What is Political Will?

by Peter Hallward, Samuel Grove

Critical theorist Peter Hallward argues that the idea of the 'will of the people' must be at the centre of any project of collective emancipation.

First published: 03 January, 2014 | Category: Philosophy and Theory, Vision/Strategy

Peter Hallward is Professor of Modern European Philosophy at Kingston University. He has published books on the work of Alain Badiou, Gilles Deleuze, postcolonial literature, and contemporary Haitian politics and is a member of the Radical Philosophy editorial collective. 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'. In this instalment in our 'On Theory' series he discussed the political significance of the idea of the will with Samuel Grove. 


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?

An account of political will allows 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 to 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 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, in order to accelerate precisely the sort of measures that make further crises, and further class polarisation, more likely. 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.

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 more helpful 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 purposeful, informed political actors.

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

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 -- though the political notion of the 'people' is almost as contested – 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.

Why do you refer to it as a ‘dialectical' will?

For several reasons. The will is dialectical in the basic sense that 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 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 overcomes mere 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 is precisely its constitutive relation to actualisation: a dialectical will actualises itself by negating the obstacles that confront it. 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.

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

The 'being' of the will, in my opinion, 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.

As for reason, 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. An action is only voluntary if it is thought through, if it results from informed deliberation – but again (and this is where I remain closer to Rousseau or Gramsci than to Kant) it is only a matter of will if it's a matter of actual capacity, i.e. the formulation of a project undertaken in our material world, shaped by its historical constraints, etc.

The mere capacity to will says very little about what this capacity is actually capable of.

Like our capacity to speak or communicate, the actual exercise of our capacity to will is socio-political and historical through and through. Nevertheless, 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 actual obstacles that confront what we might will or do. 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 insofar as he defines '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

What is the relation between the will of an individual and the will of the collective?

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.

Rousseau also makes the will a universal category.

Well, he makes it a 'general' category. 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. 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 there's no necessary reason why this 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.

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.

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, and 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.

In any case, even if some future catastrophe triggers a crisis that is too much for capitalism to cope with, I don't see how we might anticipate or participate in 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.

And vitalism?

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., as a symptom of our contemporary political impotence.

Drawing from Walter Benjamin, Jodi Dean associates the broad reluctance of ‘critical’ intellectuals to engage with questions of how to achieve radical change with a ‘left melancholy’. That is a ‘melancholy’ that has an investment in the pathos of its own loss.

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 find this 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, absolved 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., 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.

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

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 global, integrated and in some ways cooperative economic system, etc. What he attacks, above all, is the way capitalists command people to work for others, to reduce their labour to a cheapened and increasingly mechanised means that others can use or employ. Don't forget that the simplest and clearest definition of capital is 'the command of unpaid labour.'4 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.

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 contemporary 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.

Politics won’t come to an end with the defeat of capitalism.

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.

A longer version of this interview can be found at MRZine.

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.

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. 18.

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