Original Equality VI: Dying Like Qaddafi in a Sewer Pipe, Research Time, 14/03/2017

Read my whole series of posts about ideas in Rousseau's On the Origin of Inequality starting here.
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Continued from previous . . . So you have a problem. Law does function as a chain. Rousseau is a flamboyantly over-the-top writer, so he describes it as a retreat into slavery. That’s the heart of his most charismatic line, that man is born free but lives everywhere in chains.

But it's been a busy weekend, so here’s the question I left with last time I was talking about political equality.
“We’ll always need the law. And the law will always require some element of coercion. And Rousseau writes with a mix of trolling, theatricality, and ironic honesty when he says that the law amounts to slavery. So is there a way out of this?”
Not as such, no. At least not in The Origin of Inequality itself. The rest of this week will be follow-ups of reading The Social Contract, so I’ll continue the idea there. Because The Origin of Inequality ends on an impasse.

If human nature inevitably corrupts our institutions until they crush us
like the most brutal dictators, then are we stuck with always having to
explode in violence for even the most unlikely shot at rebuilding
a fair society?
It’s an impasse that’s meant to challenge you, leave you thinking. An ambiguous ending where there seems to be no escape from either growing slavery or chaos. It ends with such a note of pessimism, but it strangely fits with the image of humanity as inherently peaceful and loving.

Human nature is to embrace peace, but the complexity and stress of large-scale social life in a world of scarce resources brings humanity to embrace conflict and mutual irritation instead. The conflicts of daily life corrupt our inner virtue.

So we turn to laws and institutions to relegate our complexity with moral dogma and police. Yet this traps human society in a trap. State institutions can’t regulate human life to the nanometric degree necessary to remove all human corruption and dickishness.

Slicing our dickishness out of humanity would be just as destructive as slicing our virtue away. Our grimier qualities are an integral part of expressing our virtues anyway. Purely virtuous behaviour, goes Rousseau’s analysis, can’t even really happen beyond small groups. At most, the size of a large family.

Then you're left with a society that will always wear away at the edges. People will always be corrupt to some degree. There will be just as much, if not much more virtuous, kind behaviour in society. But erosion is inevitable.

Human nature is always going to be just as mean, egotistical, and
even cruel as it is kind, sympathetic, and generous. Human dignity is
our unity of all these chaotic traits in a single soul.
A threshold is crossed somehow. Maybe some disaster happens like a huge crop failure, pollution event, or military invasion. Maybe rage, corruption, and resentment become an overwhelming part of daily life. So there’s a clampdown of more laws and more ruthless enforcement to restore order.

But our desires chafe against these tougher rules. Our desire to be free, as well as our desire to be a cheating jerk. Those virtues and vices destabilize even this tougher social order until the only institutions that can contain them is despotism, dictatorship, tyranny.

And even the iron fist of the most brutal tyranny is susceptible to the same slow erosion of the law under that natural human chaos of social and personal complexity. That’s the greatest vision of hope Rousseau has left for the future of any real government.

When the oppression has become unbearable, humanity can always drag our dictators out of the sewer pipes where they fled to hide from the masses, beat and shoot them dead in a dirt road. Then we can start again.
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A tidy narrative. Comprehensive? Absolutely not. Rousseau’s narrative of inequality is exquisitely simple.

Given the current situation of global politics, I very much hope
violence is not the only way to scale down from authoritarian
behaviour in democracy. Because it's already getting pretty bad.
Most obviously, it never accounts for the other most important vectors of human society. Yes, there’s virtue, but there’s also economy and ecology.

Economy: The consumption and production processes by which, at the minimum, people eat and maintain their lives. Ecology: The environmental conditions which have so many complex effects on all aspects of human health individually and socially.

But given the purpose of the book, I don’t blame him. Rousseau isn’t building a comprehensive guide to the means by which real states and governments collapse. He’s presenting an aspect of human nature that inevitably corrupts and erodes our goal of building a peaceful society of equals.

He imagines the kind of society in which humanity would be happy, but shows how that happiness is incompatible with any possible circumstance of real people. He shows us the power of our impossible aspiration, yet lets it remain inspiring despite its impossibility.

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