The current Tory government likes to paint a picture of a nation of hard-working people paying off debt incurred through the fecklessness of others. The task of paying off this debt is made harder, they say, by foreigners claiming benefits, by the unemployed scrounging benefits and the sick who simply won’t try to contribute.
But is this true? Is this analysis based on a careful understanding of the modern state or is it a case of politicians indulging in opportunistic rabble rousing? And more importantly, is the government acting for the people or to serve their own interests?
To examine these questions we should step back and look at how we came to live in neighbourhoods and to form a society that each of us can value. And we can do this through the account of society given by Jean Jacques Rousseau in his Discourse On Inequality, 1754. For Rousseau;
“The philosophers, who have inquired into the foundations of society, have all felt the necessity of going back to a state of nature; but not one of them has got there. Some of them have not hesitated to ascribe to man, in such a state, the idea of just and unjust, without troubling themselves to show that he must be possessed of such an idea, or that it could be of any use to him. Others have spoken of the natural right of every man to keep what belongs to him, without explaining what they meant by ‘belongs’. Others again, beginning by giving the strong authority over the weak, proceeded directly to the birth of government, without regard to the time that must have elapsed before the meaning of the words ‘authority’ and ‘government’ could have existed among men. Every one of them, in short, constantly dwelling on wants, avidity, oppression, desires and pride, has transferred to the state of nature ideas which were acquired in society; so that, in speaking of the savage, they described the social man.” Jean Jacques Rousseau, Discourse On Inequality, 1754.
So Rousseau’s desires sustainable and accountable communities where everyone contributes and no one is left out. He goes on;
“I should have chosen a community in which the individuals, content with sanctioning their laws, and deciding the most important public affairs in general assembly and on the motion of the rulers, had established honoured tribunals, carefully distinguished the several departments, and elected year by year some of the most capable and upright of their fellow-citizens to administer justice and govern the State; a community, in short, in which the virtue of the magistrates thus bearing witness to the wisdom of the people, each class reciprocally did the other honour.” Jean Jacques Rousseau, Discourse On Inequality, 1754.
Sounds familiar? Furthermore;
“I should have desired only, to complete my felicity, the peaceful enjoyment of all these blessings, in the bosom of this happy country; to live at peace in the sweet society of my fellow citizens, and practising towards them, from their own example, the duties of friendship, humanity, and every other virtue.” Jean Jacques Rousseau, Discourse On Inequality, 1754.
But, alas, Rousseau sees that we are very far from this happy state, and says we only have ourselves to blame;
“The great inequality in manner of living, the extreme idleness of some, and the excessive labour of others, the easiness of exciting and gratifying our sensual appetites, the too exquisite foods of the wealthy which overheat and fill them with indigestion, and, on the other hand, the unwholesome food of the poor, often, bad as it is, insufficient for their needs, which induces them, when opportunity offers, to eat voraciously and overcharge their stomachs; all these, together with sitting up late, and excesses of every kind, immoderate transports of every passion, fatigue, mental exhaustion, the innumerable pains and anxieties inseparable from every condition of life, by which the mind of man is incessantly tormented; these are too fatal proofs that the greater part of our ills are of our own making.” Jean Jacques Rousseau, Discourse On Inequality, 1754.
So where did it all gone wrong? Well;
“The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying ‘This is mine’, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows, ‘Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody’?” Jean Jacques Rousseau, Discourse On Inequality, 1754.
In other words, for Rousseau, political equality means abolishing the ownership of property rather than propagating it and focussing on the development of each person in society rather than grouping people as either hard-working or feckless.
“All the inequality which now prevails owes its strength and growth to the development of our faculties and the advance of the human mind, and becomes at last permanent and legitimate by the establishment of property and laws.” Jean Jacques Rousseau, Discourse On Inequality, 1754.
In taking this position Rousseau adopts an ethical viewpoint at odds with that of the Tory government. For;
“ … moral inequality, authorised by positive right alone, clashes with natural right, whenever it is not proportionate to physical inequality; a distinction which sufficiently determines what we ought to think of that species of inequality which prevails in all civilised, countries; since it is plainly contrary to the law of nature, however defined, that children should command old men, fools wise men, and that the privileged few should gorge themselves with superfluities, while the starving multitude are in want of the bare necessities of life.” Jean Jacques Rousseau, Discourse On Inequality, 1754.
In other words, the way to improve the communities in which we live is to form an equal society free from property rights, oppressive legislation and blatant privilege. For Rousseau, this improvement stems from consideration of our natural state and not from looking at the latest opinion polls or reading tabloid headlines.