Reclaiming the Will of the People

Spring 2021 #33
written by
Peter Hallward with Jonny Gordon-Farleigh
illustration by
Ana Carvalho

Jonny Gordon-Farleigh: Your work deals with the history of agency, will, and self-determination, bringing together thinkers like Marx, Rousseau and Blanqui. How do these philosophers influence your current political project on the will of the people? 

Peter Hallward: This project starts from its two basic terms, ‘people’ and ‘will’. In one sense they’re as simple as can be, but it doesn’t take long to see that they are two of the most elusive and contested notions in the whole philosophical lexicon, and they prompt a whole slew of questions.

Who belongs to the people? What makes a people a people, a specific people, and how might any such group relate to the plain notion of people as such? Do we need to understand such a people as making up some kind of organic whole, one ordered in harmonious hierarchy, on the model of a kingdom or realm? This is a model that is still fundamental to Hegel’s influential conception of the state, and to many modern and contemporary understandings of the nation – and of course it’s also a model that’s easily aligned with various forms of racialised capitalism, of ethnic essentialism, of apartheid, and so on. 

Or should we, by contrast, think of this actor, ‘the people’, in any given situation, simply as the massing together of anyone and everyone who happens to inhabit that situation, insofar as they come to share some common interests or purposes, without any reference to the sorts of criteria that might serve to differentiate, class, or order them? This is the people as mass or masses (as a massing together, as a critical mass) rather than realm. Here we have the notion of people that’s common, I think, to all three of the thinkers you mention – to Rousseau most obviously, but also to Blanqui and then Marx via their conception of the proletariat as something like a gathering of generic humanity, a humanity without race or nation or religion, humanity without borders or hierarchy, an idea that remains central to contemporary post-Maoist philosophers like Badiou and Rancière.

And then what is the will? If it exists at all, what sort of faculty is it, what is it capable of, how does it act or operate? Is there a clear difference between willing and wanting, or wishing? What sort of freedom can a will lay claim to, and what is its scope? Despite the vast literature that considers the freedom of the will, and the degree to which this freedom might be negative or positive, or else compatible or incompatible with various kinds of causality and determination, most discussions (when they don’t simply dismiss it as an illusion) presume that the will is an essentially private and inward form of introspection, in which what remains ‘up to us’ and ‘within our power’ is primarily a matter of the attitude we might choose to adopt with respect to this or that impulse, motive, proposition, situation, and so on. The operation of the will itself, the act of willing, is regularly hollowed out to the point of indetermination pure and simple, in rather the way that Sartre, in his early work, embraces freedom as ‘unanalysable’ and primordial, i.e. as more fundamental than our capacity to will any sort of deliberate purpose or intention.

These individualising assumptions are remarkably widespread and serve a number of essential ideological functions (legitimising inequalities as the apparent result of hard work or personal integrity, blaming the victims of structural injustices, etc.), but they don’t stand up to a moment’s scrutiny. No one would ever approach a question like ‘free speech’, for instance, in the way we usually refer to ‘free will’. As soon as you consider speech, you need to address both the pragmatic dimension of its exercise (and so to consider what it means to ‘speak up’, to ‘find your own voice’, to ‘choose your words’, etc.) but also its social and political context, the legal background, the technologies of communication at play, etc., to say nothing of the immensely complex history of a language as a collective means of expression, let alone the evolution of that language faculty that allows human beings to formulate an endless set of new propositions. Like language itself, speech is obviously a social and relational activity, and as a general perspective I think it’s helpful to approach volition along comparable lines.

In other words the point of departure for this project concerns the relation between will and people, and what I hope to show is that the way they come to be connected (in a historical sequence punctuated by the great revolutions in France, Haiti and Russia, and through many other sequences too) helps on the one hand to clarify defensible versions of both these terms, and on the other, to address abiding questions regarding the nature, capacities, and limits of popular sovereignty. The only defensible notion of a people, in my opinion, is as the massing together of anyone and everyone in common pursuit of a collective or ‘general’ will, to use Rousseau’s famous phrase. Understood this way, a will can become more or less general, and more or less committed to the common interest rather than to particular or divisive interests. This idea then reverberates through Jacobin affirmations of a revolutionary volonté du peuple, and through the Marxian affirmation of proletarian resolve, of Bolshevik and then anti-colonial engagements in national self-determination, through the militant movements for women’s rights, for civil rights, and so on. By the same token, the most fruitful way of approaching the rather homely notion of the will (whose Germanic nuances both resonate and clash with the more rationalist connotations of the Roman voluntas and its derivatives) is as a relational faculty that is constitutively bound up with its material capacity, and thus with its scope or generality. A will is more or less free to do what it intends or chooses to the extent that it acquires, through the organisation and education and discipline of the people that participate in its elaboration, the capacity to clarify and assert itself. That’s the difference, even in our ordinary usage, between actively willing something and merely wanting or wishing it. A free will is best understood as an exercise in collective liberation, as an attempt to overcome the constraints that constrain or oppress us, and that’s why the old truisms are indeed true: where there’s a will there is indeed a way, so long as we remember that to will the end is to will the means.

