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A Rebirth of Communal Liberty?

One scholar’s quest for a modern equivalent to the General Will


The first paper I wrote in a college political science course addressed the question of whether the political philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau—with his concept of fusing the individual wills of members of a community into a single General Will, thereby “forcing men to be free”—was totalitarian in nature. I answered the question in the affirmative. The grader wrote that while I had made a well-reasoned case for my position, it was only the superficial, prima facie case, and gave me a B.

That teaching assistant might have been (although it was not) Benjamin R. Barber, then a graduate student in government at Harvard. At that time, Barber might have been already contemplating the Ph.D. thesis he’d later complete and publish as his book The Death of Communal Liberty: A History of Freedom in a Swiss Mountain Canton. The canton in question was Graubünden, in an area of Switzerland once known as Raetia. The people of Raetia, in prefeudal times, developed an organization called the common association, whose function was to oversee the system of collective land management in a particular area. When outside forces sought to introduce the feudal system of land ownership into Raetia, the common associations fragmented into smaller units called communes, made up of the region’s even smaller villages and neighborhoods. It was in just such neighborhood-scale settings, Barber explained, that face-to-face, egalitarian participatory democracy took hold.

Barber also emphasized the radical differences between Raetian democracy, which virtually mandated a group consensus—or, one might say, a General Will—on issues up for debate in a neighborhood, and the type of democracy that commonly goes by the name today. Liberalism developed as part of the modern rebellion against the oppressive hierarchical social, religious, and political structures of the Middle Ages, and so prizes individual liberty, private interests, and personal rights. Because Raetia never effectively developed feudal hierarchies of power, a citizen of the canton didn’t see considerations of communal solidarity as any threat to individual freedoms; far from it, he “view[ed] government as an extension of the interests he held in common with fellow citizens,” Barber observed.

For the Raetians, Barber explained, political power was not an enemy to be feared, but a system of communal decision-making in which they played an integral part. The Raetian citizen experienced a sense of autonomy within a group structure, not outside of it—an organic unity of interests that again calls to mind the General Will. A local Swiss historian wrote, “If there has ever been a community founded in accord with Rousseau’s ideas, it is Graubünden.” Barber interpreted the canton’s political success as proof that the fear of liberals about Rousseau’s ideas leading inevitably to totalitarianism was ill founded. However, as the title of his book indicates, the Raetian system did not survive its inevitable encounter with the forces of modernization in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Of course, any attempt to achieve a comparable solidarity on a national scale would require stringent authoritarian measures. Rousseau himself cautioned “Great nations” not “to apply to themselves what was meant for small Republics.” Barber has spent the balance of his academic career seeking ways to achieve a synthesis between what Jane J. Mansbridge calls “unitary democracy” (Barber’s small-scale communal liberty) and “adversarial democracy” (the collision of interests that characterizes larger-scale representative democracy). In his 1984 book Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age, Barber suggested various measures to increase citizen participation in the American political system, such as universal national service and the use of sortition (choosing by lot) to fill lesser political offices at the local level. In two books he published after that, Jihad vs. McWorld and If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities, he brought his concern with citizenship and political participation to the international sphere. In the former book, he declared that the nation-state is too weak and parochial to restrain the excesses of global capitalism (which has helped give rise to jihadist mayhem), and called for the development of new international democratic institutions to address that problem. In the latter study, Barber argued that the institution best suited to this task would be a parliament of mayors from major cities around the globe. And he contended that these mayors are already working together across borders to solve problems that nation-states, jealous of their sovereignty, cannot successfully address. He envisioned the simultaneous cultivation of genuine, localized neighborhood communities throughout all these cities, in which active citizenship would become a worldwide norm.

Where does such thinking leave a figure like Barber on today’s ideological spectrum? Regarding the capitalist-socialist duality, he has written: “Capitalists and their socialist critics have not noticed that they share one deterministic and antidemocratic assumption: namely, that communities are incapable of making their own histories through common talk and action.” Economic determinism, he notes, also short-circuits the imagination—something that might help explain why the fulsome exercise of that skill seems so rare on the American left today.