Unit 3: Liberal Democracy and Its Critics
We conclude our course by discussing various conceptualizations of political and social equality and addressing ways that political thought shifted away from a belief in the primacy of the sovereign state and the legitimacy of elites. We also discuss how Jean-Jacques Rousseau developed the notion of participatory democracy, the egalitarian view that constituents should be directly involved in the direction and operation of political systems.
Alexis de Tocqueville considered participatory democracy when he examined government in young America. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels did the same when they critiqued political liberalism as the ideology of the rich. Our unit serves as a historical platform for discussing today's competing political theories about the role of the state in the redistribution of resources, the government's role in the economy, and the difference between how we act and what we believe.
Completing this unit should take you approximately 40 hours.
Upon successful completion of this unit, you will be able to:
- describe the difference between Rousseau's notion of "the state of nature" with that of Hobbes and Locke;
- explain Rousseau's thoughts about the origins of societal inequality and the relationship between freedom and equality;
- compare and contrast the need for and design of a social contract as explained in the writings of Rousseau and Locke;
- explain the role Tocqueville believed religion played in American society;
- describe Tocqueville's thoughts on the notion of equality in America and France;
- explain Marx's thoughts on the relationship between Christianity, the secular state, and capitalism; and
- describe Marx's theory of history, and how his economic worldview relates to political structure.
3.1: Discourse on Inequality
Read this text. Rousseau uses history and travel experience to show that humans have slowly evolved from brute animality to moderate sociability and eventually corruption and inequality as the rich have taken over government. Rousseau is famous for developing the idea that freedom exists in three forms: civil, natural, and moral.
Study Guide Questions:
- Does Rousseau advocate a return to the state of nature?
- What role does the notion of private property play in Rousseau's thought?
- Reading this selection, taking notes, and answering the study guide questions should take approximately 6 hours.
Watch this lecture.
Watch this lecture. Rousseau proposes a social contract that "defends and protects with all common forces the person and goods of each associate, and by means of which each one, while uniting with all, nevertheless obeys only himself and remains as free as before". Also consider Smith's description of the emergence of government types. Layer by layer, they have developed as philosophical reasoning expanded the boundaries of Western society's political thinking.
Rousseau lived in a very different era, but his exploration of the place of the individual in society has significant relevance in the 21st century. His works address many of today's worries, especially about social inequality and dysfunctional democracy. What would Rousseau have to say about the U.S. political system if he were alive today?
Post your response in the course's discussion forum, and check back to see what some of your classmates have written. Feel free to leave comments on the posts of your classmates.
- Receive a grade
Answer these questions on the major themes in Rousseau's Discourse on Inequality.
3.2: Democratic Participation
Read this text. As you read The Social Contract, consider the United States Constitution, particularly as amended by The Bill of Rights. Many of the concepts therein originate with Socrates and Aristotle, but come into their own as fully formed foundational principles through the US Founding Fathers' reliance upon and interpretation of Rousseau.
Study Guide Questions:
- Can individuals be free, in the aftermath of Rousseau's social contract that involves the "total alienation of each associate of himself and all his rights to the whole community"?
- What does Rousseau mean by a "moral freedom which...makes man the master of himself"?
- Receive a grade
During the United States' revolutionary era (1763-1787), the political philosophies of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and John Jacques Rousseau all served as influences in the creation of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution--two of the most important documents in American history. At this time, the British colonies in North America were struggling to break free from what they viewed as a tyrannical and unjust monarchical system of rule. After they declared their independence from Great Britain in 1776, they were faced with the monumental task of creating a republic that would balance respect for individual rights with a strong national government.
The men at the forefront of this debate are most commonly known as the Founding Fathers, political leaders and statesmen who participated in the American Revolution and were the key architects in the creation of the United States of America as embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. Many of these men came of age during the "Enlightenment Era", a cultural movement of intellectuals in eighteenth-century Europe that sought to mobilize the power of reason in order to reform society and advance knowledge. Included in this group of philosophers were Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. Their writings had a profound influence on men who sought guidance on what was essentially a grand experiment in governance.
