What Is Political Will?


Samuel Grove [SG]: For a while now you’ve been working on and defending the old idea of ‘the will of the people’, and you’ve described it in terms of a ‘dialectical voluntarism’; what do you mean by this?

Peter Hallward [PH]: I’m not stuck on the terminology, and I’m leery of the way these sorts of labels can be slapped onto a way of thinking or line of inquiry.  Some sort of label is unavoidable though, and any defence of voluntarism has to begin with its account of the will: an account of political will should, I think, allow us to consider political action in terms that privilege the role of free, voluntary and egalitarian self-determination, both as a form of political practice and as a critical norm for assessing the exercise of such practice.  The goal is to recognise the importance of deliberate and purposeful action, on both sides of the fundamental class antagonism that divides society, rather than to dismiss it as in some sense secondary or derivative, as the effect of more profound structural or determining forces.  It’s obvious that many of the economic, military and political initiatives that fall under the broad labels of neo-liberalism and neo-imperialism were and are perfectly deliberate projects, undertaken by specific actors for specific purposes — look for instance at the way the current UK government has seized the opportunity of the 2008 financial crisis, not to ensure that the sector responsible for the disaster paid for its consequences, but on the contrary in order to accelerate precisely the sort of measures that make further crises, and further class polarisation, more likely: the aggressive marketisation and privatisation of all sectors of society, from schools and universities to prisons and the provision of legal services or health care.  To downplay the degree to which such measures are acts of blatant and carefully pondered class warfare is to obscure both their purpose and their effect.

But especially where emancipatory politics are concerned, where it’s a matter of moving from involuntary submission and coercion to situations of relative freedom, I think it’s essential to put the practice of political will in its proper strategic place — not as an omnipotent or absolute force, of course, but as central to any organised, egalitarian attempt at collective self-liberation.  We should pay more attention to all the things we need to do in order to become a purposeful, informed, conscious, political actors, and also to all the obstacles that stand in our way, all the tendencies, institutions and measures that divide, deceive, distract and otherwise disempower us.

SG: When you refer to ‘the will’ you are referring to a philosophical term with its own peculiar history?

PH: Yes.  The will is an unusually controversial term in the history of philosophy, and there are many different ways of approaching it.  Of all the canonical terms in philosophy I think the will is probably the most elusive, and the term around which there is the least consensus.  (The political notion of the ‘people’ is almost as contested, and for some related reasons — and that’s why it’s so important to think the two together, since in a political context I think the one can only be defended through its relation with the other, as with the recurring evocation, as crucial to the great French Revolution as to the recent revolutions in north Africa or the Bolivarian mobilisations in Latin America, of a ‘will of the people’.)  What Kant and then Schopenhauer mean by ‘the will’ are very different things, for instance, and the terrain changes again when you move on to Nietzsche or Heidegger, or for that matter to Fanon or Badiou.

SG: Why do you refer to it as a ‘dialectical’ will?

PH: For several reasons.  The will is dialectical in the basic sense that it’s dynamic, it’s a process that is in constant change, and in particular it’s a process that changes through forms of tension or antagonism.  It’s dialectical in the sense that the will tries to negate specific or determinate obstacles to its realisation, and it’s also dialectical in the sense that became common with and after Engels: over time, the exercise of will also tends to negate or contradict itself, and so to flip over from voluntary to involuntary, becoming rigidly dogmatic, mechanical, or routine.

But the key point here is to relate the will to its realization or actualization, to the process that negates or overcomes it as ‘mere will’ or mere ‘want’ (the French terms volonté and vouloir helpfully translate both of these English verbs).  I think that this is what distinguishes the will, as concept and practice, from mere notions of whim or wish.  As critics of voluntarism often point out, if the will is dissociated from the concrete process of its actualisation then it can be dismissed as abstract or impotent, as an exercise in utopian wishful thinking.  As far as I’m concerned, though, what is distinctive about the will, i.e. about the practice of willing, is precisely its constitutive relation to actualisation: a dialectical will actualises itself by negating the obstacles that confront it.  A will isn’t reducible to its realisation, but the latter is an essential aspect of its formulation — even if, in the end, the realisation itself is incomplete, partially thwarted, etc.  To participate in the formulation of a political will is to participate in the process that posits a goal or end, and in willing that end, as the phrase goes, we also will the means required to achieve it.

SG: It is a voluntarism that doesn’t just ‘will’ itself into being, but rationalises itself as well?

PH: There are two questions here, one about being, one about reason.  I think the ‘being’ of the will is a banal material or natural question, not a metaphysical one: human beings evolved to become the sort of animals who have a capacity to will, as they have a capacity to speak, think, etc., and I take this capacity to be a universal or anthropological given.  The will doesn’t need to will itself into being, no more than does our capacity to speak; willing is something that human beings can do, when the opportunities for doing it arise, and I assume the most basic i.e. biological conditions that enable such practice were determined over the course of our evolutionary history, just as the social, economic, technological, and organisational conditions have been determined through our socio-economic history.  There’s no need to evoke, à la Malebranche or Kant, some sort of noumenal domain outside the state of nature or the course of our history.

Of course, the mere capacity to will says very little about what this capacity is actually capable of, in a particular context, with specific means and in the face of specific obstacles; like our capacity to speak or communicate, the actual exercise of our capacity to will is socio-political and historical through and through.  Still, what’s fundamental is the connection between will and capacity.  I take this to be the core of Rousseau’s argument, when he claims that ‘there is no true action without will’, recognising that free people only do what they will — and vice versa, that they only will what they can do.1  I think we can read Marx as trying to make a similar sort of point, albeit with a far more developed understanding of the obstacles that actually confront what we might will or do (and as I’ll try to show in a little book on Marx and Political Will, I think it’s important to remember that apparently ‘objective’ or ‘determinist’ categories in his work, e.g. the category of property, or the forces of production, are themselves grounded in human actions and capacities, and ultimately in human purposes — and I think we can show that for Marx the power of emancipatory purpose, so to speak, is itself more powerful than any fetters that might be placed on it, over the course of historical development).  And Gramsci, I think, evokes Rousseau as much as Marx when he puts his ‘faith [in] man, and man’s will and his capacity for action,’2 defining ‘man’ as ‘concrete will, that is, the effective application of the abstract will or vital impulse to the concrete means which realise such a will.’3

As for reason, again this depends on who you read and how you define the term, but following Kant and Hegel (who themselves follow Rousseau) I think it only makes sense to define the will as voluntary and autonomous self-determination if we understand this process as rational, as a kind of exercise in practical reasoning.  There are other kinds of reasoning, of course, but willing is reasoning in practice, as it confronts the constraints of its situation, over the course of a learning and deliberating process, etc.  This is why someone like Sartre is uncomfortable with the notion of will, and dismisses it in his early work as secondary in relation to a more fundamental and properly ‘unanalysable’ (if not extra-rational) freedom; a similarly problematic emphasis returns in Derrida’s conception of a decision as conditioned by the unconditional imperative to be open to the undecidable, to what comes or is to come, insofar as this is forever unpredictable and singular, and thus again effectively in excess of any possible judgement or criterion.  There’s even an element of this in Badiou’s notion of an event, which he sometimes associates with the experience of ‘grace’.  In each case what we’ve got is a decision-making process that’s subtracted to some extent from critical deliberation or reflection, and distanced from a strategic assessment of a situation, its possibilities, obstacles, etc.  An emphasis on the primacy of the undecidable, and on the ‘leap’ of decision per se, tends to invest political and moral action with an abrupt and abstract if not quasi-miraculous character.

