Jacques Rancière: The anarchy of democracy

During the French presidential campaign, the candidates and the media saturated the environment with references to the “people”.  Before the final results, on the 7th of May, the journal Ballast conducted an interview with Jacques Rancière on the use and misuse of the term.  We share the text, in translation, for its intrinsic interest – Rancière, over the course of his work, has developed an essentially anarchist interpretation of “democracy”, a concept also much criticised within the anarchist tradition – as well as, as a kind of unintentional commentary on Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s essay, “The involuteers of the fatherland”, posted earlier.

For Viveiros de Castro, a “people” are necessarily tied to a place, to land; there is even an ethnic dimension to the concept, with all of the risks that this carries, ethnocentrism being the most obvious.  For Rancière however, the concept “people” is fundamentally ambiguous, always a “subject” in the making, constructed in the very heart of political struggle.  As such, there is nothing intrinsically radical or revolutionary in it, nothing that renders it “natural” in any way.  The difference here may in the end be semantic, but Rancière’s reading of the concept renders it much more politically fragile.

What both authors however share, for different reasons, is the idea that politics is impossible without a “people”.  And this may generate a further set of question: is not the insistence on the need for a “people” a perpetuation of the (illusory?) need for a revolutionary subject, for a sovereign agent of political change?  And if so, does it not carry with it all of the ambiguities and dangers of sovereignty?  Perhaps it is the very idea of government that must be challenged; a challenge that remains stillborn with the demand for a “people united”.

A debate to be continued … 

Jacques Rancière: “The people is a construction”

The notion of democracy is omnipresent in your work.  Blanqui thought that it was nevertheless a word of “rubber”, as it was so much without form and recoverable.  Why do you insist so much on the term? 

For there to be politics, there must be a specific political subject.  This is my fundamental idea.  It is not sufficient for there to be people who govern and others who obey.  It is the great initial separation between the art of husbandry and politics: this last always presupposes that the same person who governs is governed.  It was this that appeared to me important to ascertain the relation between democracy and politics.  For there to be politics, there must be something that is called the people: it must, at the same time, be the object upon which political activity is exercised and the subject/agent of the said activity.  In all of the ordinary models of the “art of governing”, a certain dissymmetry is assumed: there is a mass to be managed and those who have the capacity to do it – the legitimacy of power functions in this way.  “Democracy” is not, at its origin, the name of a political regime, but an insult (the government of the less than nothings, the government of rogues).  It is that government of people who have as a property the possession of no property that authorises them to govern, no property that distinguishes those who are fit to govern from those who are fit to be governed.  It is for this reason that it seemed to me pertinent to preserve this word; it is that which speaks of the absence of any fundamental legitimacy of power, that which says that all power is contingent – the power of the oligarchic authorities that we are familiar with, as well as that of the avant-garde which rules in the name of the revolution.

The important idea in democracy is that the ruler is anyone – which is to say no one.  It is radical equality, that which is found below all particular constitutional or representative forms.  There is therefore a clear opposition between the idea of the republic and the idea of democracy: the first is a kind of government, a way of managing society, a constitution and a collective body – we see it coming back strongly today, with the theme of republicanism (which supposes a common culture or a collective identity).  The idea of democracy, on the other hand, signals the radical absence of a common corporeality and of legitimate authority.  I wanted to think outside the classical schemas, even marxist (the opposition between formal and real democracy).  And I recalled the inherent division in the notion.  As I noted in La Haine de la démocratie, democracy, as an egalitarian idea, is today attacked by people who belong to so called “democratic” regimes.  The same people, who are always ready to support american military campaigns to export democracy and who praise democracy against “totalitarianism” or “religious fundamentalism”,  have set about attacking the meaning of democracy with extreme vigour and opposing to it that of the “Republic”.  The words have a history and I hold to it.

Let us proceed with the work on words.  You have often written about your refusal of the historical necessity and of the supposed determinations of the terms “conservative”, “progressive” and “reactionary”: from that perspective, do they  still have any meaning in your eyes? 

