Is there a case to be made for Rousseau’s General Will?

The philosopher Rousseau discusses a number of ideas which are relevant in various ways to the world of today. The Enlightenment idea of the State of Nature is quite prescient in itself, given later discoveries about evolution. Human beings evolved to function in certain environments – these environments may not have been the most optimal from a human perspective, but the conditions which our psychology and biology are best suited for. Rousseau’s conception of the State of Nature as a kind of optimum position is close to what the evidence suggests today.

Rousseau’s conception of the General Will, however, has been highly criticised as totalitarian and dangerous. This is for two main reasons – first of all, Rousseau provides little explanation as to how to achieve this General Will, and therefore it would be easy to supplant it with the will of a dictator or party. Secondly, the idea that people could be ‘forced to be free’.

These issues are clearly present in Rousseau’s writings – however I do not believe that Rousseau or his concept of the General Will should be entirely discarded. There are, after all, entire groups of beings which are incapable of determining for themselves what would be in their best interests – animals, children and so on. Many political theories seem to lack a real idea as to how to properly address the care of these beings. They are left to the whims of individuals, or communities, or governments.

I came to the conclusion that the only moral way to decide on the treatment of those who require outside assistance is through the combined intellect and compassion of all of humanity. This is very similar to Rousseau’s concept of the General Will.

Although the details would be too much to discuss here, I believe there are possibilities for answering the first issue as well. It should be possible to develop a form of consensus based decision making which works on a large scale and within suitable time frames. Even the simple first-past-the-post representative democracy we have today is a form of consensus based decision making when we consent to respect the outcome of elections.

It would therefore be a mistake in my view to discard Rousseau altogether. He can still provide us with a source of inspiration both through his beautiful writing and his political thought.

YouTube Series

Hi everyone, quick update. I’ve been focusing on writing and editing at Conatus News, along with putting out a new podcast under that label which you can find here. But I’ve also started a new series on my own for short commentaries on varied subjects, much the same as my old articles on here, and I’ll be running that under the Fisher Download title. You can watch the first episode of that here.

Quick Announcement

Since I’m now a contributor to Conatus News, I’m going to be doing less blog posts generally. This isn’t going to be abandoned though, I have other projects underway which I will discuss here in due time, and anything that isn’t suitable for Conatus News like more personal pieces and dry theoretical musings will go here. That may not be an appealing mix but in that case you can follow my work on Conatus instead.


The first of my new articles is here:

Defining Metamodernism

As a teenager, I saw no contradiction in following the tenets of both Marxism and the ‘New Atheists’. Both perspectives provide simple black and white answers to the problems of the world, and are mutually compatible in other ways.

Both can be seen as very ‘modernist’ ideologies.

The ‘New Atheist’ movement has emerged after the downfall of modernism, however.

Let’s be clear here and lay out a definition of modernism and postmodernism. I don’t really care if you have a different definition of the terms. Art, architecture and so on will undoubtedly have their own versions. Either accept my terminology or substitute the words for more suitable alternatives.

So, modernism is the belief that human society is an ordered affair with recurring patterns which can be identified. It is faith in the human power to comprehend such structures, and that understanding and knowledge is a fundamentally good thing.

We now live in an age of postmodernism, in which all human concepts are considered to be social constructs which can and should be rearranged for political purposes. This age is characterised by a denial of universality, an embrace of emotion over reason and scorn for any claims of objective knowledge.

Postmodernism emerged in the 60s as a response to the failures of modernism. The belief was that science and reason had only led to war and death, and the rigidity of Communist ideology resulted in the stagnant authoritarianism of the Soviet Union.

This shift in attitudes among the left gradually allowed the right to claim the language of the Enlightenment. Freedom, democracy, reason and rationality all became buzzwords in the service of individual egos. The right uses formal logic and philosophy to help justify pre-existing assumptions and prejudices. By starting with a false premise, they build an entire structure which seems reasonable on the surface but has rotten foundations. Many such individuals and movements claim to be rationalists, but could more accurately be considered rationalisers.

It was at least partially the terrorist attacks of September the 11th which pulled a number of left wingers out of the post-modern perspective and spawned New Atheism. Suddenly, religion went from being a harmless if annoying form of philosophy to a real and present danger in the eyes of many who had already rejected it.

I was never particularly concerned about Islam as a teenager myself. My enemy was the Christian fundamentalism which denied evolution and condemned homosexuality, which had a foothold amongst my peers and whose messengers were allowed access into my high school.

