RanciÃ¨re doesn’t see democracy as a form of government, or form of State. It is something both more and less than that. States are all more or less despotic, including supposedly “democratic” ones. And non-State forms of authority tend to be based on other forms of unequal power relationships, with authority grounded in age (patriarchy), birth (aristocracy), violence and military prowess (I’m not sure of the name of this), or money and wealth (plutocracy). Our current neoliberal society combines the rule of Capital with the rule of bureaucratic States with their own levels of authority based upon expertise and guardianship of the “rights” of property or Capital. Even though we have a legislature and executive that are chosen by majority, or at least plurality, vote, our society is not very democratic by RanciÃ¨re’s standards. The role of money in the electoral process, the fact that there are career politicians, the management of increasing aspects of our lives by non-political “experts” (e.g. the Federal Reserve), all militate against what RanciÃ¨re considers to be even the minimal requirements for democracy.
To a great extent, RanciÃ¨re uses the idea of “democracy” adjectivally (a society may be more or less democratic) rather than as a noun. For democracy is a tendency, a process, a collective action, rather than a state of affairs, much less an organized State. Democracy is an event; it happens when, for isntance, people militate to change the distribution of what is public and what is private. In the US, the civil rights movement and (more recently) the alterna-globalization protests would be examples of democracy in action. RanciÃ¨re rightly stresses the activity, which always needs to be renewed, rather than the result. This might be thought of, in Deleuzian terms, as a revolutionary-becoming, rather than an established “revolutionary” State, which is nearly always a disappointment (if not something worse). While I am inclined to agree with Zizek that State power often may need to be actively used in order, for instance, to break the power of Capital, I still find Zizek’s apparent worship of State forms and Party dictatorship reprehensible (it would seem that Zizek has never found an ostensibly left-wing dictator he doesn’t like — except for Tito and Milosevic). Collective processes should not be reduced to State organization, though they may include it. Chavismo is more important than Chavez (whereas Zizek seems to admire Chavez because, rather than in spite of, his tendency to do things that allow his opponents to apply the cliche of “banana-republic dictator” to him). It is admirable that Chavez is using a certain amount of State power, as well as extra-State collective action, in order to break the power of Capital; but to identify a revolutionary process with its leader and authority figure is worse than insane.
But I digress. To value the process of revolutionary-becoming, as Deleuze does, and as RanciÃ¨re does in a different way, rather than the results of such action, is not to gvie up on lasting change. It is rather to say that change continues to need to happen, as against the faux-utopia of a final resting place, an actually-achieved utopia (which always turns out to be something more like “actually-existing socialism,” as they used to say, precisely because it congeals when the process comes to a stop).
I need to be cautious here about assimilating RanciÃ¨re too much to Deleuze and Guattari. I am only trying to say that RanciÃ¨re’s notion of democracy gives substance to something that often sounds too glib and vague when Deleuze and Guattari say it. For RanciÃ¨re, “democracy” means that no one person or group of people is intrinsically suited to rule, or more suited to rule than anyone else. Democracy means radical contingency, because there is no foundation for the social order. Democracy means absolute egalitarianism; there is no differential qualification that can hierarchize people, or divide rulers from ruled, the worthy from the unworthy. In a democratic situation, anybody is as worthy of respect as anybody else. This means that, for RanciÃ¨re, the purest form of democracy would be selection by lot (with frequent rotation and replacement), rather than “representative” elections. Selection by chance is grounded in the idea that anyone can exercise a power-function, regardless of “qualifications” or “merit” (let alone the desire to rule or control; if anything, those who desire to have administrative or legislative power are the ones least worthy to have it — to the extent that we can make such a distinction at all).
It is unclear to me whether RanciÃ¨re actually believes that a total democracy could exist in practice — as opposed to being an ideal to strive for, a kind of Kantian ethical imperative, something we must strive for to the utmost possible, regardless of the degree to which we succeed. (In my previous post, I was privileging both the political and the aesthetic at the expense of the ethical. Here I would add that Kantian morality is not ethics, but perhaps can be seen as the limit of ethics, the point at which it comes closest to politics).
