Society and social contract

“All were happy — plants, birds, insects, and children. But grown-up people — adult men and women — never left off cheating and tormenting themselves and one another. It was not this spring morning which they considered sacred and important, not the beauty of God’s world, given to all creatures to enjoy — a beauty which inclines the heart to peace, to harmony and to love.” Leo Tolstoy/ Resurrection

Society is a bigger issue. Politics is only a part of other activities of the society. Society is the perimeter of our overall living life. We grow up in a society with love and affection. Our education starts in the care of society. Our occupations are engaged in culture and society. Politics is a social responsibility. It is the civic responsibility to build all the people of society as humanitarian and benevolent citizens. The basis of government is the consent of people.

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Marxist theorist Louis Althusser divides the social relation into three parts — economic, ideological, and political. The relationship between one and another in society is determined due to these three dimensions. On the other hand, Anthony Giddens wants to see society as one and the same. He wants to see the identity of the national state bigger. The perimeter of his society is extended to the border of the state. The world is getting smaller in terms of today’s global concept. So, it is called ‘Global Village’. Our society has extended from the village to any other part of the world due to the information revolution. According to Allama Iqbal, “Social life is a blessing to an individual. It is fulfilled in social bonds.”

Despite these theoretical concepts, the reality is that we don’t live in an aerial address. We live in a colony, neighborhood, village, Upazila, and district. When we talk about society, we talk about the surroundings of our address. Wherever we live, it can be temporary or permanent addresses –which is our society. There is an unwritten regulation in this society, which may be a village or town. Those of us who live in a society cannot perform any activities– willingly or unwillingly– beyond the rules of this society. A social relationship develops through the regulations obeyed in society. An unrelated person becomes close kin. We take the unknown person from the house next door as our relative.

There was a time in human history when there was no political consciousness among people. At that time, there was no existence of state and government. People used to live in the realm of nature and lead they are living according to their own whims. There were no legal measures to protect the oppressed people when they faced any oppression carried out by influencers. Thus, as humans faced various difficulties in the realm of nature, they created state through mutual agreement. This is called in the history of political science as the doctrine of ‘social contract’. That means the real thing of the doctrine is that the state has been created through an agreement.

This doctrine creates appeals to many thinkers as it emphasizes on the consciousness and desire of man, and it observes the individual from the perspective of natural rights in the evolution of society. John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and others were followers of this ideology. However, there are differences between them in the reasons-analysis behind this agreement. Although this ideology gained popularity in Western philosophy and state thinking in the 16th and 17th centuries, it is also found hints in the sophistry of ancient Greece and Chinese philosopher Mozi.

European bourgeoisie class in the post-Renaissance period used the theory of social contract as an ideological explanation in contrast to monarchy and feudalism. Because it was a rational alternative to theological heavenly rights and a useful tool for discussing and criticizing governance from the human perspective. On the other hand, the theory was the theoretical basis for empowering the middle class by undermining the sovereign authority of the king and accepting the message of democracy. The influence of this ideology acts as the basis of mass revolts in European countries, including England and France and awakens modern democracy and individual liberty.


None accepted the social contract as an irrefutable document and state rules. There has been a lot of criticism of this theory since its beginning. Critics are against the ‘social contract’ theory. Firstly, what the allegation is made by critics against the social contract theory is that there is no historical evidence to support it. Secondly, if some people form a society by an agreement at a particular time, there is no logical reason why the next generations are following it. David Hume has delivered his speech against the social contract theory. According to him, society developed through the idea of family. Men and women have come together due to normal biological instincts and that is the root cause of the origin of society. The family is the smallest unit of society. The advantages of a family together have helped people to develop society on a large scale. Thus, society has been built on the basis of perceived needs. Natural society, social contract, and others are just imaginations, which have no real basis. The basis of the government system like society is also on the feeling of need. The government system emerged to establish and protect justice.

We can also criticize theories of theorists, which are much extensive, on behalf of the social contract. Thomas Hobbes argues in favor of social contract in his book ‘Leviathan’. According to him, primitive society was barbaric where the idea of rights or justice was absent, and the use of force and deception were the basis of the law there. But with the evolution of time, rationality developed among the people. They have come to an agreement with each other that one will enjoy as freedom or rights as he or she is ready to give to others.

On the basis of this, the treaty, which was committed to live together peacefully, begins a sovereign power. An individual or a group can assume the power. In this way, people trying to ensure peace transfer their natural rights to a power that provides security to human beings and leads the society towards general welfare. It is mentionable that Hobbes did not focus on the state that has emerged by social contract in any particular historical event. Rather, he wanted to see the state as a rational precondition of the social state.