It was surprising, then, when I discovered the Marxists at university largely considered New Atheism to be a hostile phenomenon, a tool of the powers that be to justify their new crusades in the Middle East. Despite the persistence of Marxism itself, I found the left to have thoroughly embraced postmodern concepts.

In time, I too embraced, if not postmodernism directly, then the philosophical products of postmodernism. I spent a good few years embedded in modern ‘social justice’ as the evidence piled up around me that there was something deeply wrong with the ideology. Without a rigid structure, without a solid foundation, terminology constantly shifted, nobody could really make sense of anything, and anyone who tried would be shouted down. The loudest, most aggressive and authoritarian voices held sway.

When a correct interpretation of the world is said to follow not from reason but from experience, those without experience can do nothing and trust nobody, because for every experience there is another which contradicts it. At best, people will use their own judgement to pick the voices of experience they wish to follow, and use that voice as a weapon to fend off any opposition. At worst, it will not be reason but fear and guilt instead.

Postmodernism, as an approach to life, is inherently open to abuse. By denying human reason, it leaves people in a state of perpetual uncertainty which can be taken advantage of.

Modernism has the opposite problem. By elevating human reason, it serves to hide the role of emotions in decision making, and leads its adherents to a dangerous level of certainty. This certainty spawns authoritarian attitudes and a close minded unwillingness to consider alternative perspective.

Even worse emerges when modernist and post-modernist philosophy mingles and combines in random and unfocused ways. People become rigidly inflexible about wishy-washy beliefs, or render themselves incapable of doing anything.

It is, therefore, necessary to solidify a positive approach beyond both modernism and postmodernism. Despite modern usage, the term ‘meta’ in Greek means ‘beyond’. Metamodernism is a term we can use for a new approach, the response to the failings of both modernism and postmodernism.

There are other approaches and interpretations of metamodernism, which I encourage you to google if you are interested. In this article I will be outlining my own interpretation.

Metamodernism accepts the universal truth of an existence external to ourselves. The world is more than mere human perception. However, it recognises the limitations of the human mind. Although external reality exists, we can only understand this reality through ‘models’ or ‘simulations’. We make assumptions and draw parallels to similar things in order to short-cut our way to understanding.

The task of the metamodern analyst, scientist or philosopher is not to reveal a fundamental truth about the universe, but to improve upon the models we use. By understanding and overcoming prejudices, for example, we help people understand the world and enable them to navigate it more efficiently.

Metamodernism recognises that not all ideas are equal – that the wrong idea whispered to the wrong person can lead to negative outcomes. However, it also recognises that the alternative to free speech and free expression is tyranny. Because metamodernism understands the role emotions play in decision making, it recommends sharing and dialogue rather than antagonistic debates.

Metamodernism acknowledges that categorisation is a human behaviour which is necessary to understand a complicated world, and thus rejects a simple dichotomy between what is real and what is a social construct. Everything is a social construct, the only question is how accurate and useful the concept is. Depending on the level of detail required, a category cannot be founded on broad stereotypes, or rejected because of a few exceptions.

To a metamodernist, truth is a direction, not a destination. Rationality begins with recognising the inherent irrationality of the human mind. Instead of suppressing emotions or obeying them, the metamodernist considers emotions something to be aware of, which should be a tool of the thinking being’s arsenal as a motivator and source of information.

Metamodernism recognises the patterns and systems which govern the movements and behaviours of people, but also understands that the individual is far more complex than the sum of interactions between a few of these systems. Attempting to make judgements and pick sides on a personal level, without understanding anything more than the social groups into which these individuals fall, is a deeply flawed and dangerous approach.

Metamodernism seeks to rehabilitate the Enlightenment. Rather than seeing it as a project of the Western elites, Metamodernism takes a wider view of ‘Enlightenment’ as a global, millennia long struggle for truth and justice which the 18th century movement was a very small and deeply connected part of.

For a straightforward definition: Metamodernism is the belief that human reason is inherently flawed, and that complete knowledge about the universe is impossible, but that reason and knowledge are still worth striving for all the same.

As usual I am only touching upon a much deeper subject. There may be deeper levels of analysis, more accurate ways to consider a rejection of postmodernism. I encourage everyone to voice their own opinions, in a constructive manner, no matter how ignorant we perceive ourselves to be. Postmodernism restricts our ability to act decisively, while modernism makes it too easy. Have confidence in your current opinions. It is only through putting them into practice, testing them in the real world and in conversations with others, that we can see where we have made a mistake. Do not be ashamed to be wrong publicly and get corrected. Be ashamed to be wrong in secret and never learn.

