost describe the main thrust of Smith's theory as being not just (relatively) un-political but even anti-political.

But that similarity between Hobbes and Rousseau, at least in comparison with a theorist like Smith, also highlights a crucial difference between their perspectives. Hobbes and Rousseau both see politics and the political realm as being of central importance, but what kind of "politics"?

Recall that the politics of citizenship involves, above all, an ongoing process of active participation by citizens in collective action, collective decision-making, and collective self-determination. In other words, participation in active political life should be spread through society. (In a well-ordered republic, Rousseau tells us in Book 3, ch. 15 of The Social Contract [p. 198], citizens rush eagerly to participate in the assembly, and “public business takes precedence over private business in the minds of citizens.”) In Hobbes's ideal model, on the other hand, "politics" in this sense should not exist at all. Instead, political power and responsibility should be concentrated in the sovereign, and society should be depoliticized. To put it another way, the "public" political power of the sovereign should rule over and, in principle, on behalf of a society of "private" and politically passive individuals. The stronger the sovereign, the less politics.

=> One distinctive twist that Rousseau puts on the model of politics as citizenship (following up a hint by Montesquieu) is to accept the suggestion that there must be a sovereign power, but then to deny that this sovereign is or should be separate from the people. Instead, in any legitimate regime, the sovereign is the people—that is, the body of citizens acting together as members of the political community, collectively in control of decisions and actions that affect them all. (Thus Rousseau insists, against common usage, that "the sovereign" does not refer to the government or the ruler. Instead, government officials should act merely as agents of the sovereign people.)

Rousseau also accepts, in his own way, Hobbes's argument that the sovereign must be unified. But for Hobbes the unity of the sovereign is achieved precisely by separating the sovereign from the subjects—that is, from the mass of individuals in society—as strictly as possible, and restricting those who control sovereign power to as tight a group as possible (ideally, a single individual). For Rousseau, on the other hand, the unity of the sovereign—which is to say, of the political community of citizens—depends above all on the solidarity between citizens, their commitment to the community and to republican liberty, and their exercise of republican virtue.

=> One upshot of all this is that, for Rousseau, considering the fundamental bases and requirements of the good society and the good political regime lead us immediately to the problem of community (a concern that, to say the least, is not central to the theories of either Hobbes or Smith).

The problem of community also happens to be a central one for Edmund Burke—but Burke's conception of community, and the social and political theory in which it is embedded, are different from Rousseau's in important ways. So on to Burke....

Yours for theory,
Jeff Weintraub

[P.S. For some related issues, see Hobbes on sovereignty, social order, & the nature of the social contract.]