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Rousseau on Liberalism

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In a beer hall in Munich, a mesmerizing public speaker addressed the issues troubling the German people with a furious passion, calling for a new order to replace what he saw as an incompetent and inefficient liberal democratic regime run by an economic elite that was not translating the will of the people into action and had brought humiliation to a proud people. In the new Germany, all citizens would unselfishly serve the state or Volk; democracy would be abolished, and individual rights sacrificed for the good of the Volksgemeinschaft. The ultimate aim was to create a community of racially pure Germans absolutely loyal to their absolute leader, who would lead them in a campaign of racial cleansing (National WW2 Museum, 2019), and the conquest of lebensraum, or living space.

In an office in Moscow, President Yeltsin, facing humiliating losses in Chechnya and widespread economic depression from the failure of liberalization, unexpectedly signed over the Presidency of a previously obscure ex-KGB agent turned Prime Minister. This child of the Soviet Union acted immediately to ruthlessly crush the Chechnyan separatists. He struck a deal with the oligarchs to segregate the political and economic sectors of power. His handling of the economy and a fortuitous spike in oil prices caused the Russian economy to grow at a blistering average rate of 9% per year for 20 years (Aris and Tkachev, 2019). He promised the Russian people a reversal of the decline in living conditions that had followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, a revival of an imperialist foreign policy where Russia would once again become a world power to be feared and respected, a stable and strong Russia. He only asked that they abandon the liberalism that had failed them and instead embrace him as their increasingly more absolute leader.

The problems that face liberal democracy today: a lack of national identity, a lack of action, a lack of purpose, and a lack of order, are most definitely curable by abandoning it altogether. Let us, for a moment, consider this option, for it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it. Fascism has its roots in a school of thought rooted not only in Nietzschean philosophy in the case of National Socialism but also that of the Rousseauean and Hobbesian traditions. Mussolini wrote in his 1915 The Doctrine of Fascism: “If the 19th century were the century of the individual (liberalism implies individualism) we are free to believe that this is the 'collective' century, and therefore the century of the State. The Fascist conception of the State is all-embracing; outside of it no human or spiritual values can exist, much less have value. Thus understood, Fascism is totalitarian, and the Fascist State…interprets, develops, and potentiates the whole life of a people...everything in the state, nothing against the State, nothing outside the state. Fascism is a religious conception in which man is seen in his immanent relationship with a superior law and with an objective Will....” Anybody that has read a lick of Rousseau or Hobbes cannot help but compare The Doctrine of Fascism with their writings. In the case of Hobbes, the idea of an all-embracing and embodying sovereign, containing everything and everybody bears a striking similarity to that of Mussolini’s theory of a total state. Nevertheless, it is Rousseau's vision of a homogenous society run as a totalitarian absolute democracy based on a near-deified “General Will” where all give all to all that is at a certain level indistinguishable from what we saw from the Fascism of the 20th century. In both, the People, conceived monolithically, have a common will, distinct from and superior to the particular interests of any one individual, although, in fascism, there is the understanding that no mass of people can ever be truly unanimous and thus the uniparty leader holds himself out as the interpreter of the popular will, which he dictates. Fascists use this concept to delegitimize democratic institutions they accuse of no longer representing the “general will.''

This option is certainly tempting when one observes chaos and inaction. Many of the ills that currently afflict the liberal, democratic West may indeed be curable by the hand of a strong state. The worst excesses of social liberalism have created a culture of ever more obscene degeneracy and decadence. There exists the temptation to use the state to restore order and morality. We know that liberalism is not natural. Natural is tribal. Fascism is our natural tribalism distilled and purified into a furious intensity. It is what works with our instinct. We're fighting against thousands of years of human behavior and history to try and create something that no one's ever done, and maybe we should stop trying.

Yet cynicism is not realism, for all the weary and knowing airs it affects. Cynicism is just cowardice; it is nothing less than a form of surrender. We must never embrace fascism in America. The American spirit has remained wholly distinct from the authoritarian spirit of the Old World because generations of men have laid down their lives to ensure it remains such. Dissatisfaction with the current state of liberalism does not mean one should begin to advocate for fascist ideology. Those who do are just as much a traitor to the Revolution as a communist agitators. These ideologies have wreaked inconceivable havoc and death on mankind, caused great suffering among persecuted peoples, and in the end, have shown themselves to be unsustainable and undesirable. While the death of nationalism is something to avoid, going to the other extreme and embracing nationalism to the extent where it means invading, slaughtering, enslaving, and persecuting outsiders is no better. The great wars of the 20th century were the consequence of excessive nationalism, and the suffering caused by them in the first place is why Europe is now hesitant to embrace a healthier amount of nationalism.