Principles of Ethical Secession

A curious phenomenon is taking place throughout the United Kingdom. Last year, we voted to leave the European Union. This year we face the possibility of Scotland leaving the United Kingdom. In the course of these events, the left and right have largely switched places, using similar arguments previously raised by their opponents.

So what is going on? How can we make sense of this? If we can develop a general approach to secession then we can navigate these issues without fear of hypocrisy.

It seems to me that there are two specific reasons which make people want to secede from a larger union, though the two are often intertwined.

First of all, there are the political and economic arguments. Parliamentary democracies seem to settle around an equilibrium and shift between a centre left and centre right government. But if an area within the state consistently favours one side or another, they may feel themselves unrepresented in parliament. Right wingers objected to the European Union because it remains a bastion of centrism. Right wing newspapers have blamed EU regulations for all sorts of nonsense over the years. Now, left wingers went to secede from the United Kingdom because it’s too right wing. I find this entire approach reprehensible.

Democracies depend on the belief in a peaceful transfer of power. When your side loses an election, you cede control to the other side and plan your victory in five years or so. If you want the country to go in a different political direction, you focus on trying to persuade people to vote for your cause. Nicola Sturgeon is clearly a capable and competent person in a time where few politicians seem to be. Imagine how much good she could have done as the leader of the Labour party rather than the SNP.

Leaving a union because you don’t like the direction politics has gone opens up a whole can of worms which nobody should want to loose upon the world, as the right wingers are now discovering. You shouldn’t get to opt out of the results of a democratic election, although rich people and corporations have already been managing for a while now. If rich areas secede in order to avoid subsidising poor areas, things will really start going downhill.

On the other hand, there are the nationalist arguments. If one part of a state has a different culture it may feel alienated and isolated from the whole. This in itself is not grounds for secession. As long as your nationality is not subject to discrimination, your schools teach your language and so on, there is no reason why you can’t coexist with other nationalities within a single state. The potentially awful consequences of dividing up communities with borders, people relocating from one side to another and so on, can only be justified in a situation in which it is absolutely necessary to protect a persecuted ethnicity within a clearly defined geographical region.

Reading this, you may presume I am opposed to both Brexit and Scottish independence. Certainly I am opposed to both British and Scottish nationalism. But for Scotland to leave a United Kingdom which is in itself leaving the European Union is not an act of secession. As long as Scotland remains part of the EU it is maintaining the greater union and refusing to allow itself to be dragged down by English hubris. Before the referendum I was opposed to Scottish independence, but now I see it as the lesser of two evils. If Scotland suffers from leaving the UK, at least the EU will bail them out.

Automation and the Female Body – A Warning on Women’s Day

In my unfinished series of articles I may never publish on this blog, I calculated that misogyny was mollified, to some degree, by the fact that men and women must necessarily coexist in close proximity. Social bonds such as parentage play a role, but also the biological necessity of female reproductive systems, and for many men, relationships or at least sexual intercourse.

Elsewhere, I discussed that the reconstruction era of the United States was botched in that it failed to address the economic divide between rich white people and poor black people. The rich whites had been deprived of their income via slavery, but they still possessed their riches and their land. Meanwhile black people were left to ‘make their own fortunes’.

Since the rich and poor white people still maintained prejudiced attitudes, the poor white people now saw black people as direct competition for the same jobs. Meanwhile the rich white people, many of whom had been banned from seeking office, saw their former subjects rising to political prominence and began to consider them a threat.

The white south, rich and poor, begun suppressing the potential power of black people, by keeping them harassed and terrified, removing them from political office or even running them out of communities entirely.

Although it may not have escalated to the level of genocide, parallels can be made to the approach of the Nazis towards Jewish people. Keep them suppressed and terrified, run them out of Germany, and then ultimately exterminate them.

Yes, okay, fair enough, but what about the topic at hand? Sorry, but I have some more to talk about before we get there.

A lot of fuss has been made by many people, including myself, about the looming threat of automation. This has been a potential concern since the beginning of the industrial era. However, in the past, people, vast numbers of people, have been necessary to operate the machines which might otherwise replace them.

Now, with increasingly sophisticated machinery and computers, manual labour is being phased out completely. Without a comprehensive, global, social security network including advanced schooling, large sections of the human population will become obsolete. No longer useful for exploitation, they turn from an asset into a threat. Unscrupulous members of the world’s elite have already been ramping up prejudice against foreigners and the poor in recent decades. The consequences could be disastrous. The thing is, this issue has been raised and discussed by many people. Including influential and powerful people such as Bill Gates. They may be happy to exploit labour but the potential for death on a massive scale is far beyond many people’s moral compasses, for the moment.