But here’s the point. For RanciÃ¨re, egalitarianism is not a “fact” (though we can and should continually strive to “verify” it), but an axiom and an imperative. That is to say, it has nothing to do with empirical questions of how much particular people are similar to, or different from, one another (in terms of qualities like manual dexterity or mathematical ability, or for that matter “looks” and “beauty”). Egalitarianism doesn’t deny the fact that any professional tennis player, even a low-ranked one, could effortlessly beat me at tennis, or that RanciÃ¨re’s philosophical writings are far more profound than mine, or that I couldn’t pass a sophomore college math class. And egalitarianism doesn’t mean that somehow we all ought to be “the same,” whatever that might entail, genetically or experientially. What egalitarianism means, for RanciÃ¨re, is that we are all intelligent speaking beings, able to communicate with one another. Our very social interaction means that we are on the same level in a very fundamental sense. The person who follows orders is equal to the person who gives orders, in the precise sense that the one who obeys is able to understand the one who commands. In this sense, RanciÃ¨re says, equality is always already presupposed in any social relation of inequality. You couldn’t have hierarchies and power relations without this more fundamental, axiomatic, equality lying beneath it.
This seems to me to be (though I presume RanciÃ¨re wouldn’t accept these terms) a sort of Kantian radicalization of Foucault’s claim that power is largely incitative rather than repressive, that it always relies, in almost the last instance (i.e. up to the point of death) upon some sort of consent or acceptance on the part of the one being dominated. Without these fundamental relations of equality, it would not be possible for there to be elites, masters, bosses, people who tell other people what to do, and who have the backing or the authority to do this. So the question of equality is (in Kantian terms) a question of a communication which is not based upon the quantitative rankings that are imposed by the adoption of a “universal equivalent” (money as the commodity against which all other commodities are exchanged) — therefore this, too, relates to the Kantian problematic that I discussed in my previous posting on RanciÃ¨re.
Of course, in our personal lives, we never treat everyone else with total equality. I love some people, and not others. I am always haunted by Jean Genet’s beautiful text on Rembrandt, where he mourns the way that Rembrandt’s revelation of the common measure, or equality, of everybody means, in a certain register, the death of his desire, the end of lusting after, and loving, and privileging, one individual in particular. But the power of Genet’s essay resides in the fact that, in the ultimate state of things, this universal equality cannot be denied any more than the singularity of desire can be. And that is why, or how, I think that the lesson Genet draws from Rembrandt is close to the lesson on equality that RanciÃ¨re draws from, among others, the 19th-century French pedagogue Jacotet (the subject of RanciÃ¨re’s book The Ignorant Schoolmaster).
Democracy, or egalitarianism, is not a question of singular desire; but it is very much a question of how we can, and should, live together socially, given that we are deeply social animals. Which is why I see it a kind of imperative, and as something that we always need to recall ourselves to, amidst the atomization — and deprivation for many — enforced by the neoliberal State and the savage “law” of the “market.” To that extent, I think that RanciÃ¨re is invaluable.
There is something I miss in RanciÃ¨re, however, and that is a sense of political economy, as opposed to just politics. This absence may have something to do with RanciÃ¨re’s rejection of his Althusserian Marxist past. He is certainly aware of the plutocratic aspects of today’s neoliberal network society. He doesn’t make the mistake of focusing all his ire on the State, while ignoring the pseudo-spontaneity of the Market and its financial instruments. But he never addresses, in the course of his account of democracy, the way in which economic organization, as well as political organization, needs to be addressed. Here, again, is a place where I think that Marx remains necessary (and also, as I said in the previous post, Mauss — as expounded, for example, by Kevin Hart). Exploitation cannot be reduced to domination, and the power of money cannot be reduced to the coercive power of the State or of other hierarchies. Aesthetics needs to be coupled with political economy, and not just with politics. So I still find a dimension lacking in RanciÃ¨re — but he helps, as few contemporary thinkers do, in starting to get us there.