The most oft-quoted line of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's The Social Contract (published 1762) is the first: 'Man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains.' If we were to read no further, we would think that had we continued, we would have been reading a defence of man's liberty at the expense of the power of the state. This is not so - in fact, The Social Contract describes how individual freedom can supposedly be preserved within an all-powerful civil society.
The work is split into four parts. Part one discusses the principles and justification for a civil state, the second discusses the rights of sovereignty, the third discusses various forms of government (democracy, aristocracy and monarchy) and their exercise and the fourth deals of various bodies within the government and of civil religion.
The basic underlying principle of the book is that the state of nature is brutish, and to become moral and good man must join in a social institution. Social contract theory is the agreement between a state and its citizens which justifies the state's power over the citizens. However, in resigning themselves to the power of the state, men give up their freedom (in the state of nature, I can hunt a hog, slaughter it, and eat it; in society, I can only do so if it is my hog); how can freedom be maintained in civil society?
Rousseau defines particular desires, which he calls 'will's. Every individual has a 'particular will', which describes what he himself desires for himself. There is an aggregate 'will of all', which describes what the members of a group desire when their particular wills are combined. Finally, there is the 'general will', the will which produces the best for the group. This general will is what should have the power of sovereignty within civil society, and each citizen should accept this will as his own. In doing so, he accepts the laws and conventions of the society as his own.
The general will, by definition, is infallible, indivisable (it applies to all) and inalienable (no-one but the people can discern the general will). However, this does not mean that the decisions of the people always carry the same weight - each individual is usually capable of discerning his particular will, and hence we can always establish the 'will of all'. Is this 'will of all' (what the people desire) the same as the general will (what is best for all people)? Not always - in fact, rarely, some would say. The job of the legislator then, is to interpret the general will and guide it in the right direction.
Rousseau had a fair bit to say on private property, and in this regard is seen as a forerunner to Karl Marx. The following indeed could be taken as an attack on capitalism -
"as to wealth, no citizen should be rich enough to be able to buy another, and none poor enough to be forced to sell himself."
He then goes on to attack the class of wealthy people, saying that 'from this class springs tyrants'. He attacks private property, saying that when a man signs himself to the social contract he hands over all his powers, of which his possessions are a part. While within the state man has power over his property, this right is subordinate to the community's right over it.
Of Democracy, says Rousseau -
"If there were a people of Gods, its government would be democratic, so perfect a government is not for men."
A true democracy, where every decision of the executive branch is taken by the people, is not a valid proposal - the people cannot remain assembled continuously to attend to public affairs. A true democratic government would perpetually change its mind and accomplish nothing. Aristocracy, particularly elective aristocracy, is a far safer bit, says Rousseau. A small group of elected magistrates governs public affairs in this case, and although this creates another general will (the will of the government itself, seperate to the will of the people), this will is likely to be more controlled and less likely to change. Hence things can be accomplished for the people, so long as checks are made to keep the will of the government close to the will of the people (such as elections which strip the magistrates of their power if they do not please the people.
In defence of monarchy, he has to say that when the general will is concentrated in one man, it is as concentrated as it can be, and hence is to be most effective. Unfortunately, as Plato has said, a man who is fit to be king is rare in nature, and further the royal education corrupts a man, as does his absolute power. Therefore a King is not usually a good government, as bad men will come to the throne or it will make them so.
There is much to be said in critique of The Social Contract. For a start, the basic assumption that we remain free by subordinating ourself to what is best for our community (and therefore for us) is "dodgy". Secondly, the idea that the general will is not always known to the people can be used to justify totalitarianism - the government can say it is enacting what is best for the people, when in fact all it is doing is enacting its own will.
It also seems that to make sure people were always voting from the perspective of the whole, Rousseau would ban private associations, as they would let another will - the will of a particular subset - creep into voting. Rousseau valued a homogenous populace that voted together - we respect discussion and debate as the best way to find the general will.
Despite these shortcomings, The Social Contract is still well worth reading, as it provokes thought and helps us understand the history of political thought. It is especially useful for an understanding of the French Revolution, of which Rousseau was once described as the evangelist. Che Guevara is also reported to have taken the book on his campaigns.