In 1762 Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote his Social Contract, Chapter Three of Book One begins thus:
'The strongest is never strong enough to be always the master, unless he transforms strength into right, and obedience into duty. Hence the right of the strongest, which, though to all seeming meant ironically, is really laid down as a fundamental principle. But are we never to have an explanation of this phrase? Force is a physical power, and I fail to see what moral effect it can have. To yield to force is an act of necessity, not of will — at the most, an act of prudence. In what sense can it be a duty?
Suppose for a moment that this so-called "right" exists. I maintain that the sole result is a mass of inexplicable nonsense. For, if force creates right, the effect changes with the cause: every force that is greater than the first succeeds to its right. As soon as it is possible to disobey with impunity, disobedience is legitimate; and, the strongest being always in the right, the only thing that matters is to act so as to become the strongest. But what kind of right is that which perishes when force fails? If we must obey perforce, there is no need to obey because we ought; and if we are not forced to obey, we are under no obligation to do so. Clearly, the word "right" adds nothing to force: in this connection, it means absolutely nothing.'
In 2012 these words are perhaps a little difficult to take in, the translation in English of 1768 used here is, however, simpler than Rousseau's French. There are a few of us who are quite absorbed in politics, probably generally, but living here is France we concern ourselves with what is around us. I thought about this last Saturday when France was celebrating the fall of the Bastille and 14th July 1789 when their Revolution began, intellectually much influenced by Rousseau and other philosopher of his time, but in the hands of ordinary people who had had enough of the oppression of the ruling minority.
In 1785 France faced serious economic difficulties, mostly because of the unfairness of taxation, but was one of the richest and also most powerful European nations. The French enjoyed more political freedom than other Europeans. Yet it was the peasants and poor and along with those whose ambition was to become bourgeoisie who bore the burden of unjustly high taxes that were levied to support their wealthy monarchy and the aristocracy whose lifestyles were luxurious, lazy and counterproductive. That aristocracy was challenged by the growing ambitions of well off farmers, merchants and tradesmen who aligned themselves with peasants, early industrial workers and intellectuals influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment philosophers including Rousseau and Voltaire. A series of events irreversibly changed organisation of political power, the very nature of French society and individual freedom. In the 1780s there were also devastating crop failures that were causing widespread hunger and discontent since the ruling hegemony, unlike other people, did not go without.
The culmination was the Revolution of 1789 to 1799. The Déclaration des droits de l'homme et du citoyen that is still the ideal of the French notions of democracy and freedom was written during 1789. A Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen was modelled on the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1791 but its formulation is quite ironic and its failure to this day of making woman equal to man has always exposed the failure of the Revolution in which many brave and commited women invested heart and soul, often lives.
My point? Two hundred and twenty three years on and in the political world only the monarchy, powerful aristocracy and dominance of the Roman Catholic church are gone. Instead there is a powerful political elite who are all but born and most certainly educated to assume power. The taxation they legislate into the pockets of the people is gaining momentum toward the equivalent of pre-revolutionary conditions in the 1780s and democracy is being gnawed away to the point that the ruling hegemony and the rich supporters and friends should bear Rousseau's words in mind and keep a sharp look over their shoulders lest the French nation seeks new Bastilles to tear down. There is unemployment, harsh rural poverty and rapidly rising prices for all commodities, especially essentials like food, but the rich are growing richer and 'fatter' and conspicuously so. If history is remembered, then sooner or later the words of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen will also be remembered and once again the people will have enough and take to the streets.