I’d rather settle for the less exalted notion of rational self determination.  An action is only voluntary if it is thought through, if it results from informed deliberation — but again (and this is where I follow Rousseau or Gramsci more than Kant) it is only a matter of will if it’s a matter of actual and determinant capacity, i.e. the formulation of a project undertaken in our material world, shaped by its historical constraints, etc., and not a matter of pure intention or noumenal causality.

SG: This dialectical voluntarism distinguishes itself from political or philosophical interpretations that dissolve the political actor in either structural determinist arguments or accounts of human freedom that are either necessary or inevitable.  In recent years this is associated particularly with political ‘catastrophism’ and philosophical ‘vitalism’ respectively.

PH: Both associations lead to dead ends.  Catastrophism is a kind of inverted utopianism.  The idea that things will get so bad that people will be forced to create a new form of society says nothing about the sort of innovation involved.  Accounts of communism as the effectively ‘inevitable’ result of capitalism’s imminent self-destruction (for instance as anticipated by Théorie Communiste) underestimate the resilience of capitalism as a system, its capacity to divide and rule its opponents, to buy off a few members of the exploited class, to maintain a labour aristocracy or to ‘widen inclusion’ into the ranks of a precarious petty bourgeoisie — while simultaneously containing or quarantining the most severely exploited sectors of society, or confining such exploitation in suitably policed sectors of the global economy.  However rickety its current financial superstructure, it’s a fantasy to think that the system will self-destruct any time soon.

What’s more likely, over the short term, is that neoliberal austerity and polarisation will continue until they finally corrode the political ‘consensus’ underlying them, the presumption that ‘there is no alternative’, no really practicable alternative under the constraints of global competition, the threat of capital flight, etc.  The rich will continue to get richer at the expense of everyone else, and the politico-economic system that they control will continue to force most people to work harder and harder for less and less, just as Marx predicted.  As the old protections erected by the post-war generation are further eroded, and more and more of the public sector is absorbed into the for-profit sector, so then the basic class antagonism that structures capitalist society will reassert itself more and more overtly: we’ll return then to a situation in which political programmes are more explicitly defended in class terms, e.g. in terms of a ‘national interest’ that benefits the privileged few, or in the egalitarian terms that might benefit the great majority of the people.  As everyone knows, this process has already been running for many years.  Whatever happens, though, it’s hard to imagine any sort of transition to a post-capitalist society without eventually having to find a way to overcome what Marx called ‘a slave-owners’ rebellion’: if corporate or financial interests are ever seriously threatened by the reassertion of popular political power you can be sure that they will fight tooth and nail to defend their interests and their privileges.  If we don’t understand what we’re up against and aren’t prepared to take the steps needed to win then we’d do better to give up in advance.

Life is already close to intolerable for millions of people in many parts of the world, and is now starting to become more uncomfortable in places that used to be insulated by the legacies of imperialism and the uneven distribution of geopolitical power.  In many places, protests against neoliberal austerity have been forceful and inventive, but on balance, with the partial exception of Latin America, so far it’s been pretty easily contained, or deflected, and it’s been clear for many years that if things get out of hand then more forceful means of containment are already close at hand.  Fascism has already been partially remobilised across many parts of Europe, especially in Greece, and it may not take many more turns of the screw before it pushes further into the mainstream.

In any case, even if some future catastrophe triggers a crisis that is too much for actually-existing capitalism to cope with, I don’t see how we might anticipate the process of transition without a notion of political will.  The idea that an end to capitalism automatically means an end to domination or oppression in general is fanciful, and so is the notion that some day the state might simply ‘wither away’; I think Rousseau was right to say instead that the problem of the state is irreducible, so long as a group of people is sufficiently large and complex enough to need some sort of executive agency to carry out their will on their collective behalf.  The goal shouldn’t be to eliminate the state, but to reduce and subordinate it to a commanding popular will; government should be servant of the true sovereign, it should obey the people and not the reverse.  Here those aspects of Marx that appear to encourage a form of historical determinism, or that predict progressive political developments as a result of economic tendencies operating ‘with the inexorability of a law of Nature’4, need to be qualified through reference to more voluntarist accounts of political action, for instance those of Blanqui or Lenin.  Blanqui in particular is a much neglected figure, and this neglect is perhaps itself a symptom of our more general reluctance to think about politics in terms of power, strategy, action, and so on.  (The point isn’t to put Blanqui over Marx, however, but to read them together, along with Rousseau, and Gramsci, etc.; the point is that no one thinker has an adequate account of political will.)

SG: And vitalism?

PH: The vitalist politics you find in Deleuze or Negri, for instance, or that some people are trying to develop after Bergson or Whitehead, strikes me as another distracting impasse.  Here the choice between voluntarism and anti-voluntarism is especially stark.  If you affirm some sort of fundamental, living force, some sort of creative ontological principle that in itself has the potential to overcome any merely ‘reactive’ obstacle, then to my mind you avoid the whole problem of politics.  Ontological affirmation takes over from political prescription.  Affirmation of a vital and more or less unconscious force allows you to avoid or deride any reference to the will, to conscious and purposeful volition.  I take the recent investment in categories of the unconscious, of intensity, vitality, force, creativity, difference, etc., along with some valorisations of art and aesthetics, as a symptom of our contemporary political impotence.  Despite the ‘energising’ thematics, as far as political action goes I think it’s a sterile and counterproductive response.

SG: What is the relation between the will of the individual and the will of the collective?

PH: Deleuze liked to quote Spinoza’s suggestion that we don’t yet know what our bodies can do, until we do it.  The same principle applies, and more importantly, to the will; we can only will what we can do, as Rousseau insists, but we also don’t know what we can do before we begin to will it.  We don’t know what a will can do before we enter into an actual process of willing.  This is a very concrete question.  What sort of capacity does a will require?  What sort of actor, what sort of relations with other actors?  What sort of powers, techniques, means, etc.?

