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Jean-Jacques Rousseau's "Post-Marxist" Critique of Alienation: A Re-Reading through Jacques Lacan and Slavoj Zizek

By Inston, Kevin | Philosophy Today, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Jean-Jacques Rousseau's "Post-Marxist" Critique of Alienation: A Re-Reading through Jacques Lacan and Slavoj Zizek


Inston, Kevin, Philosophy Today


It is widely recognized that although Jean-Jacques Rousseau mainly uses the idea of alienation in the sense of giving away or selling, ' his presentation of man in society foreshadows, to some extent, the concept of alienation as it is elaborated by Hegel and Marx. Friedrich Engels was the first to identify Rousseau as a precursor of Marx, detecting a dialectical interpretation of history in Rousseau's depiction of man's political development in the Discourse on Inequality. He argues that the revolutionary stages of that development perform "a negation of negation."2 On the one hand, the institutional and governmental changes of history alienate man from the equality and independence of nature, finally leading to an extreme situation of slavery and despotism, and, on the other, by making all men equal again through their common enslavement, they provide the conditions necessary for man to unite in order to overcome that oppression and reach a higher state of unity. Engels believes that, for Rousseau, that unity is to be found in the principles of the Social contract. While his reading importantly emphasizes, as Jean Starobinski remarks, the coherence of Rousseau's political thought, it is important to remember that Rousseau insists on the hypothetical character of his account of history and therefore conceives revolutionary change as a mere possibility rather than as a predetermined outcome.3 Marx, for his part, did not share Engel's reading of the Discourse, preferring to read Rousseau, like Hegel, as a philosopher of the Enlightenment committed to the abstract natural rights of man, whose realization, during the course of the French Revolution, marked the political victory of the bourgeoisie.4

Both Starobinski and Bronislaw Baczko, while not wishing to present Rousseau as a Marxist before the fact, implicitly question Marx's account of him, suggesting the deep connection between his conception of history as a series of class struggles checked by the rule of capitalist ideology and Rousseau's depiction, in the second part of the Discourse, of the development of private property and social inequality.5 They argue that Rousseau does not necessarily provide a philosophical or sociological theory of alienation, but a phenomenological description of social man's alienated condition. Man's alienation comes from what they view as the inauthentic world of appearances where man can only perceive himself and define his needs and desires through the medium of others. Man becomes estranged from the immediacy and autonomy of his natural existence to live totally externalized in the gaze of his fellow men. Starobinski highlights the correlation between man's moral alienation and his economic progress: man's loss of control over the product of his labor coincides with his progressive loss of autonomy and increasing subjection to the will of others. In line with a Marxist interpretation, both Starobinski and Baczko interpret civil man's alienation as an "accidental" phenomenon resulting from social corruption and depravity. They consequently identify in Rousseau's political writings a desire to transcend our alienated state and reach a mode of community that recovers, on a rational and conventional basis, the immediacy and transparency of the irretrievable state of nature.

While fully acknowledging the significant parallels that exist between Rousseau and Marx, this article aims to demonstrate how Rousseau's depiction of the human condition perhaps approximates more to the reworking and transformation of Marx's concept of alienation provided by Jacques Lacan and subsequently developed by Slavoj Éizek. It is the key differences between the social and political theories of Rousseau and Marx that link Rousseau more closely to these twentieth century thinkers. First, unlike Marx, as Robert Wokler affirms, Rousseau gives great importance to language as determinant of man's behavior and identity, seeing his alienation in the unstable and ambiguous realm of signs as the condition of his insertion into the social.

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