Jacques Rancière: Between anarchy and anarchism

We do not gain from the working operations of history that comprehensive understanding which would reveal the true solution. At best we rectify errors which occur along the way, but the new scheme is not immune to errors which will have to be rectified anew. History eliminates the irrational; but the rational remains to be created and to be imagined, and it does not have the power of replacing the false with the true. A historical solution of the human problem, an end of history, could be conceived only if humanity were a thing to be known-if, in it, knowledge were able to exhaust being and could come to a state that really contained all that humanity had been and all that it could ever be. Since, on the contrary, in the density of social reality each decision brings unexpected consequences, and since, moreover, man responds to these surprises by inventions which transform the problem, there is no situation without hope; but there is no choice which terminates these deviations or which can exhaust man’s inventive power and put an end to his history. There are only advances.

If one completely eliminates the concept of the end of history, then the concept of revolution is relativized; such is the meaning of “permanent revolution.” It means that there is no definitive regime, that revolution is the regime of creative imbalance, that there will always be other oppositions to sublate, that there must therefore always be an opposition within revolution. But how can one be sure that an internal opposition is not an opposition to revolution?

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Adventures of the Dialectic

Calls for anarchists to organise themselves, declarations regarding the necessity of anarchist organisation, so as to render anarchist thought and practice more effective and thereby seductive (in the background are almost always the historical examples of anarchist-syndicalist revolutionary labour unions) are recurrent today among some (e.g., “Los cimientos para organizarse politicamente: por una cultura militante revolucionaria”, alasbarricadas.org), as are calls for permanent insurrection (e.g., Gioacchino Somma: “Hic et nunc.”, Act for freedom). Without criticising or disparaging either, we invite the gesture of taking a step back, to ask, with the words of Jacques Rancière, what is the relationship between revolution and institution(alisation), anarchy and anarchism, anarchism and democracy.

Democracy, anarchism and radical politics today: An interview with Jacques Rancière

Todd May, Benjamin Noys and Saul Newman, translated by John Lechte

(From Anarchist Studies, Volume 16, Nº 2, 2000)

In La Mésentente, you argue that democracy cannot be institutionalised. Can you clarify what you mean by this and why you think it cannot be institutionalised? (TM)

What I mean is that it can never be identified with a system of constitutional forms. Democratic ideas and practices can of course inspire and animate constitutional forms and modes of public life. But these can never incarnate democracy because the demos is immediately double. On the one hand, it is the collective, which is the source of power’s legitimacy. In this sense ‘democracy’ designates the system of forms actualizing the power of the people in texts, institutions and institutional practices. It designates a certain sovereignty, one similar to that of the monarch or ‘superior class’ (aristocracy). But at the same time, the demos is the subject who even undermines the idea of sovereignty by undermining the principle binding it to specific positions of a specific population [such as …] a king, a superior class, savants or priests who are supposed to govern in the name of this position itself. For its part, the people govern in the absence of these positions. This is the principle of arché: those who command are those who possess the principle which gives them the right to command.[1] The power of the people itself is anarchic in principle, for it is the affirmation of the power of anyone, of those who have no title to it. It is thus the affirmation of the ultimate illegitimacy of domination. Such power can never be institutionalized. It can, on the other hand, be practised, enacted by political collectives. But the latter precisely act beyond legal authority on the official public stage which is the power, exercised in the name of the people, of petty oligarchies. Democratic action allows the intervention of subjects who are supplementary in relation to the simple figure of the citizen electorate represented in the constitutional order, and these subjects intervene in places other than those of executive and representative power (the street, workplace, school, etc.); they give rise to other voices and other objects. Therefore there is indeed an institutional inscription of the ‘power of the people’, but in light of that there is an opposition between state logic, which is a logic of the restriction and the privatisation of the public sphere, and democratic political logic which, on the contrary, aims to extend this power through its own forms of action.

