Rousseau’s Concept of General Will, Essay Example

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Essay

Explain Rousseau’s concept of general will. How is it connected to the concept of sovereignty? What are the features of sovereignty? Who is the sovereign? What does the sovereign exactly do? What branch of power is the ultimate sovereign power?

In Rousseau’s The Social Contract Or Principles of Political Right, the first utilization of the term “the general will” is as follows: “Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole.”[1] Accordingly, the general will exists as the certain dissolution of the collection of individual wills that decide to gather into a society: the general will represents the new political order that exists when this social contract has been initiated. Accordingly, the general will can be understood as a consolidation of these individual wills in terms of a political social order that determines the course of political and social life. In this regard, it is Rousseau’s crucial conceptualization of “sovereignty” that clarifies the exact meaning of the general will. Rousseau writes: “sovereignty, for the same reason as makes it inalienable, is indivisible; for will either is, or is not, general; it is the will either of the body of the people, or only of a part of it.” [2] Accordingly, sovereignty is entirely the articulation of the general will, i.e., the ability to decide on the political order. However, Rousseau’s strict delineation of either or in the case of sovereignty and the general will is immediately problematic: how can a diverse number of individuals entirely concur with a particular political decision? And if individuals are not in harmony with this decision, does this not indicate the very impossibility of any such notion as a general will? Once again, it is Rousseau’s concept of sovereignty that helps to correct the seeming impossibility of the general will. For Rousseau, “the social compact gives the body politic absolute power over all its members also; and it is this power, which under the direction of the general will, bears…the name of Sovereignty.”[3] From this definition it appears that the sovereign are those individuals who act on behalf of the general will itself. This would entail that the political class that has been determined as representatives of the general will exercise such sovereignty. Sovereignty is thus simultaneously independent of and entirely dependent upon the general will: in this regard, whatever the general will decides could potentially take the form of sovereign and whatever decisions the general will desire are the actions of sovereignty. What is problematic about Rousseau’s account, however, is this very ambiguity: firstly, his strict definition of the general will as a will without exception presupposes that such a phenomenon can in fact exist; secondly, he presupposes that sovereignty can be politicized, for example, in terms of decisions regarding the content of the law that are entirely consistent with this same general will. In this respect, sovereignty embodies the political decision-making of the general will. However, insofar as the latter’s existence is questionable, what occurs is that sovereignty and the actual decision-making process of politics may never attain the ultimately illusory desire of the general will.

[1] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract or Principles of Political Right, (New York: Kessinger, 2004), 10.

[2] Ibid., 17.

[3] Ibid., 5.

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