The catechism of the citizen Politics, law and religion in, after, with and against Rousseau 1

Chapter 10
The catechism of the citizen Politics, law and religion in, after, with and against Rousseau 1

Simon Critchley

In a letter to Voltaire dated 18 August 1756 Rousseau writes:

This, of course, is the germ of the argument for civil religion that Rousseau would go on to elaborate in 1762 in The Social Contract.3 In the letter to Voltaire – and one knows that whatever fellow feeling might have existed between these two was rapidly turning to enmity during these years – the context is Voltaire’s response to the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, about which he had published a poem in March 1756. Rousseau goes on: ‘In your Poem on Natural Religion you gave us the Catechism of man: give us now, in the one I am suggesting to you, the Catechism of the Citizen.4

Voltaire, of course, would do no such thing, and went on to write his Candide in 1759, which Rousseau in his paranoid megalomania saw as the true response to his 1756 letter, which received only a brief, conciliatory reply. However, in this chapter I want to explore the idea of a catechism of the citizen or a civil profession of faith as away of thinking about the relation between three interconnected terms: politics, law and religion.

My argument will continually cut in two directions at once in a way that I hope will not bifurcate too egregiously.

1. On the one hand, I want to follow closely at the textual and conceptual level Rousseau’s claim that what is required to solve the problem of politics and law is a civil profession of faith, a civil catechism. I want to show how the problem of politics in Rousseau – the very being of the political, understood as the act by which a people becomes a people – is articulated around what we might call a paradox of sovereignty that draws it ineluctably towards a religious solution. To borrow Althusser’s word – and his extraordinarily intelligent reading of The Social Contract will be constantly on my mind as I write, as will that of Badiou5 – the functioning of Rousseau’s thought is possible only because of the play of a series of décalages, displacements or dislocations. Althusser claims that it is the play of these décalages that make possible what Rousseau calls his ‘sad and great system’6 and make it impossible at the same time. Rousseau’s thought is a self-conscious play of dislocations and displacements, a reflexive series of contradictions, and his text is thus a sort of machine à décalage of which he was utterly conscious and which makes him, in my view, along with Nietzsche, the supremely fictive philosopher. This play of décalages is one explanation of the multiplicity of possible, plausible and deeply contradictory interpretations of Rousseau, whether Kantian or Hegelian, liberal or communitarian, not to mention totalitarian.7 To be more specific, if the problem that Rousseau is trying to solve in The Social Contract is the problem of politics, then the solution to that problem requires religion.8 Rousseau’s purportedly purely immanentist conception of the being of politics requires a dimension of transcendence in order to become effective; or again, a conception of the political based on the absolute primacy of autonomy seems to call for a moment of heteronomy for its articulation and authorization.

2. However, on the other hand, I want to use Rousseau’s thought in order to show how his conception of the political can throw some light on the present situation, that is, on the darkness of our times. What I mean is that if Rousseau’s sad system is a décalage machine, then I wonder whether something analogous might be said of our world, defined as it is by a series of nightmarish intrications of politics and religion: we have entered nothing less than an epoch of new religious war. Thus my hunch or hope is that following Rousseau’s thinking on politics and religion will somehow allow us to think through and think against our present.

This leads me to the following series of general questions. Is politics conceivable without religion? The answer is obviously affirmative as the evidence of various secular political theories testifies. But is politics practicable without religion? That is the question that Rousseau’s thinking of politics faces. Can politics become effective as a way of shaping, motivating and mobilizing a people or peoples without some sort of dimension that is religious, that is without some sort of appeal to transcendence? I do not think so. Or rather, I no longer think so. Thus the exemplarity of Rousseau, to my mind, consists in the fact that he gives us the definitive expression of the modern conception of politics: politics is the break with any conception of nature and natural law and has to be based on the concepts of popular sovereignty, association, rigorous equality and collective autonomy understood as the self-determination of a people. And yet, in order for this modern conception of politics to become effective it has to have a religious dimension, a moment of what the Romans used to call theologia civilis, civil theology. The secularization that seems to define modern politics has to acknowledge a moment of what Emilio Gentile calls sacralization, the transformation of a political entity like a state, nation, class or party into a sacred entity, which means that it becomes transcendent, unchallengeable and intangible.9 So can a political collectivity maintain itself in existence, its unity and identity, without a moment of the sacred, without religion, rituals and something that we can only call belief? Once again, I do not think so. Might we not at least conceive of the possibility of redefining the secularization that is believed to be definitive of modernity with the idea of modern politics as a metamorphosis of sacralization, where modern forms of politics, whether liberal democracy, fascism, Soviet communism, National Socialism and the rest have to be grasped as new articulations and, indeed, mutations of the sacred?

