Wednesday 14 February 2007

On the Shores of Politics

Jacques Rancière

Jacques Rancière, one of the post-Althusserian generation of French philosophers, wrote the four essays that make up this collection at the end of the Cold War (1988-1990). They are: ‘The End of Politics or The Realist Utopia’, ‘The Uses of Democracy’, ‘The Community of Equals’ and ‘Democracy Corrected’. Although each of the essays stands alone, many of the themes and arguments overlap. Each essay is an attempt, to a greater or lesser degree, to bring the insights of classical philosophy to bear on that phenomenon variously characterised as the ‘end of politics’, ‘the end of ideology’, ‘the end of utopia’ and so on - by which is meant the end of the sharp ideological battles that dominated Cold War politics. Rancière’s aim is to criticise the post-political consensus that has replaced yesterday’s battles.

So how successful is the attempt to use classical philosophy to shed light on our post-political era? Rancière has difficulties discussing concrete political events and individuals of the day in the lofty categories of classical philosophy and mythical allusions. Thus in discussing the Chirac-Mitterand rivalry at the end of the Cold War in the first essay, Rancière can only bring himself to allude to the key players: Mitterand is ‘the one in whom the “spirit” of the Constitution of our Fifth Republic recognizes the supreme and cardinal virtue, auctoritas’ (p9); Le Pen is ‘the candidate of “France for the French”’ (p23); and (more amusingly from the viewpoint of 2007), Chirac ‘the personification of youth, dynamism and production’ (p11). The overall effect is unfortunate, as it makes it seem as if Rancière couldn’t possibly descend to the vulgar level of actually naming any living politicians, when in fact his discussion of Mitterand’s routing of Chirac is insightful and engaging.

Despite the portentous classical allusions and categories, there are some winning and original insights that come through. In ‘The Uses of Democracy’ for example, Rancière discusses how the dogmatism of the old left has metamorphosed into a debilitating scepticism that serves to buttress the post-political consensus. Rancière sees this scepticism incarnated in the suspicious, lazy mode of critical inquiry whereby high-minded promises or claims (justice, liberty, equality and so on) are compared with the workings of a particular institution, and inevitably found wanting. The thrust of this type of inquiry, Rancière suggests, is less to transform any institutions for the better than to sully the ideal itself. Rancière illustrates the discussion with reference to the reform efforts of educational sociologists who denounced the failure of the Fifth Republic’s schooling system to live up to Republican values: ‘The work of Bourdieu and Passeron exemplifies this logic, in which the sociologist and the social critic win every round by showing that democracy loses every round.’ (p.52). Although Rancière’s own discussion of equality is suspect, he is nonetheless right to point out that these supposedly penetrating sceptical inquiries ultimately mirror the archetypal reactionary move, that simply contrasts empirical reality with an ideal or aspiration, in order to throw out the goal itself: ‘the counterrevolutionary critique of democracy … the idea that disharmony between the constitutive forms of a sociopolitical regime signifies … a fundamental lie.’ (p54)

Another particularly striking insight comes from a fascinating discussion of our changing perspectives on time. In the first essay Rancière explores the effects of no longer thinking about the future in terms of utopian possibility. It is not quite that the end of utopia embodies the end of progress, rather it is the end of the ‘idea of a yardstick, a telos which served simultaneously to take the measure of the state of politics and give a finality to its forward motion.’ Once belief in a substantive vision of political transformation and social transcendence withers, ‘faith in the pure form of time [serves] as the last utopia […] What is heralded … is a time in which every political commandment will embrace the natural form of “Forward! March!“‘ (p25) New Labour’s slogan in the last British general election - ‘Britain: forward, not back’ - exemplifies this attitude. The result of this new attitude, Rancière suggests, is something that is actually more superstitious than any utopian mirages and philosophical schemas, whereby time itself is endowed with almost mystical properties of transformation. ‘All we need is time, give us time, clamour all our governments. Of course every government wants to increase its life span. But there is more in this plea: the transfer to time of all utopian powers.’ (p25)

As there is no longer any place for human effort in effecting radical social change, the only source of change (and the hope of change) can come from is the spontaneous inertia of accumulated time itself: ‘the natural productivity of time … becomes synonymous with faith in miracles’. (p26). Again, Rancière illustrates this with reference to the marketisation of education, where ideas of qualitative self-transformation are abandoned in favour of qualifications that match the demands of the market: ‘giving the young at school qualifications which match the jobs on the market … posits a utopian equivalence between the biological time of the child’s maturing into adulthood and the temporality of the expanding market.’ (p26)

These essays were originally published as part of Verso’s ‘Phronesis’ series edited by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, who wanted to provide a post-Marxist theoretical base for a post-socialist politics of radical and plural democracy (it is difficult to avoid repeated use of the word ‘post’ when discussing anything to do with Laclau and Mouffe). The aims of this series are fully on display in Rancière’s renunciation of any project of building a radically different society (pp60-61), his suspicion towards the exercise of collective agency and reason (pp82-83), and an inspired characterisation of the power of democracy - but a power whose only value for Rancière is its negativity, its potential to tear up pre-existing arrangements, rather than its power to lay the foundations of a positive new order (pp32-33). Beneath the burnished radical sheen and arch-theorising, Rancière’s substantive vision of politics amounts to little more than a tired fantasy of liberal pluralism: a fantasy because it envisages a world where politics is at once lively enough to be absorbing, but also sufficiently diffuse and finely balanced that no one group has any chance of decisively changing the world.


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