Peter Hallward, The Guardian
From revolutionary France and America to modern north Africa, this is a concept that can topple governments
The day after popular pressure forced Tunisia’s autocratic president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali from power on 14 January, Egypt’s government declared that it “respects the will of the Tunisian people”. So did the governments of Yemen and Iran, and so did the Arab League. Jordan’s government followed suit the next day. In his state of the union address on 25 January, Obama also celebrated Tunisia as a place “where the will of the people proved more powerful than the writ of a dictator”, before reminding the world that “the United States of America supports the democratic aspirations of all people”.
Routine reference to “the will of the people” has long been one of the most formulaic turns of phrase in the modern political lexicon. The actual mobilisation of such a will, however, is less easily dismissed. Ongoing protests in Egypt – and in Algeria, and Yemen, and Jordan, indeed throughout the Middle East – may well oblige their governments to decide fairly soon whether they mean what they say. So may renewed mobilisations here in the UK and across Europe, against the latest phase in the long neoliberal assault on public services and welfare.
Needless to say, the US and its far-flung clients have never hesitated – in Guatemala, Vietnam, Chile, Palestine, Haiti, Turkey – to undermine or crush those people whose wills did not dovetail with their own. But however facile its diplomatic invocations might seem, the “will of the people” remains in both theory and practice a profoundly transformative notion, and even a superficial consideration of its history should be enough to remind us of its revolutionary inflection.
In the 18th century, no less than today, to affirm the rational will of the people as the source of sovereign power was to reject conceptions of politics premised on either the mutual exclusion of society and will (a politics determined by natural, historical or economic “necessity”) or on the primacy of another sort of will (the will of a monarch, a priest, an elite). Conceived in terms that frame it as both inclusive and decisive, Rousseau and the Jacobins forced evocation of a popular or “general” will to the divisive centre of modern politics. Reference to la volonté du peuple underlay the French revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens in 1789 and Robespierre’s constitution of 1793.
Jefferson anticipated much of the subsequent history of his newly independent nation when he emphasised the struggle between “those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes”, and “those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them” and consider them the “safest depository of their rights”.
Clarification and concentration of the people’s will would remain the guiding thread of Bolshevik strategy in the run-up to 1917, and Lenin’s main concern, early and late, was to achieve a militant and tenacious “unanimity of will” powerful enough to overcome the defences of an indefensible status quo. For Mao, likewise, the goal was to unify and intensify the people’s “will to fight” against their oppressors, before establishing a form of government that might most “fully express the will of all the revolutionary people”. Mao’s revolutionary contemporaries (Giap, Castro, Che Guevara, Mandela) adopted similarly militant and “universalisable” priorities. So did, in a different context, the more radical partisans of the US civil rights movement. The ANC summarised this whole line of thought when it insisted in its 1955 Freedom Charter that “no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of all the people”, and posed as its first demand: “The people shall govern!”
Around the same time, one of north Africa’s most influential writers and activists, Frantz Fanon, conceived of political practice along comparable lines. The whole of Fanon’s contribution to Algeria’s liberation struggle (1954-1962) is oriented by a popular “will to independence”, the “national will of the oppressed peoples”, their “will to break with exploitation and contempt”. The outcome of the Algerian revolution would be decided, he argued, by “the will of 12 million people; that is the only reality”.
Rejecting all distraction through “negotiation” or “development”, Fanon insisted on decisive action here and now – the goal was not to reform an intolerable colonial situation over an interminable series of steps, but to abolish it. The “fundamental characteristic of the struggle of the Algerian people”, Fanon maintained, is suggested by their “refusal of progressive solutions, their contempt for the ‘stages’ that might break the revolutionary torrent, and induce them to abandon the unshakable will to take everything into their hands at once”. The fate of their revolution depends on the people’s “co-ordinated and conscious” participation in their ongoing self-emancipation.
In today’s Tunisia and Egypt, as in 1950s Algeria, to affirm the will of the people is not to invoke an empty phrase. Will and people: rejecting the merely “formal” conceptions of democracy that disguise our status quo, an actively democratic politics will think one term through the other. A will of the people, on the one hand, must involve association and collective action, and will depend on a capacity to invent and preserve forms of inclusive assembly (through demonstrations, meetings, unions, parties, websites, networks). If an action is prescribed by popular will, on the other hand, then what’s at stake is a free or voluntary course of action, decided on the basis of informed and reasoned deliberation. Determination of the people’s will is a matter of popular participation and empowerment before it is a matter of representation, sanctioned authority or stability. Unlike mere “wish”, if it is to persist and prevail then a popular will must remain united in the face of its opponents, and find ways of overcoming their resistance to its aims.
Whether it takes place in Tunis or Cairo, Caracas or Port-au-Prince, Athens or London, to ground political action in the will of the people is to reassert a collective capacity for deliberate and revolutionary transformation. As the people who are defying the governments of north Africa demonstrate, there are circumstances in which collective courage and enthusiasm can be more than a match for coercive state power. The cliche remains hollow until adopted in practice: “Where there’s a will there’s a way.”