Rousseau on Economics

by Patrick J. Deneen on October 17, 2011 · 24 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Short

“If what you wish is merely to make a great splash, to be impressive and formidable, to influence other peoples of Europe, you have before you their example: get busy and imitate it. Cultivate the sciences, the arts, commerce, industry; have regular troops, fortified places, academies, and, above all, a fine financial system, which will make money circulate smoothly and so multiply and greatly enrich you. Strive to make money absolutely necessary so as to keep your people highly dependent – which calls also for fomenting material luxury and the luxury of the spirit that is inseparable from it. Do all this, and you will end up with a people as scheming, violent, greedy, ambitious, servile, and knavish as the next, and all of it at one extreme or other of misery and opulence, of license and slavery, with nothing in between….

“But if perchance you wish to be a free nation, a peaceful nation, a wise nation, a nation that fears nobody and needs nobody, a nation that is sufficient unto itself and happy, then you must use another method altogether, namely this: keep alive – or bring back to life – simple customs, wholesome tastes, and a spirit that is martial but not ambitious. Instill courage and unselfishness in the hearts of your people. Employ the masses of your population in agriculture and the arts necessary for life. Cause money to become an object of contempt and, if possible, useless besides….”

–Jean Jacques Rousseau, Considerations on the Government of Poland (1772)

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar GAS October 17, 2011 at 11:48 pm

Oh my! I can’t wait for the Mussolini quotes.

avatar JA October 18, 2011 at 1:27 am

Agriculture is now a motorized food industry, the same thing in its essence as the production of corpses in the gas chambers and the extermination camps, the same thing as blockades and the reduction of countries to famine, the same thing as the manufacture of hydrogen bombs.

-Martin Heidegger

avatar Russell Arben Fox October 18, 2011 at 6:18 am

As usual, Rousseau (and Martin Heidegger too!) got far more right than he got wrong.

avatar That Guy October 18, 2011 at 6:44 am

I don’t understand how the same person who wrote the discourses, the Social Contract, and especially the Reveries wrote this. Here, he sounds so much more reasonable and pragmatic, and elsewhere he is an idealistic, sentimental lunatic. His understanding of autonomy, I think, is impossible to achieve, his belief that man is naturally good flies in the face of history, and he does more to undermine community than to promote it. Rousseau is unbelievably complex and frustrating, but that is also why he is so ridiculously interesting.

avatar Carl Eric Scott October 18, 2011 at 9:31 am

A lovely quote, worth treasuring. I’m in a quoting mood also:

“It can be little doubted that if the State of Rhode Island was separated from the Confederacy and left to itself, the insecurity of rights under the popular form of government within such narrow limits would be displayed by such reiterated oppressions of factious majorities that some power altogether independent of the people would soon be called for by the voice of the very factions whose misrule had proved the necessity of it.” James Madison, Federalist #51.

Poland is and was nation, just as we were and are, the claims of certain small-republic-ers to the contrary. And no nation, especially one governed in a republican manner, can ignore these words of Alexander Hamilton: “The rights of neutrality will only be respected when they are defended by an adequate power. A nation, despicable by its weakness, forfeits even the privilege of being neutral.” Federalist #11

Of course, in the same paper, part of what Hamilton counted in the margin of “power” was the power gained in diplomatic terms by committing part of the U.S. navy to decide a European naval war occurring in the Western Hemisphere. I.e., in my summary, while Hamilton wanted “no entangling alliances w/ Old World while weak” he did count “being a geo-strategic player in the New” as a part of the defensive power republican prudence would refuse to abjure.

I would like a Hamiltonianism moderated by Rousseau’s quote, and by Solzhenitsyn’s calls for national “self-limitation,” but I think Jean-Jacques and Aleksandr would agree with me that it is a pipe-dream to think that the defense/international affairs factors Publius calls our attention to in papers like #11 will or can be ignored by the typical republican citizenry.

