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A critique of Jacques Rancière’s Politics.

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 A critique of Rancière’s Politics.


“Politics occurs because, or when, the natural order of the shepherd kings, the warlords, or property owners is interrupted by a freedom that crops up and makes real the ultimate equality on which any social order rests.”

Disagreement (La mésentente) Jacques Rancière. 1995.  (1)

Jacques Rancière is a critic of “post-democracy”, who is probably the first to have used the term. This political condition is one in which “elites exhibit paternal concern for their flock and protect it from its own rebellious spirits”. The essayist emerged at the threshold of the new millennium as a pioneering opponent of the – alleged – consensus ruling modern states. He staked out territory occupied by both serious efforts to grapple with the “neoliberal” policies and business influence on modern states, and potboilers claiming that there is no “real opposition” in societies dominated by the “extreme centre.” This is a political form “that has eliminated the appearance, miscount, and dispute of the People” and reduced politics to “the sole interplay of state mechanisms and combinations of social energies and interests”. The result is  “consensus democracy” a machine of power ruled by enlightened “experts” and the “absolute identification of politics with the management of capital.” (2)

The vocabulary of ‘oligarchies’, ‘elites’, ‘plutocrats’  and ‘post-democracy’, paralleled in French, and in English, is now part of the political talk of left and right populists. (2005) the target was The Republic, for which read la République française, “un régime d’homogénéité entre les institutions de l’État et les mœurs de société.” In this sense the ‘oligarchy’ loathed democracy, the unruly demos, any attempt by the unordered masses to shake up the regime. In other words, they dislike not the word, but the substance of democratic life. Rancière is equally referenced in France for L’introuvable populisme (2011). This criticised, pell-mell, “elite” contempt for the rough masses, secular French republicanism, and the racialism of the French state. There is a third string to this bow of ideas. In July last year, Rancière said that capitalism is so dominant today that it has taken over the left’s historical timepieces, resetting the political clock in line with market chronology. The elites run the world. (3)

How times change. If the words circulate, the claim that “democracy after the demos”, had eliminated dissensus, and had absorbed politics by top-down agreement, now looks threadbare. “Populist revolts’ have often gone beyond rebellion, to political influence and  – if we are to follow those who call Donald Trump a populist – to rule the most powerful state on the planet.

The American President is not regarded as a supporter of the “ultimate equality” of human beings. But closer to home Rancière last year announced on France Culture, that the Gilets Jaunes protests against tax rises on petrol and diesel contains something of his vision come to life. To some their thrust was against the right of Presidents to govern, another appeared to be for more equal treatment. During the broadcast Rancière recommended that should organise and create a “une scène de parole”. Whether this referred to movement’s Cahiers de Doléance and social media was not clear. (4)

Much of the thrust of the diverse Gilets Jaunes movement is equalitarian. But a range of demands, for the resignation of ‘oligarchical’ President Macron, a fairer state system, better public services, and lower taxes, to an end to gay marriage, a halt to usury, and looser speed restrictions, have emerged and been debated on-line. The French state while trying a ‘national debate’ has reacted with heavy-handed violence. On the Gilets Jaunes side thuggish confrontation with ‘fake news’ journalists, has disputed the right of the media barons to broadcast views different to the Gilets Jaunes. It is hard to see Rancière’s frequent calls, for “des formes autonomes de discussion, des formes autonomes de décision” reflected in support for government by continuous referendum.

Has the force of egalitarian freedom has cropped up again, though not perhaps always in a way that all egalitarians would admire. Defending these “ignorant crowds” from the elites are a variety of self-appointed left and right populists, from Jean-Luc Mélenchon to Marine Le Pen. Some have supported their views with detailed pictures of the ‘left behind’, la France péripérhique – an attempted sociological fixture far from his taste for disruption. But many more, from RT to demonstrators, share Rancière’s belief that most of the West is dominated by a simulacrum of democracy. We shall see what impact the Gilets Jaunes Electoral List for this year’s European Elections has. Polls already indicate a score just into double figures.

Many of Rancière opinions are now intelligible to mainstream commentators. Given the often extremely abstract character of his writings, this is an achievement. The aim of this article is to indicate that while he has raised important issues, and made some interesting contributions to thinking about politics, his ideas are flawed and offer little to left politics. Rancière, with all the baggage about elites, plutocrats and oligarchs, and anti-institutional democracy, represents one of the stumbling blocks holding back the creation of a left able to grapple with ‘populism’.

Proletarian Nights.

Rancière’s background is complex. One journey began with a long detour through Althusser’s theory that his brand of Marxist interpretation revealed the “truth” of the continents of history and class struggle in philosophy. (La Leçon d’Althusser 1974). From attacking this “philosophy of order” Marxist Leninist theoretical practice fell apart as Rancière developed a thorough-going assault on the academic establishment.

Perhaps the most significant first step was La Nuit des prolétaires (1981). This tried to undermine the pretension of historians to represent the self-affirmations of the diverse working class as a collective culture. A brush with archives relating to Parisian workers in the years between 1830 and 1840 opened up new prospects. Utopian systems offering a “community of goods”, the voyages of Icarian egalitarian communism, or Saint Simonian doctrines for the Producer are the objects of many brilliant studies. But the worship of Le Nouveau Christianisme, around the Saint-Simonians, Amand Bazard (1791 – 1832) and Père Enfantin (1796 – 1864) was a lot more than an affair of the Priests and hard-core believers.

