Democracy, anarchism and radical politics today: an interview with Jacques Ranciere.

Author:May, Todd

In La Mesentente, you argue that democracy cannot be institutionalised. Can you clarify what you mean by this and why you think it cannot be institutionalised? (TM)

What I mean is that it can never be identified with a system of constitutional forms. Democratic ideas and practices can of course inspire and animate constitutional forms and modes of public life. But these can never incarnate democracy because the demos is immediately double. On the one hand, it is the collective, which is the source of power's legitimacy. In this sense 'democracy' designates the system of forms actualizing the power of the people in texts, institutions and institutional practices. It designates a certain sovereignty, one similar to that of the monarch or 'superior class' (aristocracy). But at the same time, the demos is the subject who even undermines the idea of sovereignty by undermining the principle binding it to specific positions of a specific population [such as ...] a king, a superior class, savants or priests who are supposed to govern in the name of this position itself. For its part, the people govern in the absence of these positions. This is the principle of arche: those who command are those who possess the principle which gives them the right to command. (1) The power of the people itself is anarchic in principle, for it is the affirmation of the power of anyone, of those who have no title to it. It is thus the affirmation of the ultimate illegitimacy of domination. Such power can never be institutionalized. It can, on the other hand, be practised, enacted by political collectives. But the latter precisely act beyond legal authority on the official public stage which is the power, exercised in the name of the people, of petty oligarchies. Democratic action allows the intervention of subjects who are supplementary in relation to the simple figure of the citizen electorate represented in the constitutional order, and these subjects intervene in places other than those of executive and representative power (the street, workplace, school, etc.); they give rise to other voices and other objects. Therefore there is indeed an institutional inscription of the 'power of the people', but in light of that there is an opposition between state logic, which is a logic of the restriction and the privatisation of the public sphere, and democratic political logic which, on the contrary, aims to extend this power through its own forms of action.

[Ce que je veux dire, c'est qu'elle ne peut jamais s'identifier a un systeme de formes constitutionnelles. L'idee et la pratique democratique peuvent assurement inspirer et animer des formes constitutionnelles et des modes de vie publics. Mais elles ne peuvent jamais s'y incarner sans reste, parce que le demos est d'emblee double. D'un cote, il est le collectif qui est la source de la legitimite du pouvoir. En ce sens [much less than]democratie [much greater than] designe le systeme des formes qui actualisent ce pouvoir du peuple dans des textes, institutions et pratiques institutionnelles. Il designe une certaine souverainete, du meme type que celle du monarque ou des [much less than] meilleurs [much greater than] (aristocratie). Mais en meme temps, le demos est le sujet qui ruine l'idee meme de souverainete en ruinant le principe qui le lie a une qualite specifique detenue par une population specifique [...] le roi, les [much less than]meilleurs[much greater than], les savants ou les pretres sont censes gouverner au nom meme de leur qualite. Le peuple, lui, gouverne au nom de cette absence de qualite. C'est le principe de l'arche: ceux qui commandent sont ceux qui ont en eux le principe qui y donne droit. Le pouvoir du peuple, lui, est anarchique en son principe, car c'est l'affirmation du pouvoir de n'importe qui, de ceux qui n'ont pas de titre a l'occuper. C'est donc l'affirmation de l'illegitimite derniere de la domination. Ce pouvoir-la nepeut jamais etre institutionnalise. Il peut en revanche etre pratique, mis en acte par des collectifs politiques. Mais precisement ceux-ci agissent en exces sur la scene publique officielle qui est celle du pouvoir de petites oligarchies exerce au nom du peuple. L'action democratique fait intervenir des sujets supplementaires par rapport a la simple figure du citoyen electeur represente dans l'ordre institutionnel, et ces sujets interviennent dans des lieux qui ne sont pas ceux des pouvoirs executif et representatif (la rue, le lieu de travail, l'Ecole, etc.); ils y font entendre d'autres voix, ils y font voir d'autres objets. Donc il y a bien une inscription institutionnelle du [much less than] pouvoir du peuple [much greater than], mais a partir de la il y a opposition entre une logique etatique qui est une logique de restriction de ce pouvoir, de privatisation de la chose publique et une logique politique democratique qui vise au contraire a etendre ce pouvoir par ses formes propres d'action.]

In La Haine de la democratie you say that democracy is anarchic, in the specific sense that it is "based on nothing other than the absence of every title to govern." (English translation, p. 41) Are there threads within the anarchist theoretical tradition that you're thinking of here, and if so, what are they? (TM)

There is certainly a link between my conception of anarchy and the anti-authoritarian tradition of historical anarchism. An-archy in general is the doctrine of the illegitimacy of domination and the practice of bringing into play the capacity of the greatest number. Workers' anarchism of the nine-teenth century was embedded in the practices associated with forms of struggle to invent forms of organisation of work and exchange that anticipate the future. This link between anarchism and the demonstration of the capacity of the greatest number is very important for me and is opposed to professorial and scientistic tendencies--which have, in other respects, affected the anarchist tradition--with theoreticians claiming to provide the right slogan for our social future. That said, between 'my' anarchism and the anarchist tradition there is an important difference of perspective. The anarchist tradition had a tendency to localise oppression in the State by identifying politics and the State, and opposed this to liberty incarnated in society in the social group of producers. Historical anarchism freely relied on the opposition between production and exchange and the parasitism of forms of the State. This vision is quite close to the Marxist opposition between economic and social reality and politics as appearance. And it fed on a certain organicist conception where the social cell as a living organism is opposed to political artifice. I am a long way from this naturalist vision. What I have tried to bring to light is an anarchy implicated in the very definition of politics and which precisely distinguishes it from all organicism. I have tried to show that in the very idea of political government there is a necessary reference to a competence which is no longer that of a specific category but that of all (tous). There is a break with the arche logic according to which the exercise of power is the exercise of competence proper to a specific category. Of course this primary 'anarchism' at the heart of politics is constantly rediscovered by the practices of government, and democracy only exists through the activity of subjects who reactivate it, which creates a communal sphere different from the official public sphere.

[Il y a certainement un lien entre ma conception de l'anarchie et la tradition anti-autoritaire portee par l'anarchisme historique. L'an-archie, c'est en general la pensee de l'illegitimite de la...

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