Assess the view that Rousseau’s social contract is totalitarian Analytical Essay

March 22, 2021 by Essay Writer


Many theorists suggest that a family forms the first model of political society. This is mainly because parents are relieved of their duties of caring for children once they reach adulthood. Similarly, children are relieved of complete obedience to their parents at adulthood. Moreover, family bonds and obligations are practically broken. In fact, whatever remains is voluntary. It signifies an opportunity for children to be masters of their own destiny.

This is the basic unit of political society, in which people are born free but everywhere they remain in chain. The expression is according to Rousseau who asserts that modern states have the habit of repressing freedom, which is everyone’s birthright. Moreover, he faults them for neglecting civil freedom, which is the main reason for joining civil society. He therefore believes that legitimate political power can only be achieved through social contract. This paper will assess the view that social contract is totalitarian (Rousseau, 1762 p. 1).

Rousseau’s social contract

According to Rousseau, people are denied freedom, which is their birthright. He therefore believed that for considerable freedom to be exercised in any given society, it requires a legitimate government or political authority. Moreover, this authority must be attained through social contract. It is also quite important to note that the social contract must be accepted by all residents for mutual protection.

In this regard, he defines sovereign as a collective grouping of all individuals of a political society and maintains that it should be taken like an individual. In this sense, as far as an individual has a particular aim or goal in life for his or her best interest, a political society or sovereign have a general will that aims or fights for a common goal. Therefore, as much as the sovereign is absolute in its authority, it also has authority on issues of public interest or concern. In conclusion, Rousseau’s verdict to those who violate social contract is death.

According to Rousseau, an alien lawgiver is mandated with the responsibility of creating abstract as well as general laws. Moreover, it is in these laws that the general will is clearly expressed. In addition, he alludes to the fact that a government is required to perform executive duties along with sovereign in exercising legislative powers. The government is therefore mandated with the responsibility of running day-to-day activities in society. There are several forms of governments namely, monarchy, democracy and aristocracy, among others.

However, the form of government lies heavily on its size. For instance, monarchy is considered as the strongest of all forms of government. Moreover, according to Rousseau, it serves the largest population and is suited for hot climates. He also argues that aristocracies are the best form of government and usually more stable than the rest.

Rousseau also maintains those sovereigns is always distinct from government and therefore are always in constant friction. In this regard, this friction has the propensity of destroying a state. It is therefore important that the state remains healthy for stability and longer reign, which may last centuries.

Rousseau continues by pointing out that citizens implement their sovereignty through periodic and regular meetings. It is quite important to note that rarely does everyone attend these meetings; however, this is necessary for a healthy state. He also insists that use of representatives in these meetings endangers well being of a state especially since the general will cannot be heard.

In essence, he thinks that citizens should note vote for their personal needs, rather they should do so in the interest of general will. Furthermore, results attained from these votes ought to approach unanimity. This is where the rule of supermajority links as it ensures that the general will is heard. Rousseau uses an example of Roman republic to sink his view of social contract and the concept of general will.

Social Contract can thus be defines as an agreement that enables an individual to join a civil society. It therefore binds that individual into society or community that exists in the interest of communal protection. In this respect, such individuals loose the right to do whatever they want albeit they get civil freedom, which allows them to act and think morally and rationally. Therefore, Rousseau maintains that we can achieve human status by going into social contract (Schwartzberg, 2008, p. 403-423).

The general Will

Rousseau uses the concept of general will to assert his argument on a legitimate political society. He believes that a general will can only be achieved through inclusion of all members of society. This is contradictory to the current practices where representatives are elected to vote on behalf of citizens. He believes that this form of law making is contradictory to the needs of a people and therefore acts to serve personal needs and not the general will.

In this regard, he defines general will, as that will of sovereign, which aims at achieving a common good even though each member of a society is known to have his/her will. This is not expressed in the general will. In fact, general will express the will of a state, which covers everyone.

No wonder, he insists that everyone should be involved in such decisions since representatives may at times forward their own personal interests as is witnessed all over the world’s democracies. The general will is thus described as will of all, which can refer to the sum total of individual will.

However, this is only possible in a healthy state. In a state experiencing friction between sovereign and government, the general will differs from will of all. This is mainly because what is known to be general will, may sometimes be infiltrated by personal interests at the highest levels. This causes jittery and animosity between sovereign and government and may lead to fall of a state. General will is therefore very important and must concur with will of all, in order to achieve a healthy state (Schwartzberg, 2008, p. 403-423).


There are several forms of governments in the contemporary world. These include democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy, among others. According to Rousseau, the form of government depends on its size. For example, monarchy is considered as strongest of all the various forms of government.

Furthermore, he maintains that Monarchy serves the largest population and is suitable for hot climates. In addition, Rousseau argues that aristocracies are the best form of government, which last for centuries. Rousseau faults modern democracies for demeaning their subjects and sovereign. For instance, modern democracies have representatives that are supposed to enact laws on behalf of citizens. However, this is not entirely true.

In fact, while some legislators go for their own interests, other push for ideologies over and above what their constituents want. This has caused jittery and acrimony in most countries with continual replacement of representatives during elections. Nonetheless, it continues to haunt them, as the trend of presenting personal thoughts continues.

Rousseau tries to determine the possibility of achieving freedom, as it should be and not in its present form where self interest takeover power and utilize it, as they want. In fact, it is for this reason that he goes for concurrence between the general will and will of all.