The Parisian workers Rancière encountered in the records were self-taught, poets, dreamers of emancipation. Saint-Simonian and other doctrines may have left the biggest imprint in the historical record. But the artisans  and factory employees had their own intellectual life. Amongst the dozens, perhaps “hundreds”, of proletarians presented from the 1830s, to the latter half of the century, many made their free nights a refuge from the rhythm of work and rest; a time to think and dream. The passions and speculations of these non-representative people bore witness to a subversion of all doctrines. They refused to fit into and remain in their allotted station. As he would put it in The Emancipated Spectator (2008/9) “These workers, who should have supplied me with information on working conditions and forms of class consciousness provided me with something altogether different: sense of similarity, a demonstration of equality.” They were “spectators and visitors within their own class” “The simple chronicle of their leisure dictated reformulation of the established relations between seeing, doing and speaking.”  (5)

The pages of La Nuit des prolétaraires are presented in a “style indirect libre”.  That is they combine statements reported in the third person, the written record of a vast array of characters, with his own concerns, and opinions, unknown to his subjects. This, and that it often presented in “Le langage poétique” of the cast, has encouraged readers to compare the book to a modernist novel. Nevertheless we can find an overarching theme: outwith their allotted station of life the untypical workers were as interested in the broader social conditions of their class, in their own projects for the future, as any celebrated radical thinker. (6)

Some were also eager to escape into “the leisure of aesthetes”. Disillusion frequently marred their attempts, when comrades opted for their own interests or when well-meaning middle class people found them too forward. In his snatches of free time the joiner Louis Gabriel Gauny – presented in the subsequent Louis Gabriel Gauny. Le philosophe plébéien (1983) – described the ‘panoptical’ Prisons of Work, the Economy of Liberty. He extended his “spéculation métaphysique” from Moses to the declaration of Human Rights, producing Notes for a People, “la ville insurrectionnelle” and théâtres d’émancipation”. Rancière claimed that he had shown how people had breached the “privilege of thought” and enjoyed an independent intellectual life. They did not conform to a scripted role; they failed to measure up to the  “working class identity” drawn by those writing of the rise of the “collectif ouvrier”. They too could be a “peuple philosophique”. (7)

Rancière offered only a sketch of the radical writings of the period he covers. This included thinkers, such as Abbé Félicité de Lamennais, or Victor Considerant, and radical ‘communist’ republicanism in the tradition of ‘Gracchus’ Babeuf. But he had the merit of making Saint-Simonian and Icarian utopian thinking alive through this vivid portrait of early 19th century independent minded workers.

The working class, the proletariat, working class movements, are not, Rancière has retrospectively explained, “real sociological groups” with a unified, a “molar” (in the French philosophical sense of ‘considered as a whole’) presence. There are, as the workers’ nights showed, diverse “modes of symbolisation of a form of being-in-common” that resist efforts to “stand for” them. To put it simply, all those writing social history were suspect until proved otherwise. (8)

Rancière did not work alone. He was part of the collective and journal Révoltes Logiques (1975 – 1985)  Révoltes Logiques had a broad range. After tackling the condescension of social historians, Rancière’s essay in the collection l’empire du sociologue (1984) undertook to demolish the way sociology patronised its objects. The charge was that sociology in France had become a powerless Opposition, poking away at the facts of social inequalities without any effect on them.

In this vein Rancière attacked Pierre Bourdieu, the sociologist of social reproduction, and symbolic violence, through the inheritance, transmission and classification of unequal cultural capital. Like many critics, then and now, he considered Bourdieu used to be a circular banality: the rulers make the system, the system functions to the advantage of the rulers. But he went further. The Sociologist, he charged, was trapped in the long established ‘habitus’ of sociological science, which categorised the lives of the people assigned second-class places. Like the rest of the “intelligentsia post-démocratique et post-marxiste” he had ended up endorsing, if ironically and critically, the inequality inherent in the modern French republic. Bluntly summarised, Professor Bourdieu was a Socialist of the Academy, he spoke from the side of the dominators, not the dominated. (9)

Le Maître Ignorant.

Fresh from these efforts to undermine the Scholars of the Republic Rancière turned to questioning the authority of Education. Its founding principle put the Teacher above the Ignorant. His book on the early radical pedagogue Joseph Jacotot (1770 –1840)  Le Maître Ignorant (1987) took developed the theme. This luminary of the natural parity of intelligence was  – by his own account – successful in getting non-French speaking students at the University of Louvain to grasp a French classic, Fénelon’s didactic romance, Télémaque (1699), with some help from a Dutch parallel text. At the end they were, to his self-reported astonishment, able to write in French, without his help and explanations. After this remarkable feat, it is no less easy to accept that this was achieved without formal instruction in French orthography and grammar.

Rancière set himself up as a “disciple intemporel”, an imaginary student in this class. In his reports, mingled with the Jacotot’s wisdom, enlightened Schooling dispensed with the assumption of Superior bearer of knowledge facing the Ignorant pupil. (Le Maître ignorant). People, Jacotot affirmed, were capable of their own instruction, “seule et sans Maître”. Some may have perhaps noticed that Fénelon sought to impart ready-made lessons, morals of the tale, in Télémaque with the aim of instructing others. Those who have read it generally only remember that it was a critique of arbitrary and absolutist Monarchs with some utopian speculation on the hierarchical communism of the imaginary city of Salente.

Is the direct method more emancipatory than explication through the teacher’s “meta-language”? Not many people who have taught would relish the idea of plunging students headfirst into the classics of a foreign literature. Critics have puzzled at the importance given to this figure, and to the sect founded to spread Jacotot’s good news, the Panécasticiens. Nevertheless few can deny that the principle of the equality of intelligence runs against the questionable academic verification of brightness, and depreciation of stupidity, by a graded diplomas. Education is about putting people into their rightful place.  In this respect he could be said to have made a welcome foray against the “privilege of thought”. That is, provided one has enough cultural capital to grasp the highly wrought sentences littered with ancient Greek words in which this finding is announced. (10)

Rancière put into question the nature of the Authority to articulate and classify the voices of others. The hierarchies this set up moulded society, not just research. When social actors attempt to form a collective, an autonomous “troupe”, there are always those who wish to direct them. Political practitioners try to mount a “mise en scène” in the Theatre of History. The political stage is filled with players who try to don the mask of social groups; attempting to spin the world into a “plutocratic consensus”.

