My husband and I recently visited a charming 280-acre National Trust property nestled in the green hills of south Oxfordshire. First built in the late Middle Ages, Greys Court comprises a substantial complex of sandstone buildings and walled courtyard gardens. Enjoying coffee and cake in a long, low building said to have garrisoned Cromwell’s soldiers during the Civil War, we contemplated battles long since fought and won. With dozens of other tourists, we rambled through the three-gabled Elizabethan house dreaming of what it must have been like to have grown up in such a comfortable and privileged home .
But it was while admiring century-old wisteria awash in a sea of bluebells that I remembered Rousseau’s observation that the ‘fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody’. If this were true, then why do some families flourish on 280 acre country estates while others scratch out their survival in a city slum? Rousseau suggests a diabolically simple answer:
“The first man who having enclosed a piece of ground, thought up the statement this is mine and found people simple enough to believe him…was the real founder of civil society.”
Society yes. Civil no. It was Rousseau’s view that the social contract devised by men to make their property secure was not in accord with the ‘natural order’, but instead was a hoax perpetrated by the rich on the poor. In other words, the poor (majority) had been tricked into agreeing to give their right to share in the wealth of the land to the rich (minority). According to Rousseau in exchange for peace and protection:
“All ran headlong to their chains, believing they had secured their liberty.”
I question whether such a social contract remains in society’s best interest in the 21st century. Do we still require privileged property owners to care for us? Or in a post-modern democracy are we capable to taking care of ourselves?
If we conclude the later, then is it not up to each one of us work toward changing the terms of the social contract? Do we really want that in the interests of all, the rich get richer while the poor get poorer?
Or might we rather like it the other way around?