However, current democracies do not offer such provisions. In fact, they claim that Rousseau’s theories are impracticable in modern world and require an ideal world that can heed to most people’s wants. In essence, as much as democracy tries to achieve concurrence in issues and freedom, it fails to reach its minimum threshold in Rousseau’s view (Estlund, Waldron, Grofman & Feld, 1989, p. 1317-1340).

Super majority

Will of all refers to the total sum of all individuals will. When this total sum or will of all exceeds other factors, it can be described as a simple majority. In essence, a simple majority may encompass many variables but only the winner is taken as absolute even if the sum total of other losers exceeds that of the winner. However, this is quite different from super majority. In fact, this is where the will of all can be achieved in Rousseau’s view.

Therefore, super majority can only be achieved if the winner exceeds the sum total of all other losers. In this respect, it may be right to say that general will concurs with will of all if it is represented by a super majority. According to Rousseau, general will, must approach unanimity for it to be inclusive of all participants. This can only be achieved through votes that make up for a super majority. Some theories have however, linked Rousseau’s view on votes with epismestic reasons (Cohen, 1986, p. 257-297).


This discussion is aimed at assessing whether Rousseau’s social contract is totalitarian. According to Rousseau’s social contract, people should be guided by a general will attained through super majority votes. In light of this, it can be a wonderful system of government if everyone has the same line of thought.

However, this is not the case in modern world, where capitalism makes people unequal. To some extent, it can apply in an aristocratic form of government where everyone seems to know where they belong and therefore gives up their freedom to a stronger power. The mere fact that one gives up his or her right to a general will, which may at times differ from the will of all, makes it dependent the executive.

However, this has proven to be a failure even though it acts to achieve common goals. The Romans used a similar system and it helped them achieve most of their goals. However, it denied basic rights to captives as well as citizens. To this extent, I can say that Rousseau’s social contract is totalitarian.

Furthermore, the fact that those who do not follow social contract are punishable by death makes it totalitarian. True liberty can be achieved through freedom. This allows creativity and innovation, among others. Designing basic line of thought, behavior and action can act to deny deserving people their right to participation in critical activities. Moreover, the states agenda should be well represented in the community, with the possibility of letting variant views to prove their worth.

Besides, it is not true that majority are always right. In fact, it has been shown beyond doubt that geniuses are very few, and this is same for significant ideologies. This is mainly because general will, may suffer from group psychology, which at times renders critical analysis useless. In this sense, use of Rousseau’s social contract in a state is likely to skew them towards a totalitarian government (Cohen, 1986, p. 257-297).

Totalitarian Regimes

Different regimes have emerged over the years. However of great concern is the links between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. Authoritarian regimes are those that dictate what its subject does. In this sense, orders are channeled from the executive for people to follow. It is quite important to note that totalitarian regimes usually rule by amassing total support from all its citizens.

This is usually achieved through many ways, some of which include threatening their lives and propaganda, among others. In this regard, it is essential to note that totalitarian rule may be detrimental to society especially if infiltrated by personal needs of those tasked with exercising government duties.

This is mainly because people come from different backgrounds, cultures and lines of thought. It is therefore impossible for them to think in the same line and submit completely to a super majority general will. This has the propensity of denying some people their right to thoughts and freedom of speech, among others (Rousseau, 1762 p. 1).


I tend to think that Rousseau’s social contract is inclined towards a totalitarian government. This is mainly because people have different views in life. Therefore forcing them to give up their right to some government without credibility of sustaining such rights can lead to totalitarian government. Most regimes that run totalitarian government claim to derive support from all their subjects. This has led to conflicts when it matures.

For instance, Libyan governments as well as those of the Far East like China and North Korea tend to skew towards totalitarian government. However, they claim to have majority support from people who suffer daily to make ends meet. It is quite necessary to note that such regimes usually come as result of social contract. They may begin in an exceptional manner but later on turn into totalitarian government.

In other words, Rousseau’s social contract is closely linked to a totalitarian government than the freedom it claims to provide. This is because people have different views due to varying backgrounds. Therefore, tying them to a common goal, which may be one person’s interest, denies them their basic freedom of choice.

Moreover, not everyone has the capacity to understand common goals of a state. In most cases, the elite propose such ideologies based on their interests, which may be to exploit others. Rousseau’s social contract is therefore skewed towards a totalitarian government (Levine, 2002, p. 28).


According to Rousseau, people are denied their birthright, which is freedom. In this regard, he suggests a legitimate political authority, which comes to power through social contract. This, he believes would provide the freedom that people deserves. Social contract is an agreement that enables an individual to join civil society. It therefore binds the individual into society in the interest of communal protection.

However, this is tantamount to totalitarian rule since everyone is bound completely to one solid government. Besides, human nature states that people differ in thoughts, needs, and ideologies, among others. Social contract therefore has the propensity to deny them the right of choice hence leading to a totalitarian government (Rousseau, 1762 p. 1).

Reference List

Cohen, J 1986, ‘Reflections on Rousseau: Autonomy and Democracy’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol.15, No.3, pp. 257-297.

Estlund, DM Waldron, J Grofman, B & Feld, SL 1989, ‘Democratic Theory and the Public Interest: Condorcet and Rousseau Revisited’, American Political Science Review, Vol.83, No.4, pp. 1317-1340.

Levine, A 2002, Engaging Political Philosophy: From Hobbes to Rawls, Blackwell, Oxford.

Rousseau, JJ 1762, The Social Contract or Principles of Political Right, Translated by G. D. H. Cole. Available from: <>.

Schwartzberg, M 2008, ‘Voting the General Will: Rousseau on Decision Rules’, Political Theory, Vol.36, No.3, pp. 403-23.

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