Monday, October 24, 2011

Wall Street & Rousseau

The eighteenth-century Swiss-born, vagabond-philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau may be the most influential individual of modern times to theorize about the human social condition. In fact, Rousseau with his enmity for social tradition and his passion for social equality is still, two-hundred and thirty-three years after his death, the most important precursor of contemporary political and social thinking and, one should add, of emotion and attitude.
Today in the demonstrations against Wall Street, with the railings against greed and the unfairness of the capitalist system, we can detect the spirit of J.J with its revulsion with inequality.  Rousseau was a man, self-admitted, of great emotional intensity. To his successors he bequeathed an ever mounting enthusiasm for the ideology of social equality, an enthusiasm fused with a heightened sense of his own moral superiority.
Those A-list actors/actresses of Hollywood, the recording giants and sitcom stars who bear the awesome responsibilities that come with being “celebrity-activists” are 21st century Rousseans. In this role one makes an “appearance” at the protest du jour, expresses deep outrage (captured by the major media outlets), then heads home to the mansion. Comedian Roseanne Barr sounding very much like the French Jacobins for whom Rousseau was near divinity and who gleefully dispatched Louis XIV and poor Marie was recommending the “guillotine for the richest bankers” – no guillotine, of course, for the richest entertainers, some of whom might do better than the bankers.     
Rousseau’s notion of the human condition—sufficiently radical during his time to warrant official proscription—has gradually but inevitably wended its course, first capturing the hearts of visionaries and revolutionaries, and utopian intellectuals (Rousseau  was one of the French-educated Pol Pot’s favorite writers)  [David P. Chandler, Brother Number One: A Political Biography of Pol Pot, Boulder: Westview Press, 1992, 34], impressing the enlightened elite, and finally insinuating itself into the popular consciousness and firmly entrenching itself there. This path has been traced in a controversial book by J. D. Talmon, The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy. Social equality is now an unquestioned article of faith of the modern mass culture. We are all in our late-twentieth-century pursuit of self-discovery and acclamation of equality, one might say, Rousseans now. 
Rousseau was a lonely, tormented, pathetically insecure man who spent his later years fleeing the authorities who sought to punish him for his subversive ideas on politics, religion and education. The life of this petulant, self-taught genius is a fascinating study in itself of perpetual maladjustment and unhappiness. In many ways Rousseau’s career is personally emblematic of the myriad forms of modern social alienation. Rousseau’s own personal history, brilliantly recreated in his Confessions, is a prolix but artful piece of self-dramatization and self-invention. It is a fascinating and absorbing personal document. Indeed, the Confessions established itself as a prototype of our modern confessional motif in its prideful shamelessness and uninhibited self-revelations of short-comings of character, particularly of sexual perversity. 
Rousseau was the intellectual’s intellectual. As the philosopher of misery and the original theorist of socially determined victimhood, he cast the original molds for the production of the “socially conscious” moralist. Behold the theorist, richly infused with the indignation that the contemplation of social misery arouses, and the revolutionary—Lenin, Mao, Castro, Pol Pot, who could fan the white-hot coals of long-smoldering moral outrage into the blazing fires of an ideological conflagration.  Liberation is the intellectual’s elixir. Alienated and detached from his own institutions, impressed with his own infallible moral insights, he remains the solidly self-righteous, resentful agent of social insurrection.

The pursuit of liberation manifests itself in activities with a variety of ideological underpinnings. In the course of the twentieth century, especially, these political quests have varied aspirations and causes such as self-realization, authenticity, saving the earth, solidarity of race, the overthrow of patriarchy, and the battle for animal rights. Liberation in its modern, Roussean sense is very much the work of escaping the constraints of traditional institutions and of breaking down the innumerable inequalities that they perpetuate. These causes or programs of liberation are ultimately and fully self-justifying. They sanctify the personalities and characters of the individuals who embrace them unconditionally. That is, their personal qualities of character, their methods for attaining their objectives, and their conduct are morally and ethically secondary to the moral purity of their aspirations, the loftiness of their ideals and the nobility of their intentions. Wrongful conduct—lying, manipulation—is justified if it somehow serves the aims of the sanctified individual who embraces the cause of liberation.
The Wall Street protesters would like to see the end of capitalism.  Here we see the fundamental connection to the Swiss philosopher. The primal, rock-bottom embodiment for Rousseau of inequality, the basis for civilization, was the invention of the institution of private property. This would be a terrible event in the history of the human race. The convention of property, the invention of “mine and thine,” turned out to be a perfidious act that would thrust upon an originally happy and pristine world the most profound source of human divisiveness, an institutionally-sanctioned, class-defining partition of haves and have-nots. Thus, as he states in hyper-dramatic fashion in his Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Among Men.  
The first man who, having fenced off a plot of ground, thought of saying ‘This is mine,’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society.
The institution of private property was thus a primal force in introducing those impersonal, socially-sanctioned forms of cruelty that were the reality underneath the facade of a so-called civilized order. From the gradual imposition of private property and all the material advantages property conferred were derived those social cleavages in which some rule or enjoy advantages over others—not by virtue of any inherent qualities of personal goodness or character, but by luck, cleverness, or by force. There is, as Rousseau suggests with his reference to the simpletons who passively and lackadaisically assent to this sinister symbolic act of appropriation, a huge, treacherous fault line of falsity and delusion that runs through the bed rock of norms that established the basis of civilized institutions and the foundations of inequality. 

Extracted from:  Desolation's March : The Rise Of Personalism And The Reign Of Amusement In 21st-Century America / by Stephen Paul Foster, Bethesda, Md. : Academica Press, 2003

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