These three words will always define themselves from within a historical sequence, but they have in reality no global value.  If there is a real conflict that deserves to be named, it is that between equality and inequality, between a non-egalitarian thought that structures being-together and an egalitarian thought.  What called my attention in the idea of intellectual emancipation, through the figure of Joseph Jacotot, in the 19th century, and his criticism of progressivism, is precisely that: progress could have meant the progress of equality and the hope for a more just world, but, at the same time, it is based on a non-egalitarian model: that of the master who guides the student so that one day this last can become the equal of the first thanks to the knowledge that the master transmited to her/him.  The ground of the critique of the progressive model (and of the pedagogical model in general) is that the very method that is supposed to produce a future equality, from the present inequality, is a model that reproduces indefinitely the non-egalitarian situation: the master must always be one step ahead of the student so as to guide her/him on the path of equality – which will of course never be reached …  Two things must be kept in mind simultaneously: one can always, in a specific conjuncture, define a perspective for the maintenance of hierarchical order (that one can call “conservative” or “reactionary”) and an  egalitarian perspective (that one can call “progressive”).  But the fact remains that, fundamentally, progress became a conservative idea in that it induces in turn the idea of an ordered movement: the power that commands the forward march and, in parallel, the power that has it that this march always produces the same results – namely, the same hierarchy between s/he who forces the march forward and s/he who follows.

Apart from a few critical persons, such as Bensaïd or Löwy, how do you explain the fact that leftist movements, more or less radical, still present themselves as “progressives”?

This word, though, has today little meaning.  There is a time or there was one in which it did (one was in accord with a certain meaning of History, one supposed that this latter progressed towards emancipation, liberation and a future of equality).  But the 19th and 20th centuries taught us a lesson: History does not progress because History does not exist.  There is no global historical movement that would carry the egalitarian movements.  Thus, I come back to my point: the clear opposition remains between equality and inequality.  You know as well as I do: nowadays, the right likes to say that the left is reactionary, backward looking, archaic and conservative because it doesn’t want the “necessary changes”.  For thirty or forty years now, we are witness to a kind of inversion of progressive marxist discourse: it is the right that has recuperated the meaning of History, it is the right that explains the sacrifices that should be made in the name of the future, that explains that the archaic social laws, social services, and the like, must be abandoned.  These cleavages, that defined reflexes, habits, are today blurred.  One only has to think of the way in which a series of leftist themes have been turned around, for three decades, to understand that it is necessary to clarify the use of “temporal” terms, when it comes to evaluating political conduct and practices.

In La Mésentente, you write that politics is always “local and occasional”.  Yet, you have often made it known that you do not think in terms of the Event.  What nuances do you bring to this issue? 

If there is politics, it is not simply because there are peoples, sovereigns and laws, but because there is a specific structuring of the being-in-common.  Politics does not always exist, but only when an excess proper to politics is preserved – in other words, when the political people are always more than the population counted by a census, more than the ensemble of social groups, more than the electoral people controlled by the government, more than the people probed by polling institutes.  There is politics as long as this surplus is manifested: when there is, for example, a people in the streets who oppose the people managed by the government, the parliament and the large institutions; when people gather in the Puerta del Sol, in Madrid, to say to the others that they don’t represent them; when a people, who are more than a people incorporated in a State (as subjects of administration) finds itself in tension with the latter.  This is a first point.  A second is that politics always maintains itself in function of the moment of events.  If one takes the history of France: 1789, 1830, 1848, the Commune, 1936, the Liberation and 1968.  If there are parties and long term strategies, it is because there are moments of rupture, moments of delegitimation of the powers in place, of the distribution of powers, of the division of powers between those who govern and those who are governed, of the separation between political spaces and those that are not.  Revolutionary or subversive moments are what makes politics.  We can call this an “event”, but what interests me is the way that these events reconfigure the distribution even of spaces, times and social identities.  Also, I am to some extent suspicious of the Event thought as a kind of transcendence, as the rising up of something opening up the course of History – this is the object of contradictory exchanges with Alain Badiou.  It is through events that there is politics, but such events are not of a nature to be elucidated by any science or specific discourse with the subsequent aim of making them the principle of an avant-garde.  I am opposed to the transcendental conception of the political chief as s/he who interprets the event.

You mentioned Badiou.  He in fact reproaches you, during a debate filmed by Mediapart, of leaving your reader uncertain, “at the end of it all”, as regards the “use” that can be made of your thought.  In preparing this interview, it was also a remark that was made to us.  A recurrent objection, thus no doubt tiresome: how is it that you are always being asked “what to do”?  

