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The Most Dangerous Phrase in Politics

How an 18th Century idea, risen then defeated in the 20th Century, is finding a new home in the 21st

In one of the more curious quirks of political philosophy, the man generally considered to have coined a term in fact never once uttered it either in written or spoken format.

French Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau is usually attributed as the first proponent of what is called the “General Will” — or in other words, the political will of the people as a whole.

The reason for this confusion in attribution is because the concept so neatly summarises one of Rousseau’s key positions. He asserted that a group of people collectively geared towards a common goal will have a singular will.

As a result, there can be an agreement (or in Rousseau’s terminology, a Social Contract) that said group will abide by laws that are to benefit or pursuance of that common goal.

On the whole, this philosophy is reasonable and logical so long as it pertains to small, sub-national state groups.

Like Machiavelli before him, Rousseau was of the belief that smaller, homogenous states are better equipped than larger states at providing their citizens with all the freedoms they require.

And so in a world of small, homogeneous states, the concept of a General Will makes total sense.

The problem is that generally speaking, that isn’t how the world is organised.

As soon as you scale up the concept and apply it to nation states of millions of citizens, with increasingly diverse backgrounds, beliefs and perspectives, the idea of General Will begins to seem absurd.

Yet that hasn’t stopped politicians of all varieties from espousing this Roussean concept out of context.

There’s something very 20th Century about the way the concept of the General Will was adapted to meet the needs of the modern superpowers and ideological behemoths.

The General Will as outlined by Rousseau is intentionally neutral — it makes no suggestion as to the moral validity of the will. Simply that it “is”.

But the Will of the People? Well now that sounds a lot more politically charged, doesn’t it?

This subtle semantic evolution can be seen as contributing to many of the horrors and atrocities witnessed in the 20th Century.

Justifying genocides and wars at the worst, but just as easily trotted out for any and every devious project a politician or businessman or dictator decided they needed pursuing.

Of course, as a concept, it became most synonymous with Nazi propaganda — a way to justify the continued push towards an Arian ethnostate with all the associated violence that entailed.

The Nazi adoption of the Will of the People is ultimately what theorists like Karl Popper, Bertrand Russell and Jacob Talmon suggested was the fundamental problem with Rousseau’s assertion.

As per Bertrand Russell:

“(T))he doctrine of general will … made possible the mystic identification of a leader with its people, which has no need of confirmation by so mundane an apparatus as the ballot box.”

It leaves open the possibility for descent from democracy to democratic totalitarianism into full totalitarianism — any charismatic despot or half-baked ideologue will find it simple to derive or fabricate a general mandate so long as they define it as what the people want.

The Nazis, and Hitler, did just that.

With the end of the Second World War came the apparent end of the General Will as a tool for politicians to abuse.

The world had divided into black and white — Democracies and Dictatorships.

In Democracies, the plurality of opinions of the populace was welcomed, at least superficially, and it was clear to anyone involved or interested in politics that a singular will of the people could not exist in such a system.

Similarly, in Dictatorships — whether Communist or Fascist or any other ideology — the idea of the people’s will was usurped by will of the ruler or leaders.

It seemed like the Will of the People would be consigned to the 19th and 20th century ideas dump, along with the likes of Eugenics and Whigism.

But in recent times, it has seen a resurgence.

Most notably, with Brexit, we have been constantly told that leaving the EU is the will of the people — despite patently being against the will of, at the very least, the 48% of British people who voted against it.

It’s now very much being used for nefarious ends.

And when combined with the Trump favourite “enemies of the people”, another phrase finding its way into the political lexicon on both sides of the Atlantic, we begin to see a very dangerous picture forming.

Because the enemies of the people are surely preventing the will of the people from coming to fruition. The will of the people comes before all else. Anyone who stands in the way of the will of people ought to be dealt with… in whatever way necessary.

When you suspect political ideas are being corrupted and perverted for the purposes of power, pay close attention to how language is being used.

The Will of the People or the General Will, as a concept that applies to modern globalised politics, is largely nonsensical, but in the toolkit of a would-be despot, can be an effective way to justify any course of action.

In that sense, we must be very wary of any politician who claims that the will of the people is their driving force.

It might seem like a small, semantic point, but these small, semantic points add up very quickly, and before you know it, you arrive at a very dangerous place.

So say after me: there is no will of the people. There is no will of the people. There is no will of the people.

Jackson Rawlings is a political philosopher, writer and thinker with some big ideas about how we can change the world for the better.