Rethinking Rousseau in the Information Age


Since my first reading of Jean Jacques Rousseau in semester four of university, I have always been highly cynical of his views on “direct democracy”.

In Book I, Chapter VI, of his book On the The Social Contract, Rousseau first introduces us to the concept of direct democracy – a system of government, whereby sovereignty (legitimate power) is vested in the people, not in our representatives.

This sounds alien to us, who, in our lifetimes, have experienced nothing but representative government; we go to the polls, elect officials, and they thereby vote on legislation on our behalf.

Rousseau argues against traditional social contract theorists, such as Hobbes and Locke, and instead believes that man is in fact entering a social contract with himself – not a Leviathan or representative body. A system in which “each person gives himself whole and entire, the condition is equal for everyone; and since the condition is equal for everyone, no one has an interest in making it burdensome for the others“, and so burdensome for himself.

He goes on, writing: “At once, in place of the individual person of each contracting party, this act of association produces a moral and collective body, composed of as many members as there are voices in the assembly, which receives from this same act its unity, its common self, its life and its will.”

This was revolutionary for its time. Indeed, writing in 1762, Rousseau is often attributed with feeding the fire which engulfed the French Revolution in 1789. The idea of a person “contracting, as it were, with himself”, and maintaining his sovereignty was a new idea in politics.

For the purposes of this piece, I shall explore this idea of common sovereignty and participatory government. I disagree to an extent on Rousseau’s idea of the General Will, as I believe humans are incapable of every renouncing our private wills for the common good.

Athenian democracy

Returning to our subject matter, Rousseau’s argument must be seen in context: he is writing from the city-state of Geneva, one of the small number of “utopian”-like cities amongst others such as Athens and the Roman Republic. Switzerland still enjoys a measure of direct democracy,but not as fully participatory as Rousseau would have envisaged.

Would a participatory government be possible in, for example, the United States of America. With a population of 310 million, is it practically possible, as Rousseau would like, to have citizens meet, discuss, debate, and reach a conclusion as to the way forward for society?

My answer has always been: it is impractical; representation is the only practical form of government possible. Now, I am not so sure.

My problem with Rousseau has always been my difficulty to separate the General Will from participatory democracy. I wholeheartedly believe a participatory government is a viable solution to the problem of underrepresentation.

In recent years, particularly in the United Kingdom, moves and campaigns have been made to push through a better form of representative government. 2011 saw the Liberal Democrats hold a referendum on the First Past the Post (FPTP) system, favouring the Alternative Vote (AV) system instead.

The AV referendum was resoundingly quashed, arguably putting to bed the notion we seek greater representation. However, AV is not the solution to mis/underrepresentation, as it can actually result in more disproportionate results. Furthermore, the LibDems failed to gain the confidence of the public, and so the vote fell.

Nevertheless, continued calls for proportional representation have grown in recent years – and even months, with the SNP landslide in Scotland in May’s General Election with just 4.7 percent of the national vote.


Evidence of support in reform can be found in the form of petitions: currently has 64,700 people supporting a more representative government. What is more, three of the UK’s governments use proportional representation systems of voting: STV, AMS, or List.

Europe is testimony to the direct link between PR voting and the actual election result. The Dutch elections for the lower house (using a List system) in 2012 saw the winning party, People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, win 27.3 percent of seats with 26.6 percent of the vote.

Nevertheless, I believe absolute democracy to be an aspirational term. Barber wrote in 1993: “democracy is an end to be sought.” At what point will representation simply be so representative we ourselves may as well sit in government?

Without greater participation, without greater representation, democracy is a concept still too far for us to achieve. In the last US Presidential Election, turnout was 58.2 percent. Even the Dutch election saw just under three quarters of the electorate turn out to vote.

Is this a healthy democracy? Regardless of representation, what is to be done about participation?

The problem is endemic across all forms of society. From political to civic engagement and participation.

Hanifan was the first to coin the term “social capital” in 1916, in relation to the social bonds we create with our community; social intercourse, social trust, good will, sympathy, fellowship, and involvement in community meetings and elections. These are our civic attributes.

This decline has much been put down to less time, greater financial constraints, family and work commitments, and, Putnam says, television. Thus, our social capital declines: we feel less connected to our community; less trusting of our community, and thus political institutions; and less involved in community events, such as local volunteering, elections, and meetings.


It’s all engagement!

So, that is it then. We cannot rekindle our political engagement. Work is too time consuming, families need cared for, and we have less money available to engage in such things. Our trust in our neighbours has fallen to a new low, so is community dead?

Perhaps not. The answer: the Internet.

Our communities have changed from being our neighbourhoods, to our online communities. Not even that, but our ability to communicate with people who are in our physical communities is vastly increased by email, Facebook messaging, Tweeting.

On an engagement level, 70 percent of 18-25 year olds see the Internet as a useful source of political news, and many such people have a greater knowledge of current events. Therefore, the Internet gives everyone the chance to learn enough to participate in democracy. The ubiquity of the Internet is screaming out its potential, and thus bringing us back to Rousseau and participatory government.

Think about it: it’s 8:30am, young people have sat in registration class before school starts at 9:00. That is 30 minutes in which registration teachers can provide young people with enough information so they can vote in an upcoming legislative vote. No, representatives will not decide for them; they will.

