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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