Established elites are not the only ones who try to direct this “theatrocracy”. This string-pulling is a template anybody can use. Rancière has stood all ventriloquists of the People’s Voice. Radical ideologues and parties attempt in their own fashion to write the script of historical actors. They have their own qualifications to determine who shall speak and who shall not. There is a would-be Professor Henry Higgins behind every proletarian Eliza Doolittle. Not unlike, one has to observe at this point, the efforts to instruct the Pygmalions of the People by Populists of Right and Left.

There is a gulf between the people, their genuine “being-in-common’, and the performances authorised on the Platforms of History. Yet Rancière did not extend these thoughts to a historical illustration that begs to be made. That is, to see in the script of Stalinism, the dictatorship of the proletariat in 1930s Russia, the work of “enlightened disinterested pedagogues working for the common good”. Yet his approach dovetails neatly with the claim that this “socialist blueprint” found its origins in Owen and Saint-Simon’s paternalistic desire to engineer a proper environment for their human flock. (11)

This postscript to the Enlightenment, in which people were compelled to act out a macabre comedy, continues to interest and repel.  Rancière attacked the “simplicity of the Marxist revolution” but has as yet halted at the point, so easily taken, of tackling the tragedies that followed the 1917 Revolution. In a passing recognition of the issues he recoiled from the reduction of historical materialism to ‘concentration-camp Marxism’, that is the efforts to condemn all forms of Marxist politics launched in the mid 1970s by the Nouveaux philosophes, and the critic of the Master Thinkers, André Glucksmann. Their compassion for the anguished plebe of Communist regimes – a universally wronged object of suffering – was a tasteless melodrama. (12)

The Philosopher and the Poor.

Rancière’s critique of political philosophy began in parallel to his writings on intellectual emancipation and historical explorations. His next stage was a critique of philosophy and politics. In The Philosopher and His Poor. (1983/2004) an introductory “personal itinerary” outlines his concern with the relation between the “order of thought” and the problem of social order, “as harmony or rupture”. He had been, he addressed the audience, inspired by an interest in how representations of the self and others sustained “hierarchy, consensus, or conflict” and the ways they had been “formed or transformed”.

Many of the answers to these questions lay in the writings of early philosophy, in classical Greece. The Philosophy of Plato occupies the first sections. The Philosopher commences with Plato’s belief that the Cobbler, the artisan citizen, should stick to his Last and not be concerned with affairs of State. Breaking already well-ploughed ground Rancière seized upon this Principle of Specialisation. It places the Self within a pyramid of moral order. Only some beings have the gold to make the grade for moral knowledge. Those stamped by baser metals, the “disguised slaves” who are artisans, cannot enter the realm of philosophy.

Plato’s fable of the Republic imagined a City of Order. It was a programme for communism “removed from the logic of work and property” It was a dream of rule by a caste of golden communist philosophers.

Plato was the first, Rancière would later assert, to challenge the disruptive force of politics. He tried to re-institute the divine Order. This was not ‘totalitarianism’, a proposal for a state out to peer into every nook and cranny of private life. The human chattels of the lesser sort were to perform their duties, no more. Philosophy was an order of Discourse and Nobility whose aim was first and foremost the protection of philosophy, philosophers and their Truth, from the masses. (13)

Jumping a couple of millennia, Marx appeared. The founder of Scientific Socialism occupies Rancière at length. Following generations of (non-cited) historians and political sociologists Rancière took apart Marx’s writings on the 1848 French revolution, the Second Republic and Louis Napoleon’s 1851 Coup d’état. The Scientific Socialist description of the peasantry, .in its “troglodyte dwellings” the basis in finance and landed property, of different political factions of the bourgeoisie, the Orleanists, and the Legitimists, and the concept of the “lumpen proletariat” were not class analysis but “myth”. In this burlesque, a “troupe of substitute comedians” (for which one reads actors, rather than the French comédiens), are unable to perform their historic roles. “The-so-called materialist analysis of different social classes is thus a myth manifesting the perpetual flight of identities and the common dereliction of classes.” The “conjuring away of the class struggle by the prestidigitator Louis Napoleon returns the world to its normal temporality of economic cycles and crises.” (14)

For Rancière’s the issue is not whether Marx offered a faulty account of class fractions and politics, or of individuals. It was that his writings show a will to instruct historical actors in their roles. He excluded proletarians from the “learned science reserved for experts”. He held claim to the “total intelligibility of a world entirely defined by the laws of production and circulation…” Marx and Engels would use these findings to educate utopian “fools” out of their backward culture. Their misguided ‘communism’ would be put out of existence through the “party” with a direct prompts from the directors of history. The “application of science can only be this, learning to interpret the work on the stage of revolution.” The smallest bit part on the boards needed, “The Marxism of the Leader, of the scientists.” He was a pedagogue who taught the “art of becoming historical agents.”  (15)

The book is a hotch-potch – far from helped by Rancière’s convoluted prose. Sartre, in sections which defy common understanding, is taken to task for a variety of faults. These include a “parasitic dialectic” a reflection, he alleges, of Stalinist rhetoric about the danger of “petty bourgeois” elements at work in the 1956 Hungarian uprising. There is something about the “Spinozist denunciation of representation, the free movement of matter, that subjects of history would not have to modify with their parlour games”. Sociologists like Pierre Bourdieu are, one had guessed without feeling the need to inquire further, “Sociologist Kings”. There is little in this summary dismissal to add, that is, to his more considered polemic in L’empire du sociologue.

The claim that this work inched a step forward in explaining consensus, conflict, hierarchies and the presentation of the Self is a bold one. It is only justified in the sense that Rancière showed that his targets were conflicted, inclined to believe the world should bend to intellectual authority, enjoyed a consensus they agreed with, and put their Selves at the forefront of their works. The way in which those “Worthy of command” wish to dominate society and deal with, or try to eliminate, political disorder, could be said to presage the later focus of Rancière’s work. Yet there is no effort made to demonstrate how exactly they influenced any historical pyramid of command.  His next step was to turn from the pretensions of influential philosophers to his own claims about the mechanisms of power, and politics, in the modern world.

