Jacques Rancière – On the Shores of Politics

On the Shores of Politics

Jacques Rancière, On the Shores of Politics, Verso, 2007.

As is easily noticed, Rancière’s book is full of political (and ethical) concepts, ancient Greek terms and fables, and stories drawn from workers’ movement in the modern period. Among them, what he really interested in and trying to keep focusing on is the problem of democracy, equality, and politics. The reason that he refers to Plato and Aristotle and Utopian socialists and communists in 18th century, is of course to explain the complex relationship – in the form of puzzle, or rather, of paradox – between those concepts and practices.

Then what kind of politics, democracy and equality is he talking about? And how are they related with each other? What should be the proper aspects of democracy in the contemporary post-democratic society? First of all, democracy is not a concept or a name for the political regime which originally existed in ancient Greek as an ideal form and transformed to the present form of government which prevails. And democracy is not an apparatus to draw social and political consensus – in some sense, it is impossible to reach common justice, and it is not any more democracy when the community arrived at a certain consensus. Further, there has been always a gap between real democracy and (modern) liberal democracy which appears as “unnatural conjunction of democracy’s communal essence and the individual reckoning of profit and costs in the liberal universe of the interest-adjusting invisible hand”(39).

The problem of (good) democracy is deeply related with the question of equality. How can we define good democracy? Is it a community in which all members are equal and every member is united under the one principle (the useful is the just), while divided by people’s own hierarchy (wealth, honor, archai, etc.), so to speak, according to their class? Or is it a society which allows every member to speak their own story, their own argument, without any representative process? At least, Platonic ideal community might have dreamed of the former form of democracy in order not to be leaded to chaos. What we know as good democracy today was the least bad of bad form of regime in Plato’s day. However, according to Aristotle, upon whom Rancière much relies, the good regime is “characterized precisely by the fact that it is always a mixture of constitutions, a constitutional marketplace”(42). Then democracy is understood as the “perpetual work of self-correction” or “self-dissimulation,” acknowledging the social division and coming together (co-presence) of disagreements. Thus, for Rancière, “Imparity is an essential part of democracy”(102) and “Equality is the power of inconsistent, disintegrating and ever-replayed division which tears politics away from the various figures of animality: great collective body…”(33).

However, there remains the problem of co-existence of democracy and despotism: “[If not the best of democracies] the good politeia … good political regime which coincides with the satisfaction of citizens’ apolitical needs, bring into play the very same mechanisms which serve the tyrannical annihilation of collective power”(18). This reminds us of Agamben’s idea of an inner solidarity or contiguity between mass democracy and totalitarian states (Agamben 10; 121). What is difference between Rancière and Agamben? For Rancière, through the pacification of political emotions, people’s “self- distancing of the political comes altogether to resemble despotism”(21). For Agamben, individual liberties and rights always simultaneously prepared increasing inscription of individuals’ lives within the state order. How can we interpret those assimilations between democracy and despotism or totalitarianism? Furthermore, what is the difference between Rancière and the existing Marxist politics, especially Althusser, in discussing “Ideology”?

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