Sunday, August 26, 2012

Freedom and Recognition

TLS August 10 2012

from Christopher Bertram's review of Rousseau and Freedom, edited by Christie McDonald and Stanley Hoffman, and four other books on Rousseau:

The common thread that runs through his work is the question of how to satisfy our most basic human cravings for freedom and recognition in a world of interdependence. Rousseau was obsessed with the idea that as our needs multiplied beyond the point where we could satisfy them using our natural powers, we had become dependent on cooperation with others to get what we want, a theme explored most famously in the Discourse on Inequality. This dependence on others fosters a deformation of the self as people turn themselves into the characters they believe others will find attractive or useful. But we are all playing this game together, an the sense that the love and respect that others show us may just be feigned for instrumental reasons, a sense that derives support from what each of us does ourselves to bend others to our will, gives rise to a deep sense of anxiety and to feelings of pride, vanity, rage, contempt, self-loathing and jealousy. We engage with others no as we "really are" but via an endlessly recursive play of beliefs about what others believe, a play that underpins hierarchies of oppression and domination. These powerful forces simultaneously socialize and isolate us, leading us to suppress our natural sensitivity to the suffering of others and to develop elaborate rationalizations to justify power and position that take the form of political ideologies and moral codes.


Rousseau's distate for bloody political conflict is not the only thing that distances him from his revolutionary successors. The French Revolution would not have been possible without a rejection of some of Rousseau's central doctrines. In The Social Contract, Rousseau had argued that popular sovereignty must be directly exercised and cannot be exercised via representatives. The Abbe Sieyes, by contrast--the first theoretician of the Revolution--repudiated this: the representatives of the Third Estate incarnated and represented the nation. Later, the Jacobins would claim that the edicts of the Committee of Public Safety were expressions of the general will, but for Rousseau, the people must always speak for themselves. For this reason, he favored small republics, where life was simple and face-to-face communication possible....

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