This book, I think, might very well be the most succinct formulation of Ranciere’s foundational philosophical axiom, that of absolute equality. Ranciere’s treatment of democracy is at once startling and revelatory. These, I think, are its principal tenets:
1. Democracy is not a form of state or a configuration of power. Every ‘really-existing state’, as everyone from Aristotle to Pareto has made clear, is invariably an oligarchy. Political philosophy, then, is obligated to subtract democracy from the State- democracy is irreducible to parliamentarism, but parliamentarism is absolutely contingent upon democratic consent. Ranciere’s most astonishing thesis is that equality is prior to, and constitutive of, the Master-Slave dialectic: the Master has no natural, a priori right to rule, he must compel the Slave to accept his right and enforce it. Equality, as such, is the limit of power, its precondition as well as its insurpassable frontier: “Equality is not a fiction. All superiors experience this as the most commonplace of realities. There is no master who does not sit back and risk letting his slave run away, no man who is not capable of killing another, no force that is imposed without having to justify itself, and hence without having to recognize the irreducibility of equality needed for inequality to function. From the moment obedience has to refer to a principle of legitimacy, from the moment it is necessary for there to be laws that are enforced qua laws and institutions embodying the common of the community, commanding must presuppose the equality of the one who commands and the one who is commanded.” (Ranciere, 48)
2. This is why the power of the people is, in the last instance, beneath (every State formation is ultimately arbitrary, erected upon a primordial state of equality) and beyond (this power is ultimately beyond capture) the State. In a remarkable reading of Plato, Ranciere identifies a fear that resonates throughout Western culture, from Nietzsche (the blurring of the ‘order of rank’) to Burke to Yeats (‘things fall apart…the center cannot hold…the worst are full of passionate intensity’). Plato’s great fear, of course, is that all of the hierarchical gradations that structure society can, in one stroke, collapse into a morass of indifferentiation. All of the relations of non-reciprocity and transcendence that hold a moral order together (say, between a child and his parent, between a pupil and his student) are endangered by the ominous specter of democracy, which obliterates both culture and civilization. Yet, Ranciere asks, if all of these micrological differential relations (teacher/student, rich/poor, child/elder, wise/ignorant) are subject to this indifferentiation, does it not show that they are all, at base, essentially the same? That is to say, is it not obvious that every inequality, every difference of status sustained and enforced by power rests upon a primordial equality? Difference is that which dissimulates indifference, the plurality of inequalities obfuscates the primacy of equality.
3. A word on Ranciere’s conception of nature. It can be said that Ranciere ‘naturalizes’ democracy, positing it as an inexorable constant that runs underneath every institutionalized arrangement of power. In this regard, he is at one with Spinoza and Rousseau. In this way, democracy, as the only truly natural condition of political life, gives the lie to every representation of ‘natural right’, de-legitimizing the sovereignty of every transcendent entity that stands above this immanent primordiality: “Universal suffrage is not at all a natural consequence of democracy. Democracy has no natural consequences precisely because it is the division of ‘nature,’ the BREAKING OF THE LINK between natural properties and forms of government.” (Ranciere, 54)
4. It is important to note, however, that while Ranciere ‘naturalizes’ democracy, he does not resort to any speculative anthropology- democracy is an omnipresent, invariant truth of political life, but that does not mean that its exercise is guaranteed, nor that people are naturally compelled to defend it. This is what distinguishes him from his opponents, the ‘haters of democracy’, who reduce modern man to a homo democritus, a blithering ape steeped in the mindnumbing vacuities of multiculturalism and mass consumerism: “To paint a robotic portrait of democratic man, the best thing to do is to combine these characteristics: the young, idiotic consumer of popcorn, reality TV, safe sex, social security, the right to difference, and anticapitalist or ‘alterglobalist’ illusions. Thanks to him, the denouncers have what they need: the absolute culprit of an irremediable evil.” (Ranciere, 89)
