Leonid Nikitinsky on reading Jacques Rancière: The Meeting Place Needs To Be Changed

30 January 2024

Getting ready for the 15-17 March elections reading Jacques Rancière’s Disagreement* and contemplating what ‘the people’ means.

By Leonid Nikitinsky

Source: Novaya gazeta

What not that long ago might, for better or worse, have been considered Russian laws and law enforcement practice has been reduced to a condition such that it makes no sense to use legal terminology. Those guilty of destroying the law justify this as the ‘politics of a sovereign state.’ But what is sovereignty and its bearer, ‘the people’? And what is politics?

What Russia considers politics, the modern French philosopher Jacques Rancière calls ‘police’ (to avoid confusion, we will put his specific terms and citations in italics). He distinguishes two conditions of society: ‘the order of police and the disorder of rebellion.’ By contrasting ‘police’ to politics, Rancière’ uses this word, which refers to the ‘polis,’ in its original meaning of ‘economy,’ the running of the economy—the social order itself. ‘Police’ is that state of society which takes into account not only all of its parts but the ‘speech’ (or its absence) strictly reserved for each of them.

‘The police can bring every possible kind of benefit,’ the philosopher admits, ‘and one police can be infinitely preferable to another.’ In some regimes, as we see today in Russia, the state, while abusing the capabilities of an essentially criminal and political police, sets the parts of society against each other, while in others, on the contrary, it tries to reconcile them. This does not change the essence of the police, however; it is an order where the cobbler sticks to his last and everything has been assigned in advance.

Politics appears where and when the balance of parts has been disrupted—always at the initiative of one of them, namely, the one not being taken into account. This part makes itself known, gives itself a name and ‘attaches to it [that name] a demand for equality.’  The police proposes to those who have secured speech that they respond to the questions it has posed. Whereas politics proposes the formulation of a question that had never arisen and/or been heard before at all.

We have not encountered references to Rancière in analyses by Russian political scientists (and political scientists’). It does come up occasionally in current Western analysis, but there, more often, it is as the correct assertion that ‘politics’ is a rare phenomenon in general. Today in Russia, though, that is not the case!

Rancière’s unusual optics allows us to see from a single perspective such seemingly disparate phenomena as:

  • the riots in Bashkortostan;
  • the proposal to introduce consular registration for Russians abroad;
  • the lines that have formed for adding a signature for presidential candidate Nadezhdin;
  • the Supreme Court decision recognizing LGBT as an extremist movement 

– and much else that has started making itself known today in Russia nearly every day, but seemingly out of nowhere. We will return to these examples at the end, but now let us go deeper into Rancière’s conception.

* * *

‘Equality is the sole principle of politics.’ The idea of equality first appeared in the ancient Greek polis and dropped out in the Middle Ages, but is now inalienable in the modern European-type state.  

Equality can be considered in no way other than as of ‘anyone with anyone.’ But this principle always runs into actual inequality, and between those poles the spark of politics flares up.

Rancière explains his idea with an example—a parable gleaned from Livy. Livy gives a detailed description of a secession (from secedo–I am leaving)—the demonstrative departure for Aventine Hill by Roman plebes dissatisfied with their inequality of rights with the patricians in 494 BCE. The strike, as we would call it today, which included the greater part of Rome’s population of plebes, forced the patricians to face not only economic problems but also a kind of ontological problem. Up until then, it had been generally recognized that plebes possessed a voice as a means of expressing their feelings (like cows) but not a logos, that is, the capacity for coherent speech.

The patricians put Agrippa Menenius, who enjoyed the plebes’ respect, on the hill. In his speech, Agrippa, in explaining the idea of the relationship among the parts in society, compared them to the stomach, which requires sustenance, although it itself is incapable of obtaining it. The plebes listened politely but replied they didn’t agree. Rancière notes that Agrippa ‘was an entire cycle too late’: by delivering his speech, he admitted that the plebes were capable not only of understanding it but of responding in the same language.