To answer your question more directly then: Rousseau’s political writings help us to understand how a group of people might associate and combine in pursuit of common purposes and priorities, and help to characterise the kinds of political institutions, organisations and means of education that might promote a ‘virtuous’ commitment to such purposes, at the expense of the various class or particularist interests that always threaten to divide and undermine them. Marx illuminates the ways in which dominant classes, in different kinds of societies, first dispossess and then exploit the mass of their populations, by forcing them to undertake unremunerated labour. He pays particular attention, of course, to the way that capital, as consolidated ‘command over unpaid labour’, manages to compel the great majority of us to accept such exploitation as natural if not desirable, and to submit to it not only voluntarily but also to reproduce and reinforce this power of command through our very own efforts and activity. Marx is particularly good at showing how the overt chains of serfdom and chattel slavery were transmuted into the ‘invisible threads’ that tie workers or ‘wage-slaves’ to capital, and how the relentless violence that allows capital to gain its historic grip can eventually give way to the ‘dull compulsion’ that characterises its full hegemony. In doing so, Marx also helps clarify the tendencies that may also create opportunities for revolutionary change, and Blanqui – in this sense like rather than against Marx – helps clarify what needs to be done to seize such opportunities. Precisely because he is so consistently defeated, and at such high personal cost, Blanqui is well attuned to the fact that in any prolonged political struggle “it is Victory that carries glory or opprobrium, freedom or slavery, barbarism or civilisation, in a fold of its dress.”

All three of these dimensions come together, I think, in a whole series of unabashedly ‘voluntarist’ political projects launched over the course of the twentieth century, from Lenin’s call for mass sovereignty to Gramsci’s investigation of ‘collective wills’ to the kinds of national liberation championed by Fanon, Castro and Che Guevara, along with ongoing egalitarian campaigns, too numerous to mention, that are striving to put an end to exploitation, patriarchy, racism, imperialism and other entrenched forms of domination. 

These days it’s more the Tories, and the right in general, that bang on about ‘the will of the people’...

That’s true, and it’s a fairly recent phenomenon. In the years following the Brexit referendum you could hardly get through the day without a Tory politician reminding us of the need to respect this apparent expression of the will of the people. But it wasn’t so common, before Brexit and Johnson and the ongoing resurgence of authoritarian populisms in many parts of the world, for the good reason that though the Tories might now seek to hijack the slogan, its history and implications are in fact stubbornly revolutionary. This is perfectly clear when you look at how this idea of a will of the people actually came to prevail, for the first time, in the French and Haitian revolutions, i.e. through forceful confrontation with the will of the king and the established representatives of the nation, or against the will of the slave-owning plantocracy and the several armies at its command. The will of the people came to prevail through direct conflict with radically privileged groups that sought to justify their dominance through reference to the apparent imperatives of nature or the apparent will of God.

Properly understood, the basic normative idea of a popular will remains the simplest way I know of distilling what’s at stake in the consolidation of genuine democracy, or genuine mass sovereignty – a practice in which it’s precisely the great mass of the people who set out to make their world become more like the way they want it to be. ‘Properly understood’ means, on the side of the people: no criteria of hierarchy or exclusion, apart from the over-ruling of those who exclude themselves from the mass (by insisting on something like a superiority grounded in class or race). On the side of the will, it means the exercise of a capacity that acts and persists as genuinely voluntary, i.e. as a matter of freely adopted commitment, on the basis of informed approval, of collective education and deliberation, mass participation, permanent investigation, ongoing self-criticism, and so on. Later perversions of the idea, like the fascistic celebration of an authoritarian ‘triumph of the will’, obviously violate both sides of this coin. 

We also need to remember the world of difference that separates a mere ‘will of all’, as Rousseau named and dismissed it (and as our authoritarian populists applaud it), from an actively collective or general will. The former consists of an aggregation of individual choices or votes, made by relatively isolated and thus relatively powerless actors; the latter emerges through a more synthetic process of deliberation and participation, a process of progressive and majority-building empowerment, in the way that a well-organised trade union might come to an eventual resolution about taking industrial action, or the way that a grassroots political movement might come to adopt a given set of policies.

