Jean Jaques Rousseau and the Idea of General Will: A Critical Look

“Each of us puts 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.”


What are the fundamental problems facing individuals when confronted by the need to form a governing association? What must they achieve?

In his treatise Social Contract, Rousseau says,

The problem is to find a form of association which will defend and protect with whole common force the person and goods of each associate, and in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before. This is the fundamental problem of which the Social Contract provides the solution.”

The problem Rousseau is pointing out in this statement and the problem we are speaking about here is essentially a political problem. This problem arises when individuals are confronted with the need to form a governing association. The phrase “governing association” here is nothing but the General Will. Or, we may consider this to be the context where individuals try to enter into a social contract to form a civil association or establish a General Will out of compulsion and necessity.

Jean Jaques Rousseau

Here, I attempt to examine the conditions of the problem of forming this “governing association”, what individuals must achieve according to Rousseau, and the losses and gains on the part of the individual in this process.

Rousseau is a social contract theorist. Like Hobbes and Locke, he also founded his theory on concepts like the ‘state of nature’, ‘natural law’, ‘state of war’ and ‘social contract’ though he treated them in a different manner.

According to him, individuals need to form a civil association since they need a guide in their transition from nature to society. Rousseau says,

“Until the establishment of a true civil association, men are little more than a ‘blind multitude’, a collection of individuals incapable of genuine social and moral action”.

Thus ‘men’ enter into a ‘social contract’ to form a ‘civil association’.

The context of the problem we are discussing is when individuals try to establish that civil association. Now, there are certain objective conditions for posing the problem.

The first condition is that ‘men’ have ‘reached’ a critical point in their existence-that a kind of state of war- and if ‘men’ has to continue to exist, they have to change the ‘manner of their existence’. This point is critical and fatal because it is the site of an insurmountable contradiction in that state between the ‘obstacles’ in the way of the life of the human race and the ‘forces’ the individuals can oppose them; in short, in their preservation of the self.

These obstacles are not external, nor do the obstacles come from other human groups. They are purely internal to existing human relations. They are the effects of the generalized state of war, a universal competition, and the constant threat which everyone feels hanging over his goods, his liberty and his life. These ‘obstacles’ stand in the way of the ‘preservation’ of men in the state of nature. What the state of war threatens is what constitutes the ultimate essence of man: his free life, his life as such, the instinct that preserves him alive, what Rousseau calls ‘self-respect’ in the Discourse on Inequality. Althusser calls this state of perpetual and universal war the state of human alienation.
The Social Contract

These ‘resistant obstacles’ are opposed by the ‘forces’ at the disposal of each individual for his maintenance in the state of nature. These forces are constituted by the attributes of the natural man, having arrived at the state of war. But, it is clear that the forces of each individual cannot carry him through: for individuals would have to be stronger than the very forces to which they are subject.

That is how the individuals are trapped in the very relations that their activity had produced: they became the men of those relations, alienated like them, dominated by their particular interests, powerless against those relations and their effects, exposed at every moment to the fatal contradiction of the state of war. A contradiction not only between the individuals and their forces on the one hand, and the human obstacles of universal competition on the other, but also between each individual and himself, between self-respect and particular interest, between liberty and death.

One thing to be noted here is that the human animal of the first state of nature has no particular interest because nothing can oppose him to other men- the condition of all opposition, i. e., of necessary ties, being then still missing. Only developed-alienated man acquires, as a result of the ties through the dialectic of involuntary socialization, the particular interest. Particular interest becomes particular interest in its radicality in the state of war.

What Rousseau maintains is that in handling this problem there is no possibility of introducing an element external to it. There is no transcendental solution, no recourse to a third party, be it God or Chance. The only way out is to ‘play’ on the ‘manner of existence’ of men, or the arrangement of these forces.

In Rousseau’s own words,

“as men cannot engender new forces, but only unite and direct existing ones, they have no other means of preserving themselves than the formation, by aggregation, of a sum of forces great enough to overcome the resistance. These they have to bring into play by means of a single motive power, and cause to act in concert.”

The whole of the Social Contract is defined by the absolute limits of the theoretical field in which the problem is posed. It is a question of creating a force capable of surmounting the ‘obstacles’ which block the forces of each individual, of creating this force by inaugurating new relations between the existing forces: changing the manner of existence of men.

The problem is definitely this:

“as the force and liberty of each man are the chief instruments of his self-preservation, how can he pledge them without harming his own interests, and neglecting the care he owes to himself?”

In the same passage, Rousseau writes,

“The problem is to find a form of association which will defend and protect with whole common force the person and goods of each associate, and in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before.”

Accordingly, the solution lies in a particular ‘form of association’ which guarantees the ‘unity’ of the ‘forces’ of the individuals without harming the instruments of their self-preservation: their forces and their liberty.

This solution is carried out through a contract. This contract involves an exchange that says that:

“the People promises obedience to the Prince; the Prince promises to guarantee the good of the People.”

What Rousseau calls Prince here is the government as a collective body.

Here, all the particular interests of the individuals have to be submitted to the general interest, and all the particular wills to the general will. They surrender their rights to the community in exchange for their protection by the community. They give everything, but to get them back as they gave them, because, the exchange is between the individual and the community, which is nothing but the association of the individuals themselves.

 We have known the problem. Probably, we have also known what individuals must achieve according to Rousseau. From natural man to a citizen, a public person.