For this assessment, you will use selected texts from Hobbes (Leviathan), Locke (Second Treatise of Government), and Rousseau (Social Contract) to determine how their perspectives on the state of nature, society, and government are reflected in the ideals put forth by the Founding Fathers. After reviewing the texts, read about the history of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution in addition to the actual texts. For the U.S. Constitution, focus on the Preamble, Articles I-VII, and the first ten amendments (also known as the "Bill of Rights"), which will assist you in composing your answers.
Then, write three short essays (between 2-3 paragraphs each) comparing the central themes of government and the distribution of power in Hobbes' Leviathan, Locke's Second Treatise of Government, and Rousseau's Social Contract to those found in the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution. How are the latter texts reflective of the former? In other words, where specifically might the Founding Fathers have found inspiration while writing these documents, either explicitly or implicitly, in the works of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau? On what issues may the Founding Fathers have parted ways with the authors? Be sure to provide direct quotes from the relevant texts in your argument.
Watch this lecture. Consider Rousseau's idea that societal contracts are more of a societal association about how we will conduct business, rather than a consensus on how one's life is to be lived according to societal mores. Also pay attention to the distinctions between civil, natural, and moral freedoms as portrayed by Rousseau.
- Receive a grade
Answer these questions on the major themes in each philosopher's approach to the social contract.
3.3: Democratic Statecraft
Read this text as follows:
- Volume I, Chapter 2
- Volume I, Chapter 3
- Volume I, Chapter 10
- Volume I, Chapter 11
- Volume I, Chapter 12
- Volume I, Chapter 13
- Volume II, Section II, Chapter 6
- Volume II, Section II, Chapter 7
- Volume II, Section II, Chapter 8
- Volume II, Section II, Chapter 9
- Volume II, Section IV, Chapter 1
- Volume II, Section IV, Chapter 2
- Volume II, Section IV, Chapter 3
- Volume II, Section IV, Chapter 4
- Volume II, Section IV, Chapter 5
- Volume II, Section IV, Chapter 6
In this work, Tocqueville studies democracy via the civil practices he observed during a tour of the newly-independent American colonies. While in America, he noticed that wealth circulated more freely without hereditary ranks and distractions.
Study Guide Questions:
- Why does Tocqueville want to study democracy in America?
- How does Tocqueville view equality in America?
- How does Tocqueville view the role religion plays in America, specifically with regard to politics and social order?
Watch this lecture. In his work, Tocqueville describes the radical departure from the classical notion that citizens have different innate abilities and assesses the potential consequences resulting from the belief in and passion for equality.
Watch this lecture. With the introduction of equal political rights, Tocqueville also advocated more democratic and representative institutions capable of upholding the people's interests, and he warned of a tyranny of the majority.
- Receive a grade
Answer these questions on the major themes in Tocqueville's Democracy in America.
3.4: Karl Marx as an Enlightenment Thinker
Read this chapter, which gives a brief overview of the historical and political context in which Marx and Engels studied and wrote.
Watch this video, which gives an overview of Marx's life and work.
Study Guide Questions:
- What does Marx say is the main source of conflict throughout history?
- Why does Marx think that the bourgeoisie is unfit to rule?
- According to Marx, why are laborers forced to sell their labor for the lowest possible wages?
- Explain Marx's views on the relationship between religion and capitalism.
- Why does Marx think that capitalism inevitably creates its own destruction?
Read this text. In his essay On the Jewish Question, Marx takes issue with Bruno Bauer, one of his colleagues among the Young Hegelians. Bauer had earlier made an argument against Jewish emancipation from the German Christian state from an atheist perspective, arguing that religion whether Jewish or Christian was a barrier to emancipation. In responding to Bauer, Marx introduces his distinction between political emancipation in form of liberal rights and liberties, and human emancipation, which encompasses an end to alienation from our work and from each other.
Watch this lecture, which presents Marx's works on economics and society as definitively a part of the Enlightenment tradition in political and economic thought as that of Adam Smith or John Stuart Mill.
