Thursday, January 24, 2013

Thinking through Rancière and his Hatred of Democracy

Democracy, in the sense of the power of the people,
the power of those who have no special
entitlement to exercise power, is the very
basis of what makes politics thinkable.
Rancière, 2011 79

Alexis de Tocqueville in 1853 wrote “I accept the intellectual rationale for democratic institutions, but I am instinctively an aristocrat, in the sense that I contemn and fear the crowd. I dearly love liberty and respect for rights, but not democracy” (New York Daily Tribune, June 25th, 1853, as cited by Bensaid, 2011). While a prolific political thinker - most well-known for his two-volume set Democracy in America, we see in this comment a particular “hatred of democracy”. We might also recall Winston Churchill’s famed (and now cliched) statement that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all others”. In contemporary times democracy is discussed incessantly as the reason why, in particular, the United States does what it does. It fights in the name of democracy. It spreads democracy (through military intervention). Yet, in doing so it ironically becomes rather undemocratic.

Jacques Rancière in Hatred of Democracy explores this hatred - looking at the ways in which justifications for democracy often come at the expense of democracy itself. In the final chapter of his book he returned to “the initial terms of our problem”:

We live in societies and States known as ‘democracies’, a term by which they are distinguished from societies governed by States without law or with religious law. How are we to understand that, at the heart of these ‘democracies’, a dominant intelligentsia, whose situation is not obviously desparate and who hardly aspire to live under different laws, day in day out blame all of humanity’s misfortunes on a single evil they call democracy?

As Rancière elucidated in his text the concept of democracy is rather complicated with the standard form taking the “form of a double bind” where “either democratic life signified a large amount of popular participation in discussing public affairs, and it was a bad thing; or it stood for a form of social life that turned energies toward individual satisfaction, and it was a bad thing” (8). This tension between popular rule and individual success becomes a paradox of democracy where “a social and political form of life, democracy is the reign of excess. This excess signifies the ruin of democratic government and must therefore be repressed by it” (8).

What does this mean? Well, it seem that as democracy emerged, there was an individual quest for happiness (if God is dead and “man” can rule the self, then the individual becomes thinkable in new ways) and a change in social relations (individuals relate to others differently because it becomes possible as the hierarchy of aristocracy is in decline) that has led to escalating demands (for rights) and expectations (for protections) that Rancière contends has a double effect - one where citizens as individuals become unconcerned with the public good (democracy tied with consumerism and the market; the ability to acquire things) the other where the governments ability to respond to demands has been undermined (the effects of neoliberalism and privatization; the decimation of the welfare state)

Governments - namely governments that claim to be ‘democracies’ such as the United States and France - that have sought to spread democracy while clamping down on democracy show the ungovernable state of democracy and the need for democracy to be governed. This is of course seen in the support “democratic states” provide countries seeking democracy while clamping down on popular protest at home (see the disdain for Occupy; Union Strikes). We see in this the desire to “spread democracy” through violence or interventions (supporting mass uprisings) while governing democracy at home (to suppress mass uprisings).

The representative government that is viewed as foundational to democracy is simply a process of choosing a different oligarch. This is quite visible within US politics where politicians make a career out of being politicians, starting in one position and moving “up” and “over” throughout different positions, knowing how to gain and seize power. Of course, there are ways in which such might be challenged.  As he wrote:

“We can specify the rules that lay down the minimal conditions under which a representative system can be declared democratic: short and non-renewable electoral mandates that cannot be held concurrently; a monopoly of people’s representatives over the formulation of laws; a ban on State functionaries becoming the representatives of the people; a bare minimum of campaigns and campaign costs and the monitoring of possible interferences by economic powers in the electoral process (72).

Of course, as Rancière wrote, to mention these would provoke hilarity because such ideas challenge the ways “democracy” works where there are

eternally elected members holding concurrent or alternating municipal, regional, legislative and/or ministerial functions and whose essential link to the people is that of the representation of regional interests; governments which make laws themselves; representatives of the people that largely come from one administrative schools; ministers or their collaborators who are also given posts in public or semi-public companies; fraudulent financing of parties through public works contracts; business people who invest colossal sums in trying to win electoral mandates; owners of private media empires that use their public functions to monopolize the empire of the public media (72-73).

Rancière, in all of this, wants to perhaps provide a third way to think about or through democracy - exposing the hatred while proposing something different. For him democracy “is the action that constantly wrests the monopoly of public life from oligarchic governments and the omnipotence over lives from the power of wealth” (96). And “it is only entrusted to the constancy of its specific acts” which “can provoke fear, and so hatred, among those who are used to exercising the magisterium of thought” (97). As Rancière continues “But among those who know how to share with anybody and everybody the equal power of intelligence, it can conversely inspire courage, and hence joy” (97).

Democracy must be thought of not as an “individual quest for happiness” nor as a form of governing the social body, but as a contingent, constant force or action that disrupts the oligarchy that persists. Democracy is, as he notes in an interview with Eric Hazan “irreducible to either a form of government or a mode of social life” (2011, 76). In this view of democracy as a force (not a form) that exists beneath and beyond “forms of government” cannot be lived in. Rather “we live in States of oligarchic law, in other words, in States where the power of the oligarchy is limited by a dual recognition of popular sovereignty and individual liberties” (73). The freedoms that are gained or achieved in the oligarchic states we live in “were not gifts of oligarchs. They were won through democratic action and are only ever guaranteed through such action. The ‘rights of man and of the citizen’ are the rights of those who make them reality” (74).

Perhaps there is an argument that democracy must be done away with, that its time has come and gone. Certainly if we see democracy as a form of government (a parlimentary system) or a mode of being (with constitutional liberties) this might be the case, particularly in the West. Yet, we can see all kinds of democratic uprisings and stirrings throughout the global world (beyond those instances of “spreading” democracy through military interventions seen in Iraq and Afghanistan) where democracy visibly serves a “critical function”, such that “it is the wrench of equality jammed (objectively and subjectively) into the gears of domination” and “it’s what keeps politics from simply turning into law enforcement” (2011, 79). However, this is not to see democracy as simply moments of uprising that then return to a status quo, “but also of the ongoing effort to create forms of the common different from the ones on offer from the state, democratic consensus, and so on” (80). Democracy becomes a critical tool that looks to the past (the archives), the present (the going-ons of current societies and States), to impact the future (unknown) ways in which people engage the world. This is, of course, not a tool that seeks to finally capture the ideal of equality for

Rancière already pre-supposes equality. His democracy and politics are not a “kicking of the can” to find equality there, in the future, but to see that “equality it not given, nor is it claimed” rather “it is practiced, it is verified” (1991, 137). Furthermore “one need only learn how to be equal in an unequal society” and this is “what being emancipated means” (133). How then is democracy - this critical tool - a means of practicing equality, an equality that already is, to create something different?

Bensaid, Daniel. (2011). Permanent Scandal. In Democracies in What State? (16-43).New York: Columbia University Press.
Rancière, Jacques. (1991). The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons of Intellectual Emancipation. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.
---. (2006). Hatred of Democracy. London: Verso.
---. (2011) Democracies against Democracy: An interview with Eric Hazan. In Democracies in What State? (76-81). New York: Columbia University Press.

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