This contradiction, which is latent in everyday practice, is to be found in any law, rule, or decree. Many army jokes are built on it: by considering a subordinate capable of understanding the meaning of an order, the issuer of it already assumes the addressee is an equal. 

Therefore, the rhetorical ‘Do you understand me?’ in fact means, ‘It’s not your business to understand me!’ The correct answer for the inferior would be : ‘I understand you even if you don’t want me to.’

But it makes sense to articulate this answer only when the ‘police’ has already provided a crack that politics can push through. There’s no point risking your edge for nothing.

The Roman Senate, Rancière adds, concluding the parable about Aventine Hill, was led at the time by wise elders. They understood that, ‘if a cycle is over it’s over, whether one likes it or not.’ Since the plebes had become beings endowed with speech, there was no choice but to talk to them. As a consequence, there was a whole series of these ‘strikes,’ as a result of which the plebes obtained new rights and their own representation in the person of tribunes.

‘The transition from one era of speech to another is achieved not by means of rebellion, which can be suppressed,’  Rancière sums up. ‘But through gradual disclosure, it can be recognized by characteristic signs, and it is useless to fight it.’ This sign we define as the legitimacy of the claim to equality.

* * *

The formula: ‘We the People…’ first proclaimed in the U.S. Constitution in 1787, was subsequently used in the constitutions of many countries around the world, including the Russian Federation. But We the People [as a collective] allows for another translation: ‘We the people [as individuals]…’ 

Sense the difference that Rancière emphasises. ‘The [collective] People’ is an ‘empty plurality.’ In contrast to ‘[individual] people’ who are filled with concrete qualities (good and bad), the citizen as a member of ‘The People’ possesses only freedom. But freedom is also empty: it only makes citizens equal with each other in terms of freedom, but equality in freedom turns into de facto inequality.

The disturbing presence of ‘individuals’ multiplies citizens not arithmetically but geometrically. Everyone appears in a multitude of hypostases: voter, employee of organisations (very different ones), parent of a family, member of communities of interest (even more different), etc. ‘The People’ is at one and the same time both smaller than itself, because its parts are not taken into account, and larger for the same reason.

In addition to empty freedom, ‘The People’ is considered to possess one other property that belongs to it alone. This is something invented no earlier than the XVII-XVIII centuries during the formation of nation-states and is called ‘sovereignty’. It is this property that is meant in the formula We the People, which in modern secular states – because of the impossibility any longer of legitimising authority on the basis that it was established by God – has become universal and something to which there is no alternative.

The People in such a projection becomes the ‘electorate’. But sovereignty always appropriates to itself only a part of the electorate, that defined by the simple process of counting the ‘democratic majority.’ But this does not turn a majority into ‘The People’.

And depending on what questions are put to the vote, by whom and how, even with a fair and accurate counting of votes, The People will turn out to be one thing  – or something quite different.

‘The People,’ writes the philosopher, ‘are the majority rather than a general assembly, a general assembly rather than a community, the poor acting in the name of the state, applause as consent, the counting of pebbles instead of the taking of a decision. But all these manifestations of the inequality of the People to itself are but a trifle, what remains from a fundamental undercounting: the impossible equality of the many and the whole…. A mass of individuals without characteristics are identified with the community on the basis of a falsehood incessantly imposed on them by those whose qualities or property in a natural way casts this mass into oblivion.’

‘The People’, like a hare in a magician’s top hat, figures in the speculations of those in power, but there it also instantly disappears. It cannot be a subject, it bears no responsibility to anyone, its place is in the vaults of non-existence, from where it is extracted, for their own purposes and from cycle to cycle, by those who artfully choose which questions to put to a vote, while forbidding to put the question that is the only one that should be put.