John Locke has taken a stance against Hobbes on the question of the development of social contract, although he believed that human lived in the realm of nature before the formation of political society. According to him, there was a coexistence of peace and logic in the natural state, and people were not involved at loggerhead constantly, but they were guided by common sense. It was not pre-social but pre-political. It was also not out of law as people lived under natural law where everyone was independent and equal. Although they were independent but not arbitrary. But people started depriving of equal rights when they deviate from the normal rules and norms in the realm of nature due to various reasons. As a result, they realized the need of building an integrated society to protect personal freedom and rights. Although everyone is independent, self-reliant and equal, they come to an agreement voluntarily and unanimously for sake of their own benefit. Locke sought the agreement as a historic event. According to him, although such agreements were not found in the documents, many incidents, which are not in the documents, are real. This agreement can be considered as such an event.


The most famous book on the social contract was written by Rousseau. Du Contrat social (social contract) is a book on politics written by French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau in the eighteenth century. The subject of this book is political science, which is very important for modern civilization. State formation, state management, philosophy and principles of state management, etc. are the basic idea of this book. It is one of the most influential of Rousseau’s many groundbreaking works. He enlightened the fundamental aspect of the practical aspects of modern democracy.

In this book published in 1762, Rousseau tried to uncover such some social facts. Although the facts now seem to be accepted as a general truth, it was truly revolutionary to revel these facts at that time. This book is considered to be one of the most inspiring books on the ideals of the French Revolution. Intellectuals and politicians in France and Switzerland became angry with Rousseau after the book was published.

At one point in his life, Rousseau was forced to leave Paris under an adverse situation. He also wrote this book among a few other books while living in a residence of the Duke of Luxemburg. The book was published in 1762. Rousseau arranged for publishing the book from Amsterdam instead of Paris, fearing that the French monarchy might be angary due to the book’s revolutionary conception related to statehood. In fact, Rousseau’s Contra Social book had been able to deeply stir the thoughts and consciousness of France’s people at that time. As a result, the field of the French Revolution got ready. The book has been translated into 36 languages of the world.

Du contrat social is divided into four episodes. What Rousseau focused on the things in Chapter 9 of the first episode are the system of primitive society, slavery system, sovereignty, civilized state, real property, and so on. In the second part, he discussed 12 issues which include inseparability of sovereignty, the integrity of sovereignty, boundaries of sovereign power, right to life and death, source and boundaries of the law, responsibilities of legislators, rights of the people, and various method of legislations.

Rousseau has expressed his views on 18 issues in the third part of the book. These include outlines of government, structural policies of different systems of the government system, democracy, an autocratic system of governance, monarchy, a mixed system of government, Inadequacy of all government systems for all societies (countries), characteristic signs of good governance, the disintegration of government, epidemic of politicians, nature of sovereign authority, representative of people, is the government an agreement as an institution, how is it possible to prevent the overthrow of the government, etc.

Rousseau has discussed six topics in the fourth and final chapter of this book while the ninth chapter is conclusion. What he discussed the issues in the last episode is the immortality of people’s desire, right to vote of the citizens, formation of government through the election, characteristics of autocracy, the sword of government censorship, etc.

According to Rousseau, it is needed the formulation of policy frameworks related to international law, trade, right to war, the United Nations and negotiations, etc following the proper principles of human political rights and the basis of the state. He did not include it in this text for discussion.

The direct participation of the common people in the running of the state has been proposed in the book ‘Du contrat social’. Rousseau proposes the establishment of democracy based on the universal franchise of the common people. Besides, the three principles– human freedom, equality, and brotherhood –are emphasized as the basic principles of the state. These principles acted as the seeds of the French Revolution. Rousseau has meant the agreement between the state and people by the social contract. He expected such a state system where people would not be deprived of their freedom’s right by the power to run the state. These are recognized as fundamental rights of citizens in modern democratic governance. Rousseau desired a balance in state power so that society would be protected from corruption and injustice, and people would take the opportunity to be happy and honest. Rousseau’s theory depends on the concept of natural similarity, where people are just equal, self-sufficient, and satisfied. The advancement of human knowledge and the emergence of private property introduce the classification of labor and create division between poor and rich people changing the natural well-being of humans. As a result, the state and society become vital.

Rousseau, a believer in human freedom, said about state formation: “There must be such an ideal for building a society, where lives and properties of all members in the society will be safe and secure with the assistance of the collective power, and everyone will be united with each other, obey their orders and remain independent as before.”