Before continuing, it should be noted that I have come to this conclusion with no particular joy, as someone with little enthusiasm for religion, whether organized or disorganized. And I say this not simply in response to the chronic re-theologization of politics through which we are living, which makes this time certainly the darkest period in my lifetime. At the heart of the horror of the present is the intrication of politics and religion, an intrication defined by violence, and this is what I would like to begin to think through. I want to do this not in order to break the connection between politics and religion, but to acknowledge the limitations of any completely secular leftist politics. It seems to me that the left has all too easily ceded the religious ground to the right and it is this ground that needs to be regained in a coherent, long-term and tenacious political war of position.10 As we will see presently, the relation of politics to religion and their intrication raises for me the question of the necessity of fiction, of both the seeming necessity for a divine fiction at the basis of politics and the possibility of what Wallace Stevens would call a supreme fiction in politics.

The being of politics, or the misnomer of the social contract

As everyone knows, Rousseau begins The Social Contract with the following words:

Now, the most obvious way of reading these words is to imagine that Rousseau is recommending that we throw off our chains and return to a state of original freedom, what he elsewhere calls natural freedom. This is the romantic or indeed anarchist reading of Rousseau, where revolutionary political activity is justified in so far as it returns us to the allegedly free and original condition of humanity without the shackles of law and government.

However, to read Rousseau in this manner is to misread him. Let’s look at those words more closely: man is everywhere in chains, that is, everyone everywhere is in chains, not just the oppressed, the exploited and the poor. Rousseau is clear, ‘One believes himself the others’ master, and yet is more a slave than they.’ Thus – and this is the dialectical logic that Hegel will develop to full effect – the master who believes himself free because of his ability to oppress the poor and disadvantaged and bend them to his will is mistaken in his belief. On the contrary, his very being as master is utterly dependent upon recognition from the slave from whom he believes himself independent and superior. The master is paradoxically less free than the slave because the former’s entire being is constituted through his purported superiority to the latter. Rousseau’s point is everyone is a slave, especially the master who believes that he is free.

Rousseau goes on, ‘How did this change come about?’ That is, how is it that human beings all ended up wearing chains? How did we lose our natural freedom, or our natural equality? In other words, what are the origin and foundations of inequality among human beings? Rousseau curtly responds, ‘Je l’ignore’, ‘I do not know,’ or ‘I am ignorant or unaware of the reason for this transformation.’ Now, this is a peculiar thing to say, as seven years earlier Rousseau had given a quite breathtakingly original answer to the question in the Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality among Men (1755), the so-called Second Discourse. Either Rousseau is being inconsistent, or what is going on in The Social Contract is not of the order of knowledge or epistemic certainty but something else. We can see here an intriguing and important separation of the realm of knowledge from the realm of legitimacy. The political question of the transformation from freedom to bondage is not an epistemic or empirical question that can be resolved with reference to the state of nature or natural law. It is rather a question of the legitimacy of this transformation that presupposes a break between the orders of nature and politics. This means that the order of politics, to paraphrase Rousseau, begins by ‘setting aside all the facts’, that is, by disregarding the realm of being, and establishing a domain where a new political subject comes into existence, a domain of fiction in the strong sense, the realm of what Badiou calls the event.

With the question of legitimacy we arrive at the problem of politics as conceived by Rousseau. Slightly later in The Social Contract, in words set apart in the text with quotation marks, he states the problem in the following terms:

’To find a form of association that will defend and protect the person and goods of each associate with the full common force, and by means of which each, uniting with all, nevertheless obey only himself and remain as free as before.’12

That is, how can human beings live according to a law that they recognize as equally binding on all citizens, as legitimate for the collective as a whole, and yet at the same time being a law to which they freely submit because they see it as the expression of their own freedom? If there is no question of a return to nature, to an original freedom where we are finally free of our chains, the anarchist dream of society without the state, then the problem is: how can those chains be made legitimate? Or, how can citizens wear legitimate chains? The problem of politics is the relation and transition from forms of non-consensual to consensual bondage. How can we organize society so that freedom and equality could exist in some sort of equilibrium? As Rousseau writes, ‘This is the fundamental problem to which the social contract provides the solution.’13

