Direct Democracy from Rousseau’s Perspective


Jean-Jacques Rousseau is one of the most recognizable figures of the European Enlightenment. His contributions to political philosophy go beyond theoretical avenue. As an active political activist of his era, Rousseau substantially influenced the French Revolution and further paths of development of ideas in the fields of politics, philosophy, ethics, and education. Although many of Rousseau’s ideas were reflected in political practice, one of the philosopher’s most significant contributions was his view on democracy. Thus, the direct or participatory democracy expressed through the form of classical republicanism became for Rousseau the idyll of state order, for which he designed a theoretical framework and which he wanted to implement in the early 19-th century’s France.

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Rousseau is famous for a number of his works, including The Social Contract and Discourse on Inequality that addresses the issues of societal foundations. In The Social Contract, Rousseau addressed the works of the empirical philosophers in general and Thomas Hobbes in particular. As a representative of the epoch of the Enlightenment, Rousseau considered human beings to be more than merely biological creatures and believed that the surrounding society itself is a key influence on its citizens because it provides them with law and morals. Furthermore, the basis of every society for Rousseau is equality amongst people because even though the society creates different norms and ‘social contracts’, human beings, according to Rousseau, are equal by their birth. For the philosopher, the concept of democratic state was a type of government, in which different types of governmental power are guaranteed to be in the hand of the citizens, but controlled by law.

Thus, the objective of this paper is to analyze the notion of the social contract in the context of a democratic society, to define moral and social aspects of inequality, to differentiate Rousseau’s vision of aristocracy and democracy, and to establish the advantages of direct democracy (classic republicanism).

Interpretations of the concept of the social contract in the context of a democratic society

The basic concepts of Rousseau’s interpretation of the social contract are so-called the state of nature, the state of war, and the state of society. The state of war is something that occurs at transitional stages of societal development and that humanity needs to avoid. The state of war is a ruthless competition overpower or ownership, unlike “the state of nature, where there is no ownership, or the state of society, where everything is under the authority of the laws” (Rousseau The Social Contract 4). About a democratic society, in Rousseau’s opinion, any form of state governance other than direct democracy would represent a threat of war overpower.

However, the most efficient way of regulating the relationships in society is to conclude the social contract, which would not only ensure that the laws of society are introduced but also control their execution. Furthermore, the main feature of Rousseau’s vision of the advantages of the social contract is that “the populace is subject to the laws, it ought to be their author” (Rousseau The Social Contract 6). In other words, the citizens of a certain state should have intermediate legislative powers.

Nevertheless, such an approach to the distribution of power in society raises the question of how to regulate the conflicts within the state, where its citizens dictate the laws. It is only possible in a utopian society that people would live in a state of unquestionable harmony without any conflicts. Human beings tend to have conflicting interests regularly even in the society regulated by a complicated system of laws. It is the main counterargument against Rousseau’s interpretation of the social contract as an instrument of establishing direct democracy. Nevertheless, it is equally important to point out that radical democracy is extremely hard to manage if all the citizens need to vote on every single law.

Therefore, it is not possible to diminish conflicts and antagonisms completely on the different levels of society (Inston 6). However, Rousseau addresses such counterarguments because he recognized democracy as “a government in which the sovereign straightway may deliver the power to all the people or the larger part of the people in such a way that the civil magistrates may outnumber the simple private citizens” (Wade 927).

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Rousseau admitted that democracy is probably impossible to be implemented in its pure form because there always would be differences and ambiguity among human beings. The philosopher saw radical democracy not as a means to overcome any struggle in society but as an instrument of trying to address all the demands of the French population after the Revolution. It is reasonable to assume that even democratic politics at its radical level are limited in the ability to know the needs, desires, and problems of every citizen, but it has the aim of organizing the society in such a way that as many people as possible could represent their opinion. Moreover, the basic principle of a radically democratic society, according to Rousseau, is that every citizen is protected by law, which agrees with the philosopher’s understanding of the concept of the social contract.

How direct democracy corresponds to the moral and social aspects of equality

Rousseau recognized inequality as one of the major issues of all political regimes other than democracy. The main reason for it was that, in the philosopher’s opinion, the needs and demands of the majority of citizens cannot be represented by the sovereign of the state, the people require to have some power of their own to install their laws and protect their rights and freedoms.

Thus, the fact that the majority of the citizens have a moral right and power to regulate the functioning of the state on an identical basis implied that they are all equal in front of the law and terms of their vote. In those principles, Rousseau saw the moral and societal role of equality among people.

First of all, it is important to point out the fact that Rousseau claimed that “morality began to appear in human actions, and everyone, before the institution of law” (Rousseau Discourse on Inequality 27). Secondly, since morality has a strong linkage to equity and fairness in human relations, with this statement, Rousseau implied that equality is naturally inherent in people, whereas the concept of law is a product of moral values.

Rousseau also suggested that the origins of inequality experienced during other political regimes lie in the fact that people became dissatisfied with their natural state. In other words, “the origin of society and law, which bound new fetters on the poor, and gave new powers to the rich, which irretrievably destroyed natural liberty, eternally fixed the law of property and inequality” (Rousseau Discourse on Inequality 30). Thus, for Rousseau, the root of inequality is in the regimes imposed on human beings, and any kind of non-democratic political leadership can be considered an attempt to usurp power and property.

Aristocracy and democracy

It is important to emphasize the fact that Jean-Jacques Rousseau did not blindly disregard the aristocratic regime as such. In his perspective, the aristocracy was a complex phenomenon and could be divided into different types. The philosopher distinguished “the natural, elective, and hereditary” types of the aristocracy (Wade 927).

