Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Jacques Ranciére – the philosopher of equality

It was about time that someone restored equality to its rightful place in the constellation of philosophical concepts, after decades of the valorisation of “difference” in various forms. And who better than a citizen of the country that gave us the battle-cry, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity!”

Jacques Ranciére is that person, and refreshingly – in a manner reminiscent of Wittgenstein’s remark, that “every sentence is in order as it stands” – he argues in favour of the “equality” of everyone in a relationship of intellectual, linguistic exchange of some sort, or of a broadly political nature (without reducing it to sameness, however).

Instead of a “hermeneutics of depth”, which presupposes a master who “knows”, he conducts an analysis of what is “on the surface”, which is accessible to everyone. In the process of recuperating the concept of “equality”, Ranciére implicitly gives an answer to the question about the character of “enlightenment” in the present era, with an emphasis on praxis, rather than theory.

In other words, even those people who lack what is regarded as “expert knowledge” of a subject, are capable of making some kind of sense of it, and are therefore equal partners or interlocutors in a conversation on the subject.

There is no basis for establishing hierarchical relations of any kind, linguistic or political – as many historical examples show, the “masses” are quite capable of speaking for themselves, or acting in their own interests, when push comes to shove.

The alliance between intellectuals and workers during the May 1968 struggles in France, for example, saw workers eschew the prescribed routes of communication, namely between unions and employers, and effect change immanently through collective political “shop-floor” action – something also witnessed locally in the Marikana events, recently, when workers circumvented union structures in an attempt to express their grievances.

In all such events, paradoxically, the principle of “equality” has to be presupposed, in so far as what is truly “political” manifests itself here, in the rupture that such events bring about with the ostensibly self-evident social and political order of what (usually, as in the present) amounts to oligarchic rule by specific groups and individuals.

Another way of putting this involves Ranciére’s critique of the so-called “consensus” politics of liberal democracies, or what he calls the “police” (not in the ordinary sense of the term) notion of consensus.

Against this, Ranciére argues in favour of “dissensus” – political acts and practices that bring the “invisible equality”, covered up by frozen hierarchical relations and social distinctions, into visibility.

In fact, he understands politics as dissensus, as the process of bringing into confrontation the unequal world of “the police” and the world of equality.

The former is the world where the inauguration of democracy (from “de-mos”) through the elusive universal of equality has always already been forgotten and covered up by hierarchical class interests, while the latter is the excluded world which can be approximated anew through political actions of dissensus that light up new possibilities of participatory, egalitarian community.

In such actions equality appears as a force capable of destabilizing the established order and of simultaneously generating new democratic forms.

If “politics” is a term which, according to Ranciére, should be reserved for genuinely democratic action, practice or societal organisation, it is distinct from other forms of societal arrangement, and the criterion for distinguishing between the genuine thing and those exclusionary practices that masquerade as democracy is equality.

Ranciére designates such exclusionary practices as belonging to “the police”, a concept (mentioned earlier) representing those organisational structures which maintain the illusion of universal, free access of all people to participation in all aspects of community life.

To clarify Ranciére’s thought on these matters, which is sometimes difficult to follow, here is an excerpt from the first (and, as far as I know, at present only) introductory text on his work in English, by Joseph J. Tanke (Jacques Ranciére: An Introduction, Continuum, 2011: 43):

“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 [a fiction] and whole, politics consists of contesting the very definition of the community. The part of those without part [the de-mos] is a construction that disturbs the city’s logic of counting by inscribing within it an agent not reducible to one of the existing factions.

“The de-mos, in whatever period it finds itself, is that collective subject that comes into being by resisting the attempt of the few to apportion for themselves the rights to direct the community. In order to gain visibility, it contests the assumptions about who belongs, what capacities they possess, and what roles they can occupy.

“According to Ranciére, the means by which the de-mos achieves this is equality … politics is not, for Ranciére, understandable as a negotiation between the competing interests of already existing parties. Politics is a rupture of this mode of being together that occurs through the assertion of universal equality…Politics is resistance to the domination resulting from the exclusion from ‘politics.'”

Or, in Ranciére’s own words (in Dissensus, Continuum, 2010, Chapter One):

“The essence of the police lies in a partition of the sensible that is characterised by the absence of void and of supplement: society here is made up of groups tied to specific modes of doing, to places in which these occupations are exercised, and to modes of being corresponding to these occupations and these places … It is this exclusion of what ‘is not’ that constitutes the police-principle at the core of statist practices. The essence of politics consists in disturbing this arrangement.”

Needless to emphasise, and as perceptive readers may gather from this very brief evocation of but one aspect of Ranciére’s uncompromisingly difficult thinking (he has also written extensively on art, and on the intertwinements of art and politics, as well as on cinema) it is radical stuff.

And it is bad news for all those politicians who continually get away with murder, as it were, bamboozling their unwitting supporters into believing that the divisions between them (political “representatives” and their constituencies, or, more accurately, rulers and ruled) constitute the very fabric of democratic politics, instead of instantiating the totalising order of what Ranciére calls the “police”, with its supposedly unproblematical (sic), virtually unquestionable hierarchical divisions between “those who decide” and those who have no option but to accept these decisions.

But as recent history has shown in South Africa, “politics” in Ranciére’s sense of the term can, and sometimes does, irrupt (enter abruptly and violently) on the scene which has been pre-structured by the “police”, forcing its agencies to return to the drawing boards, as it were, to reinforce the exclusion of “the part that has no part”, but which will not go away either.

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