Jacques Ranciere. On the Shores of Politics.
The very existence of this new edition of Jacques Ranciere's On the Shorts of Politics, originally published in French in 1992 and then translated by Liz Heron for Verso in 1995, is a remarkable fact that requires some critical attention. First of all, it bears witness to the increasing interest in Jacques Ranciere's work in the Anglophone world during the first years of the twenty-first century. Now an Emeritus Professor of Aesthetics at the University of Paris-VIII, Ranciere has been a regular visitor of American universities since the 1990s, when the bulk of his earlier work from the 70s and 80s was translated into English. Now, most of Ranciere's works are translated very quickly after their French publication. This is remarkable, because while the philosophical content of these works is eminently translatable and relevant in any national context, there nonetheless remains a certain French specificity to Ranciere's writing, whose reception therefore does remain slightly ambiguous, mid-way between philosophy and French studies.
The first two essays featured in On the Shores of Politics are especially exemplary of the double nature of Ranciere's argumentation: one punctual, almost a commentary to contemporary French events and debates, and the other timeless, firmly entrenched in the international tradition of political philosophy. "The End of Politics and the Realist Utopia" dates from May 1988, and was written in wake of the reelection of Francois Mitterrand to his second term as President against Jacques Chirac. Today, hearing Ranciere defining Chirac as the "youthful candidate" who lost his presidential bid to the power of auctoritas incarnated by Francois Mitterrand, we do feel a strong sense of temporal disconnect: a seventy-year-old Chirac has now just completed his second presidential mandate, displaced by the young and dynamic Sarkozy. Perhaps more ironically, Jean-Marie Le Pen-featured in the essay as the reactionary contender whose strong showings in 1988 revealed that democracy always encounters its greatest challenge in the persistent threat of an exclusionary populace wanting to become One at the expense of a hated Other--was in fact to be instrumental to the election of Chirac in 1995, when he was his only opponent in the final electoral round. An additional complication is added by the fact that the three contenders are never mentioned by name, so in order to understand Ranciere's essay, a small but real awareness of French politics is in fact required. Still, as always with Ranciere, the rewards of this temporal and cultural leap far exceed its inconveniences: Ranciere's argument about the fallacy of the liberal dream of a society of consensus where individual freedoms and moral tolerance would render any political conflict obsolete has lost none of its timeliness. Through a rather somber evocation of Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents, Ranciere argues that maybe other forms of political conflict--mainly the social dispute between rich and poor that played itself out in modernity under the Marxist category of class struggle--are only the already tamed version of a bigger and much more violent tendency: the desire, in each community, to be One, to be the absolute from which all others will be excluded in a fearful and aggressive refusal to ever become Two. According to Ranciere, this is a risk that no multicultural rhetoric should let us forget.
The second essay in the book, "The Uses of Democracy," also proceeds from an event tied to the French political scene: the 1986 massive student protests against the so-called "loi Vaquet," a piece of legislation aimed at making French secondary education more responsive to economical realities in order to reduce the unemployment rate for university graduates. Ranciere takes this ultra-French example of top-down legislation challenged and ultimately halted by massive opposition in the street to develop one of his main philosophical arguments about the nature of democracy. With examples taken both from the Greek polis and from nineteenth-century French workers movements--Ranciere's favorite references during the 80s and 90s--Ranciere shows that it is not as the never existent perfect realization of social and political totality that democracy fulfils its promise, but as the perpetuation of the contention between the people and the elites that are supposed to govern them. The existence of the 1986 student movement shows that even in postmodern societies, where the dismissal of anti-capitalist utopias is almost absolute, the space for democracy is not exhausted and continually recreates itself on the sporadic and always polemical reaffirmation of liberty and equality.
The two last essays contained in the book seem less directly tied to the French political scene, except for a brief allusion to the student strike of 1986, but still develop themes related to the foundations and the limits of democratic rule. In "The Community of Equals," Ranciere further enriches his reflection on democracy with references to St. Paul's writings on the community created by the Eucharist, and its interpretation by the French utopian communist Pierre Leroux in his writings dating from the 1830s and 40s. Ranciere also explores the experience of the Icarians who, also in the 1830s, left for the US, trying to create a social community of equals on the premise of the equality of all working people. Ranciere, according to a strain of thought that he had already developed in The Ignorant Schoolmaster and will develop again in Dis-agreement, underlines that these moments can only be intermittent reminders of the very principle of democracy. Any social realization of a community of equals will become a totalitarian and exclusionary structure: one has to accept the fact that "equality is an exception" (88), and that the "communist passion" will never be fully deployed as a social ordering. A similar contention is made in the last essay, "Democracy Corrected," where the Greek polis, situated at the very beginning of the democratic state, becomes the place where democracy, as the rule of the many, continuously needs to reaffirm itself against the inevitable oligarchic or even despotic tendencies intrinsic to social inequalities.
This little book will be a precious addition to the shelves of all Anglophone readers of Ranciere, and undoubtedly will further enlarge their numbers: there might be no more urgent question, today, than the one regarding the foundations and the future of democracy. Ranciere's bittersweet analysis is ultimately an invigorating one, because he makes it clear that democracy will never be fully realized in any democratic government, but will ultimately survive to all thanks to the absolute reality of human equality and freedom.
Giuseppina Mecchia, University of Pittsburgh