In La Haine de la democratie you say that democracy is anarchic, in the specific sense that it is “based on nothing other than the absence of every title to govern.” (English translation, p. 41) Are there threads within the anarchist theoretical tradition that you’re thinking of here, and if so, what are they? (TM)

There is certainly a link between my conception of anarchy and the anti-authoritarian tradition of historical anarchism. An-archy in general is the doctrine of the illegitimacy of domination and the practice of bringing into play the capacity of the greatest number. Workers’ anarchism of the nineteenth century was embedded in the practices associated with forms of struggle to invent forms of organisation of work and exchange that anticipate the future. This link between anarchism and the demonstration of the capacity of the greatest number is very important for me and is opposed to professorial and scientistic tendencies – which have, in other respects, affected the anarchist tradition – with theoreticians claiming to provide the right slogan for our social future. That said, between ‘my’ anarchism and the anarchist tradition there is an important difference of perspective. The anarchist tradition had a tendency to localise oppression in the State by identifying politics and the State, and opposed this to liberty incarnated in society in the social group of producers. Historical anarchism freely relied on the opposition between production and exchange and the parasitism of forms of the State. This vision is quite close to the Marxist opposition between economic and social reality and politics as appearance. And it fed on a certain organicist conception where the social cell as a living organism is opposed to political artifice. I am a long way from this naturalist vision. What I have tried to bring to light is an anarchy implicated in the very definition of politics and which precisely distinguishes it from all organicism. I have tried to show that in the very idea of political government there is a necessary reference to a competence which is no longer that of a specific category but that of all (tous). There is a break with the arché logic according to which the exercise of power is the exercise of competence proper to a specific category. Of course this primary ‘anarchism’ at the heart of politics is constantly rediscovered by the practices of government, and democracy only exists through the activity of subjects who reactivate it, which creates a communal sphere different from the official public sphere.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the embrace of capitalism in China, progressive movements, particularly in the US, have turned away from Marxist theory. Many have begun to find roots in anarchism, both in the classical anarchists of the nineteenth century and more recent manifestations, for example in the thought of Guy Debord and the environmentalist Murray Bookchin. Do you see anarchist theory as providing a framework within which to conceive progressive political thought and action in today’s globalised world? (TM)

There is, to my knowledge, no anarchist theory providing a global framework of intelligibility of the world and its transformation. And the real question is to know if we should have one. Historical anarchism oscillated between two fundamental attitudes: on the one hand it brought together the capacity for inventiveness of humans in association with schemas of historical evolution advanced by Marxist science. On the other, it presented itself, in the proudhonian tradition, as the bearer of true social science, and of a social formula ready for future application. I am not sure that the references that you cite really describe an advance in relation to this historical oscillation. Guy Debord, despite all his irony with regard to State Marxism, had a vision of the historical process and of the role of the avant-garde conforming entirely to the Marxist tradition. Murray Bookchin, for his part, seems to me to perpetuate the organicist vision to which anarchism has often been linked, a vision according to which the just society would be like a natural vegetable well embedded in its soil. This also means that he presents the anarchist solution as the application of a formula which is supposed to be a cure for the sickness of the state. I, for my part, do not believe in phrases ready-made for future application. I believe that there are current forms of opposition to the existing order which are developing future forms of being in common. The anarchist critique and forms of association linked to the anarchist tradition certainly take on a new importance since the failure of State Marxism and socialist parties. But this implies thinking the thing that historical anarchism judged contradictory: an anarchist political thought, an idea of anarchism as practical politics.

The May 68 events were obviously highly significant for your critique of mastery and your intellectual and political formation. In the wake of the fortieth anniversary of the events and the French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s claim that the heritage of May 68 must be liquidated, what do you think the legacy of the events is? Is it necessary to maintain fidelity to May ‘68 and if so to what in the heterogeneous actions that composed it? (BN)

For me, the heritage of May 68 is simply the heritage of democratic politics as I understand it. May 68 was firstly an affirmation of the capacity of all to take in hand the common destiny as opposed to the idea which merges democracy and the oligarchical management of the State. It was a generalised contestation of all forms of authority which structure the social body. The political and collective character of this critique should be reaffirmed, because the whole idea of a return to order in the 1980s is a desperate attempt to identify an anti-authoritarian critique with an individualist attitude of young people desirous of escaping forms of authority which prevent them from enjoying the new promises of commodities and of life turned into a commodity. This criticism has been revived by Sarkozy, but it is necessary to see that it was essentially elaborated by people of the left: by disappointed activists who turned the failure of their hopes into resentment; by socialists in government anxious to cultivate the heritage of the years of contestation while entirely erasing its impact; by orthodox Marxists or sociologists of Bourdieu’s school, furious to see, in 1968, their science swept away by the ‘ideology’ of the students and happy afterwards to show that this agitation, not authorised by science, had opened the way for the renovation of a capitalism in difficulty, etc. Fidelity to May 68 today means fidelity to the power of collective subversion of the anti-authoritarian movement.