If you take the question of the actor, which is clearly central to any account of the will, then there’s an obvious difference between forms of capacity that fall within the power of a single individual, and forms that presuppose active forms of association with other individuals (e.g. the sorts of collective encouragement or solidarity that help someone pursue an interest, acquire a skill, overcome an addiction, etc.), and then forms that require a properly collective actor, an organisation made up of many willing individuals.  Only an individual can will, but I take for granted the commonplace idea that human individuals are social beings; every exercise of will is a matter of social and relational practice, and there’s clearly a world of difference between what individuals can do on their own and what an organised group of individuals can do.  Because will is a matter of capacity, political questions can’t be addressed in terms of liberal individualism.  They involve a change of scale and require a collective capacity.  This is what Rousseau and then his Jacobin followers like Marat, Robespierre and Saint-Just have in mind, when they talk about the need to invent new forms of assembly and association that enable people to combine their power so as to formulate and pursue their shared interests.

SG: Rousseau also makes the will a universal category.

PH: Well, he makes it a ‘general’ category, a practice that can become more or less general, depending on how it is willed.  A general category is one that applies to all the particulars who participate in it, who compose it; it’s not immediately universal, in the sense that it may begin and develop in a situation that has clear limits in time and space (e.g. late 18th-century France, or newly independent Haiti, or post-war Russia), and it may exclude certain particular individuals (precisely those who insist on their particular privileges, at others’ expense, and who thus effectively ‘exile’ themselves from the collective).  But a political will in this sense can certainly be generalised, i.e. extended in line with the scope of its capacity.  A group of workers may create a trade union to organise their common or general will as workers, for instance, in pursuit of better working conditions; and such a will can become more general, and more capable, insofar as it’s able to combine with other unions, across sectors, across regional or national boundaries, until it might move towards ‘one big union’, which alone would have the sort of capacity required to transform and overcome the relation of exploitation itself.  Rousseau’s voluntarism is often dismissed because he tends to illustrate it through anachronistic examples, for instance the small homogeneous city states of ancient Greece (although he also mentions, more interestingly, the far-flung Jewish diaspora) — but there’s no necessary reason why the general will upheld by a union or political party can’t expand to become more and more general, and ultimately to become fully universal or inclusive.  All that separates the one from the other is the massive and concrete labour of generalisation itself.  And there’s no shortcut here, no way around engaging in the effort that generalisation requires.

Again, I see Marx building on Rousseau here, when he develops the notion of the proletariat and, as a transitional measure, the exercise of a proletarian ‘dictatorship’ — in effect a reworking of the exercise of a general will.  The same goes for Lenin or Gramsci.  What’s at stake is not the fate of a particular class of people, defined by their occupation or social position, but rather of that class that positions as the ‘leading edge’ of the people as a whole, the ‘resolute’, determined class of political actors that generalises the truly inclusive or popular interest, and in the process dissolves itself as a class, along with class distinctions altogether.

SG: You emphasise the emancipatory dimension of ‘the will’.  Thinkers such as Stuart Hall and Alain Badiou have been inclined to dissolve the question of emancipation to the question of equality.  However you persist with emancipation?

PH: Yes, but this is a false choice: genuine freedom and equality aren’t mutually exclusive, on the contrary they imply each other.  For me, the best way to define equality is in terms of collective and egalitarian self-emancipation.  Equality provides a norm by which we can assess the degree to which anyone and everyone can become as autonomous or freely self-determining as possible, precisely by participating in and contributing to the collective capacity that can alone make this actually possible.  The goal isn’t to design some sort of blueprint for other people, and for future generations, that might ensure an ‘egalitarian distribution of good’; I think the goal should be to acquire the greatest degree of conscious control over the direction of our lives — and to acquire this, of course, in the same way as everyone else, in ways that are compatible with the self-determination of every member of the situation, and that respect the freedom of future generations, of course.  This is how we might build what Marx calls, after Kant, the ‘reign of freedom’ — the material, political actualisation of what in Kant remains the merely regulative idea of a ‘kingdom of ends.’5

SG: Dialectical voluntarism is not just a question for philosophers.  What is at stake here beyond the academy?

PH: Gaining conscious control over the direction of our lives is a very concrete process!  And never more so than for everyone forced to submit to our capitalist situation, which is to say, everyone.  The key to any analysis of capitalism is to understand the way its forms of coercion and command — don’t forget that the simplest and clearest definition of capital is ‘the command of unpaid labour’6 — assume apparently free or ‘voluntary’ forms.  The basic tendency is now obvious to almost everyone: although we are more productive and efficient than ever before, instead of working less and enjoying more, most people are instead obliged to work harder and longer for less and less, and ‘to freely choose’ if not ‘to freely want’ to work in this way.  Although we have never been more capable of cooperation and solidarity, the logic of global competition seems to lock us into a disastrous race to the bottom, a race that everyone must lose apart from the few who set the rules and scoop the prizes.  What is distinctive about this situation is that these forms of disempowerment and submission are not even presented as coercive, but figure as if they were neutral or natural, as if we have no choice but to adapt ourselves ‘willingly’ to the way of the world.

But the world that constrains us is still a world of our making, and if we are prepared to do what it takes we can remake it.  We need to make a world that obeys rather than thwarts or deflects the will of the people.  The process of popular disempowerment and ‘devoluntarisation’, so to speak, has been going on for so long, and so intensively, that it will take an immense effort to turn this around.  Still, though it may sound trite, there is nothing inevitable about the outcome, which depends on us and on what we are prepared to do.  Today in the UK there are certainly some signs of a resurgence of a popular political capacity, visible in the revulsion many feel for the ongoing marketisation and privatisation of our society, in the contempt many feel for the ‘professional’ politicians and parties (all variants of one and the same marketising agenda), in the calls for a return to higher taxes on corporations and on the rich and their wealth (we should remember the levels that we set in the post-year years, in both the UK and the US!), in concerns about the overt reassertion of class differences across every level of education, in calls to renationalise energy, transport and other sectors of the economy, etc. — but for the time being these are still often presented as apparently impractical or utopian.  So far no adequate political organisation has managed to lend adequate edge or shape to these kinds of demands, so for now they pose little threat to the status quo.

SG: There has been a rise of protest outside the traditional organisations of political redress.  Occupy for example?

PH: Occupy held its ground for longer than most people expected and it certainly accomplished a good deal.  For a lot of people it marked a real threshold, and it will be a long time before we can judge the full range of its consequences.  It dramatised the impact of neoliberalism in a way that no-one had managed to do before, within the rich countries, and its slogans immediately helped to repolarise the terms of political debate.  At the time, I thought that if it could manage to evolve out of its initially static and symbolic form, and become something that posed more of a concrete challenge to the forms of power and inequality it condemned (e.g. by expanding into forms of boycott, blockade and industrial action), then it had a real opportunity to shift the balance of power.  But it didn’t manage to do this, and so its exhaustion was inevitable; it’s impossible to sustain that sort of occupation indefinitely.  At the time, some of the people involved almost seemed to pride themselves on avoiding ‘normal’ questions of political power, and the insistence on consensus decision making raises more problems than it solves.  These self-imposed limitations made it fairly easy to contain.  The idea that new social forms might simply emerge through contagion or imitation, by following the immediate example set by the Occupy camps, was and remains wishful thinking — another good example of the difference between general will and general wish.

