Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Popular Sovereignty

Public and social media are inundated with vitriolic declarations calling for the toppling of political institutions and their replacement by the infallible diktats of the so-called ‘sovereignty of the people’. Rousseau was the first modern theorist of this complex and ambiguous notion, analysed and developed in his seminal essay, The Social Contract, published in 1762. The proud ‘citizen of the City of Geneva’, lay down the foundations of a republican form of government resting on the principle of the sovereignty of the people. The latter is at the heart of the social contract which brings together like-minded individuals, prepared to live in harmony and establish a form of government capable of enforcing equality between all its newly-born citizens. The original contract is, in itself, inalienable once it has been instituted.

However, a common misunderstanding and widely spread assumption is to see in the ‘social contract’ a renewable, à la carte, covenant between the sovereign people and their government. If such was Rousseau’s original argument, then why didn’t he refer more explicitly to a ‘political’ contract? Like Hobbes and Locke, Rousseau was acutely aware of the precarious existence of individuals living in a lawless environment, comparable to the ‘state of nature’ hypothesised by political theorists since the seventeenth century. History teaches us that there is no perfect form of government and that the state is nothing more than an artificial creation, doomed, sooner or later, to its dissolution and eventual regeneration under a new form.

Although life outside civil society may be ‘brutish and short’, the freedom bequeathed by Nature transcends and survives all political régimes, whatever their degree of longevity and success. Personal freedom cannot, under any circumstances, be relinquished as it is only in order to protect and promote this invaluable gift that individuals collectively aspire to a safer life through the exclusive rule of their own laws. Once again, Rousseau turns the traditional concept of ‘sovereignty’ on its head as the source of power ceases to be embodied in a single person to become a collective responsibility. Every citizen is sovereign’ every time he or she is called to exercise his legislative power, along with his fellow citizens.

Rousseau is very keen to make the ‘common good’ the concern of everyone as he regards factions and parties as potentially detrimental to the happiness and prosperity of society. In this respect, his republican state may seem a far cry from pluralistic models of democracy. At the same time, it is essential, for Rousseau, that the ‘general will’ of the citizens converges towards the same shared ends if the ‘common good’ is to be defended and sustained. For this reason, when the sovereign people ratify the laws promulgated by their elected representatives, they do so with a full knowledge of their significance and ultimate implications: ‘when, therefore, the opinion contrary to my own prevails, this proves only that I have made a mistake, and that what I believed to be the general will was not so.’ (Book IV, chapter 2)

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