And this is before we even get to the huge problems posed by what can be plausibly considered, once a nation actually does have the genuine military power it will need to protect itself, the D.T.P., or “Duty to Protect” others.

avatar Stephen October 18, 2011 at 9:52 am

Military buildups are necessary at times—e.g. when Nazi and Soviet are on your borders planning to invade—but Rousseau is right to say that they do not make a nation free, peaceful or wise.

Hamilton is the biggest culprit in America’s move from a free and healthy republic to a vainglorious empire. Obsession with national power and wealth led to a civil war, war with our neighbors, colonial adventures in the Pacific, and ultimately to the world policeman role most Americans seem to accept.

avatar Carl Eric Scott October 18, 2011 at 2:33 pm

Two inconvenient facts for Stephen’s smearing of Hamilton and his legacy, which preposterously comes right up to the brink of blaming him for the Civil War.

1) TJ used the E-word also. Madison too. And you had to get more states-rights and locality-focused than even John Randolph to oppose the Louisiana Purchase.

2) It turned out not be be the heirs of the Federalist persuasion that were in favor of aggressive pursuit of continental empire and beyond, i.e., Manifest Destiny. It was Jacksonian Democrats. Polk most of all. Lincoln (might he be Stephen’s bugbear, too?) was opposed.

avatar Patrick J. Deneen October 18, 2011 at 2:43 pm

I’m in the happy position of disagreeing with both Russell Arben Fox and with Carl Scott. Rousseau occasionally says some things arresting and worth attending, but I’m not sure I would go so far as to say he was right most of the time. And, as is so often the case with those who trot out the Federalist argument to justify our current state, that current state is extensively the result of the success of the Constitutional order, so it’s hardly despositive to argue that we can’t avoid entanglements because we’re already so entangled.

It is interesting to me how often Rousseau (in the book on Poland, which I taught today in a seminar) invokes the example of Switzerland. Obviously enough, Switzerland is hardly perfect (though its currency is nearly perfect), and America is quite different (most obviously geographically), but for a time at least, the idea of confederation was a viable alternative to consolidation, and America’s oceans could have been seen to function as a liquid version of Switzerland’s mountains. This was at least the appeal made by many of the Anti-federalists, who believed that the Swiss model had much to recommend it.

The Tea Party and OWS are resurrecting some of the arguments of the Anti-federalists. But the Tea Party wants smaller government without sufficient attention to centralized economic power, and OWS wants a decrease in concentrated economic power without sufficient attention to the way in which that concentration has been enabled by government. Each is peddling a partial argument – and replicating the rutted arguments that have too long dominated American politics.

avatar D.W. Sabin October 18, 2011 at 6:54 pm

The best thing Rousseau did was retire to an island in a lake within an estate in Ermonville. He was acquired by the owner of said estate as a professional Hermit but was never quite hermit enough for my tastes. Rousseau ended his life as a decoration , which , in fact, he always was, however scented from incontinence,both mental and urinary.

He did good work as a Hermit when he really applied himself to it though.

avatar Hugh October 19, 2011 at 5:00 pm

Heidegger? I knew you Frontporchers were fit for a Convention in Hartford but a Rally in Nuremberg seems a bit far fetched. Still, once purged of its Christianity, the anthropology behind this species of “hearth and home” conservatism does seem to echo the later Heidegger. Perhaps too disquieting a thought to discuss during Community Supported Agriculture meetups: afterall its still CSA not SA.

avatar JA October 20, 2011 at 2:33 am

My, my. How did such a petty sophist, peddling am argumentum ad Hitlerum, get past the moderators?

There is nothing in Heidegger’s philosophy that is, in esse, characteristically Nazi. (In fact, that quotation suggests the opposite!) While, on the other hand, Rousseau’s thought was used to provide a justification for much of the terror of the French Revolution; and Locke and J.S. Mill outrightly condoned and justified that evil known as imperialism (which is STILL to this day justified by the liberal narrative). Where is the condemnation for them? Surely, we should rid every primary and secondary social studies course of their filth? Best not to corrupt precocious minds. The proverbial baby should go out with the bathwater, as it were.

