Démocratie veut dire d’abord cela : un gouvernement anarchique, fondé sur rien d’autre que sur l’absence de tout titre à gouverner.
Jacques Rancière, La haine de la démocratie
To share, the always timely reflections of Jacques Rancière.
A question arises from this interview that is pressing for any anti-capitalist dissident or rebel: what is the relation between autonomy as act or event and its institutionalisation? Can the latter give shape to the former, or must they exist in permanent dissonance? If the following interview provides us with no clear answer, the larger body of Rancière’s work suggests the last. But if this is so, is not Rancière simply reminding us that perfect justice is an impossibility, and that freedom or autonomy resides in the permanent possibility of recreating ourselves, together? And perhaps this is what Rancière finally means by “democracy” as “anarchic government”.
“We do not face capitalism, but instead, we live in its world”: A Dialogue with Jacques Rancière
The world liberal system closed with a padlock all of the possibilities of a cold transformation, that is, without violence, through dialogue and negotiation. You, in your abundant work, postulate a mode of spatial and temporal action almost as the only legitimate form of collective action to confront the system.
I have tried to show that there is no longer a central power conceived as a fortress and the possibility of an assault against that fortress. Capitalism is everywhere in social life, we are not in front of it, but instead, we live in its world. Capitalism, however, is also fragile. Its law clashes everywhere with local and specific resistances. Everywhere there have been a series of revolts carried out by specific communities against the extension of capitalist power and the power of the State. I believe that in a situation like this that it is important that communities that have their own political agendas develop, without being subject to parliamentary agendas, because these have become in some way State agendas. In almost all of our countries, representative systems have become agents of the State, they have ceased to be a part of popular power. An effective or alternative politics to the capitalist system and to the power of the State, that is increasingly integrated into capitalist power, can only exist autonomously, that is, with people capable of creating their own forms of organisation, their agendas and their own means of action . It is about developing movements with the widest possible autonomy. They can be forms of political autonomy separate from parliamentary agendas, it can be an economic autonomy through the creation of an alternative network of production, consumption and exchange, or forms of ideological or even military autonomy, as in Mexico for example. In any case, this has nothing to do with the ideas that were previously held about insurrection. We have stopped being in that situation in which it was believed that capitalism produces its own disappearance. Marxist logic stated that capitalism created a model of production that would self-destruct. It is clear that it is not like that. It was even thought that capitalism fed itself with labor, but we already know that capitalism does destroy work to perpetuate itself. There is no expectation that capitalism will produce socialism, nor that the armed people will rebel, because workers, along with weapons, have disappeared. There is no definite horizon, no identifiable forces. What we do see is the isolated creation of specific, local autonomies, where the system of domination is fragile and from where it can be attacked and from which alternative forces can be constituted. Then, those zones of autonomy extend their power as much as they can.
In your philosophy, the idea of time and the role that it plays both in hegemonic systems and in the attempts to upset them is fundamental. With respect to it, you write that “a policy of emancipation exists in the form of an interruption of time”.
There is always the idea according to which there are, on the one hand, the ephemeral movements and, on the other, the long-term strategies. But the history of the world is quite different. When alternatives to the system of domination are created, they always occur during singular moments. The revolutions were singular moments that lasted days, weeks, months or years. This amounts to saying that the normal order of things was interrupted, that, at certain times, the normal rules disappear, that time is suspended and at the same time accelerates because the movements generate high speeds. An example of this is what happened in France in May 1968: the normal order of the government and the economy suddenly stops, time stops, it is blocked. And when time stops people begin to reflect on society and initiatives are launched that have very quick effects. We are then in a situation that the system did not foresee.
Does the yellow vests’ movement in France respond to that logic?
It is an interesting movement because, in the beginning, its protagonists were a category of people who never protest. And it is interesting also because it is a movement of relatively mature or older people, of people who are not from a tradition of the Left but who end up adopting forms belonging to the international Left. They occupied the roundabouts as the indignant youth occupied the squares in Madrid. They spoke in favor of a horizontal democracy, which corresponds to the anarchism of intellectual youth. I think it was actually a moment of suspension that started as a protest against an ecological tax and ended up putting the entire system in doubt. After, the yellow vests were a movement that saw itself paralysed because it did not know exactly what it wanted beyond its initial demands. There was no final horizon, but it was not their fault but because it is like this: there is no final horizon and nobody knows where to look. The yellow vests reflected the global situation of the protest movements of these last years during which forms of interruption of time were seen that in the end stopped themselves, because they gained an autonomous time within which they did not know where they were going. It happens then that these movements either exhaust themselves or governments transform them through confrontations. This is how the political originality of the situation is lost.
This amounts to thinking that it is impossible to constitute what you call “a community of struggle against the enemy”.
These communities of struggle have been created and many won victories. They have been temporary, local victories. But in reality, in the history of emancipation, it has always been like this: there are moments of collective emancipation. These moments can be thought of as stages within an extended temporality and, at the same time, as moments in which people lived with freedom and equality. They would be like the moments of the movements: to live for some time in full collective freedom. Spaces, gaps, oases are created, and people try to develop them, but it is not obvious how to do so. That’s why I like the idea of the occupation of squares, of spaces, because it indicates that when space is occupied, another form of temporality is created.
How to last beyond those moments?
