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Rousseau on Democracy

Visual by Anjali for The Philosophy Project

A discourse on the evolution of democracy without the theory of ‘Social Contract’ is hard to come by. Its derivative approaches highlight the importance of liberty, equality, popular sovereignty, the value of human rights etc., advocated by several thinkers of the 17th and the 18th century,with Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean Jacques Rousseau being the most influential.

Jean Jacques Rousseau was an 18th century philosopher known to have influenced Immanuel Kant, Hegel and the French revolution with his notion of popular sovereignty, a collective being where, “people as a whole make rule for people as a whole.” This notion then establishes a reciprocal commitment between the individual and society under the General Will which is defined as the common good uniting all the citizens of this social sphere. The idea of a common good is deliberated and agreed upon by the creation of a “covenant” or a pact which people enter into willingly to help themselves overcome the two vices that the changing society manifests, “amour de soi” (self-preservation) and “amour propre” (a sense of one’s self-worth by comparison)

This seemingly infallible theory on paper begins to waver when the question of its application arises. Charles. W. Mills, in his book Black Rights and White Wrongs, argues that the equality in the even handed polity thus created, presents itself with an underlying tone of an already established reality with a “sly ignorance of the exclusions that deprive the majority of the population entitlement to equal liberal status” thereby making the theory too abstract. This makes the supplementation of Rousseau’s core philosophy with the actualisations of a digitally capitalised world pertinent, with one of the actuality being the representative democracies.


“If there were a nation of gods, it would govern itself democratically.”

-Jean Jacques Rousseau

Although Rousseau favoured democracies deeming the status of a constitution uniting the executive power with the legislative above all, he was deeply repelled by the idea of representative forms of democracies, “ sovereignty cannot be represented,” he argued in his book The Social Contract. He believed that a form of government where the sovereign puts the right of administration in the hands of the people as a whole was a democracy that could only be possible through direct democracies where people as a whole were free to govern themselves.However, while elaborating on the idea of the general will and how it translates into laws, he states, “any state which is ruled by law I call a republic, whatever the form of its constitution, for then alone the public interest governs.” Taking laws to be the conditions on which civil society existed he vouched for self governance while agreeing that “all governments do not have the same nature,” a proposition which can be used to establish that a form of the general will has almost become synonymous with representative democracy as India. Since, the tenets of his philosophy will acquire new forms when placed in different natures of the government.

General Will

India is a democracy with a distribution of power between the Central Government and the states. Herein, the executive which consists of the President and the Council of Ministers headed by the Prime Minister, formed from among the elected members of the majority party or the coalition in the Lok Sabha (House of the People) being the legislature along with Rajya sabha (Council of States) is formally appointed by the President. “Election by a lot suits a democracy,”opined Rousseau, and so India, which is a democracy with its government formed from among the elected members of the majority party in the Lok Sabha are elected by the people of the Republic of India. This very instance, based on the General Will of the people, affects the electoral results due to which the government is formed.

A purist undertaking of the social contract would resist any approach that holds the tenets of the theory, such as the general will synonymous with divergent political aspects about the social contract. However Rousseau himself agreed to only the Island of Corsica coming close to the vicinity of his idealised sphere in his book The Social Contract. Restricting the problems of the society to “amour de soi” and “amour propre” following strict adherence to the Roussean State only deems it redundant.Therefore, it is essential to use the tenets of his philosophy with the malleability of the present time to detect its vices.

The majority’s decision which reflects in the government formed through the elections can be taken as an instance of the General Will for even Rousseau while disregarding the representative forms of governments that did agree to momentary freedom that people possess during elections. The course of the elections and the general elections in India thus, becomes sacred by virtue of the right that people exercise in deciding for themselves in a democracy, that should not be tampered with. In India the Prime Minister and his Council of ministers hold the baton of the executive power for five years. As stated before,they are the first members of the legislature through their election, followed by their appointment by the President. Therefore, their right to execute laws and govern, rests on the decision that determines the electoral results .

The world has changed tremendously since Rousseau. In today’s age of crypto-currencies, surveillance states, proxy wars for economic and territorial gains the single factor responsible for creating a government in a democracy can be misguided through manipulating the electronic voting machines , financial power etc. The role of Impartial Institutions therefore becomes significant during elections.

Impartial Institutions

The election commission of India is an independent body envisioned to monitor the course of elections in India to ensure fair elections. The Association Of Democratic Reforms, a non-profit organization working towards political accountability, reported that the Bharatiya Janata Party, the party forming the majority in the Lok Sabha, currently declared a total income of Rs. 3,623.28 crore in 2019-20, formed 76.15% of the total of the seven national parties, with its maximum expenditure directed towards campaigning for the 2019 elections. This raises concerns regarding the impartiality of the EC(Election Commission), in charge of guarding a phase of democracy that reflects the people’s will in the electoral results. The non-transparent process of the purchase of electoral bonds in India used during elections further pushes the scope of the general will into vulnerability.

The verdict of the Citizens’Commission On theElections with regard to India’s election system was: A damning indictment of the autonomy of the election commission of India , citing the EC’s role in it’s unpromising conduct of the 2019 elections , according to the Indian Express.

Such means proclaim ineffectiveness on the end of the party, which then forms the government. It is threatening to the spirit of democracy for such means then pave the way for an exclusionary form of politics.

“The general will is always rightful but the judgement which guides it, is not always enlightened.”

-Jean Jacques Rousseau


Populism is based on people’s general will in the contemporary understanding, with its two characteristics being extreme nationalism and conspiracy mongering. Both these aspects seem to drive the politics of India, currently, be it politically motivated internet shutdowns, use of hate speech by elected representatives, the growing number of communal news channels,and the usage of weapon grade surveillance software like Pegasus on journalists and the leaders of the opposition.

In contrast to the increased nationalism, the liberal atmosphere diminishes. India ranked 81st amongst the world’s countries on the liberal democratic index according to a report compiled by Varieties Democracy at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden in 2018 with its recent findings classifying India as an “electoral autocracy,” reports The Wire. Education and healthcare suffer in an ethical climate of extreme nationalism. The broken infrastructure of healthcare was exposed because of the pandemic while the failure of the union budget 2021-22 to allocate the required amount of funds to undo the impact of the COVID– 19 pandemic with no mention of the millions of children deprived of education with their inability to access online learning only undermines the spirit of democracy.

The threat to democracy therefore , seems to be embedded in the General Will which legitimizes the power of the government through elections by the popular vote.Hence,strengthening the impartial institutions becomes a necessity for the core of Rousseau’s philosophy being the General Will can inform the discourse on Democracy further only if it survives.


Rousseau, J, 1968, The Social Contract, Penguin Classics, London

Mills,C.W, 2017, Black Rights/White Wrongs:The Critique of Racial Liberalism,Oxford University Press, N.Y.

2021 ,Political Funding , , August 28

Basu, Narayani, 2021, The Election Commission Of India was built on public trust , The Indian Express, March 22

Britannica - Populism

Daniyal, S, 2018, Weakening Democracy ,, July 11

2021, India No Longer a Democracy but an ‘Electoral Autocracy’ : Swedish Institute, The Wire,March 11

Right to Education Forum,2021 , Education in Union Budget 2021-22, Economic and Political Weekly ,February Six

Kritika Sisodia is a postgraduate student of Philosophy from the University of Delhi with her research interests lying on the intersections of social epistemology and gender, arguing for creative ways of expressing philosophical thought to dilute the Platonic line between rhetoric and philosophy.

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