To the extent that there was any sort of mass or popular will at work in the votes for Brexit or Trump, I think it’s fair to see it as a more or less distorted expression of perfectly understandable opposition to neoliberal policies and their perfectly deliberate consequences. It’s a real failure of the left over recent years, to have allowed the populist right to harness so much of this opposition, and to embrace their rendering of a ‘will of the people’ as a mandate for preserving rather than overturning the fundamental priorities of the neoliberal project. They’ve managed to keep us all running in their race to the bottom, and they’ve even largely succeeded in framing this race as if it’s one that most people actually want to run, since everyone is supposed to know that there’s no practicable alternative.

What sort of scope really exists, then, for something like the exercise of a popular will, in our contemporary neoliberal situation?

Well as with anything to do with the will, that depends first and foremost on the people who are willing and able to act on it. This is clearly the essential question and I hope you’ll allow me a rather lengthy answer.

Of course it’s very difficult today to reclaim even the terminology of political will (let alone of collective or popular ‘will-power’ and so on), given the enormous resources invested in deflecting and diluting its emergence, for instance by mis-educating or mis-informing us, by distracting, atomising, dividing and otherwise dispersing us, etc. Established powers have always understood that their survival depends on preventing or at least dividing and dissolving mass capacities for concentration and collective action. (There’s a line I’m forever quoting, from Rousseau’s Social Contract, that summarises the central challenge of mass sovereignty, and so also anticipates the sorts of response that might counteract it: 'the people's force acts only when concentrated: it evaporates and is lost as it spreads, like the effect of gunpowder scattered on the ground and which ignites only grain by grain’). The assault on trade unions, the generalised dispersal or de-unification of labour, which has been such a fundamental part in the neoliberal consolidation of class power, is an obvious and important part of a much larger story of mass disempowerment. The idea that ‘there is no alternative’ remains very widely entrenched. That’s partly because the history and memory of actually existing alternatives has been systematically distorted, but it’s also because the neoliberals largely succeeded in doing what they set out to do – to establish a new common sense, a new sense of what appears natural and thus ‘inevitable’, as Milton Friedman put it. This sense of underlying necessity persists to this day, and I think it persists because again the neoliberals or libertarian conservatives largely succeeded in driving through what might best be described as a multi-dimensional social engineering project, to manipulate and manufacture a new kind of political will, a new and more penetrating form of voluntary servitude.

Wouldn’t the neoliberals say that it’s all about maximising freedom?

Neoliberals like Hayek and Friedman certainly championed deregulated markets as means of consolidating the wealth and freedoms of the capitalist class, but along with this they celebrated the coercive if not irresistible power of what are quite rightly named ‘market forces’ or ‘market imperatives’. The imposition of such imperatives across all sectors of society was one of the epochal achievements of that ‘great transformation’ which, as Polanyi saw with particular clarity, enabled the triumph of market mechanisms in the volatile period that runs roughly from the 1780s to the 1840s. Once fully consolidated, market forces seem to determine outcomes with the ineluctable necessity of a natural law, and they do this, critically, in the absence of any apparent protagonist or central decision-maker (who might then be held responsible for them). As Jessica Whyte shows in a compelling study, market consequences can seem to impose themselves on people as a kind of ‘fate’, as a destiny that we cannot alter or escape. All by themselves, so to speak, markets help to consolidate the sort of psychological reflexes required to accept such a fate, and to accept it as necessary and just. The old game of ‘blaming the victim’ has a very long history, but general acceptance of the market as arbiter of last resort make earlier distinctions of the ‘deserving’ from the ‘undeserving’ poor look like child’s play.

Thatcher’s succinct formulation, in a 1981 interview, is justly famous: 'economics are the method: the object is to change the soul.’ The conservatives of her generation understood very well that the sort of power they required, fully and durably to over-power organised labour and to counteract those threatening ‘excesses of democracy’ that had emerged through the various mass mobilisations of the 1960s and early 70s, had to be deployed as directly as possible upon people’s wants and desires – they had to operate on their very souls, so to speak. What was needed was the application of what one of these conservatives called, aptly enough, and in the spirit of his mentor Edmund Burke, ‘soulcraft’. And it’s not hard to see how such soulcraft can then be reinforced and complemented by suitable forms of ‘race-craft’, and class-craft, and nation-craft, and so on.

