As I pointed out in Chronicle 183, the concept of unanimity has a particular resonance for Rousseau as well as for generative anthropology. Near the beginning of his literary career, in the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1754), Rousseau describes the difficulty of understanding the origin of linguistic signs whose meaning can only arise through a unanimous agreement (accord unanime). The first sentence of his final work, the Rêveries du promeneur solitaire (1776-78), describes Jean-Jacques’ expulsion from society by another accord unanime. This use of the same phrase establishes an implicit link between victimage and language origin that can only be exploited by recognizing the identity of both unanimities.

Completed in 1762, The Social Contract (Du contrat social) also refers to an originary unanimity:

It would be better, before examining the act by which a people gives itself to a king, to examine that by which it has become a people; for this act, being necessarily prior to the other, is the true foundation of society.

Indeed, if there were no prior convention, where, unless the election were unanimous, would be the obligation on the minority to submit to the choice of the majority? How have a hundred men who wish for a master the right to vote on behalf of ten who do not? The law of majority voting is itself something established by convention, and presupposes unanimity, on one occasion at least [suppose au moins une fois l’unanimité]. (I, 5 ; my emphasis)

Once the collective “general will” (volonté générale) is established by that single occasion of unanimity, this will maintains a permanent virtual existence, like the divinity that endures after the central object has been consumed. So long as the social contract remains in force, the general will decides every question pertinent to it. The people in assembly will not always be of one voice, but so long as the community wishes to remain united under the contract, the minority will perforce accept the verdict of the majority, which can therefore be taken as the expression of the general will.

Although Rousseau’s general will is generally understood as an ideal construct, “on one occasion at least” evokes a hypothetical historical moment in which the community is founded. Rousseau implicitly criticizes Hobbes‘ conception of the social contract that men in the state of nature make with a sovereign in order to put an end to the war of every man with every man. Before “giv[ing] itself to a king,” a people must have “become a people”; Hobbes’ scene of the origin of hierarchy is secondary to a unanimous, egalitarian scene of self-constitution that grounds the general will in history.


Hobbes and Rousseau mark the beginning and the end of Enlightenment use of the scenic imagination as a heuristic for the origin of human institutions. It is no coincidence that both offer–diametrically opposed–models of the social contract,which, in contrast to the simplified originary scenes of Condillac, Herder, or Vico, must be enacted by the entire community.

Neither Hobbes’ nor Rousseau’s contract scene is complete in itself. The mimetic rivalry of Hobbes’ “state of nature” is conceivable only within a preexisting community, the pre-hierarchical constitution of which his model cannot explain.  Yet Hobbes’ scene contains a crucial element missing from Rousseau’s: a central figure who defers the violence of mimetic desire. All the ambiguity of Rousseau’s social contract, arguably the key ideological foundation of both communism and fascism–both of which would approve the sinister paradox, “whoever refuses to obey the general will . . . will be forced to be free,” on le forcera d’être libre (I, 7)–stem from his elimination of this center, lacking which the “occasion” of the unanimity to which he appeals cannot be defined. Hobbes’ model valorizes the subordination of the periphery to the center that is inherent in the circular structure of the scene. Yet Hobbes presupposes that this central figure is a human subject like those who surround it; this implicitly theistic model serves to guarantee the monarchic power of the unique political center. Rousseau, more distant than Hobbes from this implicit theism, is concerned to avoid its problematic implications for the anthropological scene he constructs. The center of Rousseau’s circle is solely occupied by the abstract object of the general will; all that subsists of the originary unanimity is this will itself, which, like a unique divinity, imposes the same law on all human societies.

The clauses of [the social] contract are so determined by the nature of the act that the slightest modification would make them vain and ineffective; so that, although they have perhaps never been formally set forth, they are everywhere the same and everywhere tacitly admitted and recognized, until, on the violation of the social compact, each regains his original rights and resumes his natural liberty, while losing the conventional liberty in favor of which he renounced it.

These clauses, properly understood, may be reduced to one–the total alienation of each associate, together with all his rights, to the whole community; for, in the first place, as each gives himself absolutely, the conditions are the same for all; and, this being so, no one has any interest in making them burdensome to others.

