Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Ranciére and ‘the police’

The more acquainted I get with the work of Jacques Ranciére, the more it strikes me that his uncompromisingly philosophical treatment of familiar phenomena is a way of doing what has been recognisable as philosophy’s archetypal function since the time of the ancient Greeks, namely to expose the familiar as covering up what is “truly” the case.

In the brief but incisive essays comprising Dissensus (2011), for example, he sets out to disabuse his readers of the notion that politicians today practice “politics”, and argues instead that they belong to the “police” — not in the usual sense, but with a very specific meaning, which he clarifies in one of the essays concerned (Ten theses on politics, in Dissensus, 2011) as follows:

“Thesis 7. Politics stands in distinct opposition to the police. The police is a distribution of the sensible … whose principle is the absence of void and of supplement.

“The police is not a social function but a symbolic constitution of the social. The essence of the police lies neither in repression nor even in control over the living. Its essence lies in a certain way of dividing up the sensible. I call ‘distribution of the sensible’ a generally implicit law that defines the forms of partaking by first defining the modes of perception in which they are inscribed.”

It is not far-fetched to see in this use of the term “police” a play on the ancient Greek word for the city-as-a-state, namely, “polis”. It was after all Plato and Aristotle who formulated what even today counts among the most influential ways of “partitioning (or distribution of) the sensible” without leftover. In Plato’s case, for example, this was done along the lines of clearly identifiable “classes” of citizens in The Republic — philosopher-kings (guardians), soldiers and the commercial class — a division of social space such that no one could conceivably fall outside its scope, especially because these three classes putatively corresponded with the tripartite structure of the human soul, namely reason (the guardians), spirit (the protectors or soldiers) and appetite (the commercial class).

This parcelling-out of the community according to divisions, which accommodate people who buy into the principles underpinning the divisions in question, makes those whose position is incompatible with such principles invisible and inaudible in the sense that what they attempt to draw to the attention of the “politicians” (the agents of the “police”) cannot, in principle, be heard or registered in the discourse of the latter. This is clarified by Joseph Tanke in his book, Jacques Ranciére: An Introduction (2011: 42-43), where he elaborates on Ranciére’s political thinking:

“It defends the idea that ‘politics’ should be reserved for democratic forms of organisation, communication, practice, and action. This means that politics is distinguishable from other ways of ordering the community by its most basic element, equality. Without equality, distributions, operations, and discourses partake of the opposite of politics, what Ranciére calls ‘the police’ … it designates those distributions erected in order to support selective accountings of the city. The police maintains the fiction that no one of any significance has been prevented from taking part in the determination of the common life. For Ranciére, politics is the process by which the “part of those without part” counter all such counts based upon their exclusion … politics is the process of disrupting the distribution of parts and roles through a claim about the equality of anyone with everyone … what Ranciére is describing is the de-mos, the very subject of politics. The de-mos is a political subject inasmuch as it is capable of exceeding and thereby undermining the police’s accounting. Whereas the police defines the polis as unified and whole, politics consists of contesting the very definition of the community.”

Understandably, therefore, the police is at pains to prevent the de-mos — the true subject of politics — to make its appearance, and when it does, everything possible is done to discredit it. This is part and parcel of contemporary politics, too — of what Ranciére pointedly refers to as the politics of “consensus” (which may be a stab at Habermas, who has famously advocated “consensus” as the goal of communication in general, expressed in a terse sentence in Knowledge and Human Interests [1971, p. 314]: “Our first sentence expresses unequivocally the intention of the universal and unconstrained consensus”).

This may seem counter-intuitive: isn’t consensus or agreement the ultimate objective in all political negotiations? Not so for Ranciére. Consensus is in fact a means of exclusion, in as far as, more often than not, it functions not as the goal to be attained by means of political wrangling among everyone in society (as liberal political theorists claim), including the dispossessed, the homeless, and the poor, but as something operating from the beginning as a bulwark against (genuine) politics. The latter would break apart the apparently seamless configuration of society because its irruption contests the consensual exclusion of the de-mos unequivocally.