From Democratic Dissensus to Consensus.

“Disagreement is not the conflict between one who says white and another who says black. It is the conflict between one who says white and another who also says white but does not understand the same thing by it or does not understand that the other is saying the same thing in the name of whiteness.”  (16)

After The Philosopher and his Poor, there was Disagreement (1995/1999). Plato wished to eliminate politics and replace social norms by the natural order, something he called “archipolitics”. This refers to form of thinking in which the spirit of the Law, a living Logos, transmitted through education, should take the place of legislative deliberation. The classical Greek philosophers’ ideal of rule by the Best, did not have much of a bearing on the world itself. Aristotle recognised this. He opened up a much more influential practical approach to political life.

Aristotle is – commentators observe – entrenched in Rancière’s writings. He was, it is argued, the original thinker of this  “para-politics”. This unlike the stifling ‘archipolitics’ is an unstable mixture of democratic tumult and efforts to eliminate politics. Aristotle, by contrast with Plato, saw that considering the City as One Soul in which everybody should assume their rightful place, did not fit human Speaking Beings. Politics, the characteristic of the human animal and foundation of the City, rested on a natural equality. That is, the capacity of speech, being able to say what is wrong and right, good and bad each from their own mouth. In this human were distinguished from animals whose cries were purely instinctive reactions to pain or pleasure.

Rancière glossed this insight, “The supremely political destiny of man is attested by a sign: the possession of the logos, that is, of speech, which expresses, while the voice simply indicates. What speech expresses, what it makes evident for a community of subjects who understand it, is the useful and the harmful and, consequently, the just and the unjust.” The “possession of the logos”, lays down the ultimate equality of humankind and distinguishes human vocal ability from bestial cries in the face of pain. As political beings, humans can only disagree because they share a rational sameness. At the same time this gift comes with the capacity for disagreement about what is just and unjust. There is no One Spirit holding people together, either actual or potential. Dissensus is hard-wired into speech. (18)

Rancière included in Disagreement words on “The origins of politics”. He announced that philosophy has no self-evident ‘object.  But “philosophical speculation in the field of politics” is about  “equals and unequals”. To Rancière, “Politics arises from an account of community “parts,” which is always a false count, a double count, or a miscount.” To put in another way, resistance to the superior equals’ rule over the unequal demos will is always there. Discord enters with arguments about the division of property, the conditions of life, and the power of decision-making in the polis. Politics, Rancière observes, exists “when the natural order of domination is interrupted by the institution of a part of those who have no part.” Rows about who has this or that portion moreover appear as class issues. “Whoever has no part-the poor of ancient times, the third estate, the modern proletariat-cannot in fact have any part other than all or nothing.” Yet, as we are instructed a few years later, “Political conflict does not involve an opposition between groups with different interests. It forms an opposition between logics that count the parties and parts of the community in different ways.” In other words, conflict it is grounded in speech, the vehicle for making rationality public. (19)

Why should we accept Aristotle’s account? Turning against to our library shelves, early modern philosophical thinking would suggest that at least since John Locke pleasure and pain, expressed with “voice” can, be associated with concepts of the Good and Evil. We are not, therefore, free from indications inspired by our animal cries. This thought, can be traced as well in Thomas Hobbes’ words on Delight and Pain, Good and Evil in The Elements of law Natural and Politic (1640). It introduces the enduring theme of ‘irrationality’ into human language; reason is the slave of the passions. Critical approaches to Rancière indicate that ideas of what people see to their advantage, the rewards they will get from pleasure, or disadvantages through hurtful punishments, can’t be reduced to talk alone. Speech is therefore considered in many voices to represent something earthier, more (perceived and felt) interest bound than just different expressions of the Logos. It is hard to escape this. Rancière did not hesitate to evoke the passions of the workers in La Nuit des Prolétataires. (20)

There is never, he would say in La Haine de la démocratie (2005), any one political principle that can legitimate governments. There could be no deduction from the inherent ‘laws’ of human society, either projected back onto the state of nature. Nobody can resolve the social elements into separate parts (people/contract/social order) and join them together to make ‘politics’.  Political thinking and institutions are not founded by implicit explicit social contracts, in any form, to deal with a pre-existing problem. Furthermore the struggle between the rich and the poor is not a pre-existing social reality. It is created by politics. The interruption of the normal course of things “is the actual institution of politics itself” (my emphasis). This is the moment when the ‘natural order” (theorised by ‘Philosophy’) of shepherd kings, or warlords, or property owners, and Rulers is challenged by, “a freedom that crops up and makes real the ultimate equality on which any social order rests.” (21)

Against this is a theory and practice of para-politics. Aristotle proposed, Rancière wrote in Disagreement, “the realisation of a natural order of politics as a constitutional order by the very inclusion of what blocked any such realisation: the demos, either in the form of exposure of the war between the “rich” and the “poor,”’ or in the ultimate form of the effectiveness of an egalitarian anarchy.” The promotion of common social virtues is one of the forms that eliminate the rights of the downtrodden and lower classes. The checks and balances of early ‘para-politics’ illustrate how equality is thwarted through involvement in the games of the state. The simulacrum of adaption to the popular “supplement” is the original vice of para-politics. (22)

The ‘Police’.

The Police, the name, he gives to the rule of order, is the pillar of these attempts at consensus. “Politics is generally seen as the set of procedures whereby the aggregation and consent of collectivities is achieved, the organisation of powers, the distribution of places and roles, and the systems for legitimising this distribution. I propose to give this system of distribution and legitimisation another name. I propose to call it the police.”