In an interview published in Artforum in 2007[2] you seemed to privilege the position of the artist in two ways: first that the dispersion of the role of artist indicated a new shifting of roles and competencies. Second that the artist, in their work, could make a ‘modification of the fabric of the sensible’. Do you think there are any other sites or forms of agency that can perform similar tasks? (BN)

I do not privilege the position of the artist as artist. I am trying to redefine what in art practices enables them to have a political role, as they indeed do when they break up the established system of the division of competencies. Changing the fabric of sensibility means firstly the disruption of places and capacities. This is what happens when artists blur the border supposedly separating fiction from documentary – for example, when a director like Pedro Costa transforms an unemployed immigrant worker into a kind of King Lear (Colossal Youth), or when Lebanese directors like Kalil Joreige and Joana Hadjithomas treat the civil war and foreign oppression not by way of stories of violence and death but by way of stories of a film that has disappeared or of the impossibility of developing the negatives (Le Film disparu). They thus attest to the capacity for interplay of groups confined in the category of victims to be pitied by the dominant logic. It is also what happens when a man of the theatre like John Malpede mobilises as actors the members of a disinherited community in Los Angeles. These are three examples amongst a thousand others. The political virtue of art takes effect when it blurs the borders separating it from non-art (which is not the same thing as the will to ‘achieve’ art in suppressing it, which marked the era of the great avant-garde ventures). It is clear that similar effects can be produced in other domains with regard to the distribution of knowledges or the production and diffusion of information. It is, for example, what happens today with the internet: an explosion of perspectives at the heart of which information is channelled. And for me political action itself is an aesthetic activity to the extent that it makes us see as political, things not recognised as such, as when we are made to hear subjects left out of account, etc.

Labour and work, or more precisely the refusal of the worker to subsume themselves under the title ‘worker’, have been at the centre of your work. I wonder what you think of the recent attempts to problematise or overturn the ‘traditional’ model of the worker, primarily by Italian thinkers, through such concepts as ‘immaterial labour’ or ‘precarity’. (BN)

I have in fact always insisted on the difference between worker or proletarian subjectivation and all forms of economic, social or cultural identification of the worker which seek to make a subversive potential coincide with a certain place in a certain type of productive apparatus. This has meant, in terms of the past, challenging the identification of the activist proletarian with the worker of big industry. Similarly, today this means refusing the theses which try to identify a figure of the worker produced by the transformations of capitalism and endowed with the virtue of transgressing the system. The discourse on immaterial work and the new ‘cognitary’ (cognitaire) subject tries to keep to the old Marxist schema according to which capitalism would produce its own grave diggers. Concomitantly, it propagates the fable according to which material, manual work would simply disappear. And at the same time it excludes the fact that capitalist exploitation today occurs via a whole multiplicity of forms, a certain number of which bear a closer resemblance to nineteenth century domestic work than to futuristic technology. Today, as yesterday, we must distinguish work as the division of productive forces at the heart of the global economy and work in time that forms a collective subjectivation capable of acting against this division. The forces of immaterial work that Capital develops are and remain its distinctive strength. The latter will never, by itself, shatter the system. The forces born of the struggle against its domination alone can do it.