The problem formulated by Rancière in terms of disagreement is not really new – which is why all classical doctrines of democracy have provided for the right of the People to revolt. But this right has no subject. Only the individual and individuals retain as an aspect of their freedom an inherent negative potential – to turn towards the ‘order of rebellion’. The polite plebes and wise senators of Livy’s histories simply realised that it was better not to reach that point.

* * *

Disagreement, according to Rancière, is ‘not a conflict between those who say “white” and those who say “’black”. It is a conflict between those who both say “white” but who understand the word to mean different things….’.

Rancière criticises Jürgen Habermas and his concept of deliberative (consultative) democracy. Habermas starts from the assumption that there are already subjects of discussion, and Rancière corrects him: these subjects are not yet present, they have yet to be brought into being through a series of identifications according to the principle of ‘friend or foe’. However, Habermas also sees this problem and proposes to resolve it in terms of mutual recognition by the subjects of ‘claims to significance’.

The eternal aporia of ‘the complicity of the uninvolved‘ is fundamentally unresolvable, but can be ‘rationalised‘, Rancière suggests. Before the question of a redistribution of equality can be discussed, it is necessary to establish the place of meeting itself – the stage on which a hitherto non-existent subject can materialise and announce its name and reach agreements on the status of the participants, on the procedures and on the language in which ‘speech‘ will take place.

* * *

What is ‘patriotism’? This is what in our case we need to agree upon first of all. But such questions can only be discussed between ‘individuals’, i.e. persons who can speak, and not with empty multitudes, be it ‘the People’, ‘the majority’, the State Duma or ‘government officials.’

Let them ‘cast into oblivion’ in fact not only ‘the People’ but also individuals. Our strategy of ‘the uninvolved’, on the contrary, should be to see in every individual the image of God and not to shy away from it.

* * *

Rancière’s logic sidesteps the legal field, which in our case is held in the deathly grip of the ‘law enforcement agencies’, where the authorities, having lost the skill of speech, know only how to bark and bite. This logic brings both the authorities and the ‘dissenters’ into a realm of mutual expectations and claims, where, for example, the action of laying flowers by the ‘wives of men who have been mobilised’ at the memorial to soldiers who died in the Second World War, if it is ruled to be ‘unauthorised’ and illegal, cannot be recognised as illegitimate.

If you drive politics out of the door – it comes in through the window. Subjects are subjectivised ‘out of nowhere’, acquire names and appeal not to norms but to principles, not to the ridiculous laws of the transient Duma, but to the Constitution as the very essence of legal civilisation.

They can remove Nadezhdin from the presidential race, but those who wanted to sign for him have already queued up, shown themselves, and they will also go to the elections. Branding these ‘foreign agents’ is no longer convincing: there can never be so many of them. It does not work well to slap them down with the law – as has just happened with the LGBT community. Oblige those who have left the country to register at consulates, but close the polling stations in embassies? It doesn’t add up. Put them in jail? So many have already been jailed, but more and more people are beginning to realise that people have been deprived of their liberty for nothing.

The political logic of all these, and many other, current conflicts, fuelled by the impending expression of the will of the enigmatic ‘People’, is developing further than the usual logic of the pseudo-legal. Repression is intensifying, but fails to strike its target.

Where are the ‘wise senators’ able to understand that ‘if the cycle is over, whether they like it or not, it is over‘? The only alternative is the order of rebellion. While we take this example from the sensible Romans, we are by no means calling for it.

But of course, one should go to vote, no matter who appears on the ballot papers – at least to show oneself.

Demand gives birth to supply, and, even if it happens after my life is over, reasonable senators will appear. And in front of everyone, they will sprinkle their heads with ashes for having so dishonoured themselves. Simply because ‘speech‘ is an unstoppable process.

* Jacques Rancière, La mésentente: politique et philosophie, Galilée, Paris, 1995 [English translation: Jacques Rancière, Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy, University of Minnesota Press, Minnesota, 1999]. Please note, translations in the above text are from the Russian text by Leonid Nikitinsky


Translated by Marian Schwartz and Simon Cosgrove

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