As he would put it in  Dissensus, (2010), This is a “symbolic construction of the social’. Yet, “The police is not the law which interpellates individuals (as in Louis Althusser’s ‘Hey, you there!’), not unless it is confused with religious subjection. It consists, before all else, in recalling the obviousness of what there is, or rather of what there is not, and its slogan is: ‘Move along! There’s nothing to see here!’ The police is that which says that here, on this street, there’s nothing to see and so nothing to do but move along. It asserts that the space for circulating is nothing but the space of circulation. Politics, by contrast, consists in transforming this space of ‘moving-along’, of circulation, into a space for the appearance of a subject: the people, the workers, the citizens.”  It is a kind of routine order that we barely notice. The Police, then, a term he refers to Foucault’s later use in this writings on ‘governmentality’, is firstly the principle of creating order not of simply enforcing it.   (23)

Rancière denied the right of political philosophers to speculate on the nature of government on the basis, one might simplify, of abstract theory. These outlines of the operations of Power and Governmentality might mislead the simple-minded reader – one can picture Rancière’s wry smile!  – to take this as social theory informed by empirical study. But, Rancière is concerned with concepts illustrated by a few examples. The Police, regulating social positions (in the broadest sense), the Law, an “order of bodies”, traffic regulators for the people, is bound up, today with the politics of humanitarian intervention, a proto “World Police”. Rancière separated, following a distinction popularised by Claude Lefort, le politique, the forms of command and administration, in which the police is key, and la politique, the dissensual waves rocking them. Where this power comes from, its material basis, its embodiment in regimes of government, its ‘micro-powers’ (to use Foucault again) is left hanging in the air.

We might as well call the Police Dixon of Dock Green. We barely notice his reassuring presence. Except when we do. Rancière has produced commentaries on the “suppression” of dissensual conflicts that spring from the “surplus”, the Part of those with No-Part – the “elite” hatred of “democracy.” In La Haine de la Démocratie election through the ballot box, is itself considered an “oligarchical principle” – at the root of elite consensual dominance. Amongst his afterthoughts Rancière noted that the fight for universal suffrage, even in Britain, had often been stained by blood. The result, Parliamentary Monarchy, is a “mixed” system. Nevertheless the oligarchy, at least in his record,  has turned every democratic struggle to its own advantage.

The “mutation” in the historical order in which people, in however flawed a manner, had gained according to Claude Lefort, through the “disincorporation of power and disincorporation of right” some semblance of equal rights, to vote, to have equality, be it ‘formal’ before the law, is thus dismissed. This history, of the evolution of “representation”, said to originate in the mechanisms of legal delegation (Latin procurator) and the mandating practices of mediaeval Church synods and councils  is obscure. But there is equally little doubt that people have not fought for the suffrage but for these delegates to stand for what they are sent to an assembly for. No doubt oligarchs, or more simply, anybody in power, fear that elections carry risks. . But they seem always to have been on the winning side. Have the efforts of the masses, the part of no-part, only, as Rancière, grudgingly concedes, only made their conditions a little more bearable, while leaving the elites in charge? (24)

It is no surprise that neither in Disagreement, Dissensus, nor in subsequent works, is there any kind of egalitarian motor able to take over, change, or thoroughly reform the state machine. Politics, the form of life which the police exists to suppresses, is not about interests at all. Working class identity is not so much an objective product with political results but a form of speech. “Proletarian” subjectification defines a subject of wrong-by superimposition in relation to the multitude of workers. What is subjectified is neither work nor destitution, but the simple counting of the uncounted, the difference between an inegalitarian distribution of social bodies and the equality of speaking beings. “ (25)

In brief, it is the awareness of this fundamental equality that pushes people to recognise that they are in the “not-quite” status of apple-cart upsetters.  As a political agent “It is an operator that connects and disconnects different areas, regions, identities, functions, and capacities existing in the configuration of a given experience-that is, in the nexus of distributions of the police order and whatever equality is already inscribed there, however fragile and fleeting such inscriptions may be.” From this description of heteroclite identities, we move to networked ones, “A workers’ strike, for example, in its classic form, may bring together two things that have “nothing to do” with one another: the equality proclaimed by the Declaration of the Rights of Man and some obscure question concerning hours of work or workshop regulation. The political act of going out on strike then consists in building a relationship between these things that have none, in causing the relationship and the non relationship to be seen together as the object of dispute.” (26)

That is, there are many factors that make proletarian protests emancipatory but not simple bread and butter interests. Neither is a ready-formed identity, forged in the factory or mill. It was crying out, on the basis of a universalism that had no specific home, a nowhere that is everywhere that broke the bonds of the Police order. A politics based on furthering the interests of existing classes, class struggle, accepts the function and distribution of roles in a given society. Emancipation, universalism, is a break with this set up. The proletariat is the symbolical class of the non-class. Those with familiar with the Leninist gloss on Kautsky, that the working class on its own creates mere trade union reformist ideology, will find a twist there. Only the symbolic identity as ‘proletarian’ escapes the trap of falling into the hands of the Police and eventual absorption into the consensus.

Those who will have not skipped the dense and abstract passages cited above  – representative of Rancière’s writing then and now (they barely differ in the French original)  – may have noticed another point. Throughout Rancière’s writings there is a studious avoidance of the most dissensual politics of all, the point at which disagreement destabilises the state. That is, Marx’s “locomotive of history” – revolution. A few sorties against Marx’s “myth” of the old mole of revolution, a longer discussion on the reams of books alleging that the French Revolution was the origin of ‘totalitarian democracy”, and a dismissal of Marx’s alleged ‘meta-political’ call for a post-political world of communal harmony, put to one side, there is a void.

The Great Absence: Revolution.