Rousseau’s belief that so-called democratic totalitarian systems lead to the will of the people being executed has proven itself to be horrifically untrue in the 20th century. The totalitarian states that are created in the name of the people always proclaim themselves as the “national socialist worker’s party” or the “democratic people’s republic” making them de jure the perfect Rousseauean states. But those that take the reins of power almost universally participate in the horrific abuse of it. Fascists have always ended up working with the moneyed, established elites to further exploit and oppress the working class instead of freeing them. What is enforced is not the general will but the particular interests of the people in charge. The illusion of democracy in “democratic people’s republics” always happens to work for the particular interests of those that count the votes.

The fundamental premise of authoritarianism is that what we actually want might not coincide with what we ought to want. This creates a problem: What to do with those who do not want what is best for them? With the gift of hindsight of the 250 years that passed after his works, it is easy to find Rousseau's solution quite chilling: “Thus, in order for the social compact to avoid being an empty formula, it tacitly involves the commitment – which alone can give force to the others – that whoever refuses to obey the general will be forced to do so by the entire body. This means merely that he will be forced to be free”. This Orwellian concept of self-proclaimed benevolent paternalism should unsettle any student of history who has witnessed men bring hell on earth with good intentions. Rousseau believed there was a way of finding out what is good for society by determining the “general will” by having everyone vote for what they believe would be the best for society regardless of their particular interests, and then using a totalitarian state to force everyone to be free (obey the general will). He supposed that the general would tell us what was best for the community as a whole, while the positives and negatives of the private desires would cancel out. What actually happens is either the aforementioned tyranny of the few or, in the most ideal scenario, when the people realize that the results of an election will be imposed absolutely, they inevitably begin to vote in their particular interests thus creating a sum of private interests, the “will of all”. Rousseau’s belief that the will of all or the general can even exist in a determinable form is questionable in itself. Looking at it practically, this view seems like an unrealistic characterization of how humans and desire work. Rousseau emphasized that individuals should override their particular interests with what is best for the community, yet this seems virtually impossible. How can a person even decide what would be good for an entire community without arbitrarily and misinformed making inaccurate generalizations and thus angering many, if not most? Furthermore, who or what exactly sets the standard of good? It seems impossible that individuals would be able to separate their private interests and personal biases when they vote determined by what’s “good” for the community if they even do that instead of just throwing off any pretense and voting selfishly. Even disregarding this, the small homogeneous state Rousseau posits as a prerequisite for this totalitarian democracy in the first place is simply not achievable without utilizing violence. Our social fabric is composed of too many different races, economic backgrounds, and personalities for there to be a satisfying community-driven consensus. Additionally, one person may say something will benefit the community while another may say it does not. There can be no “common good” when the community itself is split into so many irreversible, inevitable factions. (Hadohe, 2010)

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What then is the plan for the future? What, if anything, can we as liberals can do to restore a vision of America without resorting to totalitarian ideology, in the process likely destroying it altogether? The arrogance that we are the endpoint of mankind's ideological evolution, that liberal democracy is the inevitable, Hegelian, final form of human government must be abandoned. We must synthesize liberalism with the teachings of non-liberal thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Edmund Burke, and even with the reactionary totalitarianism of the 20th century instead of rejecting them completely, for they arose due to the failure and flaws of liberalism. What is being called the “Right” today can be recast as a political attempt to save liberalism against the things that are eating away its substance?

The Founders aspired to create a republic in which the values so precious to a liberal society might flourish: However when society strays from these values, we must adopt a reactionary view. The sensible Burkean tradition of incremental change only works when we are going in the right direction. We must be palingenetic in thought and seek to revive the republic that our forebears envisioned. Conservatism is about the preservation of balance. Washington's rejection of the crown is the seminal event that would define America, and rather than being a radical shift from history, it was the most potent embodiment of tradition. America is the culmination of a long history of Anglo legal traditions, protestant theology, and self-government. The establishment of a republic is at the very heart of American Conservatism because the value that binds the philosophy together is one of balance. Ponder the structure of a republic, a balance between democracy and aristocracy, or that of a federation, the balance between a confederacy and a unitary state. We must likewise balance liberty with order, freedom with virtue and responsibility, the wisdom of the elite with the will of the people, diversity with unity, and secularism with faith.

