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!"
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.