In a number of places Rancière reflects on Hannah Arendt’s rendering of the concept of arkhêin, to begin, to lead, “eventually to rule”, in order to offer his own account of them start of politics as such. But he does not extend the thought to reflection on revolutionary beginnings in politics in the German-American philosopher’s writing. Giorgio Agamben, with whom Rancière is said to share a common concern with events “heterogeneous to the established order” has talked about disruption in relations between ‘bare life”, the household and politics. The writer of Homo Sacer lines this right up to stasis, which he renders as civil war, but others denote as “sedition”, upsetting order by groups who aim for political change. Attempting to grapple with the nature of an infinitely more radical event Claude Miller has written a love letter to the French Revolution. 1789 was the assertion of the rights of speaking beings,  “corps parlants” (Relire la Révolution. 2016). In it he dismisses one of Rancière’s few remotely feasible proposals,  That is, a return to the Athenian practice of assigning political office (effectively judicial officials) by lot. Miller calls it an aesthetic “posture”. (27)

Many thinkers have thought about the  “unsocial sociability” of human beings. If revolution is one aspect of how dissensus can lead to violent upheavals war itself is an issue. The history of ancient Greece is probably all the more familiar for the record of bloody civil strife. The best-preserved recorded speeches in favour of Athenian democracy, by Pericles (500 – 429 BCE), are concerned with war against external enemies. It is hard, looking at the conflicts of the last century and the present day, genocides and genocidal regimes, to dismiss the issues dissensual human violence raises.

In Chronicles of Consensual Times Rancière criticised Humanitarian Interventionism.  This is “the twofold system, military and and sistential (sic), by which the consensus of the rich contains the excess of the war of the poor. The defeated peoples, the individuals denied – all are treated by the humanitarian regime as though they were constituted by ethnicism – as victims, as masses. The Kosovars or the Bosnians – and the Serbs, too – are also individuals as singular and as different from one another as we claim to be, are the participants of an intellectual and artistic life capable of just as much sophistication as ours, and are the actors of a public life marked by as many antagonisms, but the humanitarian regime is not bothered about this one bit. Ethnic purification, the dissuasive war and humanitarian assistance all share a common logic of massification….” (28)

Those wishing to help the suffering of victims of mass murder are bundled together with mass murderers, the calculations of western states and their violence with those of genocidal regimes. Is the “para-political’ consensus pattern a template to impose a perpetual peace through Universal Despotism, on the back of doctrines of international humanitarian right? Infinite Justice is imposed on the masses. “On one side, the world of good: that of consensus eliminating political litigation in the felicitous harmonisation of right and fact, of ways of being and values; on the other, the world of’ evil, in which wrong is, on the contrary, infinitised and where it can only be played out as a war unto death.” The suppression of dissensus by the oligarchical elite of consensual societies is the common thread between them. (29)

It is difficult to see the link between the genocides carried out by ethnic and religious nationalists, armed Western intervention and the actions of NGOs wishing to bring aid to the suffering. There is a point where theoretical political rhetoric descends into the gutter, and Rancière reached it here.


“Emancipation means the communism of intelligence, enacted in the demonstration of the capacity of the ‘incapable: the capacity of the ignorant to learn by himself, says Jacotot. We can add: the capacity of the worker to let his eyes and mind escape from the world of his hand, the capacity of a community of workers to stop work even though it does not wait and even through they need it fore their livelihoods, to transform the private sphere of the workshop into a public space. To organise production by their own forces, Or to take in the task of governing activity that its rulers have deserted or betrayed…” (30)

Bruno Bosteels remarks that “all of Rancière’s work is meant to break down the normative claim and hierarchical pretence implicit in the notion that any one person or class of persons would indeed have a lesson to teach to any other person or class.” Nevertheless he clearly does have a number of “lessons of equality” is to teach. Foremost amongst them is the course on equality. That is the way in which those who are not counted in politics assert their right to speak.

The choice of the 2007 French referendum on the French Condition to illustrate the way in which the “elite” tried to silence the masses did not accompany any celebration of the dispersed voices of the ‘populist’ masses. Rather he discerned in the reactions of the “oligarchs” of left and right the wish to render democracy mute. He chose to turn a blind eye to the the heteroclite voices of the “non” vote”, above to those whose desire was for stronger state sovereignty amongst those who mobilised against an “alliance des oligarchies étatiques et des oligarchies financières.” Perhaps he has considered the Movements of the Squares more promising, though Rancière noted that the French movement, Nuit Debout, had no power of decision-making. That is, none of these protests results in debates about a decision, about something to do, to do in common. The Gilets Jaunes may be a more promising scène of speech. But very few would claim many, if any, of them dream of escaping the world of work or wish to organise production themselves. (31)

What we are presented with is an anti-Leviathan. The Police, the Oligarchy, are faced up to by the masses, sneered at for their “populist” demands. Enter the drama of Equality, the demos, the free play of the passions, the assertion of that unseizeable moment, carried by no historical necessity. The ‘scandal of democracy” rocks the oligarchs. We do not know exactly what oligarchs are, any more than we do about their other names, “elites” “plutocrats” but we know a lot about how they rule.  Rancière tells us that the demos will (or should)  never, never, demand guarantees from any “forme institutionnelle”, nor place any hopes in them, The oligarchs are always there to turn their acts to their own advantage.

As Frédéric Lordon noticed  – he is far from the first to do so – genuine moments of democratic energy, real politics, are for Rancière, brief and rare. The demos rises up against the oligarchical institutions. Poff! The tumult is over.  For the moment. (32)

Conclusion: from Althusser to anti-Populist Populism

It is hard to take full measure of the reach and scope of Rancière’s ambitions.  He has stated that his arguments are a “few pointers” at the “aporias” in political philosophy He denies that he has far-reaching goals, only to turn round and extend the field of operations, from the struggle of the part of the no-part to the critique of the World Police.