SG: It was limited by not having a programme?

PH: Occupy had a kind of programme, but its spokespeople tended to vacillate on this point.  They talked about the need to abolish debt, the need to limit corporate power, to protect the environment, to go after the tax havens of the 1%, etc., and generally to rebalance the economy in favour of ordinary people.  Those were demands of a sort, and perfectly reasonable ones — but they were formulated in ways that often tried to deny their status as demands.  Many people in Occupy argued that to make any kind of demand was itself to remain imprisoned within the established system, but I think this argument is self-defeating, and divisive.  It’s a good way of isolating the most uncompromising members of a mobilisation.  Again it’s a matter of capacity: if you refuse to engage in a process that allows you to formulate specific goals, ends or demands, and to develop the means required to achieve them, then you condemn yourself to impotence.  I think the approach recently adopted by the Québec student movement, to press a very clear and simple demand (no to a fee increase, and yes to free universal education), was more productive, and a better model for future action.

SG: You have written that we shouldn’t get too preoccupied with capitalism per se.  What did you mean by that?

PH: I meant that the critique of capitalist exploitation should be secondary in relation to the affirmation of our political capacity.  After all, why does Marx criticise capitalism?  He admires its efficiency, its ability to innovate, to overcome barriers to production and circulation, to create a truly global, integrated and in some ways a truly cooperative economic system, etc.  What he attacks, above all, is the way it commands people to work for others, to reduce their labour to a means that others can use or employ, a means that can be increasingly impoverished, mechanised, brutalised, and so on.  He condemns the way it manipulates people into becoming the ‘willing’ partners in their own dispossession and disempowerment, and he condemns its anarchic stupidity, its wanton disregard for human dignity, its contempt for welfare, for the natural world, etc.  The critique of capitalism, in other words, presupposes and prepares the way for an affirmation of human capacities, and in particular our capacity to set our own ends, to engage in forms of free association, to devise common purposes — in short, to sustain a sort of common will.  Here again, though he doesn’t acknowledge it, Marx is broadly consistent with Rousseau.

On this point I agree with Alain Badiou.  We should start with what is positive, with the idea of communism before the critique of capitalism; both are necessary, but the former should have priority.  I see the struggle to overcome capitalism as an essential part of emancipatory politics, but it can’t be its sole purpose or element.  Capitalism poses the most serious obstacles to the exercise of our political will, and that’s why it deserves to remain the main target of our critique.

Again, it’s about affirming a capacity, before we start diagnosing and condemning our many inherited or acquired incapacities.  It’s a matter of endless or ‘infinite’ affirmation, if you like, because to affirm a capacity is not the same sort of thing as the affirmation of an absolute.  We don’t yet know what we are capable of but we can be sure that there will always be new obstacles to overcome, if only through the dialectical movement of the will itself, as it grows rigid or stale — like Rousseau, or Mao, I don’t see how we could escape this, or why we should want to.  We will never be able to move into some post-historical domain in which our political problems might be solved by involuntary means.  On the contrary, if we make any sort of progress then our politics will become more and more a matter of volition, and thus more and more a matter of genuine debate and decision.  In this sense, the exercise of political will figures as a quasi-transcendental condition of politics in general.

SG: So we are talking about a ‘revolutionary will’?

PH: A will is transformative, by definition.  The kind of transformation depends on the situation, on the actor and on its capacity, and the first question should always be: is there or isn’t there a will to engage with and transform a situation?  Can such a will emerge, become organised, informed, determined, etc.?

If we can only will what we can do, then of course there are many situations in which to call for revolution is simply to indulge in wishful thinking — and for many of us living in Europe or North America, this has been the case for as long as most people can remember.  But it would be a serious mistake, of course, to generalise from a recent period of relatively stable capitalist hegemony.  Some older patterns haven’t changed.  I think it’s clear that piecemeal reforms can serve only to stabilise the prevailing order of things, or at best tweak the prevailing rules of distribution and redistribution; the only way to overcome a system as overpowering and ruthless as capitalism (or in the past, as colonialism, or slavery) is through concerted systematic change, i.e. revolutionary change.  And that requires the constitution of a collective political capacity, or actor, capable of forcing through such change.  It’s one thing to dream that another world is possible; it’s another thing to organise a practicable political project, one that has a chance of winning the battles that confront it.  That’s the whole issue — how to get to that point.

It’s already a start, I think, to frame things in terms of power and powerlessness, in terms of winning or losing.  (Here again Blanqui has a lot to teach us.)  It should go without saying, in relation to any political struggle, that if we avoid the question of what it might take to win then we have already lost.  Anyone who has had to participate in half-hearted forms of industrial action will know what I mean. . .  Presumably as a result of our cumulative experience of defeat after defeat, for many years now, it seems to me there is a real aversion to framing these issues in the stark terms of winning and losing — it’s another ‘crude’ binary, and we have become so averse to binaries.  You see it in our hesitant trade unions, and in the lack of any concerted effort, so far, to build a leftwing party worthy of the name.

I remember an article by Edward Said, about the Palestinian situation, in which he summed up the basic problem: ‘the problem is Arab powerlessness’, he concluded, after a review of the basic asymmetry of forces.7  I think that’s right, about Palestine and a good many other supposedly ‘intractable’ or impossibly ‘complex’ problems.  The challenge we face isn’t one of navigating through a complex territory or history, but of finding ways of overpowering the forces that oppress our territories, and who write our political history as the history of our defeats.


SG: Elsewhere you have identified a ‘revolutionary will’ with the modern era.  The modern era is often associated with utopianism; a time when many people engaged in political action in order to eradicate inequality, abolish power relations, to bring an end to History. . .  If this was an impossible dream it was nonetheless a mobilising one.  In terms of the kinds of sacrifice a revolutionary movement requires (facing down gunfire, execution, torture and so on) the belief in something larger than oneself, something transcendent, something final, would appear to be something very useful and inspiring.  I wonder how far our contemporary or ‘postmodern‘ perception that these dreams aren’t possible overlaps with a corollary unwillingness to make the same degree of sacrifice?

