The Will of the People

The “will of the people” is one of the central argumentative patterns in the radical right. Often, when right-wing extremists demands are made, they invoke an alleged “will of the people.” Allegedly, so the statement goes, elected governments do not represent the “will of the people”. With this strategy, which of course never really defines what the “will of the people” really is, representative democracies should be delegitimized or altogether discarded. In terms of the history of ideas, this rhetorical strategy refers to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Carl Schmitt. In thinking about “the will of the people,” the crucial question is whether the emphasis is on the “will” or “the people”, meaning on individual emancipation or collective identity.

Here lies the main difference between Rousseau and Schmitt. First, and importantly, Rousseau’s identity theory puts its hope in reason, which certainly has the potential for invidividual emancipation and is utopian only because it actually believes in this hope: Rousseau wants to create in practice “the will of the people” through identity, but puts the emphasis here on the collective will. On the other hand, Schmitt disdains this faith in reason. He is a proponent of not only decisionism, but also homogeneity. For Rousseau, identity must be at the service of reason, but for Schmitt, it is subservient to nothing, representing instead the ontological polestar of his homogenizing framework.

Schmitt puts his emphasis on “the people,” which for him is nothing more than the ontologically defined “substance” of an ethnonational and homogeneous Volk, an ideal that tolerates no opposition and represses difference to the point of extermination. Turning back to Rousseau, however, people are “forced to be free,” but under Schmitt, they are forced to be homogeneous, and the individualist outlet allowed by Rousseau – for example, whoever refuses to be “free” can simply leave – no longer exists under Schmitt. In effect, this means that the empirical “will” is unconditionally subjugated to the Volk, which has been – in this case – ontologically defined by the dictator.

For both Rousseau and Schmitt, the difficulty with “the will of the people” is that its lack of persistence over time makes it ultimately uncontainable, thus challenging each scholar to reconcile this problem – Rousseau of necessity, Schmitt with intent. In attempting to preserve the heart of democracy and its essential goal of constantly reflecting “the will of the people” despite its structural inconstancy, Rousseau and Schmitt diverge onto two different paths: one subsuming it hypothetically into a republic of virtue, the other in practice destroying it entirely under a völkisch dictatorship.

The knowledge formulated from this in terms of the history of ideas has a significant importance for current questions of both the theory and practice of democracy as well as the radical right. This is because the numerous movements on the right-wing fringe – that once again today set themselves up as “the voice of the people” – connect directly to the writing of Carl Schmitt.

In both Europe and America, loud calls are going up that the government will not implement the “will of the people” – always from populist parties or movements that themselves push ethno-nationalist and racist objectives which divide society (as can be seen most clearly in Trump’s presidential campaign in the USA) and wish to tear down democracy.

Even if right-wing populist parties in Europe are nowadays (once again) finding success at the ballot box, they are at their core not really about the real will of the people, but the subordinate (and bogus) popular will: their own nationalist worldview. Such a “will” is not what is empirically verifiable and really extant, but that which right-wingers declare. It is no surprise therefore that many of them even invoke Carl Schmitt – and not Rousseau – directly: from the French Nouvelle Droite to the German Neue Rechte, Schmitt’s writings find a gigantic audience.

In essence, the contemporary populist extreme right’s concern for a direct democracy based on the perceived (i.e. right-wing dictated) “will of the people” is itself what Schmitt, as one of the central pioneers of National Socialism, demanded.  Congruent with an anti-parliamentary effect, such a notion of democracy is based on ethnic homogeneity and a categorical and militaristic “friend-enemy” way of thinking. That this way of thinking leads to barbarism is today historically demonstrable – and can sadly be reconstructed both in the history and future of political ideas.

Dr Samuel Salzborn is a Senior Fellow at CARR and a Visiting Professor for Research on Antisemitism at the Center for Research on Antisemitism (ZfA) at the Technical University Berlin. See his profile here.

© Samuel Salzborn. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).