It is better, in one sense, not to know what to do.  We know in effect what became of the knowledge of those who knew what to do.  This knowledge never attained the ends expected and most of those who proclaimed it became adorers of the existing order.  A suspensive thought is thus opportune.  It consist in recognising that there is no theory capable of leading us to liberation, to the final emancipation.  If there were one, and it was the right one, I don’t see why it didn’t work.  One doesn’t know what to do with what I say?  On the hand, that is not particular to me: who knows what to do today?  The Invsible Committee, for example, hedges between an avant-gardist theory of exemplary action, alone able to stir the masses and shake them out of their torpor, and, conversely, a theory of withdrawal borrowed from Giorgio Agamben.  There was a time when Badiou attacked me saying that politics is only possible in the heart of political organisations, as militants/activists; today, Badiou is no longer a member of an organisation and he continues nevertheless, constantly, to write about politics without that implying any specific action.  The difference that is specific to me is that I declare the irreducible divide between the analyses of situations and the consequences that can be inferred from them; it is in having problematised the simplistic model of theory that one simply applies and posed to my interlocutors the question of knowing what they wanted.  What do we want?  That is the real question.  Most radical discourses pretend as if the only question were what are the good means to reach the presumably always identical end, whereas we no longer know what this end is – even my editor and friend Éric Hazan, when he describes the “first revolutionary measures” …

… many of his recent writings are in effect precise programs, almost manuals for the future society.

It is the passage from the before to the after that, in his work, is rather badly programmed.  His last book, La Dynamique de la révolte, states that the only successful revolution (and this for a relatively short period of time) is that of October, in Russia – and, says he, by a stroke of luck!  All of the programmatic logics failed or are bric-a-brac.  And if there was a moment when one had the impression of a logic of engagement between means and ends, today it is expired.  The question to pose is: where can one discern something new?  It is what I tried to say, with the recent movements of the Indignant, Occupy, etc.  The question is not to know how to transform these movements into a new revolutionary organisation, but to understand what they wanted.  What do the people who gathered in a square for a month want?  To live differently for a month?  To constitute little islands separated from the dominant world?  A radical transformation of society?  But, in this case, how to bring it about, how to think it as realisable?  This is what I was able to discern as tensions in the history of the egalitarian will, the revolutionary will.  The essential question, to my eyes, is to define oneself in relation to these tensions.

We are witness to an evolution in the discouse of certain mass movements.  Mélenchon abandons the referent “left” to substitute for it “people” and Podemos, in Spain, has forsaken the left/right cleavage for that of people/caste.  How do you see this?

Is it profound?  I don’t know.  The Spanish situation is essentially grounded in the 15M movement (a step to the side in relationship to institutional politics and the radical or Trotskyist left): the Indignants mark a rupture.  They embody new popular practices that try to define a democratic action through the creation of specific spaces or by long-term actions, like the struggle against evictions.  Over and against this, there is the logic of “the left of the left”: the Left Front and Mélenchon, in France, and Syriza in Greece.  They try to recuperate the dynamic of these popular movements.  Podemos is a sort of compromise between these two dynamics.  The Indignants or Occupy intended to constitute a power apart from the state and the electoral game; the left of the left wants to build on these movements to create a new left.  That is why they want to recuperate the notion of the people and re-valorise it conceptually – notably on the basis of Laclau‘s theories on populism.  A particularly ambiguous idea.  It relies on the one hand on a logic of autonomy (a people who manifests itself against the dominant and electoral logic) and, on the other hand, on the re-valorisation of the people, in its electoral significance.  One regrets having abandoned it, to have left it to the National Front and movements of the extreme right.  From that moment on, they all move along this same ambiguity: firstly, the autonomy of an anonymous people, the uncounted is affirmed, people who do not define themselves by any capacity to govern; alternatively, there is the intention to speak at the same time in the name of the abandoned and forsaken people, but also in the name of the “true” people, the people from “our home”, who belong to the earth, to the blood, to the tradition and to the History.  They play both sides: listening to the Indignants and recovering those who passed to the side of the extreme right.

There are debates sometimes about whether a “people of the right” and a “people of the left”, or only “the people” exists?: how do you deal with this?