Rancière’s approach, Anders Fjeld cites, is “systématicité antisystématique”, systematically against systems. Steven Corcoran calls this intervention in theory as a  “dissensual activity”. Bruno Bosteels, who traces his work back to the break with Althusser, suggests that there is a “double procedure”  “to reinsert something (a discourse, a practice, or a regime of doing, seeing, or speaking) in its system of constraints and to derail this system of constraints itself.” More bluntly Eric Méchoulan states,  “Texts appear in a kind of perfectly autonomous world where the discontinuity of doctrines plays on the background of a historical linking of ages and societies, as if no real difference between the ancient Greeks and us truly mattered.” And yet, this admirer finds it within himself to say that, “The philosophers he analyses play more a role of developers of history’s film than originators of a whole regime. Yet the leitmotiv of Rancière’s work, the human capacity to differ, vies for pole position amongst the oldest saws in any dictionary of sayings. (33)

Rancière’s position has been called ‘post-Althusserian’ – Slavoj Žižek’s term. This is the case in the sense that his writings can be illuminated by reference to his thinking after an apprenticeship in the Marxism of the Rue d’Ulm. But Rancière’s journey has taken him beyond a Marxist framework in another, more profound, sense. In the Preface to Disagreement (1995), written a few years after the collapse of Official Communism, Rancière declared that he was now able to discuss politics without being pursued by the shadow of historical materialism. “Cobbled for a long time by Marxism, which turned the political into the expression, or mask, of social relationships, subject to poaching by the social and the social sciences.” Yet, and readers of the previous pages will have expected this, this turn, welcome as it was, fell short of Rancière’s standards. Žižek described left-wing theorists who had escaped the “ontic” foundations of political expression in modes of production and social classes.  Embracing the latter, but not the former Rancière remarked, regretfully,  “today, with the collapse of state Marxisms and the end of utopias, political philosophy is supposed to be finding its contemplative purity in the principles and forms of a politics itself returned to its original purity thanks to the retreat of the social and its ambiguities.”  (34)

This comes out in the moments that Bosteels calls “axiomatic enunciation”. More directly, this is a set of bald assertions about the fundamental nature, the ontology, of politics. “Politics is primarily conflict over the existence of a common stage and over the existence and status of those present on it.” Rancière’s lodestone, equality, is a disruptive force – we learn, if nothing else – that magnetises the conflicts that play out on this scene. But, to follow Bosteels again, this is always a matter of revolts amongst “various logics”. To put it another way, as an anti-hierarchical, anti-institutional, anti-consensual “torsion” twisting away inside social order, conflicts arising around equality are ‘nominalist’ (singular) to the point where they are never the “same”. This approach, it is not hard to imagine, takes us away from any referent, that is concrete history and politics. Without undue modesty Rancière makes little, if any, reference to more than a handful of histories of the modern state and politics, the wider literature on social power, or to those theories of democracy without a prominent place in French left of centre debate during the period in which he is writing. (35)

Rancière’s pages have been mined for abstractions. For Jodi Dean our Political Pastors can be challenged by the demos, the people, the “part of no-part”, a way in which society has a  “non-coincidence with itself”. This is “a gap in an existing order” offering “other possible arrangements”, ones whose explanation involves a detour in the recondite theories of Jacques Lacan (The Communist Horizon. 2018) (36)

The highly educated radical may find this of interest. But this is not the core of  the thinker’s importance. Rancière, as he would be the first to admit, knows something about disagreement, and about how the ‘elites’ denigrate the masses. He has written about oligarchies and elites, above all in La Haine de la Démocratie, in ways which are now commonplace.  He has expanded the idea of democratic struggle. He has spoken of the ways in which people contest their station in life that echo the diffuse ways in which popular revolts have emerged over recent years.

Yet the writings on populism failed to anticipate just how “molar” (whole) the present-day image of the Oligarchy has become. From attacks on critics of the unruly people, anti-anti-populism, his writings veered towards some of the most contestable populist themes. The picture of an ‘oligarchy’ grasping  not just political power but wealth, and capable of mounting consensual tricks to ward off dissent, is closer to the conspiratorial portrait of “post-democracy” than perhaps he might care to admit.  This radicalism locates class injustice in politics, not that of workers’ interests and certainly not in capitalism. It makes  fights against class exploitation invisible except when it takes  shape around the ‘oligarchy’ Perhaps government, the Police, has many faults, but private profit goes into private hands, and wages, at least for many people, are not state allocated. Nor indeed would every modern radical agree that elected representation is a closed monopoly of a ‘caste’. There would be little point in populists standing for election if it were.

Populism is also a problem – it certainly is for the left. Is hatred of democracy, by which Rancière meant loathing for his own concept of democracy, confined to elites? Does national populism also include dislike for egalitarian principles, promoting ethnic and national differences?  How Rancière would treat populist government remains to be seen, but one thing is clear. Despite offering many thoughts on equality, he has yet to indicate how an egalitarian movement can change society and politics once in power.