PH: Revolutionary political will is a modern phenomenon because some of the basic conditions you need to build such a capacity, e.g. the sort popular power capable of sustaining the French Revolution, or the Haitian Revolution, or the Russian Revolution (which for me are all good examples of political will), are things that took shape over the course of modern history, the period of the ‘originary accumulation’ of capitalist property and of ensuing industrialisation.  You need urbanisation, or at least intensive forms of production, like the Caribbean plantations; you need forms of mass association and assembly, forms of mass communication, a certain degree of literacy or other means of informing and deliberating with others, and so on, and thus the means for effective popular organisation.  The oppressing classes are already well organised, by definition; they couldn’t retain their position, otherwise, and today they are more effectively organised, at both national and international levels, than ever before.  If they are to escape their own position, the oppressed need to organise a power capable of over-powering their oppressors.  Think of all the things that in the late eighteenth century would enable the people of Paris, the people who soon became known as the sans-culottes, to gain the political initiative, for a time: they managed to create debating associations and clubs, to organise themselves in their municipal ‘sections’, to arm themselves in local militias, to combine themselves in a collective ‘commune’, etc. — these are things that couldn’t have happened in the Middle Ages, or in the countryside.  There are good reasons why Paris was indeed, for a time, and as Blanqui never tires of pointing out, the political capital of the nineteenth century.  Feudal social relations and locally-oriented agricultural production discouraged concerted political action: there was a capacity for rebellion, illustrated for instance by the Peasants’ Revolt in Germany and sporadic peasant revolts elsewhere in Europe, and there was some limited recognition of the importance of popular consent in parts of Italy, but I don’t think we can speak of political will in what’s become its common democratic sense before the revolutions of the eighteenth-century (with the partial exception of England’s revolution, in the 1640s).

SG: If the French Revolution showed us what a will of the people could achieve in the modern era, the terror that followed also alerted us to some of the dangers associated with it.

PH: The French Revolution marks a watershed in this history, clearly, and it remains a truly remarkable example of the power, and also of the limits, of resolute political will.  Since most versions of this history are so firmly biased against its ‘extremist’ or ‘terroristic’ phase, we usually tend to think of it as a glorious dawn that was later plunged into a murderous night.  It started well, the usual story goes, before it was hijacked by those Jacobin admirers of Rousseau who believed that the general will could never err.  This illustrates the way history is told by the victors.  In fact, the people who dominated government during the first years of the Revolution devoted those years to limiting its effects.  Soon after mass intimidation successfully pressured the king and the ruling clique into making some dramatic concessions in the summer of 1789, the governing class began to rally, and quickly felt strong enough to stall the process of reform and to stabilise the situation, introducing martial law, restricting the political and military influence of the poor majority of citizens, preserving the ‘exceptional’ status of their slave colonies, etc.  The first two years of the French Revolution were largely dominated by effectively counter-revolutionary forces, who worked more or less closely with the king and the aristocracy to limit the damage to their position.

As this becomes more and more clear, and as the treachery of the king becomes too flagrant to ignore, so then the situation begins to polarise, and the people of Paris and other major cities start taking the steps necessary to re-orient the situation, culminating in the insurrections of 10 August 1792 and then again of late May 1793.  They realised that in order to follow through on the promise of 1789, they had to break the monarchy, and also the aristocracy, once and for all — and they succeeded to some extent, though the effort required a degree of ruthless determination that itself became divisive and problematic in its turn (in a characteristically ‘dialectical’ twist of the will).  Robespierre realised over the course of 1793 that ‘to defeat the bourgeois we must rally the people’, that ‘we need a single will, ONE will [une volonté UNE]’8 — but if Robespierre and the rest of the Committee of Public Safety were able to win the external and internal wars that threatened to stifle the revolution, they weren’t able to organise a sufficiently solid basis for this political unity, in the face of all the various interests that sought to divide and undermine it.

In general, then, we need to distinguish a revolutionary will that sets out with quite specific objectives, and that then finds a way to persevere and achieve them, in the face of partially unintended consequences (or that succumbs and withers in the attempt), and merely utopian dreams of an ‘end to History’ or the definitive abolition of injustice — such things may be wished, but never willed.

SG: The protagonists of the Russian Revolution faced a similar dilemma?

PH: Before it falls prey to its own internal counter-revolution or ‘Thermidorian’ reaction, I think the Russian Revolution is also best understood in terms of determinate political will.  Many of the most forceful texts by Lenin and Trotsky are easily read through this lens.  Both wings of the Russian party (Bolshevik and Menshevik) broadly shared a similar understanding of the consequences of capitalist development in Russia, and based much of their strategy on the gradual and apparently inexorable rise of the workers movement as an organised force — but as far as the political programme goes, it wasn’t a matter of dreaming about the end of history, but an effort to clarify the likely stages of the coming struggle.  A lot of the debate turned on the probable need for a preliminary bourgeois revolution in Russia, for example, driven forward by proletarian pressure, as an enabling condition for a subsequent proletarian revolution, which in its turn could only succeed on condition that it expand across central Europe.  The generalisation and continuation of this revolution, as both Trotsky and Lenin realised, were themselves the conditions for its taking place as a proletarian revolution per se. The Bolsheviks, in 1917, were those who were prepared, in the here and now, under the circumstances imposed by the war, by famine, and the de-facto suicide of the autocracy, to will the means necessary to this end, to will the means that were in their power, and thus to force through a certain sequence of national political changes, full of international promise.

The sequence they proposed was clear, it was popular, it inspired real devotion and support — and of course it also provoked a massive rearguard action.  When, in the wake of the civil war, the revolution began to retreat and to contradict its own principles and conditions, then of course the sequence began to change beyond recognition.  If it isn’t careful to ensure that it remains a matter of political will, precisely, and thus a matter of free volition, of emancipation, of informed discussion and dissent, then even the most resolute political project can be twisted into its opposite.  We’ve seen that happen all too often in the twentieth century, and it would be absurd to downplay the consequences, or to insist that it could never happen again.

Again the difference might be framed in terms of the difference between determinate will and impracticable wish.  There is nevertheless a relation between the two, the possibility of transition from one to the other.  As they acquire a certain social momentum, collective wishes that might start out as merely utopian aspirations can become matters of political will in due course, through a sort of shift from quantity to quality, once the necessary capacity for realisation starts to take shape.  There is a passage in Capital, for instance, where Marx notes how Robert Owen, when he first suggested limits to the working day, and certain basic safety measures for workers, etc., was derided as a Utopian dreamer — but within a few decades those things had become law, and the object of broad social consensus.  Ernst Bloch returns to this sort of transition, when he distinguishes between ‘abstract’ and ‘concrete’ forms of utopia.

SG: But then aren’t you underestimating the political significance of ‘wish’?  One of the reasons I am interested in your work is that the emphasis on the will finds a way of proceeding at a time of apparent political hopelessness.

PH: If it’s to endure, any collective project needs to sustain its purpose and propose a way of acquiring the power needed to achieve it.  Mere protests or expressions of indignation fizzle out sooner or later, as a matter of course, and I think one of the main reasons people give up on collective projects, large or small, is that they come to the conclusion, rightly or wrongly, that the project is futile or impotent, and likely to remain so.  People recognise futility when they see it.  If you try to organise a strike for example, and members or potential members of the union can see that it’s not very serious, that it doesn’t have a clear strategy for victory but is more about making a symbolic gesture or venting indignation, then they won’t participate, at least not with any enthusiasm.  They recognise, quite rationally, that it’s a waste of time.  Few things are more frustrating than to be part of a collective movement that is important, that mobilises a real sense of enthusiasm of potential, but that fails to acquire clear forms of organisation and strategy.  Witness the collapse of the mobilisation to save the UK’s university system from the marketisation process, which has already done inestimable damage, and which if not reversed will soon cause irreversible damage.  Is this because no-one cares about preserving free public education, about making higher education truly inclusive, about valuing the pursuit of people’s interests as a good in itself, etc.?  Or is it because, as things stand, we don’t see how to resist the pressures that are reducing education to a process that helps differentiate the labour market along class lines?  People will fight for what they care about, if they think they can win, and even small victories make an enormous difference.  To draw on current examples, from October 2013, compare the lukewarm support for the UCU strike at the end of the month to California’s BART strike earlier in the month — which under the circumstances succeeded in winning quite a good contract, on the back of a unanimous vote in favour of a strike, and a very strong sense of shared resolve to see it through.  With that sort of resolve, a lot of things are possible; without it, nothing.

