Ranciere: What times are we living in?, part 1

What to save from the drifting French political system? The philosopher Jacques Ranciere was the guest of Aude Lancelin in “The war of ideas” of June 20th, 2017. Here is the transcript of this interview. [My translation, corrections welcome. -YG]

01. There is always this confusion between democracy as the power of all and a representative system.

Aude Lancelin: Jacques Rancière, welcome. I thank you, a great political philosopher, for coming to help us understand what is happening in a democratic country where full power is obtained with the support of less than 11% of the electorate. One of the very cruel lessons of your new book “In what times are we living?”, which is a dialog with the editor Eric Hazan, is that despite the mass abstention, despite the dysfunction of the representative system, someone holds power. Moreover, power becomes more and more oligarchical in our societies, without meeting any serious obstacle. It is not enough to turn our backs on the electoral system for it to collapse by itself. It continues to function without the popular classes, without the left… until when?

Jacques Ranciere: As I see things, the representative system is made to function with the support of a minority. There is always this confusion between democracy as the power of all and a representative system. The electoral system is made as a conflation of the two but fundamentally the representative system is in its essence an oligarchical system. In the 17th century the representative system was therefore made for a small part of the population that was supposed to be “enlightened”, representative and conscious of the general interests of society, to be able to govern with as few obstacles as possible. At the time of the revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries a belief in the power of people emerged, which could express itself through the electoral system and representation. Today we realize again that in different ways power is always with a small minority. In the past it was a social class, now it is difficult to say what social class can really govern the country, even if we know what interests the system serves. In consequence, we professionalization occurred which produced an interaction between a left and a right which fundamentally thought and did the same thing. And at the same time, they saw themselves as representatives and called for a non-establishment system or an “anti-system”. That is, the system itself produced its anti-system. What we see with Macron, with En Marche [Macron’s party], is a new and unexpected way in which the system produces its “anti-system”. I mean that the representative system carries within it the potential for several possibilities. There is the Le Pen style alternative, that is the people of the depths who are going to sweep away all the people of the system, and then there is of course the Macron alternative, which is a more subtle form because it replaces the system by the system itself. Fundamentally, what is the great novelty about under the banner of En Marche? These are alliances which are already known in other European countries (Germany, for example), with the difference that the parties keep their autonomy, while keeping the same politics, sometimes as adversaries and sometimes as allies.

02. The presidential elections are the most resolute appropriation of the power that is supposed to belong to all.

Aude Lancelin: You claim in the book that a certain radical disbelief regarding elections and their capacity to change our lives has become the norm in political discourse, as much among the people who vote as among those who do not. Why has such resignation overcome the people?

Jacques Ranciere: I believe there is always this somewhat false idea that a system of attachment relies on belief, on the fact that we really have convictions. That comes back to the idea that the majority of people are ignorant or deluded and naturally vote based on their delusions, and to the idea that on the day they break free of their delusions, everything will collapse. I don’t think so. I think that in all cases where belief is at play there is an opportunity to change the dominant perception. Because now everybody understands. There is a system of disbelief which is widespread, and which therefore allows at the same time both attachment and detachment. Moreover, in the type of society in which we live it is possible to both believe and disbelieve at the same time. Basically, it is this that I tried to analyze in “The ignorant master” following Jacotot, to understand the logic of the inferior superiors: if we can despise the system which dominates us, we think that that is fine. If we can despise the journalists, if we can despise the advertising, if we can finally despise all that governs us, at that moment we feel superior to the people who dominate us. This is a form of attachment.

AL: Isn’t there a belief that remains, which would be that we are in fact living in a democracy? For example, the presidential elections. These are elections that remain popular, which mobilize people. It is one of the criticisms that you level in your book against the Nuit debout movement: that rather than calling to never again vote for the Socialist party as does François Ruffin, it would be better to call for the abolishment of presidential elections. Isn’t this comment elitist? Isn’t it true that it can resonate only within limited intellectual circles that are already highly politicized?

JR: Why would it be elitist? Effectively we are in a paradoxical situation where the presidential elections, which basically are the most resolute appropriation of the power that is supposed to belong to all, appears like they are the essence of democracy. We know well that the presidential elections were created in 1848 essentially the people’s associations, against the democratic people, against the working people. Even those who created them thought that the president of the republic in question would reinstall the king. It was meant to be this way from the start. Then, this position was reinvented in France by de Gaulle, in a very clear way, to give him a majority and a base for creating a more-or-less mythical dialog with the people of the depths who opposed the political games, who were were against parties and so forth. In fact, the presidential elections are an extreme form of dispossession under the guise of a direct expression of the people’s will. The role that is played by the way by the negative vote in all these presidential elections was significant. The same as that of abstention in the last legislative elections. And in four years the machine is going to be set off again. I think that if we do not see into the heart of the system we are losing something. At the same time, we relax, we are allowed to unwind a little before moving on to serious things. It is a little like this that the end of the Nuit debout and the creation of the Melenchon enterprise, that is: we had fun – or you had fun, which is different – and now move on to serious things. The problem is knowing if we can break, or on the contrary exceed, these moments where the people can liberate themselves and the moments where the serious things resume.

2 Responses

  1. […] ideas” of June 20th, 2017. Here is the transcript of this interview. Part 1 of the translation is here. [My translation, corrections welcome. […]


  2. […] of June 20th, 2017. Here is the transcript of this interview. Parts 1 and 2 of the translation are here and here. [My translation, corrections welcome. […]


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