Discourse on Inequality
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
1754

One of the foundational texts of modern democracy and of political thought more generally, Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality seeks to examine the origin of social inequality and make the case that structural inequities are a violation of natural law. Civil society, as we understand it, is a creation of property relations, themselves the creation of those rich and powerful few who sought to institutionalize their privilege in law.

Arguing for a human nature that is inherently good and seeks only those basic needs of security, food, sleep and companionship/ reproduction, Rousseau’s ‘natural man’ is explicitly opposed to that other human nature which underlies modern political and economic philosophy – the natural man of Thomas Hobbes, for whom the starting point of society is a state of fear and anxiety, of fierce competition among self-interested individuals. Hobbes, he argued, misses one key feature of human nature in his portrayal – compassion. And to miss compassion is to miss the core of our humanity.

Rousseau’s liberalism is a radical human liberalism fundamentally at odds with the conservative economic liberalism of Hobbes which underpins so much of what we call classical liberal political-economic thought. But he is clearly of the liberal school rather than the conflict-based tradition of Marx. Despite their shared emphasis on the fundamental anti-human nature of property, they differ substantially. Where Marx posits a human nature that is profoundly social in its goodness, for Rousseau the human being is first and foremost an individual, property being the origin not only of evil, but of society.

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