5. Every irruption of democracy in the political field is a ‘return of the repressed’, reminding power of the an-archic condition that founds and underlies it. Democracy is, then, that which splits the State body in two, maintaining the irreconcilable breach between the imposition of the Arche and the excessive An-archic body that it can never contain. As such, hatred of democracy is symptomatic of a deep ressentiment on the part of the ruling classes, who must accept that their rule lacks any transcendental guarantee. In other words, democracy is the name of power’s intrinsic Lack: “the primary indistinction between governors and governed, one which becomes evident when the obviousness of the natural power of the best or of the highborn is stripped of its prestige- the absence of a specific title to govern politically over those assembled other than the absence of title. Democracy is first this paradoxical condition of politics, the point where every legitimization is confronted with its ultimate lack of legitimacy, confronted with the egalitarian contingency that underpins the inegalitarian contingency itself.” (Ranciere, 94)
6. Alain Badiou has said that the State is that which counts its people as one, assigning determinate places in the social strata, facilitating the servicing of goods and harmonizing a multiplicity of interests into a unified whole. This assignation of place, which fixes, classifies and accounts for the multifarious elements that compose State space, is what Jacques Ranciere has called the ‘police’ function of the State. In distinction to this, politics is that which is disinterested, a movement in which political subjects reject/revoke the places and names that are imposed upon them. This is a profoundly Lacanian thesis- every symbolic configuration is forgetful of its own contingency; it must forestall the void of the Real that prevents it from closing in on itself. Democracy happens ‘on the edge of the void’, in moments of profound inconsistency. If it is inimical to a system of representation, this is because parliamentarism cannot accommodate it- democracy is that which places the parameters that it sets in jeopardy. Democracy blurs the line between citizen (particular) and individual (singular/universal), shattering the coordinates that guarantee national identity. In this regard, we can say that democracy is essentially illegal, a collective show of force that violates and exceeds the existing state of things: “This is what the democratic process implies: the action of subjects who, by working the interval between identities, reconfigure the distributions of the public and the private, the universal and the particular. Democracy can never be identified with the simple domination of the universal over the particular. For the universal is incessantly privatized by police logic, incessantly reduced to a power-share between birth, wealth and ‘competence’, which is at work in the State as well as in society….The democratic process must therefore constantly bring the universal into play in a polemical form. The democratic process is the process of a perpetual bringing into play, of invention of forms of subjectivation, and of cases of verification that counteract the perpetual privatization of public life.” (Ranciere, 61)
7. So whence this hatred of democracy? In an astutely Foucauldian reading of today’s political climate, Ranciere notes the emergence of a disquieting consensus. Ranciere is at his best when he charts the discursive shifts that have taken place over the last few decades, the surfacing/concomitant disappearance of terms and tropes in the popular vocabulary. Recent years have seen the proliferation of various meta-narratives, all of which construct an extraordinarily reductive image of Western civilization. It is said that the Stalinist gulags and the Holocaust are epiphenomena of a deeper ontological predicament, a radical evil that is rooted in modern man. The disappearance of politics into apocalyptic theology has obscured and displaced antagonism onto religious ground, transforming politics into a confrontation between virtue and terror. In this millenarian vision, the State is our guardian angel, saving us both from our own excesses and the envious eye of our Neighbours. As such, we have witnessed a widespread recrudescence of chauvinism, ‘family values’ and parochialism, desperate attempts to restitute an order of rank/ kinship that will smother and incapacitate the incipient desires of the masses. The politics of fear endeavors to foreclose the agonistic sphere of democracy, to heal the schism between Arche and An-arche.
8. This is where we communists find ourselves today. Our actions are no longer sanctified by any dialectical Law. Stripped of its halo and divested of grace, communism must accept its radical secularization: “Rediscovering the singularity of democracy means also being aware of its solitude. Demands for democracy were for a long time carried or concealed by the idea of a new society, the elements of which were allegedly being formed in the very heart of contemporary society….Understanding what democracy means is to renounce this faith.” (Ranciere, 96) The great cathedrals of yesteryear, the parties and the cells of our fathers, have lost their sacred glow. Has this consigned us to isolation, we who are no longer galvanized by a mission ordained by History? Communists, of course, are never alone. Each of us is united by our indignation, our inability to accept the world as it is. The legacy of egalitarianism is OURS to defend, we cannot shift this struggle upon anyone else, neither History, the People, the mythical Proletariat nor God.
……….And certainly not the State!