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Todd May “The Political Thought of Jacques Rancière”

May, Todd 2008. The Political Thought of Jacques Rancière: Creating Equality. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.


Active Equality in Contemporary Politics

It is a framework that does not speak to the elites of their obligations, but to the demos of their possibilities. It is not a discourse of duty, nor is it a discourse of rights. It is a discourse of emancipation. Unlike mainstream polit-ical theory, Rancière’s articulation of active equality is not commis-sioned by a tradition whose discussants are those who have a part. (142)

Democratic politics “is a matter of interpreting, in the theatrical sense of the word, the gap between the place where the demos exists and a place where it does not, where there are only populations, individu-als, employers and employees, heads of households and spouses, and so on.” (142; Rancière, Disagreement, 88)

Distributive theories of justice, because they concern themselves with what is owed to people, can offer people nothing more than the obligations of others. Whether those obligations are material, social, or, as with Nozick, simply obligations of non-interference, they come to us rather than from us. (144)

In a democratic politics, since the moment of active equality is at the same time and in the same gesture the moment of self-creation, hope is folded into political expression. It is a politics of hope, rather than a politics that offers the resources out of which a person may, if she overcomes her role as recipient, create a bit of hope. (144)

Hope, we are told, is economic, not polit-ical; private, not public. (145)

Democratic politics is not a spectator sport. We do not watch the theorist in reflection and become emancipated. (145)

Rancière claims that the politics of active equality cannot be institutionalized, which denies all permanency to democratic expression. (145)

Rancière writes that consensus democracy, or what he sometimes calls post-democracy, is „the paradox that, in the name of democracy, emphasizes the consen-sual practice of effacing the forms of democratic action. Postdemocracy is the government practice and conceptual legitimization of a democ-racy after the demos, a democracy that has eliminated the appearance, miscount, and dispute of the people and is thereby reducible to the sole interplay of state mechanisms and combinations of social energies and interests . . . This is the actual meaning of what is called consensus democracy.“ (146; Rancière, Disagreement, 101-102)

While in the U.S. the paring away of state services (except those associated with the military) leaves people to their own devices, Europe is more oriented toward a social safety net. Nevertheless, common to both is the view that the political sphere is subservient to the economic one. Otherwise put, capitalist economic development is the answer to questions that once may have seemed political, and the role of the state is to help create the conditions for the efficient (and, in Europe, minimally humane) functioning of a capitalist market. (147)

The technological approach to politics is not far from the traditional liberal political philosophy we considered in the first chapter. It is concerned with the distribution of goods rather than with the par-ticipation of people in the creation of their lives. (149)

Instead of acting in solidarity with those who struggle, humanitarianism places those who might struggle in the position of recipients of aid or intervention. They are to be helped because they cannot help themselves. As with Levinas’ view, it is the vulnerability of the victims that obliges us rather than their equality to us. (152)

Humanitarian assistance is, while certainly necessary at moments, profoundly apolitical. It is a counter-movement to democratic politics. And to the degree to which it substitutes itself for such a politics, the ability to act in solidarity under the banner of equality is com-promised. (152)

In any case, the intervention of states is not  with or alongside peoples (as anarchists have long recognized, states cannot do this), but for them. (153)

First, what terrorism aims at is what has been called our way of life. That way of life is defined by capitalism and liberal freedom. The struggle against terrorism is waged on behalf of a historical legacy of markets and, to one degree or another, individualism and personal liberty. Neoliberalism is, centrally, the object to be protected in the war on terrorism. (155)

He sums up this recent suspicion regarding democratic individualism as a „triple operation: it is necessary, first, to reduce democracy to a form of society; second, to identify this form of society with the reign of egalitarian individualism, subsuming under this concept all sorts of disparate properties from rampant consumerism to claims of minor-ity rights, passing along the way trade union struggles; and finally, to cash out (verser au compte) the “individualist society of the masses” thus identified with democracy in the quest for an indefinite growth that is inherent in the logic of the capitalist economy.“ (156; Rancière, La haine de la democratie, 26)

By reducing all values into market values, everything becomes a matter of personal choice. (157)

That is why, as Rancière points out, when the people do resist, as for instance when the French voted against the European Constitution in May, 2005, this is con-sidered not so much a matter of opposition as of ignorance. We can be more specific. The inequality ascribed to the people is an ignorance about economics. In a world dominated by neoliberalism, those who are not conversant with the workings of the market need to yield their political involvement to those who are. Where pol-itics is a matter of proper economic administration, only those with economic expertise are qualified to participate fully in the political realm. (159)

Rancière points out that a mobile population does not necessarily include those who have no part. (169)

The question of institutionalization is not so much of the present as of the future. It bears upon the character of what we can hope for from a democratic politics. So far, the conception of democratic pol-itics that has been proposed treats it in the context of resistance. A democratic politics, in the present but also in the past, is a dissensus from the police order. But this dissensus is not simply reactive. It does not amount only to a refusal of the police order. It is, more signifi-cantly, an expression – the expression of equality. (176)

Given the complexity of dominations, what guarantee do we have that the results of a democratic politics in one area will not result in a new form of domination arising in another? None at all. (177)

The argument is not that there cannot be a democratic political utopia, but that to envision one in any specificity (that is, aside from the general idea of expressing equal-ity) neglects both the various registers along which domination operates and the contingency that characterizes political struggle. (178)

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