A big part of the reason why these various crafting operations have proved so successful, and why they remain so prevalent and far-reaching, is that they didn’t simply begin with Pinochet, Thatcher and Reagan, or even with their mentors Hayek and Von Mises. In one sense it’s the culmination of a process that began with the innovations of early modern political thinkers like Hobbes and Locke, who could see that preservation of a hierarchical social order, in the wake of the Reformation, and of the wars of religion, of the expansion of commerce and its public sphere, of the social tensions attendant upon the early phases of capital’s primitive accumulation, and so on, could no longer rely on merely feudal dynamics and traditional forms of deference. To consolidate truly commanding political power now required, one way or another, willing submission on the part of many if not most of those called to obey it.

Since Hobbes didn’t believe that power could get inside people’s heads, or operate directly upon what people might believe in their ‘heart of hearts’, his version of absolutism still relies largely on direct coercion or external force, in rather the way that bandits can persuade their victims ‘voluntarily’ to give up their money in exchange for their life. With Hobbes, a government can ‘shape the wills’ of those it commands so long as it can deploy all the force that might be required to compel assent. Compressing a long and complicated sequence, we might say that with Rousseau and then Hegel, and indeed ever since, such will-shaping power comes to assume more subtle and more invasive forms. Rousseau can see how (for both good and ill) ‘the most absolute authority is that which penetrates to man's inmost being, and affects his will no less than it does his actions’, while for Hegel a properly constituted state is one whose citizens are ‘disposed’ in such a way as to secure, as profoundly and thoroughly as possible, their voluntary, enthusiastic, and reasoned alignment with what it demands of them.

I think you can trace a relatively straight line from these state logics through those mechanisms of compulsion exposed by Marx, which I’ve already mentioned, through the various strategies for manufacturing consent and normalising behaviour that conditioned so much of the twentieth century, and that have absorbed so much of the attention of critical theorists, ranging across projects as different as those of Adorno, Beauvoir, Fanon, or Foucault. The most effective forms of such voluntary subjection would be those sustained by the energies of the very people subjected to them, with a minimum of resistance or critical distance.

But another and perhaps bigger part of the story behind the success of neoliberal soulcraft goes back much further than Hobbes and the subsequent emergence of laissez-faire liberalism. It concerns the whole history of our notion of the will. There’s no space even to sketch this out here, but I think it would be possible to show that part of what made the consolidation of market forces, and their corresponding politico-psychological reflexes, so successful and so far-reaching, over the course of the 19th century (and then persisting on in zombie mode to this day), is the way its apologists (Smith, Steuart, Ferguson, etc., and then especially Townsend, Bentham, Malthus, Ricardo...) echoed long-standing understandings of the abiding limits of volition itself. 

Going all the way back to the Stoics, and then moving forward to Augustine and the early Christians, through the Scholastics to the Protestant reformers, to rationalists like Descartes and Malebranche, through to Thomas Reid and Emmanuel Kant, and culminating with the myriad advocates of ‘personal responsibility’ and liberal laissez-faire, what you mostly find across this long conceptual history of the will are variations on something like a general pattern. One account of volition after another attributes to the will a degree of irreducible freedom or autonomy, but one that it is limited to a primarily (or entirely) personal and introspective domain. A stoic sage might carve out a kind of autonomy within their ‘inner citadel’, so to speak, but part of the price paid for this enjoyment is an acceptance of political impotence. Paul and Augustine will recommend comparable forms of resignation to the powers that be, and above all they will urge comparable submission to the Christian equivalent of fate, in the form of human dependence on God’s inscrutable grace. As the course of Augustine’s writing makes progressively clear, the only way to square freedom of a finite human will with divine omnipotence is to accept that we are only free to the extent that we align ourselves with what prescribed necessity dictates: we are only free to rebel against God to the extent that such rebellion (according to a logic neatly summarised by Adam Kotsko in his book Neoliberalism’s Demons) immediately condemns the rebel to abject and eternal powerlessness. 

The pattern recurs through to Kant, who offers perhaps the most ringing affirmation of the absolute freedom of the will, understood as the exercise of practical reason (or as free submission to the moral laws that such reason prescribes), while at the same time and for the same reason rendering utterly opaque and indeterminate its material effects on the world we live in. There is no contradiction between the moralising Kant who celebrates freedom’s “power to pass beyond any and every specified limit” and the neo-Stoic Kant who insists that “it is the people's duty to endure even the most intolerable abuse of supreme authority”; faced with even the most obnoxious of decrees, “on the part of the people there is nothing to be done about it but to obey.”