  1. Page 16. Jacques Rancière Disagreement (La mésentente) Originally published as La Mésentente: Politique ET philosophie, 1995 Editions Galilee. 1999 Translated Julie Rose. University of Minnesota Press. Page 303.
  2. In La contre-démocratie. Pierre Rosanvallon. Seuil 2006. Rosanvallon states that Rancière was probably the first to use the expression “post-démocratie” in La Mésentente (1995). On ‘elites’ paternal concerns Page 123. Chronicles of Consensual Times (2010), tr. by Steven Corcoran. Continuum. Page 113. Jacques Rancière Disagreement. Op cit.
  3. Page 71. Jacques Rancière La Haine de le Démocratie.La Fabrique. 2005. Jacques Rancière Interview. Le Monde 6th of July 2018
  4. France Culture. Jacques Rancière : Quelle égalité de la parole en démocratie?
  5. Jacques Rancière. The Emancipated Spectator. Translated Gregory Elliot. Verso. 2009 (2008)
  6. Style indirect libre James Swenson. In History, Politics, Aesthetics Jacques Rancière Gabriel Rockhill and Philip Watts. Eds. Duke University Press Durham and London
  7. La Nuit des Prolétaries. Op cit. Chapter 12. Le Voyage de Icare. Louis Gabriel
  8. On the impossibility of imposing unity on a history of diverse working class and popular voices and the editorial strategy of les Révoltes logiques. », préface à l’édition des Scènes du peuple, en 2003 Cited in: Page 82. David Amalric et Benjamin Faure : « Réappropriation des savoirs et subjectivations politiques : Jacques Rancière après Mai 68 » Dissensus. No 5. Mai 2013. This is Rancière’s summary, looking back at Les Nuits, Pages 5 – 6. A coffee with Jacques Rancière beneath the Acropolis January 2018. I personally, being there at the time, do not recall any particular greater centrality about popular history in the 1980s under Mitterrand’s Presidency. Like the British and other European lefts this has always been a central, and valued, theme amongst the French left.
  9. L’éthique de la sociologie in L’Empire du sociologue. Collectif Révoltes logiques. Editions La Découverte. 1984.
  10. See: Pages 7-8. Le Maître ignorant: Cinq leçons sur l’émancipation intellectuelle, Fayard 1987. And Entretien avec Jacques Rancière à propos de l’ouvrage Le Maître ignorant Anne Lamalle et Guy Dreux. Regards, n°28, janvier-mars 2005. A critical account is given here:  Jacques Bolo Jacques Rancière : Le maître ignorant (1987). Exergue. C:\Documents and Settings\Compaq_Owner\Desktop\Texts\Exergue – Jacques Ranciere, Le maitre ignorant.htm. We have it on Rancière’s authority, that Télémarique was read by worker autodidacts, revolutionaries, traditional educationists and the enlightened bourgeoisie. Rancière makes this claim on Page 40. La Nuit des prolétaries. One cannot dispute this, any more than the fact that many people read Samuel Johnson’s fable Rasselas for pleasure and instruction on the vanity of human wishes (as this writer does). The political insinuation implied is left hanging in the air
  11. A postscript to the Enlightenment,. Chapter 7. David Caute. The Fellow Travellers. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973
  12. In the Preface to the English Edition, “Staging the People” op cit.
  13. Page 51.The Philosopher and his Poor. Jacques Rancière. Translated John Drury, Corrine Oster and Andrew Parker.  Duke University Press.2004.
  14. Sentences from Pages 91, 93, 99, 105 164 The Philosopher and his Poor.
  15. Pages 127, 217.Page 121. 291 The Philosopher and his Poor On training the workers for their roles see notably. Pages 102 – 121. Philosopher Op cit.
  16. Black and white cited in This Disagreement is Not One: The Populisms of Laclau, Rancière, and Arditi. Paul Bowman Research papers from the School of Arts Roehampton. 2007
  17. Page 16. .Rancière, Disagreement (La mésentente) Originally published as La Mésentente: Politique et philosophie, 1995 Editions Galilee. 1999 Translated Julie Rose. University of Minnesota Press. The principal reason to cite the original title is the word Mésentente, as its contrary, familiar English, entente implies, has a number of connotations beyond disagreement, including dispute..
  18. Page 17 Op cit.
  19. Page 11. Page 35 Dissensus op cit.
  20. The point about John Locke is made in Sophisticated Continuities and Historical Discontinuities, Or, Why Not Protagoras? Eric Méchoulan. in History, Politics, Aesthetics Jacques Rancière Gabriel Rockhill and Philip Watts. Duke University Press Durham and London 2009.  Page vii.  Op cit. Preface.
  21. Page 16 Page 58. La Haine de la démocratie (2005)
  22. Page 72 Op cit.
  23. Page 28. Page 27 Dissensus. On Politics and Aesthetics Jacques Rancière. Edited and Translated by Steven Corcoran. Continuum. 2010.
  24. La Haine. Op cit. Claude Lefort. The Political Forms of Modern Society Bureaucracy, Democracy, Totalitarianism. Edited and Introduced by John B. Thompson 1986. Polity Press.
  25. Page 38 Disagreement.
  26. Page 40 Disagreement,.
  27. Hannah Arendt. On Revolution. 1990 (1963) Giorgio Agamben, Stasis. Civil War as a Political Paradigm. Translated by Nicholas Heron, Edinburgh University Press. 2015. See also: Giorgio Agamben. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (1995) Page 278. Relire la Révolution. 2016). In it he dismisses one of Rancière’s few remotely feasible proposals. That is, a return to the Athenian practice of assigning political office (effectively judicial officials) by lot. Miller calls it an aesthetic “posture” Page 278). Rancière’s reflections on allocating public posts by lot (‘tirage au sort’) are on Pages 49 to 51 in La Haine. Op cit.
  28. Page 46. Chronicles of Consensual Times (2010), tr. by Steven Corcoran. Continuum.
  29. Page 96. Chronicles of Consensual Times
  30. Page 168. Communists without Jacques Rancière. In The Idea of Communism. Edited by Costas Douzinas and Slavoj Žižek. Verso 2010.
  31. Page 93. La Haine de le Démocratie.
  32. Structures et affects des corps politiques. Frédéric Lordon. La Fabrique. 2012.
  33. Page 38. Anders Fjeld. Jacques Rancière. Pratiquer l’égalité. Michalon Editeur. 2018. Steven Corcoran. Introduction to Dissensus. Dissensus. On Politics and Aesthetics Jacques Rancière Edited and Translated by Steven Corcoran. Continuum. 2010. Page 171. Rancière’s Leftism. Bruno Bosteels. in History, Politics, Aesthetics Jacques Rancière Gabriel Rockhill and Philip Watts. Eds. Duke University Press Durham and London Sophisticated Continuities and Historical Discontinuities, Or, Why Not Protagoras? Eric Méchoulan Pages 56, 60 also in History, Politics, Aesthetics Jacques Rancière.
  34. Jacques Rancière Preface. Disagreement. Page 69. The Lesson of Rancière. Slavoj Žižek. In: The Politics of Aesthetics. The Distribution of the Sensible The Politics of Aesthetics. Jacques Rancière. Continuum. 2005
  35. Rancière’s Leftism. Bruno Bosteels. Op cit.
  36. Pages 79 – 82. Jodi Dean. The Communist Horizon. 2018 (2012). See also Alex Demirović. Radical Democracy and Socialism. Socialist Register 2018. Merlin 2018


Written by Andrew Coates

January 25, 2019 at 3:03 pm

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