But what do the words ‘social contract’ mean for Rousseau? Is it, indeed, a misnomer for what he imagines as the being of politics? First, the matter of politics is about the establishment of the form of association spoken of above. This requires a convention or covenant, Rousseau thinks, but one that is not based on the family or any form of patriarchy à la Filmer, or the right of the strongest where the conqueror simply enslaves the conquered à la William the Conqueror. Importantly, it also excludes the possibility of a primary covenant between a people and a king:

Hence before examining the act by which a people elects a king, it would be well to examine the act by which a people is a people. For that act, being necessarily prior to the other, is the true foundation of society.14

Thus the essence of politics consists in an act whereby a people becomes a people, an original covenant that presupposes that there has been at one time unanimity.

Althusser usefully illuminates this issue with an opposition between obstacles and forces; the obstacles that stand in the way of such a form of association and the forces which might enable it, a distinction which echoes Marx’s distinction between relations and forces of production. This is also where we are obliged to consider the relation between The Social Contract and the Second Discourse. Part Two of the Second Discourse gives an extraordinarily powerful account of the obstacles that stand in the way of legitimate politics, namely the vicious state of war described in its final pages, which it is tempting to translate as the present state of the world, what Agamben in characteristically understated manner describes as ‘global civil war’.15 In this state of war, human beings exist in a state of total alienation and the previous history of humanity is the history of the growth of that alienation. The force that can face and possibly overcome these obstacles is the combined bodily power of alienated individuals, working not for particular interests but for the common interest. This is the force that is described in The Social Contract, a force that can take effect only as a transformation of human beings’ manner of existence, what Rousseau refers to as a ‘change of nature’.

This entails that the relation between the Second Discourse and The Social Contract is complementary but radically disjunctive: the radically unequal state of the world in the former, the possibility of a legitimate politics in the latter. Politics, then, is about the creation of a force that can overcome obstacles, which requires an act of aggregation or what Denis Guénoun calls ‘pure assembly’ where a people unites and decides to act.16 Let me leave to one side the vast question as to where this force might come from. We can say for sure that it is not given in the situation, but in excess of the situation as a vital but fleeting supplement, a fictional force, perhaps. Yet Rousseau is crystal-clear – and such is his pessimism – this force is rare and can exist only in very few places: Geneva for a while, Corsica for a while, Poland as a theoretical possibility, and so on. I feel certain that he would not find it in the contemporary regimes that go by the misnomer of democracy. True politics is rare, the obstacles are vast and the force required to bring it about is exceptional.

Is this act of association a contract? If it is, then it is a very strange contract. To begin with, there is the first party of the contract, which exists in the state of total alienation described in the Second Discourse, which is to say that it is not free at all but totally enmeshed in systems of social inequality. Yet this radically unfree, alienated individual still possesses the force to give itself in an act of association with others, that is, with others who also exist in a radically alienated state. Yet in giving himself to others the subject contracts with no one except the generality, the imagined association, which is the expected outcome of such self-giving. Rousseau is crystal-clear on this point: ‘each, by giving himself to all, gives himself to no one’.17 Thus there is no contract; I give myself to no one. Indeed, there is no self to give, as it exists in a state of total alienation and becomes a subject only through an act of force where it associates with others. The act of association that is the essence of politics is what I would like to call the fiction of an alienation from alienation. In other words, the essence of politics is an act and a fiction. Rousseau is clear: ‘These clauses [i.e. of the social contract. – S.C.], rightly understood, all come down to just one, namely the total alienation of each associate with all of his rights to the whole community.’18

The so-called ‘social contract’ begins with the fact of total alienation, which is overcome by an act of total alienation where I give myself to the community, to an imagined generality, to a people which does not in fact exist. That is, I totally alienate myself in the name of a fiction of association that would allow me to overcome the total alienation of social inequality. As Althusser rightly underlines, total alienation is the solution to the state of total alienation.19 Thus Rousseau’s ‘social contract’ does not correspond to its concept: it is not a contract based on an exchange between parties, but an act of constitution, of fictive constitution, where a people wills itself into existence. That such a people exists, that it might exist, that the fictional act might become fact, is what Althusser calls Rousseau’s ‘dream’.20 One of the important issues towards which this chapter is trying to grope its way is the necessity of such dreams, such supreme fictions, in the political realm. Let me now turn to law.