What hasn’t been addressed is how this automation might affect women. Although prejudice against women in various forms still permeates our society, feminism no matter how distorted has been a bulwark against this. The more women value their own existence, and value other women, the more men have to at least make an attempt at respecting women in order to maintain positive relationships with the women in their lives.

Most men are heterosexual and have a sex drive stimulated by the media and society which pushes them into at least some interaction with women. Mainstream feminists are invested in leveraging this drive in order to maintain and raise female worth in men’s eyes. If women demand respect from their partners, and men are driven to become partners, then men will necessarily be compelled to respect women. This is, perhaps, one reason why mainstream feminism is so “sex positive”, and why many people think sexuality gives women power over men.

Sexuality gives women power over men the same way that slavery gave black people power over white people. It made them useful.

If scientists can develop entirely artificial wombs, women will no longer have to undergo pregnancy in order to have children. And if scientists can develop entirely artificial egg cells, men will no longer have to partner with a woman in order to have a child. Similarly, if engineers can make robots which replace manual labour entirely, it’s not a big step from there to making servant bots and sex bots. Why would a misogynist go to the effort of getting a girlfriend who they might have to treat with respect when they can buy a robot which can do all the things they value a woman for, and they never have to care about its feelings?

The female body has been exploited for centuries for its reproductive capabilities, both for entertainment and for the purposes of producing offspring. We may, in the near future, bear witness to the end of such exploitation.

The end of women’s usefulness in a society dominated by men will lead to suppression followed by extermination.

‘Britain First’? Or A Post-National World

All mainstream political debate takes place within a common perspective of nationalism. To a greater or lesser degree, perhaps, but candidates focus on what they think is best for their country. This is about what you would expect, when their electorate is people within that country.

The degree to which you think your country needs to rely on others or whether it can go alone are merely questions of economics and jingoism. So here’s a question of economics – in the future, will globalisation continue or diminish? If you look across the world right now and witness the rise of nationalist leaders you may well think it will diminish, but you would be wrong. Developments in technology, particularly transport and communication, will continue regardless of who is in power, and international mergers and takeovers of corporations will keep happening.

If you think your local nationalist politicians will stand up to this, be prepared for disappointment. If they’re not actually in league with corporate interests, watch what happens to a country which tries to assert its own economic agenda. Governments no longer have control over their own economies. Customs unions can be left, treaties can be torn up, but it won’t make a difference in the end. In the European Union or out, your country will bow to the interests of global capitalism regardless.

In such conditions, what is the use of nationalist policies? Only to control population movement. And you might be thinking, “great! That’s what I want!” if you’re from one of those countries which historically benefited from capitalism. I say historically, because, as nation states lose control of their economies to corporations bigger than they are, and borders are closed down while markets stay open, what possible use do you think the corporations will have for you?

More likely, governments will expand into the areas they still have control over – security. Wealthy individuals and corporate headquarters will move to safe, tax free, unregulated islands, and leave the rest of us paying for all the social costs, unable to travel out of deteriorating regions, watched and controlled by authoritarian powers we may even lose the privilege of electing.

Protecting your country is no longer an option. It will take the combined effort of most of the world to protect democracy and self-determination in the coming era.

These views may be considered extreme in modern politics but they must become mainstream in short order. Nationalism is no longer fit for purpose. ‘Britain First’ won’t help us when the crops die as the climate changes and the flood waters spill over the banks of the Thames. ‘Britain First’ won’t help us when an unhinged autocrat fires a missile and begins a war of total annihilation. ‘Britain First’ won’t help us when our own government turns on us and the polls close for good. And ‘Britain First’ certainly won’t help us when we’re all in debt to a corporation nobody can touch and the choice is between doing what you’re told or going to prison.

The need to maintain a welfare state is constantly used as an argument against helping anyone from outside our country. “Why help refugees when we have veterans who need support?” “Why spend money on the European Union when we have a failing NHS?”. But that only begins to work as an argument if the politicians who made those arguments were actually prepared to spend that money on the NHS and veterans. And yet we head inexorably towards privatisation and the destruction of social security regardless of how little we engage with the rest of the world.

It’s time for us all to swallow our national pride and admit that none of us are more important, none of us deserve more than anyone else in the world. Corporations and governments are certainly beginning to think so. If you don’t already believe that on moral grounds, it will be true in practice soon enough. The only question remaining then will be, what do all of us in the world deserve? Democracy, equality and freedom? Or dictatorship, inequality and servitude? Your choice.