Key to the workings of the political machine


In the Social Contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau writes that “in order then that the social compact may not be an empty formula, it tacitly includes the undertaking, which alone can give force to the rest, that whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body. This means nothing less than that he will be forced to be free…” (Rousseau 27). The lines are particularly jarring, even when considered in context, because the notion of being “forced to be free” appears oxymoronic on its face, and seems difficult to square with some of Rousseau’s more egalitarian statements regarding the general will and the individual’s place in society. However, understanding what Rousseau means by this is crucial for understanding his theory of the social contract, because as he says, “in this lies the key to the workings of the political machine.” By considering Rousseau’s statement in the context of his larger argument, as well as in light of Immanuel Kant’s later statements regarding reason and freedom in society, it will become clear that this coerced freedom really is the basis on which all human society operates, because it is the process by which laws are legitimized across a society. However, while Rousseau’s theory is a relatively accurate description of how the social contract works and what is required for its continued function in general, there are practical issues which ultimately undermine its relevance to the real world.

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To begin one must explain what Rousseau means by “the general will,” because although the term means roughly what is implied by a straightforward reading of it, there are certain details of the general will as described by Rousseau that are extremely important for understanding his statement regarding forced freedom. A few lines earlier, Rousseau presents the general will in opposition to any particular individual’s will when he remarks that “in fact, each individual, as a man, may have a particular will contrary or dissimilar to the general will which he has as a citizen” (Rousseau 26). The important thing to note is that this individual has a general will not because his individual will corresponds to the general will, but rather because having and being part of a general will is an automatic component of being a citizen. In other words, the individual citizen is automatically part of the general will as a result of being a citizen, even if his or her individual will disagrees with the general will.

The general will, then, cannot simply be the will of the majority, or else it could not automatically include every citizen, regardless of their individual opinions. Instead, like the state itself, it must represent a kind of synthesis of individual wills that ends up desiring the best for all citizens, in the same way that the creation of a state is “a moral and collective body composed of as many members as the assembly contains voters” (Rousseau 24). Thus, in a sense, the general will is something that can be objectively determined, and the goal of all public discourse and deliberation is to determine what the general will actually is, and then act on it. In practice this is extremely difficult, not least of all because practically every single person in a society misidentifies his or her own individual will the general will, believing that whatever happens to be his or her particular ideological position is the objectively best position for the welfare and protection of everyone.

Surprisingly, Rousseau does not actually spend that much time describing how a society might actually go about determining the general will, and this is where Immanuel Kant’s later work is helpful. In his essay “What is Enlightenment?,” Kant describes enlightenment as “man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity,” and argues that “nothing is required for this enlightenment […] except freedom; […] the freedom to use reason publicly in all matters” (Kant). By this he means that enlightenment, or the intellectual and social development of humanity, can only occur when reason (and thus speech, and debate, and analysis) is allowed to be conducted in public freely, with no restrictions. This will ultimately allow society to determine the objectively ideal methods for the maintenance of society and the individual, because it will allow society to consider its own precepts and policies from a critical perspective, pointing out “the present institution’s shortcomings” (Kant).

In many ways Kant’s description of enlightenment by way of the public use of reason is actually a description of how a society might go about determining the general will, because for all intents and purposes, Kant’s enlightenment is almost the same as Rousseau’s general will, in that both represent the highest achievement of a society and can only be determined by the debate and argument of the disparate minds and wills that make up the state in the first place. Thus, even if Rousseau does not get into it that much, it seems as if reasoned debate and argument is the means by which the general will can be determined, which is actually a fairly hopeful position to take, because it suggests that there is an objective, ideal endpoint for society, so long as it commits itself to reason (something which rarely happens in practice, largely due to the fact that certain interests, such as religions and certain corporations, explicitly position themselves against reason due to its tendency to disagree with their made-up claims about objective reality). Essentially, the general will is whatever is left when the individual desires, biases, and logical fallacies of each individual person is weeded out through reasoned debate, and represents that collective action which will produce the ends that most benefit everyone. The ongoing, almost eternal process of society, then, is the constant refining of laws and rules so that they better reflect the general will as it is determined through a neverending debate.

With a better idea of the general will in mind, it is now possible to revisit Rousseau’s original statement to see what he is actually saying. He begins by noting that without the coercion he discusses, the social compact would be “an empty formula,” and indeed, all of the reason and debate in the world would not matter if there was no way of ensuring that the conclusions drawn from that debate were actually acted upon. There needs to be some mechanism for enforcement, because otherwise the unification of individuals into a collective entity of a state would be merely for show, with no real meaning or effect.