For the serious amongst us, Heidegger’s genealogy of modernity, while not perfect, is compelling: that a form of nihilism is present in Western metaphysics in the failure to recognize the difference between Being and beings. This nihilism manifests in a will to power, to control and enframe reality, which the mass technologization of modern society is only but a symptom. This was the meaning behind my quotation: the amoral and unreflective use of technology in any context, agricultural or otherwise, is a great evil and essentially a manifestation of a drive to mastery of nature at any cost. Now, of course, the ends of such means are not all to be judged equally–the sin of motorized agriculture is not equivalent to the mass organization of technology to affect genocide–but the same impetus animates the means.

We don’t (and shouldn’t) accept his narrative tout court. For instance, he failed to recognize how the use of analogy can escape such nihilism in both Greek and Christian thought. But there is some truth to what he wrote; and while Heidegger was not a credible witness due to his sins, he was often a perceptive one.

avatar Hugh October 20, 2011 at 10:43 am

Well then the serious among you should , at a bare minimum, account for Heidegger’s Rector’s address at the University of Frieberg in 1933 when advancing the philosopher’s thinking in support of a political proposition. However, I suppose it will be gratifying for you to learn that calls for censorship and purging filthy liberal ideas from curriculum are consonant with the substance of that address.

avatar Dwight Lindley October 20, 2011 at 9:26 pm

To “That Guy” and other Rousseau-haters: you’re quite correct to disagree with his positive proposals, his State of Nature myth, his conception of the General Will, a good deal of his theory of education, etc., but his critique of Hobbesian/Lockean, first-wave liberalism was right on. That’s what you’re hearing in the piece PD has quoted, and that’s what you get in much of the First Discourse and parts of the Second.

avatar JA October 20, 2011 at 11:52 pm

Hugh,

1) My claim was that it wasn’t essentially Nazi–hence my use of in esse above–not that it wasn’t tainted in an ad hoc attempt to weld Being and Time and Nazism together.

2) No one is suggesting that it would be wise to advance a political proposition based on his philosophy. In fact, just the opposite. My claim was that his philosophy, while perceptive, was intensely problematical.

3) Your accusation that I would find book burning amendable is prima facie ridiculous. My reference to it in the prior post was facetious; it was an attempt to follow your logic to its conclusion, ad absurdum. You are one who seems to have a problem with referencing literature.

4) Every single point you have made has been rhetorical and polemical. You did not respond to any of the substantive claims in my last post, but instead responded to a series of straw men.

Let me give you a piece of advice, if your intention is to be sophistic, you need to make it look less transparent. A college freshman could see through that last one.

avatar JA October 21, 2011 at 12:17 am

@Dwight: You are quite right in your distinction; however, do be careful about calling Hobbes a liberal. It’s better to describe him as a contractarian. Some even dispute calling Locke a liberal, which is understood more of as a 19th century phenomenon: one that includes a progressive historicism, a more developed and rigorous ideology of the market, expanding political suffrage, and more organic views of the world overall. None of these things are present in Locke’s thought, but he is often considered a liberal because liberals draw on his contractarianism, advocacy of negative liberty, especially property rights, and advocacy of religious liberty.

avatar Anymouse October 22, 2011 at 11:00 am

“However, I suppose it will be gratifying for you to learn that calls for censorship and purging filthy liberal ideas from curriculum are consonant with the substance of that address.”
I love to see the liberals come out to play. Maybe someday we will be able to send them all to death camps so they won’t bother those of us who are not supporters of Herbert Marcuse.

avatar Anymouse October 22, 2011 at 11:05 am

I just had to say that. I am not actually advocating sending people to death camps but it is a bit fun to shock those of sensitive tastes, especially when they are probably the kinds of people who would not bat an eyelash at abortion, affirmative action or wars for democracy but then turn around and condemn genocide. Of course, they only mean genocide by patriarchal white males.

avatar Dwight Lindley October 22, 2011 at 8:50 pm

JA: I take your point, though there are different ways of defining liberalism. I tend to favor the broader definition, which roots liberalism in an a radical individualist anthropology, and one therefore in need of a contractarian solution. On this definition, the early-modern contractarians are in the same boat with Rousseau and the historicists that followed him.

avatar JA October 22, 2011 at 10:23 pm

Professor Lindley: Fair enough, though I prefer the more technical definition. Nonetheless, I suppose that that approach has some rhetorical advantage as well, as classical liberals tend not to like Rousseau. Perhaps such a comparison will be a much needed cold shower for them, as they would be reminded of their consanguinity with Rousseau.

