Self-Interest and Social Stratification: A Modern Reading of Rousseau on Labor
Philosopher John Locke claims that all of mankind has a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of property, and while many accept this claim as fact and truth, there are those who contest whether this idea is right and proper in regards to the laws of nature. In A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, Jean-Jacques Rousseau finds that property is the root of all imbalances amongst men. He also declares that, while labor for self preservation is just, when labor is divided among individuals, deemed either lesser or dominant, to provide for a whole community, man is taken advantage of, his endeavors become exploitative, and an imbalance of power becomes evident. In looking at this progression that Rousseau presents, it becomes clear that, according to these philosophies, all political systems stand against the laws of nature and promote the systems of inequality that the poor have so long been fighting against. Rousseau’s theories regarding the devolution from the state of nature, the rise of amour propre, and the creation of figures of authority, lay claim to the fact that the system of politics and labour present in today’s societies keep the rich in a dominant position over those less wealthy, and the unnatural system of inequality remains in place because of it.
Before modern society existed, before man abandoned the state of nature, Rousseau claims that individuals never compared themselves to the rest of mankind, and therefore they never held a desire for more than the bare necessities, and acquiring property was an unheard of concept. But as man grew closer to his relatives, all of a sudden he found himself determining his worth by how much he had and where he stood in comparison to his fellow man. As Rousseau phrases it, “ Men no sooner began to set value upon each other, and knew what esteem was, than each laid claim to it”(Rousseau, 41*), and thus the system of laying claim to property was born. This system of amour propre, or self love, leads to an imbalance of power as some men own more land than others, those who own more land no longer have to labor and toil, but rather they can delegate the labor to poorer populations. This system is illustrated by the story of Pierce Walker, from Studs Terkel’s interview compilation Working, who owns 200 acres of land, but only works 50 acres of it, “the rest [he] sharecropped”(Terkel, 3), allowing him not only to work less, but also to take the majority of the income from sales of the crops the other people working his land grew. Successfully keeping the system of inequality in place by making it impossible for any of his sharecroppers to ever rise above their current status, or for them to ever hold a position of power equal to or above his. And yet Rousseau claims that those like Walker become, “[a] slave in some sense…even by becoming their master; if rich, he stood in need of their services, if poor, of their assistance”(Rousseau, 45). In forming societies, men become dependent upon one another, and in the selfish desire for property and wealth, men become unequal, and the system of nature is all but cast away.
From the birth of classifications such as “rich” and “poor”, that came with the acquisition of property, arose a new and unnatural system of power structures and authority figures. In contest with the natural philosophy that all men are created equal, the self-inflated rich members of society developed the sense that those with more money and property ought to be held in higher esteem and granted more power, in turn promoting further an imbalance in equality amongst men. Money and property feed into this hunger for power, “the rich on their side scarce began to taste the pleasure of commanding, when they preferred it to every other; and making use of old slaves to acquire new ones, they no longer thought of anything but subduing and enslaving their neighbours”(Rousseau, 46). By enslaving their neighbours, those in power began to view their fellow man as less than, and thus the system of inequality was further extended. Much like in the story of Roberto Acuna(Terkel, 12), those without property often attempted to gain some sort of position with power, such as that of a foreman on a farm, yet still they rarely rise high enough in station to enact change or even to be held in the same esteem as those they work for. The hunger for power can be seen in every society known to man, but often it is only those that hold money and property that can satiate this desire, and keep a position as a true figure of authority.
This hunger and selfish desire that fuels the drive for power led to the birth of the political systems seen today, as,”the various forms of government owe their origin to the various degrees of inequality between the members, at the time they first coalesced into a political body”(Rousseau, 55). While a democracy is closer to equality than previous governmental systems such as aristocracies or oligarchies, because the power is not kept solely within families and those of perceived lesser standing still maintain a voice, it still promotes the unnatural system of inequality. There is a reason the stereotype of the “old, rich white man” remains even today within our political system, these were the people who were originally legally permitted to own land in American society, and thus they were the ones first granted power, and the country has yet to rid itself of these previous injustices to the minorities, and therefore remains unequal to this day.
In abandoning the simple, if moderately unpleasant, state provided by following the laws of nature, individuals no longer stand on equal ground as they once did. Rousseau shows that through engaging in society, developing a sense of self love, and striving for power, mankind has moved farther and farther from a position of equality, and now money and property dictate who controls societies. In his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, no solutions to this imbalance of power are provided, and the political systems present today make it evident that thus far no others have found any cures for this ailment either. As seen by the fact that America now has a billionaire as a President-elect, and the constant presence of those such as the Koch brothers in legislative circles, the rich still have a firm hold on positions of power. Until mankind once again believes that all born on this earth stand equal with their neighbours, the unnatural system of inequality will persist, but this change is possible, and tomorrow could be the start of a new era, if everyone once again believes.
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