For Rousseau the family is the first model of society; where the ruler’s pleasure in command replaces that of paternal love. A common comparison, no doubt, which fits neatly with the structure of monarchical or patrician societies of the early-modern period.
Can we use this metaphor in the 21st century? For sure there’s the same tendency to turn political leaders into heroes and father figures - Obama the most obvious recent case. But the extraordinary illusions around his campaign, and the rapidity they were exposed, shows the weakness of a charismatic individual when confronted by institutional power. A strong individual can no longer rely on his own power to control and revolutionise society, within a democratic state. Instead we must talk of collective groups, of organisations and institutions. We have got used to abstraction in art, we need to do so in political discourse.
Note that Rousseau talks about feeling within an organic community – the feeling of power replacing that of love and sympathy. Yet today, with companies and states so vast, there is no emotional connection between front-line staff and senior executives – the relationship is one of rules and procedures, or rational thought, and not human feeling.
So, an old metaphor that once had content is now moribund. Yet it still influences the debate, and our perceptions of political life. We want our world to be human! Full of warmth and emotion, and we believe our political life to be just that; but for all the rough debates and election tears, the real governors are the large multi-national institutions and the impersonal rules we live by….
The model of society is no longer the family, but the modern corporation; with its need for growth, its tight hierarchical structure, the departmental battles; and over all: the ingrained rules and habits of a stable bureaucracy. We’re no longer human, we’re bureaucrats. But how difficult to accept! and to think accordingly.