Everyone else: I’d like to clarify that my responses to Hugh were so caustic because he came out with all guns blazing, pillorying me as a Nazi for a rather benign reference to Heidegger.

avatar JA October 23, 2011 at 8:34 pm

Professor Lindley: Oh, now I see from where you are coming from. Your characterization of Hobbes as a liberal makes sense in light of your characterization of Enlightenment thought up to Rousseau as the “first wave” of modernity. You are sing Strauss’ formulation.

avatar Hugh October 24, 2011 at 4:50 pm

JA
I didn’t accuse you of being a Nazi. I did draw the connection between Heidegger and Nazism. I stated my doubts that Frontporchers were inclined to Nazism. However, I also noted that there is in the Frontporch “hearth and home” conservatism an echo of the later Heidegger (note that I said “later” Heidegger): specifically his naturalism, fixation on the autochthonous, the failure of Western Civilization among others. I think that this is disquieting and should give pause and calls for more discussion not calls for censorship.

Heidegger thought that his thought was more than simply compatible with Nazism (half-hearted CYA statements from 1949 notwithstanding). For example, after his resignation from the Rectorship he wrote described “the inner truth and greatness of [the national socialist] movement” in 1935 (interestingly he also made exceptions for the Nazi’s use of technology). I think that this conclusion is further amply supported by his own words (you really should read the Rectorial Address or his address to the students at Heidelberg), those of Edmund Husserl, Karl Lowith and others, or from the recent scholarship of Emmanuel Faye, etc.

I think it is reasonable to conclude the Heidegger thought his thinking was more than compatible with National Socialism. He was a member of the Nazi party, and held a government position through which he carried out Nazi racial policies. So, if you are going to approvingly quote a Nazi of this caliber in a cultural/political forum (not a simply history of philosophy, ontology or phenomenology forum) without carefully stated reservations, you should expect to get called on it. If your first response about being so questioned is to lament a lack of censorship, then you are kind of proving the point. Afterall, look what Anonymous wrote.

avatar Anymouse October 24, 2011 at 10:58 pm

Anymouse, actually.

avatar JA October 25, 2011 at 2:39 pm

@Hugh: Perhaps if you had initially contextualized your concerns in such a way (and I ultimately disagree with this characterization), then we could have had an actual discussion. Instead, you implied that I was a Nazi or espoused some latent Nazism. (And don’t try to pass this off as a concern with FPR and not myself–I’m the one who made the reference for goodness sake!) Your initial response was rhetorical, polemical, demeaning, insulting, combative, and censorious–it was designed to effect shame, rather than reflection, and–to give you a taste of your own rhetorical medicine–an animation of Gleichschaltung, rather than sincere concern.

At this late hour, your opportunity to express legitimate concern is quite gone. You chose to be a rhetorical bully–and you continue to be so in your accusation that I have lamented a lack of censorship, which I never did, a point I have already labored to demonstrate and that you ignore because it provides you rhetorical advantage. If anyone be the censor here, it is you, for demanding conformity without reason. My apologies, if that is difficult to hear (and that I don’t accept your obviously correct and “canonical” interpretation of Heidegger), but you should “expect to be called on it.”

Now go bully someone else–and don’t shrink from it next time; it makes you look smaller than you already are.

avatar JD Salyer October 27, 2011 at 10:21 am

The problem is this: The American mind cannot accept that the Nazi Party was merely evil, rather than Evil. As a black hole warps the space-time around it, so this distortion warps any thought which approaches it, rendering intelligent discussion difficult.

Bolshevism is viewed as merely evil, hence the “Bolshevik card” is virtually powerless, unlike the “Nazi card.” Hence we need neither tread softly nor fear being denounced when we bring up thinkers who have Marxist ties.

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