SG: Aren’t there occasions when the very act of imposing a will on a situation creates its own capacity for realisation?  I think this is what Che Guevara was referring to in his famous quote — ‘Be realistic. Demand the impossible!’

PH: Che Guevara remains a very inspiring figure, and certainly one of the heroic figures of twentieth-century voluntarism.  He doesn’t shy away from insisting on the inspiring and transformative power of ideals, and recognises the ‘moral’ dimensions of political practice; in this again he’s as close to Rousseau or Blanqui as to Marx.  The whole notion of foquismo has quasi-Blanquist origins, in part, whether or not these are explicit.  But the notion of mobilisation by example from above clearly has its limits too.  I think Che underestimated the basic organisational work that is required to change ‘wish’ into ‘will’, to stick to those terms.  The victory in Cuba became the template for a strategy that couldn’t be duplicated in other places, as its imitators quickly realised, in Venezuela and elsewhere.  Che’s own Bolivia campaign was recklessly ignorant of the local situation, and paid the price for it.  There are good reasons why Blanqui himself insisted less on insurrection and the ‘propaganda of the deed’ than on the slow work of political education and general ‘instruction’, the mantra of his notebooks all through the 1860s.

More generally I don’t share this investment in the pathos of hopeless or ‘impossible’ efforts.  The notion of impossibility has a pretty clear meaning, and there’s a world of difference between something impossible and something that is very difficult to accomplish or envisage.  To expand the domain of the possible, ok, or to break up the logic that makes certain things appear to be almost impossible, to initiate a sequence that makes what appears impossible possible, etc. — to some extent these are useful ways of framing a project.  But rather than presume things are hopeless it’s obviously better to recognise the difficulties that obstruct certain goals, and then to get on with the work of clearing them away.  We forget what people are capable of, when they put their minds to it — think, to stick to some spectacular examples, of the campaigns that ended slavery in Haiti, or the people’s wars that ended imperialism in Vietnam.  Or in a less dramatic register, of the recent student strike in Québec, which again required a real effort, over several months, in order to force the government to accede to its main demands.

SG: Drawing from Walter Benjamin, Jodi Dean associates the broad reluctance of the left to deal with building processes, with strategy and engaging in questions of the ‘winnable’, with a ‘left melancholy’.  That is a ‘melancholy’ that has an investment in the pathos of its own loss.

PH: So long as people accept, ‘deep down’ so to speak, that ‘there is no alternative’, then if they struggle at all to change the established order of things it’s not likely to go much further than making symbolic statements or expressing a sort of moral indignation.  Again I think this is more effect than cause, relative to the general processes of popular disempowerment that have shaped the last few decades of neoliberal adjustment.  It’s not surprising that a lot of ‘critical’ intellectuals might devote a certain amount of energy to validating forms of ‘mere’ protest, forms of protest that almost admit that they can’t (and perhaps don’t want to) change any of the fundamental pillars of the status quo.  Appeals to theology seem to offer all sorts of compensation, once the prospects of concrete political practice start to look, from within the prevailing consensus, even more far-fetched than the coming of the messiah.  Deconstruction, for instance, offers a way of taking a kind of critical position without actually challenging anything fundamental, or of calling for a transformation whose ‘radicality’, if that’s the right word, is precisely that it cannot and must not be actualised or made ‘present’; the truly unconditional obligation, as Derrida sees it, is to remain forever open to what is forever to come, to what will never arrive, never be present to or identical with itself.  I think this is a very unsatisfying position.  Either this unconditional call to be open to the to-come, to the every other as altogether other, etc., is a prescriptive demand, in which case it’s a pure ‘ethical’ position, isolated from any practicable political project; or else it’s a simple description of what it means to be temporal beings, subject to finite, mortal time, etc. (as Martin Hägglund argues), in which case again it cannot orient any transformative work in the present, precisely, but only provide an ‘ultra-transcendental’ account of why the real work is always and forever to come — and thus not really work at all, if you ask me.  I think both dimensions are operative in Derrida’s later work, for instance in the second of the two essays in his book Voyous (2003; Rogues) and neither one, nor both together, can help us orient emancipatory political practice.

SG: Turning to more concrete strategic questions, I wanted you to address the issue of political pedagogy.  A more orthodox interpretation of political action has a more straightforward conception of education: you raise awareness of a situation and then action follows from that.  However from the perspective of dialectical voluntarism people could be perfectly well aware of the situation but lack ‘the will’ to do anything about it.

PH: Education and information are necessary but not sufficient conditions of political will.  I assume that the more informed an actor is about a course of action, or possible actions, the more voluntary its eventual execution will be.  The more we know about a situation, the more easily we can change it, that’s obvious.  Where the question becomes difficult or controversial is with respect to its transitive or reflexive dimension: is it a matter of ‘raising awareness’, as you say, essentially from a position of authority, external to those being raised?  Or is it a matter of self-education, one that recognises, in line with Marx’s famous third fragment on Feuerbach, that the relation between the ‘educator and the educated’ isn’t simply a transitive one, with enlightened reformer-educator on one side and the ignorant masses on the other?

I think the only viable solution has to negotiate a path between these two positions.  We’re not starting from a neutral position: it’s not just a matter of popular education, but of popular re-education, to use an unfashionable but useful phrase.  It’s not that we are ignorant or un-educated: we have been actively and quite deliberately mis-educated, i.e. educated to accept the basic premises of capitalism and its consequences, its class distinctions, etc.  This starts very early, and it extends far beyond the limits of formal schooling, of course.  Under these circumstances it’s too easy to think that we can do without some sort of ‘educator’, so to speak, e.g. a political party, or partisan intellectuals, researchers, analysts, journalists, etc., the people Gramsci called ‘organic intellectuals’, who are able to carry out the sorts of investigation that shed light on how the world really works, on how power mechanisms operate, how they try to shield themselves from criticism, etc.  There’s a current of opinion, common to people like Jacques Rancière and Hal Draper, partly inspired by a critique of authoritarian political forms, that suggests such political knowledge is redundant, and that people already know perfectly well how the world works.  I understand their reasons but think this underestimates both the level of the prevailing mis-education, and the carefully cultivated opacity of the ‘leading edge’ of capitalist operations; sure, people know when they’re being exploited or ripped off, but I for one certainly don’t pretend to understand the processes at work in international finance, in the credit and banking system, in the closed and ‘private tyrannies’ that are corporations, in the more arcane spheres of the legal system, of the military-industrial complex, etc.

