Book Reviews

A Provocateur for the Democratic Raison D’être

Book Review: Jacques Rancière’s Hatred of Democracy


French political philosophy should always be sold with a bottle of Côtes du Rhône and a pack of Gauloises. They help with that wildly intuitive state of mind needed to tâtonner through the bricolage.

Or at least they would have come in handy with Jacques Rancière’s Hatred of Democracy, which requires its fair share of intuiting. But that said, and apart my general desire for wine, most of the book was not only comprehensible but bracing.

Rancière takes aim to explain the western contempt of democracy with which we are increasingly familiar – “the reign of the limitless desire of individuals in modern mass society.” But en route to such an explanation, the reader gets a fresh image of what our democracy could really mean.

The explanation for such contempt is worth reviewing.

First, he sketches out how our democracies have become increasingly depoliticized. That is, how the public sphere has been hollowed out from above and below as our rulers more closely resemble an oligarchy of economic interests concerned with economic management, and as citizens retreat into increasingly isolated private spheres.  This is all a way of saying that the form of legitimation for our governments has drifted away from ‘popular sovereignty’ and toward ‘sound management’. It should of course be old news that this is what has happened, and that these expert economic managers are quick to be contemptuous of citizens who disagree with their decrees; the managerial attitude can only interpret public dissent as ignorance. For Rancière, however, this attitude is tantamount to the slow murder of politics itself.

So that’s the first step of the argument: the disappearance of the public sphere and the death of politics.

The second step argues that this anaemic, near-dead form of association is then mistaken for democracy, as if a fragmented collection of private individuals clamouring for their interests was worth the name. But justified or not, the equation of this democracy-of-consumers with other more substantive political visions has consequences that Rancière is worried about. Namely, as far as I can tell, the total and final retreat from shared public life into forms of totalitarianism – religious, ethnic, or whatever else. As I understand it, he takes this totalitarian temptation to be a reaction against the increasingly dramatic split of the State from society under our oligarchic ‘managers’. If we are seeking the solace of a State unified with society and have lost faith in our current set of purportedly-democratic institutions then totalitarianism really can look seductive.

Now that interpretation might have more than a splash of Côtes du Rhône in it but I’d like to think it isn’t totally gauche.

At this point you could probably guess Rancière’s other main message: this is not democracy.  What exactly is a democracy for him is an interesting and unconventional matter, but I’ll just give the highlights:

“Strictly speaking, democracy is not a form of State. It is always beneath and beyond these forms. Beneath, insofar as it is the necessarily egalitarian, and necessarily forgotten, foundation of the oligarchic state. Beyond, insofar as it is the public activity that counteracts the tendency of every State to monopolize and depoliticize the public sphere. Every State is oligarchic.”

At its core, Rancière’s democracy is presented in opposition to essential institutional structures. Majoritarianism, Representation, and all kinds of other sacred cows are rejected. What remains is a democratic practice which is always emerging, a constant fight to demarcate and protect the public sphere from the private, and a basic egalitarianism which challenges whatever oligarchic authority there is. This involves the denial of any ‘natural’ rights to rule; place of birth and wealth as much as wisdom and technical expertise go the way of divine mandate.  All that remains is chance. If positions of authority are just as likely to be held be the competent and high-born as by the incompetent and lowly then, Rancière says, we can rest assured that we have a democracy.

Just how strong that is may be hard to swallow, but I leave that to the you. All that’s important to see for now is its novelty in times such as ours.

If there is one Ideé fixe in this work without obvious clarification or justification it is “the tendency of every State to monopolize and depoliticize the public sphere.” As far as I can tell, the fact that States are oligarchic is presented as more of a definition than anything else, and this says a lot more about his idiosyncratic use of terms like ‘State’, ‘Democracy’, and ‘Oligarchy’ than about the structure of the political institutions we call ‘states’ in our world.  Most of us would feel comfortable talking of (perhaps hypothetical) entities called ‘democratic states’ as if that meant something, but it seems like Rancière would have to hear that as oxymoronic for the reasons listed above.

But there’s another possibility. If the purported fact that ‘States depoliticize the public sphere’ is not a definitional truth but one which respects our common usage then it needs some hefty philosophical or historical support. None is forthcoming. I suspect that this is the kind of claim which looks obvious to the ones who are already familiar with these quarters, but to the uninitiated it looks more like a cul-de-sac.

So this work probably couldn’t be called a tour de force but in a time of such political impasse it is exactly the kind of métier we need. Despite its sometimes difficult façade it makes an essential entrée into an understanding of democracy’s élan vital and the capitalist, statist enfants terribles which threaten it.


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