Read this preface, which constitutes a sketch of Marx's framework for historical materialism. He argues that the nature of a society's economic structure depends upon the degree of development of the productive forces or means of production, meaning human labor conjoined with technology. The relations of production or superstructure, meaning the political and legal institutions of society, is in turn explained by the nature of the economic structure. Revolution occurs, however, when the forces of production are stifled by the superstructure, which is replaced by a structure better suited to preside over the continued development of the forces of production.
Read this chapter. Marx begins by establishing two necessary conditions for commodity production: (i) a market and (ii) a social division of labor where people make different things. For Marx, commodities both have a use-value, and an exchange-value or price, but it is the latter which is problematic. In coming to understand why one commodity is priced differently from another, Marx derives his labor theory of value.
Read this chapter, in which Marx shows the effects of his law that within a capitalist economic structure, the tendency of the rate of profit must fall. This leads to increasing intensity of exploitation as well as other effects that contribute to the downfall of capitalism.
Read this work, in which Marx describes the transition from a capitalist to a socialist to a communist society, and it is here where he describes communism as a society in which each person should contribute according to their ability and receive according to their need.
Watch this lecture, which focuses on the technical, as opposed to normative, aspects of Marxian exploitation, and how Marx believed a socialist economic structure is the logical successor to a capitalist economic structure, which would in turn develop into a communist economic structure.
Read this article, which addresses the question as to why we should study Marx today, and gives an overview of a contemporary strain of political thought called Analytical Marxism. From there, the importance of the principle of self-ownership in Marx's framework is traced, and how that principle corresponds to contemporary debates regarding distributive justice, and particularly "the difference principle" in the work of John Rawls.
Watch this lecture, which focuses both on the empirical failures of Marx's predictions and theoretical inconsistencies in his framework, and the influence his work has had on late 19th and 20th century political thought.
As you are already aware, The Communist Manifesto reflects an attempt to explain the goals of communism, as well as the theory underlying this movement. Both Engels and Marx argue that class struggles are the motivations for all historical developments - mostly between the "proletariat" and the "bourgeois". Who comprises these classes and why have they, according to the authors, created such class conflict?
Post your response in the discussion forum, and check back to see what some of your classmates have written. Feel free to leave comments on the posts of your classmates.
3.5: The Boundaries of Civil Liberties
Read this overview of Mill's major works and their importance in continuing debates about liberty.
Watch this lecture from 32:55, where Szelényi discusses Mill's background and major contributions to political philosophy.
Read this text. Note the distinction Mill makes between freedom of the will and civil or social liberty. Mill's fundamental question is about the nature and limits of the power that society can legitimately exercise over the individual.
Read this text. Utilitarianism has its roots in 18th- and 19th-century classical philosophy, particularly in the writings of political theorist Jeremy Bentham (and Mill's father, James Mill). This moral theory is also known as the "greatest-happiness principle", which holds that one must always act so as to produce the greatest aggregate happiness among all human beings, within reason.
Watch this lecture, which explains the tension between Mill's principle of liberty and his version of utilitarianism.
Watch this lecture, which demonstrates the contradictions and problems with the neoclassical utilitarian framework through theoretical examples and case studies.
Read this article, which attempts to reconcile the tension between Mill's principle of liberty and his invocation of utilitarianism. The difficulty lies in that the principle of liberty disqualifies utility-promotion as a reason for restraint of liberty, unless such restraint also prevents harm to others. Yet at the same time, once the harm-to-others threshold presented by the principle of liberty is crossed and liberty-limitation is justifiable, it becomes justified according to the balance of restraint of liberty and prevention of harm as assessed by a utilitarian calculation. By appealing to perfectionist tendencies in Mill's thought, and particularly his notion of "the permanent interests of man as a progressive being", the principle of liberty can be seen less in the light of problems with regard to utilitarian calculation and more as an indispensable pillar for what Mill would have us aspire to be both as a tolerant society and as autonomous individuals.
- Receive a grade
Answer these questions on the major themes in Mill's Utilitarianism and On Liberty.
Unit 3 Assessment
- Receive a grade
Take this assessment to see how well you understood this unit.
- This assessment does not count towards your grade. It is just for practice!
- You will see the correct answers when you submit your answers. Use this to help you study for the final exam!
- You can take this assessment as many times as you want, whenever you want.