Power has always concealed itself, by whatever means are most effective in the situation, whether it be through appeal to an inscrutable providence or fate, or by cultivating a sense of fear and insecurity.  And despite Snowden and Wikileaks, we still have very little notion about how the secret intelligence services operate, or how the imperial war machine operates; the way that our recent wars in the Middle East have been misreported is already proof enough of just how far the mis-educating can go, when there’s a lot at stake.  And although I’d accept that people generally know when they are being exploited, still it’s hard to argue with Marx’s eventual conclusion that the key mechanisms and mediations that make exploitation possible are not easily understood on the basis of ordinary lived experience.  The time of such experience, the experience of the exploited, is not the same sort of time as that taken by the original accumulation of capital, or its concentration, reproduction, circulation, etc.; if we’re to understand and get a grip on these processes we need an adequate analysis of how they work.  The ideal situation, for those who profit from these processes, would be one in which no-one has the time (and ultimately not even the desire or will) to undertake such analysis.  Marx himself, once his political agenda appeared to gain a degree of strategic traction, quickly came to appreciate the need for a disciplined, independent and well-organised party leadership (for instance in his analysis of the class struggles in France, of 1850, or his circular to the Communist League, of March 1850), and once the prospects of imminent victory began to fade, he realised more fully the need for a properly ‘scientific’ study of those tendencies at work in capitalism that might give a revolutionary party opportunities to overthrow it.  The marginalisation of Marxian tendencies in the academy has already had a crippling effect, in many fields and in many ways.  We need more educators worthy of the name, not fewer!

The virtue of Rousseau’s notorious approach to this problem is that, as usual, it’s more explicit or ‘naïve’.  He asks how, on the basis of its initial ignorance or mis-education, a people might come to constitute itself as autonomous and sovereign.  How might an initially ‘blind multitude’ become capable of working out what it wants or wills?  Although he believes that a general will, so long as it remains both general and will, shall always by definition remain just and ‘upright [droite]’, he recognises that ‘the judgment that guides it is not always enlightened.’9  Rousseau accepts, then, that given this point of departure, the constitution of a popular will and its subsequent exercise are different processes, and the one is initially required to educate and orient the latter.  His solution is to invoke, as a transitional figure or vanishing mediator, a founding legislator, someone like Moses or Lycurgus (as he imagines them), who is able to jumpstart a process that an oppressed people cannot accomplish on their own.  There are obvious problems with this paternalist vanguard position, too.  Rousseau goes too far in one direction, the early Marx too far in the other.  What we need is to find the right sort of balance between these two poles, and this will vary with the situation, with the degree of mis-education, our existing capacities for self-education, etc.  But the problem itself is unavoidable, and shouldn’t be dodged.

SG: The issues you raise in the context of education are in many ways a microcosm of the larger question of leadership.  In this country we are very cynical and suspicious of leaders.  This isn’t surprising given the bankruptcy of our political class.  However, if we look historically, movements need educators, they need people to inspire and mobilise and they need people with the courage to lead the frontline.  All three things constitute a form of leadership.

PH: I agree.  The question of leadership is very important, and again there’s nothing to be gained by dodging it.  It’s obvious that you cannot win a fight without effective leaders, the sort of leadership that is suitable to that particular fight, and this too will vary with the situation.  My friend Gordon Lafer reminded me recently of an old text by A.J. Muste (‘Army and Town Meeting’, 1928), which explains why a trade union will always have to combine, in its organisation, forms of quasi-military discipline together with the open, critical atmosphere of a democratic town meeting: on the one hand, if it’s to prevail, a union ‘must develop something of the solidarity, discipline, and capacity for swift striking that an army has’, but on the other hand needs to foster assertive forms of self-expression and dissent that conflict with any sort of top-down hierarchy.

We need to find the right balance between two competing needs or priorities.  On the one hand you need leaders who are prepared actually to lead, i.e., when necessary to go out ‘in front’, to do things before or beyond what others are yet prepared to do, to say or do things others aren’t yet willing to risk.  Even small acts of moral courage, of moments when someone is prepared to say what needs to be said, or to put their head above the parapet, etc., can have a transformative effect.  People are suspicious of professional bureaucrats and careerists, with good reason.  But someone who stands up and says what many people are thinking, someone who finds a way of saying what a lot of people think but haven’t yet managed to say, or felt too exposed to say it, I think such people inspire real appreciation and loyalty — Haiti’s former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide was a good example of this, in the late 1980s and early 90s.  Here there’s still an important role for a vanguard figure or organisation, or whatever you want to call it, i.e. of a leadership that’s ‘out in front’, or that helps draw and establish the ‘front’ of an ongoing struggle.  In any struggle of a certain scale some people will be more exposed at the front line, so to speak, than some others — that’s unavoidable.  The question is then, do these people form an effective front line, or not?  Without organised, dedicated and decisive people at the front, wherever that happens to be, then even a broad, powerful, collective force can be quite easily dispersed or overcome.

On the other hand, though, the model of a vanguard is only a useful model as long as we remember it is a vanguard of a broader movement and not something that is cut off from it, not a self-sufficient actor or end in itself.  As any number of historical examples demonstrate, the more a struggle requires decisive and effective leadership, the more easily it can fall back on authoritarian solutions to the problems it faces.

SG: Nevertheless a vanguardist politics that emphasises ‘unity’, ‘will’, ‘discipline’, and ‘commitment’ and so on is in severe disrepute in this country, particularly after the crisis that has engulfed the SWP.

PH: There are good and bad reasons for that: dogmatic political parties that are incapable of challenging or replacing their central committees when principle clearly demands it, and that don’t do everything necessary to avoid the bureaucratisation that for more than a century has stultified and destroyed one leftwing organisation after another, can do little more than put a brave face on their marginalisation.  Yes, we need strong and effective leadership, but we need to cultivate this while blocking the tendencies that might encourage such leaders to set themselves apart from the rest of the organisation, and to constitute a new sort of elite.  I think Rousseau was right again to suggest that this was an inevitable, structurally irreducible problem: any group that acquires political power will soon tend, more or less imperceptibly, to see itself as entitled to that power, and thus to see itself as more or less apart from the rest of the group — the professional revolutionaries, the true militants, the only people who can really be trusted to get things done, etc.  That is a disaster we’ve seen repeated again and again.  You can’t avoid the risk of this happening, it’s another instance of the dialectical tendency of a general will.  What you can do is anticipate it, and try to ward it off, through the measures that Rousseau and others recommended, and that e.g. the Paris Commune of 1871 was able to implement, for a short time — by maximising participation in the process of decision making, by making all positions elected and subject to recall at any time, by regularly rotating people through different positions, by keeping the wages of functionaries in line with average earnings, by cultivating a sense of public service that despises the mere pursuit of private profit, etc. — the sort of things that in the UK have been systematically reversed, of course, since the 1970s. . .

