Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Understanding ‘world politics’ today – Rancière and Žižek

What I have in mind with this title pertains mainly to the work of that inimitable philosopher Jacques Rancière who has infused political thinking with new life, given the fact that it has become moribund under the dead weight of largely irrelevant liberal political theory and the idea that all politics is governed by the Habermasian ideal of consensus. Politics in the true sense only manifests itself on rare occasions, for Rancière, and is indissolubly bound up with equality.

As he claims in Disagreement (1999, p. 61), politics is without a “proper” foundation; instead, “ … equality … is the non-political condition of politics”. Moreover, contrary to what most of us believe on intuitive grounds, it does not show itself in party politics or even the functioning of the state according to certain laws; “ … it only appears as the figure of wrong”. True politics, in other words, only emerges when people are excluded in some way or another from the “polis” or community, and stake their claim to being part of it.

In simpler terms, this means that politics is usually conflated with parliamentary processes and competition for votes according to pre-established rules, but for Rancière these things comprise the domain of the “police”, that is, the organisation of society in such a way that social order is maintained at all costs (a Hobbesian ideal), and agonistic “politics” is largely precluded. As long as any specific incarnation of the “police” operates – such as the liberal democracies of the world – there is no politics in the true sense. When a wrong is committed, however, to someone, or a group of people, and the latter draws attention to this by speaking out or protesting, “politics” happens, because it amounts to a fundamental questioning of the way in which the order of the “police” has arranged society. Put differently, such a group proclaims its equality with everyone else, insofar as their action embodies the claim that in principle they represent the whole of society. A recent example of this in South Africa is what happened at Marikana.

In Disagreement Rancière elaborates on three “philosophical” ways that politics have been tamed or domesticated since antiquity: “archipolitics”, “parapolitics” and “metapolitics”. Archipolitics comes from Plato, and represents all attempts to demarcate an organic, traditional, tightly knit social domain without any gap or “empty” space where the event of politics can occur. For Plato the three social classes of rulers (philosopher kings and queens), protectors (soldiers and navy) and producers (the commercial classes) are exhaustive – one either belongs to one of these and forms part of the community, or you are excluded, like the poets in the Republic. A “political” event in such a state would be one where some “excluded” people (slaves, for instance, or an excluded race) argue or claim that they are part of the polis or community and should be acknowledged as such, even if they don’t fit into one of the valid groups.

“Parapolitics”, on the other hand, was inaugurated by Aristotle, who laid down the political principles of “ … transforming the actors and forms of action of the political conflict into the parts and forms of distribution of the policing apparatus” (1999, p. 72), in other words, of what Rancière calls the “police”. Essentially, this is what “liberal politics” amounts to. Slavoj Žižek (in Rancière’s The Politics of Aesthetics, 2013, location 1183, Kindle edition) explains it well, by calling it “ … the attempt to depoliticise politics (to translate it into the police-logic): one accepts the political conflict, but reformulates it into a competition, within the representational space, between acknowledged parties/agents, for the (temporary) occupation of the place of executive power”.

Interestingly, Žižek further points out that the ethics of John Rawls and Jurgen Habermas is probably the “last philosophical vestiges” of this political approach, given its attempt to remove antagonism from politics by means of the establishment of rules and laws that are designed to prevent the eruption of real, agonistic (that is, having the character of fighting) politics.

Rancière calls the third archetype of the domestication of politics in political philosophy “metapolitics”. Although it recognises the true nature of politics, the latter is displaced to the economic sphere, with the consequence that politics is negated as such and replaced by a rational administrative regime. In Rancière’s words (1999, p. 83): “The movement of production and that of the class struggle then become the true movement that should, through its achievement, dispel the appearances of political citizenship in favour of the reality of productive man”. It should not be difficult to recognize Karl Marx as the source of this model.

To these three philosophical attempts to neutralise the threat of real politics to the social (“police”) order Žižek adds another (Rancière 2014, location 1185-1194, Kindle edition), which he proposes to name “ultra-politics”, and which is its “most cunning and radical version”. It is in the combination of contemporary “parapolitics” (where and if it still exists) with “ultra-politics”, I believe, that one finds an accurate account of what “politics” in the Rancièrian sense has been reduced to in the present era. Žižek puts it inimitably (excuse the Lacanian jargon; I’ll try to explain below):

“ … ultra-politics, the attempt to depoliticise conflict by way of bringing it to an extreme via the direct militarisation of politics: the ‘foreclosed’ political returns in the real, in the guise of an attempt to resolve the deadlock of political conflict, of mésentente [disagreement], by its false radicalisation, ie by way of reformulating it as a war between ‘us’ and ‘them’, our enemy, where there is no common ground for symbolic conflict.”

What this means is that, while political disagreement – the life-blood of true politics – is not given the space it requires to come to temporary (always temporary, because it always has to be renegotiated) compromises, politics as such does not exist. It is in the symbolic sphere (language) where this occurs, as Hannah Arendt also intimated with what she called “action” (in The Human Condition), but when the symbolic sphere is reserved for “consensual” agreements only, politics vanishes.

