Today is the 300th anniversary of the birth of Jean Jacques Rousseau. To celebrate this most auspicious of days, here is my take on what Rousseau might say to anyone involved in community participation today.
Rousseau is my favourite political philosopher and The Social Contract (250 years old this year) is my favourite political book. If you are interested you can read The Social Contract online here or enjoy a couple of Harvard lectures about Rousseau's discourse here and The Social Contract here.
Obviously I can’t do justice here to the work of the great man in a short post – I’m sure I wouldn’t be able to even given the time and space – but here is, I think, in a nutshell, the core of his political argument:
The Social Contract
Rousseau’s central contention is that, in the modern world, people can only enjoy freedom thought direct participation in politics. Furthermore, we are free only when we obey those laws that we have made ourselves. For Rousseau, the moment you let someone else decide the laws you live under, whether it be a monarch, dictator or elected representative, you become no better than a slave.
How then can you only obey your own laws and yet live in a community with others? The Social Contract presents Rousseau’s solution to the problem. It represents a voluntary political association where everyone participates in the making of laws for the community interest (also known as the general will). The key bit is that the laws apply generally, so that everyone is equally affected:
‘...as every individual gives himself absolutely, the conditions are the same for all, it is no one’s interest to make conditions onerous for others’Clearly, as Rousseau would also accept, the social contract is an ideal state which is unlikely to ever be seen in reality. However, it provides, I think, a fine political aspiration.
Community Participation: Five Tips from Rousseau
So, what might Rousseau say about modern community participation? Here are five lessons that I think can be drawn from the Social Contract.
1. Get everyone in the community to sign up
The social contract only works because everyone has signed up to it, it cannot be imposed. Similarly community participation needs the consent of the whole community (or an overwhelming proportion of it), whatever that community might be. It might be raised hands at a meeting or a signature on a form; what’s important is that voluntary act of association. If this cannot be achieved then maybe the community participation approach needs to be changed, or maybe community participation isn’t appropriate at all.
2. Only consider general principles
One thing Rousseau would definitely say is that community participation should only be concerned with general issues for the community, issues that affect everyone, if not exactly the same, then in a similar way. Particular issues, such as what happens in one street, or a planning application, will draw out particular interests and lead to conflict. Instead, general issues, such as the speed limit, the acceptable noise level or even the overall balance of spending in an area should be the focus. It is for the ‘government’, whether it be the local authority or another public body to interpret the general principles and put them into practice in particular cases. Once again, if the community as a group gets involved, it can only bring conflict.
3. Only ask about what’s best for the community
Like Rousseau’s general will, the community will expresses the interest of the community as a whole. The question to be asked is not ‘what is best for you?’ or 'what do you want?’ but ‘what is in the best interests of the whole community?’ For the community will is not the ‘average’ of all individual interests but the result of a careful consideration of what is best for all. The fact that everyone is affected more or less the same is important in this context.
4. Ask people to consider the issues as individuals
For Rousseau the general will has the best chance to emerge when citizens undertake their own careful consideration and are not bound by party allegiance or swayed by those with vested interests. So with the community will it is important that party politics, pressure groups or any other type of faction are kept at bay. Citizens should be provided with information and encouraged to debate but not to campaign.
5. Get everyone to participate
For the community will to emerge everyone, or nearly everyone, in the community need to be involved. Comprehensive participation also increases the likelihood that everyone will feel happy to be bound by community laws. Rousseau’s Social Contract was concerned with small city states where face to face participation was possible. There is no reason why communities could not be defined as small enough to make this happen. Alternatively, the use of social media and web technology could make the involvement of larger groups possible.
For me, Rousseau’s political philosophy can be used to underpin a distinctive approach to community participation, an approach that might be challenging in practice but a worthwhile aspiration nevertheless.