Will of the people: notes

So, to hopefully push forward the discussion which started during the last post, I’m going to post some rough notes/thoughts on Hallward’s ‘The will of the people’.

I’ll begin with Hallward’s definition of ‘will of the people’, which for him is “[…] a deliberate, emancipatory and inclusive process of collective self-determination.”

For me the crucial question is in regards to the use of the term ‘self’ in this description, and more importantly, the question of anthropology, which resides under this discussion. At this point, Hallward has not developed any sort of an anthropology of this wiling self, or, free human. Although it may be coming in a more full scale work, I think any project of this sort needs to start with some simple questions on the nature of the human as such, and the subsequent capacity for this human to act as both an individual and as a unit of a collective project. A failure to theorize the human in this way is what seems to lead to the accusations of this project being either ‘vitalist’ or ‘folk-psychological’ (criticisms he anticipates in this piece).

Another interesting point in the piece is when Hallward claims:

“It’s no accident that, like Agamben and Zizek, when Badiou looks to the Christian tradition for a point of anticipation he turns not to Matthew (with his prescriptions of how to act in the world: spurn the rich, affirm the poor, ‘sell all thou hast’…) but to Paul (with his contempt for the weakness of human will and his valorization of the abrupt and infinite transcendence of grace).”

Two thoughts here. First, this brings up the generally interesting question about why recent political philosophers using Christianity for material have focused so much on Paul, for whom man is ultimately nothing without divine grace (theologians, correct me if I’m reading him wrong), and thus, using Paul seems to hold on to some sense of divine transcendence (whether this be the divine/god/void/nothingness). Hallward’s point here seems to once again focus on what could be called (in light of Badiou) pre-evental man. Whereas Badiou’s pauline subject comes into existence with the event, it seems as if Hallward is attempting to theorize the human as that which can will to act on its own accord, and subsequently use this individual will to reinforce and support collective will. Rather than drawing on some ‘outside’, Hallward here seems to want to emphasize the inherent potential (potentia) of humanity to act politically. Once again, this issue seems to reside on the question of anthropology, and a theorization of this pre-evental human. The risk here, from my perspective, would be theorizing the individual human in such a way as to not lapse back into a tired brand of liberal individualism, and instead theorize the individual as that which is dialectically related to the group at all times. The tension seems to be, how to keep the willing individual, without losing the group subject.

A bit further on in the piece, he quotes S’bu Zikode, who is the chairperson of the Durban shack dwellers movement Abahali baseMjondolo as calling for a ‘living communism’ which asserts the ‘humanity of every human being.’ Hallward seems to openly affirm this call, which brings up the question of the place of both life (living communism) and humanity once again. I know I must be sounding redundant at this point, but I must again ask, what do these terms (life/humanity) mean in this context, and how does a theory of the living human ground this theory of dialectical voluntarism as a whole?

I’ll stop my notes here (about half way through the article) to keep it short, and will hopefully post more later. But as can be seen, my main issue at this point is one of anthropology. What does it mean to be human for Hallward? And equally, what does it mean to be a living human? My concern revolves around who this human is that is able to freely will and organize in collectives. It may seem nit-picky, but for me these issues are crucial when one wants to theorize from the individual to the group in a way which thoroughly accounts for each.

Would love to hear some other thoughts on this.


3 thoughts on “Will of the people: notes

  1. Ben says:

    I agree that the anthropology question is crucial, which I think is why Nina Power constantly poses the question of the human as implicit to the thinking of equality, including is such ‘anti-humanist’ thinking as Badiou’s.

    I wonder whether Hallward’s own answer, partly going on his answers at the materialism conference, would be to emphasise the ‘general will’ as immanent site of subjectivation, and the generic political process as the site of the coordination of the individual will with the collective will? Perhaps these ‘wills’ would even be co-appearing – for example in the sense of being de-individuated in a political sequence or ‘ridden’ by the sequence (to make an odd borrowing from Maya Deren’s book on voodoo ‘Divine Horsemen). Here ‘personal will disappears in collective will, which paradoxically produces a new individuation (here I’d need to read Simondon…)

    In that sense ‘self-determination’ would refer more to an immanent determination by those at the wrong-end of political oppression. I’m thinking here of the importance to Peter, and more generally, of the Haitian revolution. Even abolitionists were forced by this event to realise truly that black slaves could self-organise, could militarily impose their will, in a sense cutting short debates about the ‘tutelage’ of slaves until they were ready for ‘liberation’ from without. The ‘self’ here is not so much the individual per se but the collective subject of emancipation, along the lines of Marx’s status for the IWMA that ‘That the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.’

    I agree that this doesn’t really truly answer the question but I think Peter’s point might be that no determination is ever fully saturating; of course as you point out then the question might be of the source of resistance in relation to will; is ‘will’ immanently generated by this antagonism due to the failure of determination? Does this failure source itself in some conception of the human / human nature? Is it historical immanent; related to the Marx point that ‘human nature’ itself is historically determined?

    Here I’m not sure (hope this makes some sense as I have a human all too human cold…)

  2. […] Michael Burns has posted some notes on Peter Hallward’s recent article in Radical Philosophy. I’m one of those who has some doubts about Hallward’s attempt to revive voluntarism, but Burns seems to think there are things worth considering here. […]

  3. Pilot Fish says:


    I realize this post is several months old now, but I happened upon it and find it quite interesting. It seems to me that there is perhaps a rather naive or broad reading of Hallward through a lens of Hegelian self-determination… is there a map from evental man/pre-evental man onto consciousness/self-consciousness?

    Bertrand Russell is turning in his grave….

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