Jacques Rancière on elections

Joshua Mostafa wrote to call attention to an interview with Jacques Rancière:

Jacques Rancière was interviewed by Le novel Observateur on the French presidential election. He argues that elections, despite being touted as the height of democracy, are anti-democratic, oligarchical procedures. He does not confine his criticism to the right, or to the likely winner of the election, François Hollande, whose weak-tea, centrist version of socialism cuts no ice with the philosopher, but also to the purported champion of the left, Front de Gauche candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon: ‘A true campaign of the left would denounce the office of president itself.’

In principle and in historical origin, representation is anti-democratic. Democracy was founded on the idea of equal competence of all. The usual mode of selection for office was drawing lots… Representation is an oligarchic principle: it has always been associated with power representing not the population but the status or competence that bases its authority over that population: birth, wealth, knowledge, etc.
Read more (in French) »

8 Responses

  1. yeah – Ranciere is interesting: My 2009 article starts with a
    quotation from him:

    “La “democracia representativa” puede parecer hoy un pleonasmo.
    Pero fue, al comienzo, un oxímoron.
    Jacques Rancière, El odio a la democracia (2006)”

    “Representative Democracy” today may seem a redundancy.
    But it was, at first, an oxymoron.
    Jacques Rancière, Hatred of Democracy (2006)

    But in this 2006 book he does not realyy go much further with concrete proposals on sortition if I remember well.


  2. Yes – that seems like an appropriately Rousseau-esque/Marxist position, which is also present in the Federalist Papers (in reverse).

    I am wondering if Ranciere goes beyond this, to advocate sortition (or propose anything beyond run-of-the-mill “direct democracy”). “The usual mode of selection for office was drawing lots” seems like being just one step away from proposing to adopt this system – a pity if he doesn’t actually take that last step. (That’s always safer, of course.)


  3. Didn’t Melenchon call for a Sixth Republic which would limit the powers of the presidency if not scrap that office? The French left should be way more aggressive about proportional representation, too.


  4. […] Chouard (and here, here, and here), Lawrence Lessig, David Chaum, Jacques Rancière, Clive Aslet, Jim Gilliam, Loïc Blondiaux, and Andrew Dobson and other readers of the […]


  5. It’s certainly true that Athenian democracy assumed equal competence, but Hansen is clear that the 4th century reforms introduced an increased role for election to the magistracies where competence was most important. The new financial magistracies (elected for 4-year terms) were seen as the salvation of Athens. It’s also the case that the perquisites (‘gifts’) received by active politicians were measured in the high-value currency of talents (rather than the workers’ currency of drachmas or obols) and that this was the origin of the modern notion of talent = ability (intermediated via Milton’s interpretation of St. Matthew’s parable of the talents). The Athenians however insisted that all legislative decisions should be taken by allotted courts, confining the role of politicians to introducing proposals and the role of magistrates to executing the laws. Political leaders had to pay a very high price if their proposals failed, not so in modern parliamentary democracies, where the only price is losing the election (they don’t have to pay fines and still receive their political salaries). And modern “magistrates” have a job for life and an index-linked final salary pension. All this would have been anathema to the Athenians who liked to reward talents (with talents) but to punish severely anyone who failed to deliver the goods or who enriched themselves at the expense of the people (they didn’t mind how rich their political leaders became, so long as the Athenian state benefited as well).

    This strikes me as sensible, unlike Ranciere’s parroting of CLR James’s fantasy that all cooks are equally good at whatever they choose to turn their hands to. The 4th century reforms were entirely conservative in their thrust, even though this will prove disappointing to those seeking to use them as a model for socialism, whether or not of a “weak-tea, centrist” or Marxist form.


  6. Yet another concoction of false attributions and fabrications delivered with an air of great authority, Keith. To pick just one obvious example, CLR James never asserted that “all cooks are equally good at whatever they choose to turn their hands to”.

    But, of course, veracity doesn’t really matter to you – as long as you get the chance to generate another iteration of the latest tenets of your dogma.


  7. James’s claim was that “every cook can govern”. Government involves three functions:

    1. Proposing laws
    2. Making laws
    3. Executing laws

    The 4th century reforms gave the randomly-selected legislative courts a monopoly of (2) and assigned the least important functions of (3) to boards of randomly-selected magistrates (on the principle that 10 or so individuals would be less likely to mess things up). Given the increased complexity of modern society few people would seriously propose selecting government executives by lot. The Athenians insisted that any citizen was free to propose legislation (1), so that would suggest a modern analogue of 4th century democracy would limit the role of sortition to (2), although Terry’s case for scrutiny by a randomly-elected secretariat [prior to an electronic equivalent of the assembly] has merit. Hansen is adamant that legislative proposals were by individuals — mostly semi-professional “political leaders” — and that the right was not restricted to members of the council, whose prime role was to prepare the agenda for the assembly. I’m not sure if there is any evidence for proposals being vetoed by the council, as they mostly relied on harsh penalties for anyone proposing an unconstitutional edict or law.

    Of course anyone is perfectly at liberty to advocate sortition for any purpose they choose, but proposals that seek in any way to concatenate 1, 2 and 3, cannot claim Athenian provenance. To argue for them on a forum bearing a name and graphic taken from Athenian democracy is misleading. Any cook can certainly rule (as part of a descriptively-representative body judging legislative proposals), but “government” in modern parlance normally refers to function (3).


  8. […] got to the idea of sortition by reading Rancière. He starts out by pointing out the aristocratic or oligarchical nature of elections. He then puts […]


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