That means social contract is developed following this agreement. This agreement does not make any absolute ruler. Each person surrenders all his rights to the community that emerged by social contract. People create a state through treaties to free themselves from chaos. Again, all citizens regain their rights as equal owners of a sovereign structure under the security of the state. Everyone will surrender themselves but they will not bow down to anyone personally. Power is not for individuals here but for each other.

According to Rousseau, nature builds upon humans for achieving a purpose, which fails due to the fault of our society. He had no confidence in the civilization created at the altar of science and fine arts. Rousseau completely disagreed with Renaissance and doctrines related to the development of arts and science with human excellence and said:

Anthropology, technology, commerce, erudition, and all the redundancies, which develop industry, are born out of society and luxuries of the society but they enrich and destroy society at the same time…This is the reason why the abundances of famous nations push them towards massive misery. The more industry and anthropology improve, the more peasants, who are afflicted by tax burden, hungry and disrespectful, move to the town in search of livelihood.

The more our cities become beautiful, the more our rural areas become desolate. The amount of non-arable land increases. Citizens are beggars or robbers, and their lives end on the gallows or in the rubbish heap. In this way, a part of the state flourishes and becomes rich, another part gets deserted and desolate. The extremely powerful empire, in this way, builds the monument of prosperity by hard works and brings destruction in public life.
Rousseau did not believe the “original sin”. According to him, misery and weakness of people are not the main reasons behind the “original sin”. Actually, it has emerged following the conflict and inconsistency of the environment with nature. Humans bring a possibility in the world after they were born in, and the demand and aspiration rise among people when they attempt to achieve the possibility. They are constantly fighting with others to meet their endless demands. Contemporary social structure hinders the development of the individual, which brings a person and another person face-to-face, forcing them to engage in conflict. People of primitive age were relaxed, happy, and self-sufficient. There was no conflict between people in the primitive age as they had no resources to store.


Although philosopher Georg Hegel denies the dual form of known and unknown things in the world, the original thing to him is thought, not object. Everything– known or visible –is the expression and development of the thought. In addition, the political explanation of Hegel later has been used as an ideological tool of the autocratic and fascist state as the extreme development of thoughts happened in German. In fact, two contradictory ideas developed from Hegel’s philosophy; One is Marxism or dialectical materialism and another is neoliberalism and authoritarian political doctrine.

The method by which political society was created is a “Social Contract”. This contract doesn’t make an absolute ruler. Each person along with all his rights surrenders to the community by social contract. Again, all citizens regain the rights as equal owners of a sovereign structure under the security of the state. Everyone will surrender themselves but will not bow down to anyone personally. The power is not for the individual here, but for each other. Thus, the will of a single person collectively turns into “general will”. This common will is the moderator of the people in national life. The state is the full political body and the expression of the highest and sovereign general will. The government is the sum of the people elected by the community to make a general will effective.

The individual sacrifices somewhat of his or her freedom for the sake of building a state, but he or she cannot be oppressed by state apparatus. According to Rousseau, the state management system will be such a way so that state power does not turn into a tool of exploitation, injustice, oppression, torture, and indiscriminate corruption. Rousseau in his book contrat social paves the way for rescuing citizens and society from the potential oppressive role of the state.

Rousseau reminds us in the conclusion of his book that the social contract between the state and the people is bilateral. People form the state for the security of their wealth and life and develop the government. If the government or the state violates its agreement and starts oppressing and exploiting, the people can also interrupt their agreement at any time. Even, although the state calls the violation anarchy, it will be a process of forming a new state. The time has come for us to reconsider the status of the agreement between people and the state in Bangladesh as it has passed almost 50 years of independence.

The author is thankful to Hasan Ali for translating it

1. Md. Abdul Wadud (2nd Edition, 2014), State of philosophy, Dhaka: Monon Publication.
2. R.A. Leigh, Unsolved Problems in the Bibliography of J.-J. Rousseau, Cambridge, 1990
3. Rousseau, Jean Jacques (1762). Du contrat social: Book One Chapter Six the social compact.

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Zahidur Rahim

Zahidur Rahim is a public health researcher and a development futuristic. He got his post-graduation in Public Health from the National Institute of Preventive and Social Medicine (NIPSOM) in 2014. He swayed another post-graduation in Development Studies from the University of Dhaka in 2016. Many of his articles on public health research have been published in the national and international scientific journal. Zahid is also an essayist, literary critic, translator and a poet. He writes regularly in different newspapers, magazines, online portals, little magazines. He has got three books published and there are many in the pipeline.
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