We must first and foremost recognize that individual liberty is a byproduct of an ordered society and disciplined individuals, not the absence of laws. Liberty is not an accident or a natural state of things. It is a very special thing that arises from discipline, order, and virtue. We can see in the failed states torn apart by warlords that there is no freedom without order. Huxley’s Brave New World also reminds us that Rousseau and Plato were right when they wrote that being dictated by our appetites and desires is not liberty, but enslavement. BNW’s World State fulfills John Mill’s utilitarian liberal dream of a perfect society in every way. Every need is fulfilled, every desire is met, and pleasure is maximized. Yet, as one reads it, there is an unease that something is terribly wrong. One cannot say that the citizens of the World State are truly free. There is an intuitive understanding that true freedom is more akin to what Rousseau described: living to values we impose on ourselves. When laws coincide with our will, we do not feel coerced. Instead, we feel free because we feel like we are doing what we wanted to do anyway. We cannot be truly free when we are enslaved to our passions, compelled to fulfill them, and therefore the law should be designed to help us master our passions so that we can truly be free (Antas 2016). We must balance our freedom with responsibility and virtue.

The influence of moneyed interests must be curbed if the will of the people is to drive our democracy. Without such restrictions, we lean toward plutocracy and aristocracy rather than maintaining the balance with democracy that is a republic. Limits on Super PACs and big donors should be reinstated to help restore this balance. Alongside that, while we absolutely should not pursue the policies of ethnic cleansing and racial purity that the NatSocs in Germany did, we must address the growing heterogeneity in the West and recognize that excessive diversity is not conducive to a unified liberal democracy. For the “general will” of Rousseau to form, the people must willing to put the interests of their nation above their own, which necessitates some degree of cultural homogeneity. To combat the tide of demographic shifts, we must impose strict immigration restrictions and rigorous assimilation policy to allow natural melting pots of intermarriage and common upbringing to integrate these foreigners into fellow citizens and countrymen. Happily, we are seeing this already happening, especially between Hispanic and White Americans, but the rate at which it is happening pales in comparison to the rate at which foreigners are entering the country. Rome worked when foreigners crossed its borders to become Romans. It failed when newcomers fled into the Empire and adhered to their own cultures. (Hanson, 2017). The one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin, of preventing all possibility of its continuing to be a nation at all, would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities, an intricate knot of x-Americans, each preserving its separate nationality, each at heart feeling more sympathy with Europeans or Asians or Africans of that nationality than with the other citizens of the American Republic (Roosevelt, 1905). We must find the balance between diversity and unity.

Liberalism depends on a higher state of mind that requires a strong foundation along with a lofty vision. For those of us who care about liberalism then, there is an imperative to ask: What is the American project? Is there anything the citizens of our republic can imagine to be a common idea around which we can unite and for which we can fight? During the 20th century, the Western intelligentsia suffered a similar kind of moral crisis: a kind of uncertainty about the core principles and foundational belief in democracy and liberalism. The rise of totalitarian ideologies of international godlessness and national race supremacy posed a threat to our worldview. Democracy did not seem to know why it should be preferred over alternatives whose advocates celebrated them so passionately and reverently. What democracy needed was a metaphysical justification - or, at least a set of metaphysically grounded reasons for preferring democracy to those great and terrifying rivals. (The Watchmen, Alan Jacobs). It was in this context that Christianity truly shone.

As described by Montesquieu in the Spirit of Laws, there are different principles by which different forms of government are driven, virtue being the spirit of a republic. A republic’s citizens must be frugal, egalitarian, homogeneous, and selfless. In order to instill this among a populace while also maintaining the principle of limited government, there must be a belief in some transcendent, objective moral order that can enforce a social order without the heavy hand of government. For liberals, the ideal religion is Christianity. Christianity teaches frugality, equality, love, industriousness, virtue, and selfless service while emphasizing the unique balance of both free will and the self-discipline and responsibility that must accompany it, a balance is so vital for a working liberal democracy. Christians should keep their democracies secular in policy but always grounded in their religious principles.

The people must be constantly educated on these high ideals. Societies such as ours naturally entropy into disorder and stagnation that births reactionary, authoritarian movements. To restore and preserve our tradition of liberalism will require of us constant diligence and allegiance to republican values and a vigilant watch against both totalitarian and collectivist ideologies while also guarding against the decadence and laziness that inspires decay and degeneracy in societies which in turn births the aforementioned reactionaryism. We aspire to something greater than either tribal-fascist warfare or the dictatorship of appetite. It won't be easy, but it was never meant to be. It is hard work, but also noble work, for we are building a country here. Liberalism is not too far gone. We can still restore this Republic and the greater liberal political tradition of the West to what they were meant to be.

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Rousseau on Liberalism. (2022, September 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 29, 2024, from
“Rousseau on Liberalism.” Edubirdie, 27 Sept. 2022,
Rousseau on Liberalism. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 29 Feb. 2024].
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