The people, they are not the mass of the population; the people is a construction.  It does not exist, it is built by discourses and acts.  Occupy, the Arab Spring, the Indignants, Syntagma Square in Athens, the movements of the undocumented, all of these construct a certain anonymous people.  And this people is that of democracy: a people who manifests the power of anybody.  But to speak of construction is to say that there can be many constructions of the people: the people is not that of equality and democracy that I just described.  It can also be that which is managed by the government and the polls, that which is produced by the discourses of the extreme right (the silent majority, the authentic people, the people of the abandoned urban peripheries, the working people without jobs, the people with a historical and religious tradition swept away by the arrival of the barbarians).  People of the right, people of the left: of course, at certain moments, there are parts of the population that constitute themselves according to models of the people.

In La Haine de la démocratie, you say that populism, which has become the supreme insult, is a “convenient name”.  This word has however sometimes existed, in movements of emancipation, as a positive marker: the Russian populists, of course, but also the american agricultural and workers movements of the 19th century, who fought against the elites, the banks, the landowners and the rail companies, or further still, the French literary current and the Prize of the populist novel.  How should one understand this evolution?

There are various historical layers.  In the Russian revolutionary movement, it rapidly became an insult.  Recall the polemic with Lenin.  Very early, “populism” referred to a somewhat idiotic sentimental attachment, a goodwill story, a way of approaching the people and of addressing them without really knowing who they are, without taking into consideration the conditions that divide them.  In the marxist tradition, that was dominant in the French left, “populist” very quickly gained a negative meaning.  What is perhaps new is the way in which this negative meaning was displaced for particular reasons: to create an amalgam.  The right took hold of the marxist condemnation of the attachment to a lost past to apply it to the conquests of the workers movement.  It is the heart of the new ideology, largely shared by the left since the 1980s: to say that there is a reasonable historical path (that held to by our governments and the European institutions) and a backward looking dream, reactionary and populist, in which it is possible to arrange, pell-mell, the National Front and the parties of the extreme left.  Any movement today that wishes to give a certain consistency to the idea of a people can today be considered as populist.  And this amalgam serves everyone: the old marxists who continue to call upon the organised proletariat, the right in the pay of financial powers and the left at the service of the oligarchy.  The term populism allows everyone, who are nevertheless very different, to be thrown into the same camp for standing up to them.  In the face of this, there is the positive desire, among a part of the radical left, to re-valorise populism, on the basis of Laclau’s theories …

You are sceptical in relation to these efforts?

In practice, this led to placing the autonomous movements at the service of a renewed parliamentary logic, even at the service of the tradition of a leader who incarnates the people: Vargas in Brazil, Perón in Argentina, Chávez in Venezuela …  This re-valorisation of representation aims to marry parliamentary logic with that of the leader loved by the people.

In April, Samuel Joshua, former leader of the LCR [ the now defunct Ligue communiste révolutionnaire] wrote an opinion piece on your work.  In it, he explained that your overly “optimistic” vision of the world refuses the fact that the people can secrete from their core domination and oppression.

Its false.  There are no saintly people according to me.  People believe in effect that I defend the “original goodness of the people” and that I am unable to understand how there can be reactionary workers and how there can be voters for the National Front among this class.  However, I have always said and said repeatedly: why are you so angry against the workers who vote on the right, under the pretext that they should, by I don’t know what sociological necessity, vote on the left?  The worker as a political combatant is not the worker who belongs to the sociological class of workers.  I never developed a mystique of the collective body, that would impede me from understanding why there could be extreme right-wing, racist and xenophobic movements with a popular base and ground.  It is something in fact that has been far less of a problem for me than for those who have criticised me in this sense!

How then do you explain that your idea continues to be distorted? 

It is always easier to pretend that I believe in the “good people” …  Yet, when I spoke of those without anything, the anonymous, the uncounted, it was not a matter of referring to the miserable and the abandoned: when I worked on La Nuit des prolétaires, I didn’t work on the people of the famous caves of Lille, no, I worked on people who, while calling themselves workers, effected a rupture in relation to their identity.

In 2010, when you wrote about racism, with the text “Racisme, une passion d’en haut”, you spoke of an “intellectual creation”, an institutional xenophobia, and not of a “popular passion”.  You were told again that you excused the people!