The line “who refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body” should have new meaning when considered in the context of the general will as described above, because in this context refusing to obey the general will is not the same as refusing to obey a law, or a ruler, or any other (essentially) arbitrary standard or dictate. Instead, because the general will is the objectively determinable ideal for society based on the desires and contributions of every individual within it, refusing to obey this will effectively means refusing to acknowledge the objective, logical conclusions of reason and debate. If the general will is something that can be determined through reason, and represents the distilled will and best interests of the collective, then the choice of whether or not to obey does not really exist for any reasonable person, because by definition they will find themselves engaging in and enacting the general will.

Thus, the person who refuses to obey the general will must be someone who refuses reason, and indeed, viewing them as such allows one to appreciate what Rousseau means by forcing them to be free. If someone rejects reason and debate, then they are effectively rejecting the basis by which human beings perceive the objective reality around them, and ultimately make decisions about their actions. Although this might seem like a (literally) delusional position to take, it is actually fairly common, with religious thought representing the most common and formalized rejection of reason, logic, and the mechanisms by which human beings make sense of the world. Instead of determining truth via reason and debate, this kind of thought simply asserts truth, and then attempts to formulate justifications for that assertion after the fact (depending on how much push-back it receives). This kind of thinking represents a rotting corruption within a society, because it serves to inhibit the process by which the general will is determined and enacted by refusing to acknowledge the utility and necessity of reason, instead preferring the arbitrarily-determined shackles of imaginary thought. This is why Rousseau ends the paragraph by saying that without this form of coercion, “civil undertakings […] would be absurd, tyrannical, and liable to the most frightful abuses,” terms which accurately describe the functioning of any and all theocracies, which by definition reject reason.

In this light, then, the person who refuses to obey the general will is ultimately working against his or her best interest, because he or she is attempting to prevent society from advancing beyond its current state; even if the individual believes that he or she is acting in his or her own best interest, by definition this cannot be the case if that interest is in opposition to the general will. Thus, it becomes necessary for society to compel this individual to act in accordance to the general will in order to stall a descent into arbitrary standards and meaningless identifications, and because acting in accordance with the general will means exercising reason and the freedom of thought and expression, this compelling takes the form of forcing someone to be free. The individual is ultimately compelled by society to utilize the full extent of his or her reasoning capabilities, which is ultimately the only means of achieving any true freedom, as freedom of action can only come from freedom of thought, expression, and an accurate, reasonable view of objective reality.

It is important to note that even in the instance where society compels an individual to obey the general will, the individual is still not suffering any kind of undue infringement of rights, because by definition the force exerted on that individual is available to that individual in equal measure. Put another way, the force used to compel the individual in this instance is actually made up of the force of every individual in society, and thus the individual being compelled is actually quantifiably complicit in their own compelling to exactly the same degree as every other member of that society. This is why the society is legitimized in compelling the individual; by nature of that individual’s membership in society, every other member of society has been given implicit authority over that individual, to precisely the same degree that that individual has authority over anyone else.

When viewed with a clearer understanding of what Rousseau means by the general will, the passage regarding forcing someone to be free becomes less jarring and actually seems fairly reasonable. In fact, Rousseau’s theory is actually fairly agreeable in general, because he does not attempt to argue that the legitimacy of a society comes from anywhere other than the people who make it up, and furthermore, he does not attempt to argue in favor of any one particular legal or representative framework (other than a kind of raw democracy). However, problems do arise when one attempts to either enact Rousseau’s theory in the real world, or else look for examples of it in historical cases. Even then, however, one cannot truly fault Rousseau, because many of these problems arise due to technological limitation, rather than any hard barrier. For example, not until very recently has it been possible for reason and debate to occur at the scales necessary for ensuring that every individual has a voice, and that every individual will and argument is weighed against every other. Even now that is impossible, but the advent of the internet and mobile communication technology seems to point towards a time when everyone can communicate with everyone else in a seamless manner, to the point that a true democracy might be possible, with geographically-distant individuals debating and voting for the policies of society as a whole. Of course, society must still overcome those groups and individuals with a vested interest in undermining reason and its application to civil society, but it seems as if the increased communication made possible by new technologies will ultimately lead to the dissolution of these groups.

Rousseau’s theory of the social contract includes some statements that at first glance appear quite radical, but are actually quite reasonable when considered in the context of the larger argument. For example, the passage about needing to compel individuals to obey the general will, forcing them to be free, appears confusing and even contradictory at first, but when one considers it in the context of the general will as outlined by Rousseau elsewhere, its meaning becomes clear. Rousseau is not proposing some bizarre society wherein individuals are forced to enact their freedom of action at all times, but rather is acknowledging that the legitimacy and continued function of a society depends upon the individual members of that society exercising their reason, in order to participate in the process by the which the general will is determined and enacted.

Works Cited

Kant, Immanuel. “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment? .” Literary Link. N.p.,

1784. Web. 19 Sep 2012. . ‘

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Trans. G. DH Cole the Social Contract. New York: Cosimo Classics,

2008. Print.

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