By Selma Brodrej
“O Man, listen, whatever be your country and your opinions: here, as I have read it, is your history, not in the books of your fellow men, who lie, but in nature which never lies”.
These words are stated by Jean-Jacques Rousseau; in the introduction to his famous work Discourse on Inequality. In this book, Rousseau goes back in human history to find the sources of inequality among people. He starts in a hypothetical ‘State of Nature’ where he discusses the characteristics of the ‘wild savage’, and follows the development of humanity all the way to the ‘modern and civilized man’ of 18th century Geneva. Even if Rousseau tackles the topic from a different angle, it relates to a question that is still widely discussed today. Why do people turn out the way they do?
Rousseau was not the first to use the past to explain something about the present; Hobbes’ Leviathan is another classic example, in which he argues that humans need to be part of a society to be saved from the risk of a brutish all-against-all war. However, Rousseau added a remarkable twist to this method. He turned Hobbes’ theory around and blamed society for causing inequality and turning humans corrupt. Rousseau distinguishes between two types of passions; amour de soi and amour-propre. The former is, according to Rousseau, a natural feature of humanity that even the ‘wild savages’ in the ‘State of Nature’ possessed. It could be translated to self-love or self-care and is a basic instinct that makes us care about our own preservation and survival. The latter passion, amour-propre, is latent in the ‘State of Nature’ and gets activated when humans enter society. Rousseau explains amour-propre as a relative sentiment, that consists of the value we place on ourselves based on the recognition received from others.
One could say that the question Rousseau tries to answer in Discourse on Inequality is: What went wrong with humanity? If that is the case, the answer he finds is: We entered society. According to him, when we entered society, the amour-propre drove humans into vanity and destruction. We became corrupted, selfish and constantly aware of others’ opinions about us. And keep in mind that this is written more than 250 years ago.
Since then, things have only escalated. Today’s ‘rating society’ is excellently dramatized in the episode “Nosedive” of the Netflix show Black Mirror. There we follow Lacie, a young woman who desperately tries to boost her social rate in a dystopian version of the US where every single interaction with another person can be rated. Your social rating score is open for the public through an augmented reality contact lense. The minute you meet someone, you can send a personal review and also see their score. Moreover, parts of the society are exclusive for people with a rating over a certain number, which makes the plot even darker.
“Nosedive” is an apt satire that sheds light on important themes in our reality. The difference between the netflix show and many modern societies today is that our social rating score does not pop up on a screen next to our faces. Instead, it is expressed in our various social media profiles, translated into amounts of likes, comments and followers. And that is only on a private level; in the professional sphere Rousseau’s amour propre has gone even further. I rate my professors with one to five stars in the evaluation sent to me after finishing a course. I rate my uber driver and I try to behave in the car to maintain a good score on the app. I rate the guy I talk to in Apple’s support, the book I am reading and the restaurant I visit. I rate the experience in the security check at the airport, my online doctor’s appointment and my Airbnb apartment.
Another example is soon to be found in China. The Chinese government plans to release a social credit system during 2020 reminiscent of the dystopia depicted in “Nosedive”. The idea is that everything that Chinese citizens do online, and a big part of what they do outside of the internet, is going to be rated and calculated into a social credit value. This value is constantly fluctuating based on a multitude of different variables, for example the types of media you consume, your friends’ social credit value, if you pay your bills in time, if you smoke or if you engage in a “stop smoking program”. The score will affect your everyday life in different ways. For example, it can be taken into account when you want to borrow money from the bank or travel abroad.
It is clear that Rousseau’s critique against society is still applicable today. Some of his words are so relevant that they almost seem to be written for our time. Consider the following extract from Discourse on Inequality: :
“There is, I think, an age at which individual would like to go on unchanged; you are going to seek the age at which you would wish your whole species had remained. Dissatisfied with your present condition for reasons that presage even greater unhappiness for your unfortunate posterity, you might wish you could go back in time (…)”.
The link between these words and the challenges we face today is obvious. In the light of the upcoming release of a social credit system in the country with the world’s biggest population, Rousseau’s ‘State of Nature’ has never been more tempting.
Selma Brodrej studies literature in Stockholm at the moment. Despite her huge interest in Rousseau’s State of Nature, she’s also into astrology, books about crazy women and photography.