Politics today is democratic politics. While history has not ended and democracy is not universal, there is no doubt that the spirit of our age is democratic. From France and the United States in the 18th century, to the European revolutions of 1848, to decolonialization in the 20th century, the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, and the Arab Spring of 2011, one cannot mistake the fact: politics in the modern world tends toward democracy.
But what is democracy? In his essay, “Does Democracy Mean Something?”, Jacques Rancière offers one particularly compelling answer, one that is illustrative of the fate of global politics. Democracy, Rancière writes, is most fundamentally a paradoxical politics. On the one hand, democracy names democratic government. It is good government, or a legitimate order, a form of governmental order that is legitimate and just because it is founded upon democratic principles of equality and self-government. On the other hand, democracy means freedom, the rejection of rule by others, and the demand for the rule of the people by the people.
The democratic paradox is that democracy understood as freedom and the rule by people always threatens to destabilize and revolutionize democratic government that offers itself as a legitimate order. And democratic government—if it is to remain a government—requires the reduction of the revolutionary democratic excess of democratic individualism and the demand for popular rule.
We can of course see this paradoxical essence of democracy in the Occupy Wall Street movement. As Mayor Mike Bloomberg repeatedly emphasized, our democratic government allows protest and individual expression and we must permit the voices of those with whom we disagree. At the same time, Bloomberg argued that democratic government sets limits on those dissenting voices, authorizes regulations upon them, and, eventually, requires that they respect the authority and order of the existing democratic establishment. From this governmental perspective, the messy aspects of personal democracy and democratic individualism—the call to mobilize the people to pursue their plural and discordant interests—is a threat to good democratic government.
Democracy, in Rancière’s words, is a power that at once legitimates and de-legitimates. Democracy promises the transparency and self-government that is necessary to legitimate government today. And yet it also insists upon unruly individualism and dissent that must be limited and contained in order to ensure a democratic state.
Beyond the democratic paradox, Rancière argues that true democratic politics is on the side of the messy, individualist, and disruptive aspect of democracy. His word for this is “dissensus,” and Rancière insists that “democracy implies a practice of dissensus, one that it keeps re-opening and that the practice of ruling relentlessly plugs.” Democracy, in other words, is the practice of disrupting all statist orders, even democratic state orders. It is an “anarchic principle” and “insofar as it is anarchic it precludes the self-grounding of politics.” Politics, democratic politics, modern politics, is unavoidably open and anarchic.
In his analysis of the paradoxical nature of democracy and the priority of dissensus, Rancière reflects much that is in the work of Hannah Arendt. Both Rancière and Arendt oppose politics to philosophy, since philosophy trades in truths that shut down politics, which is about opinions. Rancière, as does Arendt, defines politics as a form of action—politics is an activity of people, in the plural, and not simply of states. And if Rancière sees political action as manifesting “dissensus,” Arendt insists that political action be spontaneous and capable of beginning something new into the world. Which is why Arendt argues that “the modern concept of revolution, inextricably bound up with the notion that the course of history suddenly begins anew, that an entirely new story, a story never known before, is about to unfold” is at the very center of modern democratic politics.
The centrality of revolution to Arendt’s thought means that “the idea of freedom and the experience of a new beginning should coincide.” Because politics is by its nature revolutionary action, Arendt refuses to call it democracy, because democracy is—like all “cracy’s”—derived from the Greek kratein, expressing rule and order. Democracy, as majority rule, opposes revolutionary action, and is, therefore, “simply another form of rulership.” As does Rancière, Arendt insists that freedom demands that we move beyond democracy as simply a form of government.
Similarities aside, Rancière builds his theory of dissensus in opposition to Hannah Arendt’s work. In both “Does Democracy Mean Something?” and “Who Is the Subject of the Rights of Man?” Rancière explicates his idea of politics as dissensus against Arendt’s revolutionary politics.
In “Who is the Subject of the Rights of Man?”, Rancière locates his split with Arendt around her division of the political from the social. In line with many who read Arendt as erecting rigid boundaries between the social, the political and the private, Rancière worries that “Arendt’s rigid opposition between the realm of the political and the realm of private life” sets up an exclusive realm from which the people must be kept out. By excluding the world of private and economic and social concerns from the lofty realm of politics, Arendt, pace Rancière, depoliticizes politics by cleansing it of the people and their voices.