The natural aristocracy is mostly the type of social relations rather than a particular social class. In the modern context, the closest concept to what Rousseau meant by the second type of aristocracy is the political elite. In other words, the elective aristocracy is merely the representatives chosen by the public as gerents of the laws of a certain state. However, the hereditary aristocracy is the most harmful kind of political elite because those aristocrats are chosen not on the merit of their abilities to rule a country but based on the condition of birth. According to Rousseau, the main problem of such type of aristocracy is that they are not able to represent the public and to address its needs (De Maistre 136). The philosopher suggested that such type of aristocracy can only function in very small states because it can sustain its citizens without a large need for representation, whereas the larger the state is, the more issues and needs would remain unnoticed in terms of such regime.

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Therefore, Rousseau saw the elective aristocracy as what today would be called the political elite. The elective aristocracy is a sovereign limited in their influence because the citizens are the main bearers of legislative powers (Cladis 125). Thus, such type of ‘aristocracy’ was consistent with Rousseau’s vision of a radically democratic society since people and people’s magistrates remained the major political actors and could not be overruled by the elite, whose aim was to oversee the execution of laws.

The main advantages of Rousseau’s direct democracy

Jean-Jacques Rousseau recognized some advantages of radical democracy compared to other political regimes. Although Rousseau is often regarded as a representative of ideological republicanism, the philosopher did not believe in a pure democracy. Like many modern political thinkers, he believed that “sovereignty can only lie with the people, but the people cannot rule itself in an independent fashion” (Inston 8). Hence, a democratic society is impossible without some representation as long as the governance of the state agrees with the majority of the people’s needs.

Thus, the first advantage of Rousseau’s understanding of the concept of direct democracy is that he did not support the utopian perspective of democracy without any antagonism in society. It is natural for the people to have different interests and to try to protect those interests since the times they left the state of nature and acknowledged the relationships of power and property. The protection of their right of ownership became one of the people’s key concerns. Nonetheless, to sustain the equality and fairness in society, those interests need to be regulated by laws.

The second important proposition of Rousseau’s vision of democracy concerns legislative power. Rousseau believed that since the citizens of a particular state are the ones who live by the law, therefore, they should participate in the process of creating laws. However, although he supported the idea of maximal participation, the philosopher did not deny the need for law-making professionals (Putterman 459). Moreover, Rousseau thought that direct democracy would successfully function due to the cooperation between elected governmental professionals, experts in various fields, and the people. The most recognizable counterargument of such an approach is that the experts can have their agenda that could be imposed on the people, thereby diminishing the purpose of participatory democracy entirely.

If the laws are dictated by an agenda amongst the experts, a majority vote would be irrelevant, and participation of the majority of people would not make any difference. However, Rousseau himself defended the participatory democracy. In his opinion, the effectiveness of direct democracy relied on the active and meaningful participation of the voters. The philosopher thought that the more people could participate in the process of law-making, the less the chance would be that some agenda would influence the majority’s decision. In other words, the citizens of a particular state could not be influenced by some agenda at a bigger scale of events because people realize their needs and would not accept the law that disagrees with those needs. For that reason, according to Rousseau, direct democracy enables people to oppose any imposition or agenda better than any other political regime.

However, the philosopher also emphasizes that the power of participatory democracy “begins when the citizens are mature enough morally and politically to comprehend and institutionalize the general will free from the paternalistic interference” (Putterman 460). Such a position corresponds with the rest of Rousseau’s idea regarding the necessity of maturity and education in society. Rousseau saw direct democracy as a stepping stone to the society that can manage itself because its citizens are morally mature and can resolve their conflicts and ambiguities without transferring into the state of war.

According to Rousseau, other political regimes cannot mitigate all the issues that arise among the people daily because sovereigns do not face the same issues personally (Miller 109). Thus, the main advantage of majority rule relies on the fact that if the majority of citizens suffer from the same problem, they can articulate it and introduce a new law to mitigate it. On the other hand, if it is the issue that it is not supported by the majority vote, the interests of the majority of people would be protected. Of course, in the modern society, the interests of the minorities are equally important, but in the historical circumstance of Rousseau’s life, a chance to address the problems of the majority was a step to overcome social inequality.


Overall, there are several reasons for Rousseau to consider direct participatory democracy as an optimal political regime. However, it is important to analyze them diachronically and in the historical context experienced by the philosopher. First of all, unlike the aristocratic regime that existed in France before the Revolution, direct democracy would enable most people to express their needs and desires, as well as approve the laws by which they live. Also, Rousseau did not deny the need for governmental experts, professionals who would govern the state, but he thought that only within direct democracy the people can oppose experts’ impositions. For that reason, if the majority of citizens suffer from the same problem, they can articulate it and introduce a new law to mitigate it. All in all, Rousseau considered participatory democracy a stepping stone to the society, whose citizens are morally mature and can resolve their antagonisms and ambiguities without entering the state of war.

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Works Cited

Cladis, Mark Sydney. Public Vision, Private Lives: Rousseau, Religion, and 21st-Century Democracy. New York, New York: Columbia University Press, 2007. Print.

De Maistre, Joseph. Against Rousseau: On the State of Nature and on the Sovereignty of the People. Kingston, Canada: McGill-Queen’s Press, 1996. Print.

Inston, Kevin. Rousseau and Radical Democracy. Bloomsbury, Indiana: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2010. Print.

Miller, James. Rousseau: Dreamer of Democracy. Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing, 1984.Print.

Putterman, Ethan. “Rousseau on Agenda-Setting and Majority Rule.”American political science review 97.03 (2003): 459-469. Print.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Discourse on Inequality. Web.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Social Contract. 2010. Web.

Wade, Ira. “Rousseau and Democracy.” The French Review 49.6 (1976): 926-937. Print.

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