There have been attempts to create movements that go beyond the protest, to extend them over time to become movements capable of organizing alternative ways of life. History shows us, however, that it was those autonomous movements that won victories, even partial ones, against capital and the State. Today we see clearly that neither revolutionary parties nor unionised workers won anything. No. When there are measures that go against work, the most effective is not the action of the labour unions, but that of autonomous movements such as the Indignados, Nuit Debut or the yellow vests. The strategies of the parties or the unions are no longer worth anything. The forces of the Left have been integrated into the State and carry out a politics similar to that of the forces of the Right. It is paradoxical because at the same time that we do not know where these movements are going, they are, in fact, the only real movements that challenge power. In France, the traditional Left does not exist anymore. What remains is a supposed Left-wing populism that tries to recover what is there and endow itself with a parliamentary force: Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain or La France Insoumise here. But these parties did not organise any victorious struggle against the enemy. On the other hand, movements like the Indignados did. In Greece, for example, Syriza changed sides. In the end, we have movements which do not know where they are going, but they are the only ones that exist.
Those three European Lefts, of Greece, France and Spain, finally did not end in nothing. They are in a situation of slow decline.
I was very struck by the fact that in Spain, Podemos, when it was constituted, its first action was to present a list for the European elections instead of acting where their action had a meaning. I believe, however, that, as the Left everywhere adopted the profile of the Right, there is a place for the Left of the Left. However, until now, that Left of the Left was not able to organise any autonomous action.
What should we reformulate? Should we make an inventory of the inheritance of the revolutionary Left and that of transformation and, from there, to think of something else?
The only real inheritance, legacy, which we have today is the inheritance left by momentary movements. There is no inheritance of the parties of the Left, nor of the revolutionary parties that barely get a few percentages points in elections. I am not saying that the parties on the Left should be rejected. It is about verifying the truth. In France, the resistance to liberalism has been perhaps stronger than elsewhere, but only thanks to the inheritance of May 68 and not to the parties of the Left who instead confiscated that inheritance.
The ephemeral is then the transcendent.
The ephemeral is what breaks the course of time of domination and what leaves an inheritance. It is not just a sentimental inheritance, but a legacy of facts. In France, the victories obtained against the pension reform (1995) and against a labor reform law in 2006 were achieved by the inheritance of May 68 and not by the action of the parties of the Left.
The extreme Right is the great figure reborn on the world stage. They have grown proportionally to the decline of social democracy. For you, is that return an ephemeral moment or will we see a more consistent temporal rootedness?
The major phenomenon, for me, is not that of an extreme Right that returns after having been hidden. No, the essential thing is how the traditional Right became extreme. To the extent that the Left implements the same economic and social policy as the Right, the Right had to look for a specific form or figure to exist. That is why the Right needs to radicalise and appeal to a whole series of instincts and passions that it did not need 30 years ago. Before, the Right presented itself as a force of the political Centre, half liberal, half modernist. Now that is over. To exist in parliament they must be radicalised. That is why I do not think that the extreme Right is an expression of the popular classes. That is the official analysis. The rise of the extreme Right is due to the radicalisation of the Right. I distrust the idea of a supposed popular grounding of the extreme Right. The idea of a racist French people facing immigrants has been built up by a whole system of propaganda.
I want to make a stop at one of your most beautiful books: Modern times. Usually one speaks of “modernity” and not of modern times. What is the difference between modernity and modern times?
For me the idea of modernity is totally false, as well as the statement according to which modernity has functioned as a declaration of the autonomy of art. I always tried to prove that it was the opposite, that is, if there was an artistic modernity, it consisted of the will to unite art with life and not to make art autonomous. With this book I wanted to show that there is no temporality of modernity, but that there are several ways to build modernity. Modern Times, because they are many and various: there is economic modernity and industrial modernity and neither corresponds to political or spiritual modernity. There is no single modern time. A story with a capital “H” and a homogeneous time does not exist. There are, yes, different temporalities. The false idea that modernity is a continuous process within a unique and similar time has also been coined. No, there is no time, but times. Art and artists create at some point a type of modern time that is not at all homogeneous. It is a kind of paradigm of modernity, a way of linking time, movement, community, present, future.
Today we live within several times dictated by technology and within the notion of “post”: “post modernity”, “post truth”. Thus the end of everything is evoked but everything continues …
The term “post”, in fact, corresponds a little to the discourse of the tired intellectual who says “everything is finished”. S/he had already begun to say that everything was finished in the 1820s … At that time, there was already talk of industrial literature and it was claimed that literature and culture were over, that only the market mattered. This has been affirmed for two centuries. This discourse suits everyone: both those who present themselves as the last defenders of civilisation and those who believe themselves to be innovators of a new time and spokespersons of that time. They are notions without interest because then, well, everything goes on, continues, we are neither in the “post” nor at the end of civilisation. It is a false construction, even if it is intellectually useful for both crepuscular philosophers, as for those who believe they are the avant-garde. It is a double game where, as regards the truth, it is decreed that the truth is over, that the facts are unimportant and that the important thing is analysis and interpretation because we are beyond everything, in an infinite “post”. Here we see clearly that we are facing a way of administering opinion, where the facts are no longer necessary and where the important thing is to integrate them into a system of pre-existing explanation and, therefore, the facts need not be true.