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“The term chimera has come to describe anything composed of very disparate parts, or perceived as wildly imaginative, implausible, or dazzling.”
“The people have spoken” and we must respect the “will of the people”. So goes the mantra. It adds that democracy itself is undermined if “the will of the people” is not followed through. And how is this “will of the people” expressed? Through a simple majority vote in a plebiscite in which a complex issue having long term serious consequences was reduced to a simple binary choice.
In political philosophy, the general will (French: volonté générale) is the ‘will of the people as a whole’ The term was made famous by 18th-century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau:
“The law is the expression of the general will. All citizens have the right to contribute personally, or through their representatives, to its formation. It must be the same for all, whether it protects or punishes. All citizens, being equal in its eyes, are equally admissible to all public dignities, positions, and employments, according to their capacities, and without any other distinction than that of their virtues and their talents.” Article Six of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (French: Déclaration des droits de l’Homme et du citoyen), composed in 1789 during the French Revolution.
I’m arguing that there is an unbreachable gap between the Theory and its Practice, and that it’s theory is undermined by the lack of analysis of ‘power’ in modern (finance, rentier) capitalist societies, for there never can be equality while capitalism endures. Equality before the law, and equality of representation, as an expression of the ‘general will’, is an ambition that is forever thwarted. For many this is a good thing anyway.
Rousseau sets out a laudable Enlightenment aim regarding the equality of citizens before the state but its practice becomes a bourgeois justification for obfuscation of the nature of power, capital accumulation and exploitation.
By ‘Bourgeois’, I mean a sociologically defined class, and for simplification, I’m referring to people (and their apologists) with a certain social, cultural and financial capital belonging to an affluent and often opulent stratum of the ‘middle class’ but more correctly are the capitalist class, who stand opposite the working class. Jacob Rees Mogg, although an aristocrat, exemplifies the high end of the bourgeoisie. Other prominent members would include Richard Branson, Nigel Farage, Theresa May, Tony Blair, David Cameron. Even Royalty has been reduced to being bourgeois ‘as image’ (‘Kate and Wills’ for fucks sake) in a deliberate attempt to make them look more ‘normal’ and thus acceptable in austere times.
Who are ‘the people’ ? Bourgeois theory reduces everyone to an undefined abstract mass in which there is a right to equality, an equality however that has been so eviscerated of any force that it has been reduced to meaning only the freedom of expression via the ballot box. ‘One person, one Vote’. In reality it is ‘political franchise’ equality, not an economic one, or a social one, or a legal one. However these other aspects of ‘the people’s’ equality, cannot be disaggregated except abstractly. The reality of social life is that this bourgeois undifferentiated mass is in fact riven with divisions of class, gender, ethnicity, religion, region and identities with the result that there is inequality, and inequity, of opportunity, outcome and resources. There is a lack of fairness, freedom or justice in many areas of social and political life.
There is no ‘the people’.
There is (bourgeois) Capital and Labour, and within those two categories there are further divisions.
Parliament has been captured by the bourgeoisie and cannot express any collective will. There is no ‘collective will’. There is ideology wrapped up in the glitter of democracy.
Capital: There are powerful actors with so much finance, social, and cultural capital (Pierre Bourdieu) that they can buy power (Graham Scambler’s ‘Greedy Bastards Hypothesis) and bypass Rousseau’s entreaty for equality. “Men of wealth buy men of power”. And yes, it is usually white men in the U.K. If you doubt the power of capital to fashion society, culture and economy you’ve swallowed bourgeois ideology propagated through mass media of communication, for example via Murdoch’s empire. Read up on the Koch brothers in the US, or the actions of wealthy landowners in the UK. Read Guy Debord’s ‘Society of the Spectacle’, or Foucault in ‘Archeaology of Knowledge’ or Antonio Gramsci on Hegemony, or Marcuse in ‘One Dimensional Man’ …or the rest of the work of the Frankfurt School. Let’s not of course forget the works of feminists as such as Simone de Beauvoir or huge literature of post colonialist critique.
If there is no ‘people’ then there can be be no ‘will’. If powerful groups of bourgeois actors can use money, power, influence to direct citizens into acceptable (to bourgeois ) modes of thinking then notions of ‘will’ are diluted. Whose will is being expressed here?
Further, on the EU: Bourgeois thinking is divided itself, resulting in the spectacle of bourgeois actors lying to each other safe in the knowledge that their power base and wealth is not being challenged, just the surface form of political organisation. The UK is a thouroughly bourgeois country either in or out of the EU. Men of wealth will not affected to the same degree as ordinary citizens whose lives will be made or broken by bourgeois decision making.
The law in practice does not represent General Will, it represents the outcome of the battle of powerful bourgeois actors and their battle with ‘the proletariat’. The EU referendum result expressed that ideological battle within the ranks of the bourgeoisie, in which some resorted to dangerous populism, lies, fears and deflection. It was as legitimate an expression of ‘general will’ as the Prince of Wales’ wank stain is to a claim to the throne. They are playing a dangerous game in which some forces of white proletarian dissatisfaction with elites is being channeled toward ethnic groups. This so called ‘will’ is being distorted towards racism if not fascism.
Finally, simple majority voting can be tyrannical, and more so if complex issues are reduced to overly simplistic binaries of leave/remain.