Hatred of Democracy, by Jacques Rancière tr. Steve Corcoran London: Verso, 2006 (or. pub. 2005) Reviewed by Todd May


Jacques Rancière’s political writings have become essential reading for those wanting to extend contemporary political antiauthoritarian thought. Although his major political works, especially Disagreement, were published in the 1990’s, he has recently written a text that addresses contemporary political issues in an anarchist way. In fact, Rancière is the only major thinker in recent French thought who is willing to embrace the term anarchist. “Democracy,” he writes in Hatred of Democracy, “first of all means this: anarchic ‘government,’ one based on nothing other than the absence of every title to govern” ( 41).

Democracy, Rancière writes, especially in Europe, seems to the elites to be threatened from two sides. First, it is threatened by a certain totalitarianism (whether the earlier Stalinist kind or the later religious fundamentalist kind). Second, it is threatened internally, by “democratic society,” which is co-extensive with individualist consumerism. “Democratic life” seems to contain a double bind. Either it is the anarchic participation of everyone in public life or rampant consumer individualism. Democracy, in a word, is threatened by the demos. They do not have the skills to participate in public life, and, relatedly, left to their own devices, they are about nothing more than personal consumption. The underlying idea is that individualism is good for the elites, who are capable of it, but not for the rest of us, who are driven only by endless needs.

How to explain, if democracy is passé, that the same criticisms are leveled against it now that were by Plato? In fact, the issue is not consumerism but politics. When Plato discusses the seven titles to occupy social positions in the Laws, the seventh one is “beloved of the gods.” This is, in effect, a matter of chance. Anyone can be beloved of the gods. This is democracy, that anarchy in which the right to govern is founded on the absence of any right to govern. Democracy is indeed a rupture with the order of filiation, but not in the name of unlimited consumption: rather, it is in the name of heterotopic governance, governance by divine chance, by lottery. If like must govern unlike, and each must govern all, that implies that there must be something more, a supplement, common to each who governs. It is the anarchic title of those who have no title. Politics is the foundation of the power to govern on the basis of an absence of foundation.

The scandal of democracy has always been that there is no principle justifying the actions of governments on the basis of human collectivity. “The term democracy, then, does not strictly speaking designate either a form of society or a form of government” (52). All societies are in essence oligarchical. Representational government is simply another form of oligarchy, designating certain people as entitled to rule others in the name of those others. Against this, democracy, Rancière argues, far from being a form of privatization of the kind bemoaned by those who criticize consumer society, is exactly the opposite: the attempt to expand the public realm. Historically, this has meant two things: to extend equality to marginalized subjects and to extend the public character to spaces thought the private domain of the rich. Democracy always involves a reconfiguration of the boundaries of the private and public, the universal and particular. It is precisely the role of governments to turn the democratic struggle to expand the public realm, the realm in which all participate, back into a private realm. They do this in part through an attempt to pacify people, and this pacification in turn is then used as a justification for not trusting people to participate in the public creation of their lives.

Rancière ends his critique on a sober but hopeful note. He writes, “egalitarian society is only ever the set of egalitarian relations that are traced here and now through singular and precarious acts. Democracy…is not borne along by any historical necessity and does not bear any…But among those who know how to share with anybody and everybody the equal power of intelligence, it can conversely inspire courage, and hence joy” (96-97).

In many of his writings, Rancière engages theoretical reflection with contemporary issues. Hatred of Democracy is inflected more toward the latter than the former. In it, he is engaged with a particular resistance to democracy, a resistance that comes from European elites but in which we can equally see the hand of American elites, from technocrats of a neoliberal stripe to fundamentalist Christians bemoaning the decline of American culture. The common theme that binds them is a denigration of those who would be the subject of politics, and the common goal is to remove power from their hands. Although oriented toward these topical issues, Rancière’s larger political view, alongside his passion for equality, remains intact. For Rancière, it has always been the case that a democratic politics lies in collective action that emerges from the presupposition of equality. In this text, he openly aligns that politics with the term anarchism and allows the historical resonance of that term to be heard behind the specific analyses he provides.

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