Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Ranciere, The Hatred of Democracy

If I had more intellectual energy, I would somehow synthesize the Jacques Rancière book I’ve just put down. Here’s a half-hearted effort.

For him, democracy is the absolute principle of egalitarianism, which founds even inegalitarian systems. Democracy is the foundational meaninglessness of things, it seems. It is the essence of relativism and the blank space at the foundation of every power-structure. Equality, radical and contentless, is the transcendentally deduced starting-point for Rancière’s thought. He draws a number of consequences and makes a number of observations that I won’t discuss here. I will point to the interesting comparison with Badiou, who, we might say, puts the ontological relation of belonging in the same place as Rancière does equality.

He also, incidentally, has some interesting things to say about the Third Republic in this light. Jules Ferry is a hero, for instance, of genuine equality, whose vision was corrupted by the pressure for social reproduction.

I’m sympathetic with Rancière’s whole project, though there are points of interpretation on which I’d like to challenge him. In this particular book, there were two issues, both historico-theoretical.

The first one has to do with his discussion of J.-C. Milner’s book, Les Penchants criminels de l’Europe démocratique. Rancière seems to accept uncritically the idea that Europe’s ‘peace’ in the post 1945 world was somehow founded on the elimination of the cosmopolitain humanism that somehow inheres to the essence of Jewishness. I’m not at all familiar with Milner’s work, though I remember a bit of Zizek’s discussion. So I’m not sure quite what he’s up to. The argument, interspersed with Rancière’s additions, seems to be a) that the postwar ‘unification’ of Europe under abstract law is possible because the imaginary presence of ‘the Jew’ has, in fact, been successfully erased by Hitler; and so b) it is in this light that we must see European demands for ‘peace now’ in the middle east. Such demands obviously mean the end of Israel, and therefore the extension of the democratic/totalitarian project that is liberal/capitalist Europe onto a global scale. That is: European support for the Palestinians really is a new form of Nazi anti-Semitism. I won’t even begin to argue against this here—but I will point out that there is surely some theoretical interest to the empirical truth that Europe’s peace was, as Tony Judt points out, built not so much on the destruction of the Jews as on the massive scale of wartime and immediate postwar population transfers and border re-drawings, everything tamped down by Soviet control in the east.

More importantly, and in a completely different directly, it seems to me that Rancière grants capital the same transcendental status as equality (in his sense of the word, democracy). He says,

“In order for it [liberalism, which is really to say: capitalism] to function, it has no need that any constitutional order be declared for ‘deregulated competition’, that is, the free and limitless circulation of capital. It requires only that the latter be permitted to function. The mystical honeymoon between capital and the common good are needless for capital. It serves only the ends pursued by oligarchs of State: the constitution of interstate spaces liberated from the need for popular and national legitimacy.” 82

It is important that capitalism, just like everything else, is at least in part a social practice. There is an ample body of literature on the development, and lack of development, of capitalism. Capital is not a subject, though it may be useful to think of it that way. Capital is not a transcendental category. The development of something that we now call capitalism, either in the 16th or 18th centuries, did not in itself constitute a radical or epistemic break in world history. Capitalism may not need, as Rancière says, “any constitutional order” to support it, but it needs some kind of order. The proper institutions and infrastructure is necessary even for it to malfunction. Globalization is witness to this. Some economists say that the problem of globalization is that there isn’t enough of it—the poor states are the ones for one reason or another unconnected to the global economy. This doesn’t take the whole state of things into account, but it is none the less simply true that the system has gaps, and is sustained as a system by a huge amount of labor (and not just the sweating kind) and energy.

I’ll have to read more Rancière and see what he really thinks. This book has the feel of an occasional piece, dashed off in a hurry (again, that might be the translation). Certainly, he is in real conversation with Laclau, even Badiou, Zizek, and has some nasty (i think correct) things to say about Agamben. There will certainly be more about Rancière here later.

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