The topic of the general will is always a topic of Rousseauian studies. It is central to his political theory. It is the bedrock which unites the first two books of the Social Contract, conflating the social contract to be the general will itself. So what is Rousseau’s general will?
The general will is the common good of the human people. The general will is what links individuals together in society, for in their natural state of natural individuals exist qua individuals but have no qualms with other individuals whom they come across or meet. Man is not yet corrupted by civilization in the state of nature. He is dominated by self-love, but recognizes that other individuals also love themselves, therefore he does not turn to trying to dominate other men. Rousseau’s anthropology is sometimes confusing because there is a trace of a social animus insofar that when men meet each other disaster does not ensue as was the picture painted by Hobbes, nor do men eventually descend into conflict via the conflict of mutual self-preservation quarrelling over material goods as in Locke. Instead, man is perfectly amiable with other men and they are willing to share everything with each other because there is no notion of property in the state of nature.
In Rousseau man is born good, free, and equal. This is a very revolutionary proposition that is unique in the history of Western anthropological philosophy and becomes the catalyst for all of Rousseau’s developed thinking. Prior to Rousseau the classical philosophers maintained that man was born with the capacity of becoming virtuous and humane, or could descend into animalism and barbarism – becoming like the beasts of wild nature. Man occupies a sort of middle ground where he is capable of good or bad. Christianity maintains much the same through its doctrine of Original Sin. Man’s desires and rationality is not in harmony, for his desires tug him to beast-like behavior and his rationality lifts him up to the good, true, and beautiful. Man’s desire seeks fulfillment of his nature but without reason man’s desires will not be satisfied until he consummates his desires through union with the good, true, and beautiful. Hobbes takes a new approach insofar that he denies Original Sin because humans did not reject rationality thereby surrendering themselves to their pure desires as Christianity maintained. Instead, man is just desire. Pushed from behind like the mechanical laws of nature over all the Cosmos. However, in Hobbes, desire can be tamed and curtailed through the regulatory aspect of the social contract wherein an early account of the idea of progress is seen in Hobbes’s thought. That said Hobbes’s man in the state of nature is a desiring beast who takes whatever he wants and doesn’t care what the cost is, but can be made “moral” over time.
Rousseau’s portrait of man as being naturally good, free, and equal really does stand apart from more than 3,000 years of Western thinking about human nature. The social contract does not make men moral or freer. This is the very starting point of man according to Rousseau. The social contract, technology, the arts, civilization, culture, and all the rest of the things we associate with the city, corrupt men and make them vain. The social contract is not established to preserve our life, liberty, and property from fear of violent death as in Hobbes and Locke, it is established so as to enjoy the fruit of the earth. The social contract, to be legitimate, is to maintain our goodness, freedom, and equality.
This is where the general will comes into play. Humans have an instinctive nature for goodness, fairness, and freedom. The general will is the expression of this desire of the people when the people see injustice, unfairness, and oppression occurring in society. Rousseau argues that this desire is motivated not because man is naturally sinful or corrupt or prone to self-interest. Instead, it is because he is naturally good, just, and fair and his moral heart is compelled to justice in seeing the unjust suffering of others because in others man sees himself.
Since man is naturally free and equal (and moral) in the state of nature, and the social compact is about upholding this freedom and equality, the general will is what is codified through the social compact in tying people together. But the general will is only ever an expression of the common good. The general will, in essence, is telling those in political office what the people want. And what they want is freedom, equality, and justice. Since this is what the social compact was established to maintain, and to dispense whenever disharmony arose, the task of the body politic is to act – or legislate – in accord to the general will. This is why Rousseau says the general will is the first principle of all laws. Law is the general will because the general will expresses the desires of the people and law is enacted to try and fulfill the needs of the people. The general will is what binds people in a society together.