On a Wednesday evening, discussions can be had across the Internet; debates which will shape the outcome of the vote. The legislation may be tabled by online groups like research groups or focus groups, and with enough support be moved to a public vote.

Of course, an extremely big criticism of this would be the influence of extremist movements taking advantage of people’s disengagement in order to push through radical legislation.

However, Rousseau provides an answer. In Book IV, Chapter II of The Social Contract, Rousseau expands his theory on the legislative process. Indeed, my early interpretations of Rousseau’s book, I had always presumed he was intent on producing unanimous decisions.

This is true to an extent, but in Book IV he writes unanimity is ideal, but varying degrees of majority are sufficient in passing legislation. The crucial point he makes is in his “maxims”: importance, and time.

Importance and time will affect the required majority for that vote. For instance, a vote to go to war would require a far greater number than 50 percent to pass. On the other hand, time constraints in the event of crises, such as economic downturn, would require smaller majorities.

Either way, his majority principle is a useful tool of analysis. Yet, we still are faced with the radical group forcing through extreme policies – they are neither important, nor time constrained.

I hate to admit this, but we should look to the Scottish referendum of 1979. The requirements set on the independence movement in ’79 by Margaret Thatcher’s government, meant the decision had to be agreed upon by 40 percent of the electorate, not 40% of those who voted.


Rousseau himself

The “for” independence vote was victorious at 51.62 percent of the vote, but this was only 32.9 percent of the electorate, and so the status quo remained. The logic behind this decision is sound: an important decision requires the whole electorate to take notice.

Similar restrictions could be placed on our hypothetical Internet Democracy, requiring a certain percentage of voters to cast their votes in order for legislation to be approved. Thus, preventing malicious legislation passing without any disapproval.

Rousseau would argue this would never happen under the General Will. In renouncing his private interests, and instead taking up the cause of the General Will, man becomes part of a sovereign body, and thinks in terms of what is best for the community, not himself.

Therefore, extreme views could not exist, as everyone is intent on voting with the General Will in mind (unless they vote with the minority, in which case, Rousseau says, they interpreted the General Will wrong). I agree with many other liberal writers in stating humanity is ultimately self-interested, and we would be constricted and oppressed by such a system.

And yet, in time of crisis, self-interest disappears from humanity, and instead replaced with a sense for the common good.

Research conducted in Germany by Markus Heinrichs and Bernadette von Dawans at the University of Freiburg, found, when in a stressed environment, their participants actually became more trustworthy, and increased their cooperation in order to achieve the end goal.

I have written on human cooperation before, and would invite anyone interested on my (pessimistic) view on human cooperation, you can find the link here.

However, on an objective basis, this proves Rousseau’s General Will may not be so beyond possibility. Instead, we may view legislative participation to be an instance requiring full attention, similar to situations of stress. Therefore, we may come together as a community, and achieve a goal for the sake of all parties involved. What is good for all, is good for the individual.

I stand by my argument, however, that humans are self-interested. As Adam Smith said:

It is not from the benevolence (kindness) of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.

To conclude, Rousseau’s arguments on participatory democracy are not so beyond imagination as previously I had thought. The Information Age has opened up the new possibilities for his theories of direct democracy, in which we may participate more actively in the decision making that guides all our lives.

With political and social apathy reaching new highs, it is perhaps time to re-imagine our own state of living. Rousseau, writing in 1762, foresaw representative government to lead to laziness on behalf of the public, and the joys of public service being replaced with material possessions and private indulgence. Some 250 years later, it is almost unnerving how right he was.

Who cares what happens in government, when I cannot change things?” These words of apathy, of low efficacy, poor participation, are often voiced in a young community who have grown disillusioned by a system that does not reflect their interests.

Direct democracy could fill this, by forcing people to take an interest because their daily routine requires their being interested.

I believe young people do want to participate, they just need the tools to do so. This change cannot happen overnight; indeed, it may never. Yet, to begin the discussion, to ask questions, to speak with people at home, in school, or online, change can come. Look no further than last years Scottish independence referendum: a vote left open to the public to decide upon, and we witnessed mass social and individual campaigning, and a turnout of 85%.

If Rousseau were alive now, he would likely be yelling at us to seize this chance: we are more connected to our communities now than ever before, and yet we are so distant from them.

Politics does not have to be for the Eton and Harvard graduates. Let us put power into the hands of the people.


Carpini, M. X. D. (2014). Mediating Democratic Engagement: The Impact of Communications on Citizen’s Involvement in Political and Civic Life. In P. E. Darlington Communication, Community and Culture. United States of America: Cogenalla Inc.

Putnam, R.D (1996). The Strange Disappearance of Civic America”. In The American Prospect no.24. [Online] Available at: [Accessed on September 27 2015].

Roussea, J. J. (2008). The Social Contract. In D. Wootton (Ed.) Modern Political Thought.  2nd edition. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company Inc. pp. 427-487.

Seppala, E. (2012). How the Stress of Disaster Brings People Together. [Online] Available at: [Accessed on September 28 2015].

Smith, A. (2008) The Wealth of Nations. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


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