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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.


  • Bert Olivier

    As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.