Such readings of Arendt make rigid her rich descriptions of the political, social, and private realms; they offer a pale representation of the fire that burns brightly in Arendt’s writing. It is common today to imagine that Arendt makes strict distinctions between political and non-political activities, just as it widespread to think that the divisions between labor, work, and action in The Human Condition are impenetrable. Yes Arendt distinguishes the political from the social. But that does not at all mean that economic and social interests are never political. Of course, as Arendt concedes often, some level of social security is part of the political realm. Her point is simply that such social concerns are at odds with freedom, which is the true aim of political action.
In “Does Democracy Mean Something?”, Rancière offers a better and more meaningful distinction between himself and Arendt. Here, he makes clear his view that “democracy cannot consist in a set of institutions.” Institutions, he argues, mean nothing in themselves. “The reason for this is that one and the same constitution and set of laws can be implemented in opposite ways depending on the sense of the ‘common’ in which they are framed.” Rancière’s point is, on one level, obvious. At times, the constitution and the laws are invoked to stifle debate and dissent. At other times they are called upon to enable and further the call for new political institutions. In themselves, the constitution and the laws are not decisive.
But Rancière goes further. Not only are political institutions not decisive in politics, they occupy the field of politics with a claim to legitimacy and thus delimit and shrink “the political stage.” By establishing what is constitutional and legal protest and who can protest and who is even a citizen, the institutions of politics limit politics in “a biased way.” They police the boundaries and access to politics “in the name of the purity of the political, the universality of the law or the distinction between political universality and social particularity.”
In his suspicion of institutions, Rancière does indeed depart from Arendt in a meaningful way. For Arendt, modern politics, as revolutionary politics, means a free and new founding of freedom. What distinguishes revolutions from rebellions is that while rebellions merely liberate one from rule, revolutions found new institutions that nurture freedom. At the core of Arendt’s political thinking is her insistence that freedom cannot exist outside of institutions. As had Montesquieu before her, Arendt saw that “power and freedom belong together.”
The genius of the American Revolution in Arendt’s telling is that it found what she calls a new experience of power. This American experience of power “was embodied in all institutions of self-government throughout the country.” It goes back to the Mayflower Compact drawn up on the ship and signed by the first settlers upon landing, an act that displays their
obvious confidence that they had in their own power, granted and confirmed by no one and as yet unsupported by any means of violence, to combine themselves together into a ‘civil Body Politik’ which, held together solely by the strength of mutual promise ‘in the Presence of God and one another’, supposedly was powerful enough to ‘enact, constitute, and frame’ all necessary laws and instruments of government.
From out of the basic experience of power through mutual action with others, the American colonists developed their institutions of town halls, constitutional conventions, and local government in townships, counties, and states. Since written laws cannot control power, but “only power arrests power,” freedom depends upon institutions that can continually give birth to new centers and sources of power. What the new experience of American power meant was that there could not be and could never be in the United States a single highest and irresistible power that could exert its rule over the others. The states would limit the federal government; the federal government would contest state power; legislative power limits executive power; judicial power bridles the legislature; and new forms of power in voluntary organizations, political clubs, and advocacy groups all limit the power of professional politicians. Together, this diffusion of power in the United States meant the “consistent abolition of sovereignty within the body politic of the republic, the insight that in the realm of human affairs sovereignty and tyranny are the same.”
Unlike Rancière for whom institutions are biased watchmen patrolling the entry into politics, Arendt sees the institutions of self-government as the common world within which plural citizens congregate, talk, and act. Without such institutions, there would be no public space, no commons, in which politics happens. Politics needs not only revolution and dissensus, but also some prior consensus—an acknowledgement of the facts of the political world we are born into. From there one can, and sometimes must, resist and revolt.
Rancière sees all consensus, all that is common, as exclusionary, violent, and apolitical. But the common world itself is not oppressive and anti-political. It is, what it is, and the first requirement of politics is that one reconciles oneself to the world we share with others. That is not giving in to the system, but is, rather, the very possibility of political and revolutionary action.
Rancière’s engagement with Arendt is one of the most important in modern political theory. You can read Jacques Rancière’s “Does Democracy Mean Something?” here.
I also encourage you to buy the Dissensus, Rancière’s book that includes “Does Democracy Mean Something?” and also “Who is the Subject of the Rights of Man?”. Buy it here.
And as a bonus, if you want a different take on the relationship between Arendt and Rancière, you can read Adam Schapp’s essay on the topic here.