Come Together II: When a Person Becomes a Legion, Composing, 16/03/2017

Continued from last post . . . Inescapably, we’re all individuals. Easy thing to say. But it can quite often be very difficult to live as an individual. Social contact is a required part of human life – a socially isolated person becomes unhinged, deranged, profoundly broken.

Consider Garry Davis and Mike Gogulski, the men I wrote about yesterday who’d renounced their citizenship, purposely become stateless. They lead (or led, in Garry’s case) active lives, have (or had) circles and networks of friends and colleagues.

Of course, the problem with Rousseau's philosophy is that people often
read his very abstract text – literally writing impossibilities – as
empirical or historical accounts of primitive humanity. That's how he
got the reputation of promoting his free pre-civilized individual as the
"noble savage." Rousseau himself never used this phrase, but he did
pepper The Origin of Inequality with a whole bunch of other racist
bullshit about indigenous Americans.
But there’s a loneliness to statelessness. A drift. Floating. Not purposeless, but empty of at least one purpose.

Rousseau is one of those classical Enlightenment writers who embodies paradoxical complexities. Few people worth reading for literally centuries don’t.

The seeming paradox I want to concentrate on in this series of posts running through The Social Contract is between a vision of the free individual and the power of community. Rousseau famously imagines humanity before the social complexity of large communities as a contented wanderer.

Imagine an individual with no cares in the world, no serious obligations, a life of leisure, his only cares (and it is always a him) are gathering the abundant food, bedding down comfortably for the night under temperate, friendly skies. That’s the image of human freedom that Rousseau is most famous for propagating.

He’s also famous for introducing another concept, the general will of a community. Now, I don’t know that this concept is famous in the same way his free pre-civilized man is. The free wanderer is a pop culturally famous image. General will is something else.

No, general will is famous because figuring out precisely what Rousseau means by the term has become a cottage sub-discipline in academic philosophy. The term is very complex in The Social Contract, and Rousseau scholarship has never settled on anything like a consensus.

It probably never will, since scholars are incentivized to fragment their fields with proliferating new takes on their primary material. You make your name in scholarship by advancing and defending an interpretation that no one else yet has. If a field were to decide on one absolutely correct conclusion for a debate, they’d put themselves out of work.

So I'm not about to say I have anything like the totally accurate take on Rousseau’s general will. I’m not that kind of raging egomaniac. Even if I worked in academics still, I couldn’t pretend to be a raging egomaniac like you’re supposed to.

The closest I'd say we've ever come to making Rousseau's general will
real is in North Korea's mass games. I don't think I need to say much
about how fucking terrifying that is.
No, I’m just going to give my own interpretation, developed for my own purposes. I’m doing a long period of research for Utopias, a book about the relation of our political imagination with our real-life activism and beliefs. I’m looking into the classics for a retroactive tradition-building – historical ideas that can be useful guides to the present situation.

I’m not arguing that this was what Rousseau truly meant. What he meant was what he wrote – he’d look at all of us arguing and be amazed that we didn’t understand.

I’m saying – here’s how the ideas about the general will in The Social Contract connect with my priorities as a philosophical writer today.

The general will of a community is the spontaneous and simultaneous arrival of complete social harmony among all its individuals. Not only does this total, community-wide, all-at-once synchronicity and sympathy happen in feeling, but every individual intellectually understands the common interest of the whole community perfectly.

And in that complete, fully self-conscious harmony, the community acts on its common interest.

That is the only circumstance in which law can be legitimate, says Rousseau. When the entire community, acting together in perfect sympathy and mutual understanding, legislates its own activity.

Anything short of that is an imposition on people’s freedom, because that general will is the only circumstance in which literally everyone in a community agrees.

So what can a writer do with an impossibility? . . . To be continued

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