SG: How does reference to the will help us work through these types of questions?

PH: It provides a normative criterion, a way of prescribing an orientation for emancipatory political practice.  It allows us to distinguish between forms of unity and discipline that a group or ‘people’ wills for itself because it recognises that without these things it cannot succeed in winning the battles it’s engaged in.  There are plenty of examples of situations when the people are way out in advance of their ‘leaders’, and frustrated by their failure to keep up: this was a driving factor behind the events of 1792 in France, it recurs as a major theme in Lenin’s work, not least in What Is to Be Done?, and recurs in any number of industrial disputes, anti-colonial struggles, and so on.  People engaged in political struggle can’t accomplish anything unless they maintain themselves as an effective group.  If a group doesn’t have the capacity to preserve its unity and discipline over the course of internal differences and arguments then it will splinter, and we all know how real this danger is.  Among other things, the architects of the neoliberal reaction were masters in the art of divide and rule, and the effects have been devastating.  But the left itself must bear much of the responsibility for its current impotence.  There’s been a woeful lack of capacity here, a lack of what Rousseau would have called political ‘virtue’ — a failure to strengthen or reinvent our means of cultivating a collective interest over and above factional or private interests.

In other words, reference to the thematics of political will help distinguish a collective sense of unity and voluntary discipline, or popular virtue, so to speak, from the sort of uniformity that might be imposed by a bureaucratic executive from above, and imposed precisely in terms of an involuntary submission to authority.  If a group goes too far in that direction it will become rigid and destroy itself.

SG: Isn’t there a sense in which adherence to such a political will is fundamentally undemocratic — in as far as it is not something that is negotiated, voted upon, compromised, or discussed?  Aren’t you presenting it as an imposed starting point, a prerequisite for collective emancipation?

PH: No, for me political will is certainly formulated through informed discussion and deliberation, and in many or most cases what is decided may be determined through voting.  I see it as democratic in both the original meanings implied by the word itself: cracy and demos, the ‘rule of the people’.  You only have democracy when the people themselves rule, when the popular will prevails over the will of a ruling faction or class.  The alternative, which is what we’ve got now, is a form of oligarchy — a society in which a privileged few exploit and dominate everyone else.  The condition of democracy is a process whereby the majority of those who compose a situation find a way to organise themselves, devise a common purpose, and will its realisation (e.g. to institute a national health system or comprehensive education system, or to make collective the means of production, etc.), by overcoming the resistance of those who used to rule them and control the situations.

Democracy doesn’t itself mean respect for ‘minorities’ as such, e.g. the minority that is our current ruling class, or the minority that is an overpaid banking sector!  The issue is popular empowerment, which certainly means the empowerment of those who are especially vulnerable to the prevailing forms of exploitation — and here issues of race and gender clearly continue to play a massive role.  But the question of minorities as such, as currently formulated and promoted, is often a distraction from the real issues of class, power and equality.

Democracy also doesn’t mean the imposition of uniform rules over every sphere of life, or the erosion of all limits between public and private spheres in some sort of totalitarian nightmare.  There is only ‘democracy’, by definition, where the interests of the people as such, the people in general, are at stake, i.e. the people simply as people, as equal members of the situation to which they belong — which includes everyone except those who exclude themselves from ‘the people’, insofar as they seek to continue to oppress or exploit other members.  In any given situation, it’s the will of the people themselves, again, that alone can determine where exactly this line between popular and individual is to be drawn, but there’s no reason why the sort of neo-Jacobin democracy I’m defending should be incompatible with the defence of individual freedoms, with full freedom of expression, association, and so on.

The will of the people, e.g. to institute a free, universal and egalitarian education system, applies by definition to purposes that interest every member of the situation, simply insofar as they are members of the situation like anyone else, regardless of the things that might otherwise divide them.  To persist with this example, as soon as you abandon the project of comprehensive education, and replace it with a proliferation of private schools, corporate academies, ‘faith schools’, etc., then of course this process marks the end, as regards this purpose, of any collective political will.  On the other hand the will of the people is just that: the word people means the people in all their diversity, with all their various differences, identities and trajectories, etc., insofar as these differences can combine in the formulation of a common will.  If the differences become too divisive or sectarian then it also goes without saying that they will eclipse any collective purpose or capacity, and the result will be a population that is especially vulnerable to oligarchical rule.

We have to work out our political priorities.  You can talk all you like about the right of everyone to pursue their own particular agendas, to consolidate their own separate identities, the integrity of their own lived experience or ‘affects’, etc., but if the effect is to undercut any collective capacity to will and to act then what you’ve got is a recipe for political impotence and resignation.  Which is pretty much what we’ve got now — though perhaps only for now!

October 2013

1  Rousseau, Emile, in his Oeuvres complètes vol. 4 (Paris: Gallimard, ‘Pléiade’, 1969), pp. 576, 308-9.  A person’s freedom, Rousseau concludes, ‘doesn’t consist in doing merely what he wants, but rather in never doing what he does not want to do’ (Rousseau, Reveries of the Solitary Walker, in his Oeuvres complètes, vol. 1, p. 1059).

2  Gramsci, ‘Socialism and Co-operation’, Pre-Prison Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 14.

3  ‘Men create their own personality, 1. by giving a specific and concrete (“rational”) direction to their own vital impulse or will; 2. by identifying the means which will make this will concrete and specific and not arbitrary; 3. by contributing to modify the ensemble of the concrete conditions for realising this will to the extent of one’s own limits and capacities and in the most fruitful form’ (Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks [Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1971], p. 360).

4  Marx, Capital vol. 1, ch. 32.

5  Marx, Capital vol. 3, ch. 48; Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, section 2.

6  Marx, Capital vol. 1, ch. 18.

7  Edward Said, ‘A Powerless People’, The Guardian 25 April 1996, p. 15.

8  Robespierre, notes written in early June 1793, cited in J.M. Thompson, Robespierre (Oxford: Blackwell, 1935), vol. 2, pp. 33-34.

9  Rousseau, The Social Contract book 2, chapters 6-7.

Peter Hallward teaches in the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy at Kingston University.  He has published books on the work of Alain Badiou, Gilles Deleuze, postcolonial literature, and contemporary Haitian politics.  His current research is on the way Rousseau, Blanqui and Marx understand political will, and he is working on a book called The Will of the People.  He is a member of the Radical Philosophy editorial collective.  Samuel Grove is an independent researcher and writer.  He is an editor of www.alborada.net, a website covering Latin America and related issues such as politics, media and also works at Alborada Films.  He has a PhD in Critical Theory from the University of Nottingham.  An abridged version of this interview will appear in New Left Project.

| Print