This is important to recognize too. In Rousseau’s account of society, society is nothing more than a conglomeration of individuals who are united by the covenantal bond of the social contract. The only way for a society to be cohesive is for all individuals to have something that ties them together. Rousseau does not argue that this bond of society is religion, culture, or language – as the later German Romantics claimed. Instead, what Rousseau says the bond of society is is the general will itself. This is why all legitimate society, whether the “head” of the body politic is a monarch, a dictator, or a president, or a council of fathers, is by definition a republic. Because such a body politic is committed to the public thing. What is the public thing? Freedom and equality. How is this manifested in society? Through the general will.
Societies that do not seek to re-establish freedom, equality, and justice are illegitimate societies in Rousseau’s eyes. Why? If you recall the very opening of Rousseau’s Social Contract he maintains that “Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains.” Political society has now totally corrupted and enslaved man. There is no society that is maintaining the balance of freedom and equality as the original social contract set out to achieve. Therefore, in order to make political societies legitimate, Rousseau argues that the body politic must heed the call of the general will desiring freedom, equality, and justice (which logically follows from wanting freedom and equality because if freedom and equality has been stripped away from people its restoration to them amounts to justice). Therefore, the only legitimate political societies are those who are chipping away at all the barriers of oppression and inequality as they move toward a restoration of freedom and equality.
The general will, in Rousseau, is not the rationality of man. It is the desire of man. Man desires freedom and equality because his essential humanity is predicated upon his freedom and equality that he has in the state of nature. The social compact is agreed upon by individuals in a perfect state of freedom and equality existing between them. This marks the creation of the free and equal society, which is the pure society. But the rise of selfishness, greed, avarice, property, and “reason” in the form of rationalizing self-wants, is the cause of society’s ills and corruption of man. In this corruption and growing inequality and oppression, the general will rears its head and demands actions. The proper instrument of politics is to serve the general will.
Rousseau does not assert that there will ever be a utopian society in the static sense. What Rousseau does argue is that illegitimate politics furthers the division between freedom and equality within a society which means a furtherance of division among individuals wherein some individuals are more free and more prosperous than others. Legitimate politics is about reducing the division. That is achieved when the body politic embraces the general will of the people and works toward the restoration of freedom and equality. Man does not become more free and more equal in Rousseau’s thought. Man gains freedom and equality in Rousseau’s thought. And this marks the restoration of his humanity.
Frankly, Rousseau’s general will and entire theory of politics only makes sense if one agrees with his starting anthropological propositions. This is why some political philosophers consider the true study of the political: Political Anthropology. The question of quid sit homo looms large in every discussion of politics and the political.
This is how the general will works: Man is good, free, and equal in the state of nature, therefore man’s human nature (in the proper sense of that term) is intrinsically good, free, and equal. The social contract is established by good, free, and equal men who pledge themselves to one another to maintain their goodness, freedom, and equality. Along the way something happened that corrupted this pledge. Since all men are naturally good, free, and equal, man has seeks the restoration of his humanity which has been corrupted by oppression and inequality. This seeking of the restoration of his humanity is manifested in the general will. Legitimate politics, rooted in the social contract established to maintain goodness, freedom, and equality, is that form of politics which attempts to legislate and work in accordance with the general will. Because society corrupts man, the justice that man seeks is social justice.
The general will, in tandem with the social contract, ensures that man is forced to be free and equal with his fellow man, “Hence, in order that the social pact shall not be an empty formula, it is tacitly implied in that commitment – which alone can give force to all others – that whoever refuse to obey the general will shall be constrained to do so by the whole body, which means nothing other than that he shall be forced to be free.” If you dislike social justice, from Rousseau’s formulation, then you dislike freedom and equality. And since freedom and equality is man’s natural state of existence, that also means you hate being human. This is why those who oppose social justice are not human. They are less then human. “To renounce freedom,” Rousseau writes, “is to renounce one’s humanity.” But the very logic of Rousseau necessarily exhausts itself in totalitarianism. “Society” will mandate your humanity by forcing you “to be free.”