The general will, law and the necessity for patriotism

Let’s ask, very generally: what is the problem to which law is the solution? As we have seen, the problem that Rousseau is trying to solve in The Social Contract is the problem of legitimacy. How can we imagine a form of association that would balance the claims of freedom and equality, between individual freedom, and the interests of the collective?

How can my freedom be just one among many freedoms? If I am free, then any law to which I submit must be my law, it must be a law that I give myself. It must be consistent with my autonomy, that is it is a question of a law to which I freely bind myself. So how is my autonomy compatible with equality, namely with the demand that the laws that I freely choose should be binding on myself and other free agents? Rousseau elegantly solves the problem by simply denying that there is an opposition between freedom and equality and making a distinction between the general will and the will of all.

The will of all is the sum of private interests, of particular freedoms, the interests that can be aggregated together, for example, in the mechanism of a vote in a liberal democracy. The entire problem of liberal democracy from a Rousseauian perspective consists in the fact that one is asked to vote or exercise one’s freedom on the basis of one’s private interest as an individual rather than the public interest which might well simply conflict with one’s private interests, depending upon one’s wealth, class, status, property, etc. This entails that Rousseau has an entirely negative relation to what we might call ‘actually existing liberal democracy’ and The Social Contract should not be read, as is sometimes the case in the English-speaking world, as an apologia for a liberalism which is supposedly based on a social contract. On the contrary, I see The Social Contract as a radical critique of liberal individualism, which is what is called in the Second Discourse le faux contrat21 based on radically unequal private interests and property ownership and which culminates in a state of war.

The general will, by contrast, is not private interest but the common interest that tends towards the public good. To choose in accordance with the general will is not to choose in relation to my particular, private interest, but in line with what I see as good for the form of political association as a whole. In passing from the state of nature to society I give up my natural freedom, which has no limitation other than my physical power, and I gain civil liberty. The latter is a notion of moral freedom that is acquired only in society with others and consists in obedience to a law that I give myself, i.e. which is consistent with my autonomy. As Rousseau writes, ‘For the impulsion of mere appetite is slavery, and obedience to a law one has prescribed to oneself is freedom.’22 The same argument goes for equality, where I give up the rough natural equality of the state of nature and the vicious social inequality of the state of war for the political equality of all with all. To choose freely is to choose in accordance with the general will, which means that one chooses for all. Therefore, there is no conflict between freedom and equality and the latter is the expression of the former when it is rightly understood. Collective autonomy is the only legitimate political expression of individual autonomy.

To approach matters in this way also solves the problem of sovereignty, because the only being who is sovereign in a legitimate polity is the people itself. The core of The Social Contract is a defence of popular sovereignty. Popular sovereignty consists in acts of legislation by the general will, where the people determine themselves by themselves and not through the mediation of any monarch, prince, aristocracy or unrepresentative body. For Machiavelli, the true citizen loves the city more than his own soul. Rousseau’s hyper-Machiavellian twist to this wisdom is to add that the city is nothing else but the expression of one’s own soul, it is the civic incarnation of the animate. One is a political subject only by virtue of the association of which one forms a part. For Rousseau, there exists a sheer transparency between my freedom and those of my fellow citizens; freedom and equality are two sides of the same coin. But the metal that melds the two sides of the coin is love of one’s city, of one’s patrie, and Rousseau vigorously defends the need for civic patriotism.

For Rousseau, the most important maxim of legitimate government is following the general will, and this means that all private, particular interests have to be excised from the body politic. But how, then, do citizens freely subjugate their freedom to the general will? And how can citizens take an interest in the law? For Rousseau, unlike Kant or indeed Habermas, rationality is not a sufficient nor even reliable guide. Citizens have to be formed: ‘Therefore, form men if you want to command men: if you would have the laws obeyed, see to it that they are loved.’23

Citizens must be formed, that is, they must be taught to love the law and that requires virtue. By the word ‘virtue’ Rousseau simply means that which enables the particular will to conform with the general will. Virtue is the becoming-general or becoming-generic of the particular will. How can this be achieved? The answer is simple: love of the patrie, the fatherland.24 Patriotism is the key to making people virtuous, love of the fatherland is the passion that forms citizens and teaches them to love the law. This is why the issue of public education is of such political importance for Rousseau, for without it there would be no way of constituting and maintaining a legitimate polity.