Consensus is therefore the means by which the “police” manages the social sphere from the outset by means of exclusions and prohibitions. As Tanke reminds one with reference to Ranciére’s work, the consensus on societal divisions and functions promoted by the “police” operates according to a process of de-politicisation. So, for instance, one is told that “salary disputes are private matters between workers and employers” (Tanke 2011, p. 46), even when the thrust of worker demands for better salaries is the genuinely political one of expressing the desire to be included in the society that systematically excludes them, despite claims to the contrary: They can vote in elections, can’t they? Mere voting in a “police” system where the elected “representatives” reinforce the existing partitioning of society through economic legislation is no sign of freedom, or of politics in Ranciére’s sense, however. But for Ranciére the possibility of politics in this sense is receding more and more because of “consensus”, as Tanke points out (2011, p. 46):

“Ranciére describes ours as a ‘consensual time’ to indicate that the logics of de-politicisation are becoming more sophisticated and politics itself more difficult. He has set his conception of politics in opposition to a specific variety of consensus prevalent today: the discourses ascendant since the fall of the Berlin Wall that attempt to legitimate the unrestricted reign of the market. This form of consensus employs a particular series of operations to convert democratic struggles into a series of managed conflicts. It frequently exploits the cover of political realism, the doctrine that justifies war, social hierarchies, and economic inequalities by invoking necessity … it is the ideology that claims to be beyond ideology, one which would have us believe it is now possible to base government on a pragmatic estimation of human nature, the market’s laws, and the global situation. We witness a version of realism whenever leaders exploit the imperatives of modernisation, economic necessity, or notions such as the ‘post-9/11 world’ to justify unpalatable decisions. Realism gains traction by promoting itself as the efficient alternative to the chimeras of democracy. Our managerial states are its agents and our corporations, its primary beneficiaries.”

Does this sound like a characterisation of a familiar state of affairs? It should, because in South Africa we witness, on a daily basis, a multitude of ways in which our very own representatives of the “police” engage in “partitioning the sensible”, making sure that what the de-mos claims as belonging to it in the light of the equality of everyone with everyone, does not fit into the realm of the sayable. And this rests on prior, tacit “consensus”, that there’s no need for politics as the unconditional assertion of equality, because “mechanisms” and policies exist that can deal with all exigencies. The recent Marikana massacre may be regarded as a paradigmatic instance of the functioning of the “police” within the context of such pseudo-political, consensual managerialism.

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    • Daniel

      I would love for you to read some good and recent writing on Plato that escapes many of the problems that have come from ‘analytic’ philosophy’s tradition of interpretation. You mention his work surprisingly often in this blog and I mostly feel like you’re out of the loop.
      A great start is Jacob Klein’s A Commentary On Plato’s Meno, and anything by Klein in general. A current writer on Plato who does a good job is Jill Gordon.

      Otherwise, nice article. Down with utopian liberalism and up with (post-left?) anarchism! 😀

    • Bert

      Daniel – Thanks for that remark. You probably know that I’m no ‘analytical’ philosopher, though. Plato interests me not merely because Ranciere writes about his and Aristotle’s work a lot, but because I love reading their texts, too. If you go to the Janus Head website, you’ll see one of the papers that I have written about Plato -on his Symposium – using phenomenological and psycho-analytical considerations. (The paper’s details are: ‘The subversion of Plato’s quasi-phenomenology and mytho-poetics in the Symposium’. Janus Head 11(1), (American Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature, Continental Philosophy, Phenomenological Psychology and the Arts), Trivium Publications, Amherst, NY, pp. 59-76.) My point is simply that I’m less interested in commenators than in the thinkers’ own work. In Ranciere’s case I don’t approach him as a commentator re Aristotle and Plato, but as an important thinker in his own right, who takes Plato and Aristotle as his point of departure in his re-thinking of democracy. I’m working on an academic paper re Ranciere and politics at present, and this blog is a finger-exercise in that process.

    • Aragorn Eloff

      Great article Bert.