One witnessed a good example of this recently in South Africa’s parliament, when the EFF was not allowed to put (properly political) questions to President Jacob Zuma, and the governing party took shelter behind an array of rules of parliamentary decorum – as if such “proper behaviour” is more important than the “political” question, whether a president has defrauded the taxpayers of a country. This is what Žižek means by the “foreclosure” of politics in the Rancièrian sense – it has been excluded from the domain of agonistic political relations, which is the only true face of politics.

On a world scale this “foreclosure” of politics is even more conspicuous in the present era of empire. Because those states comprising the major power bloc in the world believe that true political agonistics in the symbolic realm (at the United Nations, for example) would probably never reach the point where states or political groupings that have serious differences, such as Israel and the Palestinians, could come to a compromise (agreement being improbable, if not impossible), what Žižek refers to as the “militarisation of politics” (“ultra-politics”) is resorted to, as if one should not even try to right wrongs by open disagreement in a linguistic forum.

The polarisation of countries, populations, cultures into what Žižek calls “us” and “them”, is the outcome of the foreclosure of “political” conflict, which is conflict or “fighting” in the symbolic realm of language, not in military terms. And the military conflicts that occur where such symbolic agonistics are not allowed to happen, is what he refers to as what “returns in the real” – bloody interventions, usually of a military kind, where lives are unnecessarily lost. The more polarised the world becomes along these lines of exclusion, the further we move away from opportunities to practise true politics.

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    • Warren Jeremy Rourke

      Excellent Bert; I recently used Ranciere’s conception of ‘dissensus’ where it acts as a side-stepping of consensus discourse, not by generating oppositions in values, interests and opinions but rather by articulating the very gaps (parallax?) in the “sensible, sayable, and knowable” (Ranciere 2010) associated with legitimating discourse. I also urge that you read John Higgins’s ‘Academic Freedom in Democratic South Africa’ for an(other) excellent analysis of “excluding consensus”. Kindest Regards

    • Peter Watermeyer

      Can you put this in words of one syllable, please?

    • Richard

      The notion of “equality” in modern political terms is fundamental to many of the misconstructions we see around us. Equality, as functionally understood in politics, used to refer to the idea that all people should be equally able to participate in the political decision-making of the day. That was what ostensibly motivated South Africa before 1994: the inclusion of all sectors of society in the process of governance. As we know, this was gradually widened to incorporate the idea of economic equality, but not merely in terms of participation; crucially it was in terms of outcome. Socialism, of course, demands “to each according to his contribution” but this is in contradiction to “equality”: as we see in the idea of quotas and BEE, the notion of outcome does not actually involve equality at all, but simply the sharing out of the proceeds that would follow from real equality of input. Patronage and posturing put an end to the notion of equality in the political sphere (besides which, there is far more to equality than simple racial proportionality), and so pressure on the other aspects of equality becomes increasingly important in proving that the momentum towards full participation of all people is still driving forward. It is a sort of faux-Marxian class struggle narrative.

      Equality of outcome presupposes the possibility of an equality of input. In other words, that we are all equally intelligent, athletic, numerate, literate, etc. The notion does not take into consideration the difference in people, yet demands the same “repayment” (to use a not wholly-appropriate metaphor).

      What is left of politics (in the sense of exclusion and inclusion) is relegated to the sphere of language, as you say, and the demarkation of acceptable and unacceptable conversation and argumentation. For instance, in past times, conversations about the merits or not of, say, aristocracy, would have been conducted on their own terms. However, once the notion of “equality” came to be central (in its indistinct form, as I have explained) all debate came to be centred around this notion, and all else dismissed. Equality became a paradigm, excluding the real notion of equality in debate or idea. That is not to say that issues cannot be dealt with and dispensed with (for instance, the mediaeval argument of whether Christ had a navel was concluded in the sense of being rendered irrelevant) but in modern times they are excluded by moral argumentation, in which equality has assumed a quasi-religious aspect.

      Equality, as a societal impetus, can never become temporary, because inequality is an inescapable dimension of human existence, both in the cultural and physiological realms. In some ways, uniquely it seems to me, equality conflates the “archipolitics”, “parapolitics” and “metapolitics” you mention above into an epic and singular struggle. Its indissolubility makes legislating against it the only apparent remedy, turning politics into a legalistic endeavour (after all, we can all at least be equal in law), as if increasing the amount of make-up on a face can hide bone defects. Where this becomes apparent, or where one party does not agree with the terms of the debate, does not “ultra-politics” also emerge? Would Islamism not constitute one example of this? It also happens to be one instance where the notion of equality as understood in our post-liberal age does not hold any traction. “Submission” and “Equality” as opposing notions appear to be the contemporary break-throughs of consensus. The reaction to the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris is illustrative.

    • Rory Short

      I like this thinking about politics. What it says to me is that genuine politics is a continuous process of negotiations involving ALL members of a community. I am a Quaker and as I have mentioned previously Quaker community decisions are only set in concrete once no member of the community feels genuinely moved to speak out against a proposed community course of action. Such collective behaviour is founded upon a complete respect for the Truth that is to be found in any situation and exists outside of everybody involved in the situation and is only apprehended in part by each individual involved.