Even aside from the larger scope of what I’m planning for Utopias the book, as I read him, I’m thinking about our own political situation today. Inequality has become one of the definitive political issues of the 21st century West – fighting inequality is the mission statement of today’s progressive left from Athens to Vancouver.
President Agent Orange. But there’s still an underlying idea that growing and catastrophic social and economic inequality laid the conditions of that reactionary wave.
So I picked up one of the classical texts in the Western tradition to think through the problem of social inequality. Rousseau was a rebel against the popular themes of his time – that European civilization was maturing, coming into its own as people learned to live as free citizens of enlightened, open governments guided by knowledge and wisdom of the new sciences and revival of ancient learning.
Absolutely fucking not, he said. The first of not enough punks and rebels in the history of Switzerland.
Instead, he offered an image of 1700s society as inherently corrupt, built on oppression. As a left-wing person taking part in left-wing political conversations in the 21st century, we’d today tend to think of that oppression through the era’s colonial empires. Not Rousseau, though.
Imperialism was at the heart of European culture – when The Origin of Inequality dropped in 1755, the Seven Years War between France and England was about to begin. England, France, Spain, Holland, and Portugal all held colonial territories and outposts throughout the globe. Europe was wealthy from colonial industry.
Rousseau peppers his essay with a few images of savages to illustrate his image of the truly free person. But he uses the same foul language of imperialist, racist thinking. These are almost figures of speech to him, but thankfully not the actual basis of his thinking.
He describes the state of pure human equality as individuals alone. We wander around a world where we’re relatively under-populated, with abundant resources. We only come into contact with others occasionally, hang out for a while, satisfy whatever sexual or social needs we might have, and move on again.
General isolation and no scarcity. These are the conditions in which humanity is at its most equal – the only state where no one has any debts to each other, no one serves another, and everyone is free.
When we meet each other, we aren’t rivals, because everyone has everything they need in such a condition. With life no more complicated than that of a naked wanderer with no worries, all our natural feelings of sympathy and love are never interrupted. Everyone is wonderful to each other because there is no material need for resentment or conflict.
Such a world never existed. But it’s a conceptual exploration. Rousseau is asking: What is the simplest state of human existence in which we could still be human?
But if society gets much more complex than the simplest possible, which it always is, inequalities begin to form. When society is complex enough that no one can provide for all their needs on their own – which is pretty much any population size and any level of relative scarcity – we rely on each other, fall into each other’s debts, exercise power over each other.
So inequality is the condition of the corruption of the happy, caring attitude we’d all have toward each other if we had no troubles in life. Corruption of our better nature constitutes itself in the first exercise of power over another.
The first moment where we push someone, lean on them, coerce them. The moment where we take even just a little bit of someone’s freedom away. . . . To be continued