In The Ignorant School Master, you develop a notion of the equality of knowledge in which the position of mastery and authority is unseated. Do you see this as a kind of model for politics; do you propose an anti-authoritarian form of politics, for instance, which is not led by the vanguard party? (SN)

Certainly. The inventor of intellectual emancipation, Joseph Jacotot, had radically opposed the intellectual inequality which was, for him, always a relation between individuals and political forms of social groups obeying, for him, a non-egalitarian logic. Everyone could be equal in their personal relations, but the social order as such was for him doomed to inequality. I thought that this pessimistic vision could be opposed. In political action also there is indeed an affirmation of the capacity of anonymous members to construct other knowledges, other forms of expertise and inquiry than those of the powers that be, and of their capacity to invent other forms of social relations. But what is in fact essential in the model of intellectual emancipation proposed is an inversion of the pedagogical logic, which is also that of the avant-garde. The dominant pedagogical model requires that the most advanced guide the less advanced, in order to reduce their backwardness. But precisely this way of conceiving things infinitely reproduces the backwardness it is supposed to reduce. Things must be approached from the opposite direction. Starting from inequality in order to move to equality under the direction of the most advanced is not the way. We begin from equality and by presupposing the capability of those allegedly backward, then commit ourselves to developing capacities already present, not to ‘reducing’ inequalities or handicaps. What the idea of intellectual emancipation leads us to challenge then is not only the authoritarianism of the avant-gardes but the schema legitimating it. It is a conception of history, oriented towards a goal of equality or liberty, achieved according to a strategy of means and ends. We must start from liberty and equality as realisable hic et nunc. It is these dynamics present in the enactment of equality and liberty which create new possibilities and not strategic goals.

What is the place of the State in your understanding of politics? Should radical politics try to avoid or distance itself from the State, or is some incorporation within the representative structures of the State inevitable? (SN)

As I have already said above, I refuse the vision which opposes the State to society as artifice to nature. The same goes for forms of society as it does for forms of the State: both are traversed by the opposition between a logic of equality and logics of inequality; the State called democratic that we know is a hybrid: it rests by right on the recognition of the capacity of the whole, and certain of its forms are the result of the conquests of democratic struggles. At the same time, the State is an oligarchical machine that makes these forms work according to its own logic and it tends to privatise public space. On the one hand, then, it is necessary to affirm a politics independently of State logic. On the other, the State is a terrain of struggle: I am not talking about the struggle to ‘take power’, but of the struggle to affirm the power accrued to the people on all terrains. The latter struggle produces effects of the redefinition of rights and the transformation of institutions that, personally, I refuse to regard as illusory because they point to capacities for new forms of action. The weakness of Marxist and anarchist visions has often been to think in terms of reality and appearance instead of thinking in terms of the fluid distribution of possibilities and capacities. It is not a question of being incorporated into state structures but of believing that these constitute an effective field of battle where each camp’s forces increase or diminish.

What sort of future do you see for radical politics today? Does the global anti-capitalist movement suggest a way forward in your view; or are different modes of political action and organization necessary? (SN)

I think that there is a danger in using the pretext of globalisation in order to say that nations and forms of organisation attached to it must now cede their place to a global anti-capitalist movement. Nations have not disappeared and institutions called supranational are firstly the instruments which nation States use to ‘delocalise’ politics. From this point of view the support given by part of the ‘anti-globalisation’ movement to the European constitution in the name of internationalism really makes you wonder. The problem is not to oppose the global to the local. The two are linked together. Global forms of domination only exist via a multiplicity of local forms. For the ‘local’ isn’t the part that must be opposed to the whole; it is such and such a singular point in the organisation of global dominations. In this sense, a political struggle is always local: I mean that it always erupts at a particular relay or singular nodal point in the system of domination and its job is to bring out the universal form of what occurs at this point. This particular point can be a specific meeting of one of these international bodies which claims to rule over the world; but it can also be the conflict incited by delocalisation, the dismantling of a form of social protection, or legislation which restricts the freedom of movement of populations just when the doors are opened wide to capitalism, etc. The creation of a new International is assuredly the order of day. But an International is not an organisation specialising in the global; it is an emanation of collectives struggling over singular points which work to coordinate them, to unite them and to universalise their motives and actions.

[1] Arché means both ‘command’ and ‘origin’ –Tr.

[2] Fulvia Carnevale and John Kelsey in Conversation with Jacques Rancière, ‘Art of the Possible’, Artforum (March 2007): 256-259, 261-264, 266-267, 269.

This entry was posted in Commentary, Interview and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.