What is lost and what is gained in this process of forming a governing association?

the social contract

Now, according to Rousseau, what man loses in the process of the formation of this ‘association’ or by the social contract is his natural liberty and an unlimited right to everything he tries to get and succeeds in getting. On the other hand, what he gains in this process is civil liberty and the proprietorship of all he possesses. Here, Rousseau distinguishes natural liberty from civil liberty and possession from property. Natural liberty, Rousseau says, is bounded only by the strength of the individual while civil liberty is limited by the general will; and, possession is merely the effect of the force or the right of the first occupier, while property can be founded only on a positive title. And, this exchange is considered to be advantageous for the individuals.

“We might, over and above all this, add, to what man acquires in the civil state, moral liberty, which alone makes him truly the master of himself; for the mere impulse of appetite is slavery, while obedience to a law which we prescribes to ourselves is liberty.”


How can we critically engage with what Rousseau is trying to tell us?

The problem that individuals are confronted in their attempt to form an association or at the time of entering into social contract is submitting or joining the association while maintaining his own liberty.

The problem is extensively discussed by Louis Althusser by presenting Four Discrepancies in one of his articles on Rousseau and Social Contract. The Discrepancies discuss various aspects of the contract or the social contract and the inherent contradictions it carries with itself. But without going further to Althusser’s analysis of Rousseau’s social contract, let’s find out what the social contract consists of, whether the problem is really solvable in Rousseau’s context, whether individuals lose or gain anything in the process, or whether such formation of an association is really possible.

Rousseau’s theoretical contention is that there is a solution to the problem. When the contract is carried out, two parties are involved in the contract and an exchange is involved. The two parties are however the individuals themselves. The contract is an act of exchange between the individual and the community: the individual gives everything and the community receives everything. But the community is nothing but the union, association of the individuals and their ‘forces’.

“The people only contracts with itself”.

However, each individual in making a contract with himself is bound in a double capacity: as a member of the Sovereign he is bound to the individuals, and as a member of the State to the Sovereign.

The peculiarity of the Social Contract is that it is an exchange agreement concluded between two recipient parties (individual and the community), but one in which the second recipient party, the community/association, does not pre-exist the contract since it is its product. The solution represented by the contract is thus pre-inscribed in one of the very conditions of the contract, the second recipient party/community, since this second recipient party or community is not pre-existent to the contract.

In Rousseau’s contract, free individuals totally alienate themselves without losing their liberty, since the Sovereign is simply the community of these same individuals.

In Rousseau’s opinion, there is no need for a third person to arbiter between the Sovereign and the individuals or subjects. Because, the Sovereign is nothing but the union of the individuals themselves, existing as members of the Sovereign, in the ‘form’ of union.

Thus the question of losing and gaining in the process of the formation of the association on the part of the individual is less significant, because, this exchange between the individual and the community is only to the real advantage of the individuals.  This is produced by a mechanism which is a mechanism for self –regulation, self-limitation of alienation, produced first on alienation itself by its total character.

Rousseau says,

“Finally, each man, in giving himself to all, gives himself to nobody; and as there is no associate over whom he does not acquire the same right as he yields over himself, he gains an equivalent for everything he loses, and an increase of force for the preservation of what he has.”

Althusser here opines that Rousseau’s contract which is not an exchange paradoxically has an exchange as its effect.

“The false contract functions as a true contract nonetheless, for it produces an exchange, and even more, an advantageous exchange.”

Rousseau’s another concern here is the particular interest and general interest, particular will and general will. In Rousseau, particular interest is presented as both as the foundation of the general interest and its opposite.

On the other hand, Rousseau says that the General Will is indestructible. In principle, general will is the resultant of the particular wills.

But Rousseau says that the general interest is the common ground of the particular interests. Each particular interest contains in it the general interest, each particular will the general will. It is reflected in the proposition that the general will is indestructible, inalienable and always correct. Which clearly means: the general interest always exists, the general will always exists, whether or not it is declared or eluded.

The transformation of man from a natural person to a public person or a citizen is inevitable. And, this transformation requires certain kind of an association. However, besides other problems, there is also a problem of securing a balance between the various components of the political association-sovereignty, government and subjects.

But whatever exchange that may involve in the contract, Rousseau says, that exchange brings a real advantage to the individuals. What he gains is more important than what he loses.

However, many scholars argue the authoritarian character of the General Will and General Interest. They argue that Rousseau’s General Will is totalitarian. It is like that Rousseau brings the ideal of democracy at the top of the pyramid steadily and suddenly drops it from the top.

On the other hand, the Social Contract of Rousseau is too abstract and paradoxical. The Sovereign, the Government, the subjects are all in one- the individual themselves. Yet they are treated separately in a game of language.

His notion of freedom is also paradoxical. It is doubtful whether the individuals in Rousseau’s association are enjoying freedom or permanently enslaved.

To conclude, the importance of forming a ‘governing association’ in Rousseau is obvious. At the same time, that the individuals confront certain problems when they try to form that association is also obvious. Rousseau says that those problems can be overcome in the form of a social contract: the social contract is the solution. However, there are problems in the social contract itself. While Rousseau’s contention is that the social contract brings more ‘gains’ and less ‘losses’, it is questionable if those ‘gains’ are really ‘gains’. The abstract and paradoxical character of the social contract is also one reason to question the validity of the social contract or the association itself. While Rousseau tries to give solutions to the individuals, it seems, he presents more problems.


Rousseau, Jean Jaques, The Social Contract (Penguin, 2004)


2 thoughts on “Jean Jaques Rousseau and the Idea of General Will: A Critical Look

    1. Thank you very much Yaorei. It was one of my Masters term papers. I made little changes. I am happy that you find it useful! Kindly see other posts as well and comment how you find them.. Thank you again!

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s