Any project of constitution writing must, for Rousseau, be guided by the following question: ‘No constitution will ever be good and solid unless the law rules the citizens’ hearts. But how can men’s hearts be reached?’25 And the answer is shocking. The only way of getting citizens to love the law and the patrie is ‘With children’s games; with institutions which appear trivial in the eyes of superficial men, but which form cherished habits and invincible attachments.’26

These games would be what we might call ceremonies of nationhood: spectacles, games and festivals which are always conducted ‘in the open’,27 like the public festivals described in Rousseau’s denunciation of theatre in his 1758 ‘Letter to D’Alembert’.28 In such spectacles nothing would be represented, as in conventional theatre. On the contrary, spectacles would be the pure presence to itself of the people through the games or ceremonies which the people enact. Rousseau recommends horsemanship as ‘an exercise well suited to Poles’, which could play a similar role to bullfighting, whose role in maintaining ‘a certain vigour in the Spanish nation is not negligible’.29

It is not difficult for non-bullfighting, post-Kantian metropolitan, cosmopolitan metrosexuals like ourselves to ridicule such ideas. But the issues that they raise are more serious. If human rationality is fallible, to say the least, if it cannot be assumed that citizens will always will the good, then this requires a political account of formative passions that might force citizens to love the law, that is to overcome the obstacles of alienation and inequality through an act of association. Now, is such a thing practicable without fairly robust notions of civic patriotism and public education? I have my doubts.

The authority of the law

Let me return to the argument about law in The Social Contract and see how the relation between politics and law comes up in Book II. Rousseau writes, ‘By the social pact we have given the body politic existence and life: the task now is to give it motion and will by legislation.’30 If the social contract, understood as the coincidence of freedom and equality in the general will, is what breathes life into a legitimate polity, then it is law that gives that polity the motivation and legs to get up and walk. Rousseau defines law in the following fascinating paragraph:

But when the whole people enacts statutes (statue) for the whole people it considers only itself, and if a relation is then formed, it is between the entire object from one point of view and the entire object from another point of view, with no division of the whole. Then the matter with regard to which the statute is being enacted is general, as is the enacting will. It is this act which I call law.31

In French, the verb that is doing the work here is statuer, to decree, ordain, rule or enact; in short, to make law. For Rousseau, laws are acts of the general will. If one accepts Rousseau’s analysis then it becomes immediately clear that we can longer ask who makes the laws, because laws are the expression of the general will. Laws are acts by virtue of which a people legislates for itself and where sovereignty is entirely popular. It is clear that this conception of law stands opposed to Hobbes’s conception of the monarch as he who legislates for a society, but who stands outside the social order in a kind of state of nature. If the total alienation of the state of war requires the externality of the monarch, Hobbes’s ‘mortal god’, then Rousseau has a purely internalist conception of law and sovereignty where a people contracts with itself in the act of association or assembly. But the obvious difference between Hobbes and Rousseau disguises a deeper similarity in their logic of sovereignty. Althusser is quite right in saying:

Rousseau’s theoretical greatness is to have taken up the most frightening aspects of Hobbes: the state of war as a universal and perpetual state, the rejection of any transcendental solution and the ‘contract’ of total alienation. But Rousseau’s defence against Hobbes is to transform total alienation in externality into total alienation in internality.32

If Rousseau’s logic of sovereignty is entirely immanent, then Hobbes’s monarch is the factual transcendence of the sovereign. But the important point here is that the political opposition between monarchical sovereignty and popular sovereignty is a transformation of the modality of the Hobbesian logic: God the monarch becomes God the people. As we will see presently, the paradox of sovereignty in Rousseau is that his avowedly immanentist conception of politics is also drawn towards transcendence in two instances: the person of the legislator and the doctrines of civil religion.

For Rousseau, no one in the political realm stands outside the law, for law is willed by everyone in that realm. This line of thinking has the peculiar consequence that subjects of the general will can no longer ask ‘whether the law can be unjust, since no man can be unjust towards himself; nor how one is both free and subject to the laws, since they are merely records of our wills’.33