All through this tradition, finally, and in spite of the many differences that otherwise distinguish them, what most of these theorists of volition discover, or rediscover, is that the most effective way of inducing people to behave and to defer in a certain way is to secure what passes for their voluntary consent. As the liberal apologies of the new market order never tired of pointing out, old-fashioned slavery relied on crude and overt coercion, and so was forever haunted by the risk of equally overt rebellion; a market in ‘free labour’, by contrast, can rely on the imperatives of survival to ensure both outward and inward compliance, and a more ‘versatile’ and wholehearted compliance at that. If back in the days of antiquity working people were ‘forced to labour, because they were slaves to others,’ as James Steuart put it in 1770, “men are now forced to labour because they are slaves of their own wants.” The more wants we own, the more keenly we feel them, the harder and longer we can be trusted to work. 

Writing about poverty and subsistence a few years after Steuart and a few years before Malthus, in a text that plays a pivotal role in Polanyi’s history of market society, Joseph Townsend notes with satisfaction how the prospect of “hunger will tame the fiercest animals, it will teach decency and civility, obedience and subjection, to the most perverse.” In the end “it is only hunger which can spur and goad [the poor] on to labour”, but happily hunger is thoroughly adequate to the task. By comparison, overt “legal constraint is attended with much trouble, violence and noise; creates ill will, and never can be productive of good and acceptable service: whereas hunger is not only peaceable, silent, unremitting pressure, but, as the most natural motive to industry and labour, it calls forth the most powerful exertions.” This is why a passably nourished “slave must be compelled to work but the free man should be left to his own judgment, and discretion”, and only “punished when he invades his neighbour’s property”. On that condition, nature can be left to run its pitiless but profitable course.

Canonical accounts of the will, in short, happily grant it a degree of inward freedom – on condition that it remain inward. In this rendering, the will can lay claim to any amount of moral freedom, so long as it also accepts – voluntarily, of course! – absolute political impotence. The neoliberals’ investment in their free markets, in short, and in our voluntary submission to their ‘spontaneous order’, is nourished by very deep and ancient roots.

The political consequences have been nothing short of catastrophic, of course, and future projections defy exaggeration. What’s certain is that we face forms of injustice and devastation that can’t remotely be addressed within the current neoliberal and ‘de-voluntarised’ order of things. Harrowing levels of inequality and exploitation, the marketisation and commodification of all aspects of social life, the generalisation of intolerable levels of precarity and stress, the persecution of migrants, the destruction of our climate and environment, and so on and so on – all these things persist and grow like a political cancer, now purged even of the kinds of cynical justification (present pain for future gain) that a previous generation could still invoke. If capitalism, as Chomsky reminds, is ‘a suicide pact’, we also need to remember, after Benjamin, that even a suicidal and bi-polar capitalism will never die a natural death. Marx told us what to expect – ‘accumulation of wealth at one pole is at the same time accumulation of misery, the torment of labour, slavery, ignorance, brutalisation and moral degradation at the opposite pole' – but he was too quick to trust that such accumulation might one day interrupt and negate itself “with the inexorability of a natural process”.

Kant was right about one thing, at least: it’s never helpful to confuse natural and voluntary forms of causality. Only collective determination and collective action – deliberate, conscious, purposeful action, on a truly massive scale – stand any chance of confronting the problems that overwhelm our age. Past experience offers plenty of inspiration, and plenty of perspective, but it’s more urgent than ever to reclaim that most fundamental and far-reaching (and thus too that most consistently derided, dismissed or dispersed) of all democratic capacities or powers: our collective will-power.

Peter Hallward teaches at the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy at Kingston University London (UK), and is the author of books on the French philosophers Alain Badiou and Gilles Deleuze, on postcolonial literature, and on contemporary Haitian politics. He is currently working on a book entitled The Will of the People (forthcoming from Verso), alongside shorter studies of Rousseau, Blanqui and Marx.

Spring 2021 #33

Suggested reading

Swinging for the Fences

Jay Standish
Issue 46, Summer 2024

Make your membership vote count at Nationwide’s AGM in July

Mikael Armstrong
Issue 46, Summer 2024

Interview: The Rise of the Asset Manager Society

Brett Christophers with Jonny Gordon-Farleigh
Spring 2024 #45

Money for good: the rise of ethical finance

Jonny Gordon-Farleigh & Grace Crabtree
Spring 2024 #45
By clicking “Accept All Cookies”, you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance site navigation, analyze site usage, and assist in our marketing efforts. View our Privacy Policy for more information.