You can always find people, in what is called the “sociological people”, who will tell you that they don’t like foreigners, Arabs and blacks.  That has always existed.  The communist workers of the great epoch were for proletarian internationalism, but they didn’t necessarily like the immigrant workers.  The question is not that of individual behaviour, but of the forms of collective symbolic construction.  Since the 1990s, a form of racism from on high was created, conducted by State actions and ideological campaigns originating with the (supposedly leftist) intellectual class.  I am thinking in particular of the distortion of secular ideology.  Through the intense agitation – from the Pasqua Laws to those on the veil and the burka -, we were witness to the constitution of a clash of civilisations.  That did not emerge from the popular depths, but from the State and intellectuals.  We haven’t recently seen large popular demonstrations against  immigrants.  There are isolated actions, but not more than during other recent Historical epochs.  What is new is not that there would be extreme right-wing militias formed to beat up blacks and Maghrebians, but the official constitution of an image of a population that would be impossible to integrate.  It is constantly repeated that if power leads such campaigns, that it is to eradicate fundamental racism, to avoid the eruptions of the people and of fearsome impulses.  These dangerous people of the soil and of the blood is an argument manipulated by those who construct this new racism.

Didier Eribon, in his Retour à Reims, evokes the racism in his family milieu, that is, of a popular milieu.  He speaks of drawing lots, a theme that is dear to you, and states that he would not want his family to accede to power because they don’t have the competences to govern.   What do you think of this?

I don’t see in what way one can justify the fact that people who don’t have the competences for participating in the government of those things that are common would then have them, however, to choose the best managers of those same common things.  That seems to me to be the fundamental contradiction.  In the idea of drawing lots, there is this very strong idea, that goes back to Plato (who was not a man of the left …): the worst of governments are those that want to govern.  My fundamental idea is that I don’t see why a representation by lots would be worse than a representation under the current conditions.  Already, representation by lots would eliminate those who want to govern.  Secondly, it eliminates clientelism.  Thirdly, it eliminates the development of disturbing sentiments that are connected with the electoral relation itself.  Evidently, one can always say: “I can’t see my family, my concierge or my plumber run the State”.  One can.  But why does one see for this task in particular members of a school of administration or business lawyers?  Should the State be steered by representatives of well determined particular interests?  By those obsessed with power?  For that is very much the combination that we have today: the State is governed by addicts of power and representatives of financial interests.  The argument is always: “They know on which door to knock, they know how to get money, they know how to get along with their friends in Brussels”.  All right.  But if we want something else, it is simply necessary to imagine something else.  There is no reason to believe that a Representative Chamber partially chosen by lots, in a logic of short and non-renewable mandates, would be worse than a Chamber representing power addicts, local grandees and the interests of finance.  The question of institutions has been completely neglected by the so called radical left.  In the name of the old marxist principle according to which the appearances of formal democracy hide the profound reality of economic domination, this same left gave up on any proposal for the transformation of public life.  It is clear, moreover, that those who present the drawing of lots as a solution that would resolve by itself the question of the power of the people, forget that this power is first a counter-power produced by the effective dynamic of struggle.  This counter-power must exist so that new forms gain sense and force.

In your work, Moments politiques, you return to the notion of “communism” and to what would be possible and thinkable to do.  You worked on the anarchist tradition, but with this text, you seem to make your own this communist voice.

The text to which you refer was read at a colloquium devoted to communism.  If someone invites me to a colloquium on anarchism, I will go – but it is more difficult to find funding and the necessary logistic support for a large colloquium on anarchism than on communism. (laughter)  I proposed a definition of democracy that is anarchistic in the strong sense: there is no power authorised or legitimated to exercise power.  Democracy is nothing other, basically, than the recollection of the meaning of anarchism.  I have, moreover, worked a great deal on the anarchist and revolutionary syndicalist traditions: the communist idea has a sense if it is the power of anyone – and if it is anarchist.  The libertarian movement has a great historical force and a very strong, diverse heritage.  But it must also be said that anarchism has too often meant, historically, the constitution of a doctrinaire sect: one finds dogmatism and political compromise in anarchism as in communism.  I was able to discover, in my research, that a certain number of libertarian syndicalists placed themselves in the service of Vichy, thus taking the place of communists who had been eliminated.  I distinguish between anarchism as principle and ideology, the latter often hampered by its own weights.  I have a profoundly anarchist sensibility but I separate it from little anarchist groups.  And I insist on disassociating the principle from the confusion that reigns today: one calls “anarchists” people who, with or without a black flag, smash ticket vending machines at the end of demonstrations …  Anarchism is first autonomy.  It is cooperatives of production and consumption, autonomous forms of transmission of knowledge and information in relation to the reigning dominant logic.  It is independence with respect to the governmental sphere.

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