Moreover, the alienation being without reserve, the union is as perfect as it can be, and no associate has anything more to demand: for, if the individuals retained certain rights, as there would be no common superior to decide between them and the public, each, being on one point his own judge, would ask to be so on all; the state of nature would thus continue, and the association would necessarily become inoperative or tyrannical.

Finally, each man, in giving himself to all, gives himself to nobody; and as there is no associate over whom he does not acquire the same right as he yields others over himself, he gains an equivalent for everything he loses, and an increase of force for the preservation of what he has.

If then we discard from the social compact what is not of its essence, we shall find that it reduces itself to the following terms: “Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole.” (I, 6; emphasis the author’s)

The individual members of the group “alienate” themselves to the group as a whole, whose will replaces the central “common superior” of Hobbes’ contract scene. The exchange of “rights” among the members of the group involves no loss; it is endlessly reciprocal, a moral superconductivity. Because the unanimous decision that constitutes the group is self-referential–to express unanimity is to become the unanimous community–the subsistence of the general will guarantees this ideal exchange throughout the community’s existence.


At the origin of The Social Contract‘s society without residue is the seamless passage from nature to culture that Rousseau rejected in the second Discourse. Rousseau motivates the contract scene in the following terms:

I suppose men to have reached the point at which the obstacles in the way of their preservation in the state of nature show their power of resistance to be greater than the resources at the disposal of each individual for his maintenance in that state. That primitive condition can then subsist no longer; and the human race would perish unless it changed its manner of existence. (ibid.)

Where Hobbes’ men are warring mimetic rivals, Rousseau’s are isolated individuals whose problems are with nature rather than culture. What Rousseau’s omits from Hobbes’ model are the mimetic desires that elsewhere he attributes to men in society (“man is good, men are bad,” dixit the second Discourse), and that for Hobbes are the reason for the contract in the first place; when humans exist in a centerless mode of reciprocal exchange, they exchange not “rights” but violence. Rousseau’s general will is a modern version of the Platonic Good whose very conceptual existence denies the possibility of conflicting interests. Unlike Plato, Rousseau provides his unanimous will with an anthropological origin, but he omits from his originary scene the conflicting desires on which the will imposes itself.

In Rousseau’s social contract we exchange “natural liberty” for “moral liberty, which alone makes [man] truly master of himself” (I, 8) because it controls our “appetites.” The social contract is a check on appetite rather than on the human conflict it occasions. In the final chapter of Book I, Rousseau explains this more fully:

I shall end this chapter and this book by remarking on a fact on which the whole social system should rest: i.e., that, instead of destroying natural equality, the fundamental compact substitutes, for such physical inequality as nature may have set up between men, an equality that is moral and legitimate, and that men, who may be unequal in strength or intelligence, become every one equal by convention and legal right. (I, 9)

This is Rousseau’s version of the moral model of reciprocity that derives from the unanimity of the originary scene. The perfect unanimity of his originary moment is the unmediated kernel of Durkheim’s conception of the sacred as the emanation of the group’s unity. In this pure, objectless state, the sacred is not differentiated from the profane but subsists as a self-mediated communion akin to that of the groupe en fusionin Sartre’s Critique de la raison dialectique.

But this self-sustaining communion is a utopian dream that, untempered by the otherness of the sacred object/victim/deity, provides a delusive model for political action. Because Rousseau’s unanimity was not at the outset a means of deferring violence, it lacks the dynamism to transform itself into a viable political goal. What Rousseau’s model polity inherits from the originary absence of conflictive mimetic desire is the absence of politics. For Rousseau, the majority vote determines a general will that already exists in latent form, whereas the “will” of a democratic society is generated within the political process. In both political and economic exchange, the outcome is created by exchange itself.

Rousseau rejects Hobbes’ mimetic violence in order to grasp the community’s more primordial unanimity, but he cannot see that the source of this unanimity is the critical necessity of deferring this violence. Hobbes conceived his authoritarian social contract as pointing the way out of his country’s civil war; Rousseau’s, at once democratic and tyrannical, would inspire many a civil war to come.