      I’m interested to hear how you’d apply Ranciere’s views to the upcoming SA elections. Ostensibly to vote would simply be to reproduce consensus (or, rather, to be bludgeoned by those police batons once again). For those (the part of no part) interested in enacting the dissensus of genuine politics then, what are the most fruitful options? Strikes? Active anti-voting campaigns (drawing attention to the partitioning)? Widespread insurrection?

      Kind of separately, I wonder if Ranciere’s analysis could also be applied to the near-literal partitioning executed by initiatives like World Design Capital and the growing phenomenon of ‘creative districts’ in SA, where a rising hipster creative class heavily associated with gentrification claims hegemony over the aesthetics of public spaces…perhaps these kinds of sanitized, toothless creative districts and projects serve as an integral part of the police order?

    • Rene

      Great piece; it explains a lot.

    • Rory Short

      All human beings have mind sets and it seems to me that what you @bert are pointing out is that power people in any society do their level best to sell the mindset, which serves their interests, to everybody else in the society even to those who are not benefitting from the consequences of that mindset. South Africa is a case in point. There is a vast under class that is not benefitting from the current mindset but an attempt is made to enrol them, at least nominally, in the mindset through the right to vote in elections for politicians, politicians who have fully bought into the mindset.

      Even though the mindset is clearly not delivering to vast numbers of people very few people who are benefitting from the mindset question it as such. Rather they pursue ways, within the mindset, of fixing the problems that are the consequence of the mindset, a hopeless pursuit.

      Take the money system for example. Money is firstly a mental concept which once actualised in the external world facilitates the natural exchanges of goods and services that, for survival reasons, have to take place between every member of any society. It seems highly logical therefore that in principle, in the interests of the health of society as a whole, everybody in society should have access to money when they need it.

      Unfortunately the current money system simply cannot actualise the above principle. As a consequence endless and ongoing efforts to eradicate poverty [extreme cash scarcity amongst some…

    • Rory Short

      elements of the community] are fruitless. In a sense this is inevitable as the current money system is unquestionably embedded within the mindsets of those who call the shots in society, after all they are within the system and have access to money, so even with the best of intentions all their efforts to eradicate the poverty of others, whilst still in the mindset that unquestionably embraces the current money system, will fail.

      With the advent of the internet, computers and cell phones it is technically quite possible to create a money system that enables the above principle to be actualised. In fact there is already an alternative money system in use in South Africa, and across the globe, which does so. It’s development started ten or more years ago in Cape Town and it is called ‘The Community Exchange System [CES]’. It can be found on the web at But to get people to buy into CES, even those who the current money is not serving at all, is an uphill struggle.

    • Bert

      Thanks for the comments, everyone.
      Rory, what you say is compatible with Ranciere’s thinking, I think, in as far as the examples you mention of attempts to find alternatives to the current money system amount to the assertion of ‘equality’.
      Aragarorn, that’s a difficult question – I think the clue to the right answer lies in Ranciere’s insistence that not all ‘demonstrations’ are ‘political’ or democratic, in as far as, to be reckoned a claim to equality, they have to display an element of ‘logos’ (speech, or reason). Only then will the ‘police’ have no way of arguing with the legitimacy of the claim. It seems to me that acts of insurrection without ‘logos’ would be inchoate assertions of equality, but only if the illegitimacy of the exclusion of those who demonstrate is apparent in their ability to share in the ability to speak, can it fall under the aegis of equality. So I believe one should vote, even if only to bring about a reorganisation on the part of the ‘police’, to be able to renew the democratic struggle. As for the pockets of gentrification you talk about, they fall under what Castells calls the encroachment of the space of flows – hence the sanitary character of those spaces. Ranciere would probably see them as spatial manifestation of the police-order, and Deleuze/Guattari would regard them as part of the never-ending process of striated space conquering smooth, nomadic spaces, but always with the potential of the process being reversed.

    • Aragorn Eloff

      Thanks Bert. You’ve definitely encouraged me to look into Castells with your comment on the encroachment of the space of flows. It’s something I’ve been fascinated by since moving to Cape Town.