Ranciere: What times are we living in?, part 2

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. Part 1 of the translation is here. [My translation, corrections welcome. -YG]

03. It is paradoxical to work through institutions in order to demolish them.

Aude Lancelin: Let’s remain with France insoumise and the phenomenon of Mélenchon during the presidential elections. You are very sceptical regarding the figure of a tribune (Mélenchon) who is going to speak in the name of the suffering of the people and champion their cause. This posture is suspect in your view. What is the basis of your criticism?

Jacques Ranciere: There are several things. First, adopting this posture means also adopting the posture that the system imposes, namely the posture that there is an official political game and that there are the people of the depths who are not represented, or are represented by the extreme right from which they must be separated. It is this idea that the people exist, that there are those who represent the people, that is what de Gaulle pretended to do. I don’t think that this is a democratic idea that makes it possible to mobilize and advance. That is the first point. The second point is that I find it paradoxical to become a candidate of the supreme office of the system saying: if you elect me, here is my program. And at the same time to say: but pay attention, this system is bad and therefore everything is going change. I think there is a fundamental contradiction. You are saying to me that my anti-presidential stance is somewhat paradoxical or difficult to follow. But I think it is still more difficult to follow a stance which on the one hand asks to be vested with the powers of the president of the 5th republic and at the same time says I want to 6th republic and i am going to throw all of this up in the air. It is either one or the other. If we say: it is necessary to throw the 5th republic up in the air, we say: I am here to throw the 5th republic up in the air. Period.

AL: You do not believe then in working through institutions in order to reform them and abolish them?

JR: I believe that at this moment it is necessary to play a single game with the institution: not on the one hand be a president as presidents of the 5th republic are and at the same time say you want to destroy this institution. If we aim win the presidency only to destroy it, we have but a single stance, we are not going to aim for a little social safety net, a little environmental protection, to implement a program, a little republicanism, a little socialism… We say: I want only this, I am the one who aims to abolish the presidency. That is clear. At that moment we use the institution.

AL: It was, in a way, the program of France insoumise: a constitutional convention, then eliminating the presidential monarchy. You see that merely as an instrument for seizing power?

JR: I think that we could play a game with the institutions, but that is a game that is specific, and not this double game which ended up anyway in this very miserable outcome: the posters which we saw during the second round, with talk about power sharing for a better tomorrow. I’m sorry, the better tomorrow, for people my age, that means something different from having a France insoumise minister with an En marche president. We should be serious. Power sharing for “better days” [“Better days” is the program of the National resistance council (CNR) adopted March 15, 1944], is anyway something a bit grotesque. Mélenchon recycled exactly the old, most miserable slogan of the right, namely: don’t give all the powers to those who won, give us some as well. That is the first problem. There is a second problem in the idea that we are going to elect a constitutional convention. But these are not the conventions which have made history. The conventions that were created by revolutionary movements or by mass movements which are important. Not conventions that simply enact the measures proposed in an electoral program.

AL: The slogan “Let’s abolish the presidential elections, and with them the president”. Do you really think that it embodies a popular rejection? Don’t you think that with this hyper-democratism we risk pursuing notions that are not of the people?

JR: The question is: do we favor autonomous forms of discussion, autonomous forms of decision-making, which are a little outside of convention? Or is it that generally we allow the initiative to most who want it. I don’t think that we need to recognize ourselves in a more or less charismatic leader who, nevertheless, remembers that every four years there is an election. An authentic popular leader is a different thing. Blanqui in the 19th century, that was not someone who suddenly said: there is an election next year, we will have to pull up the people of the depths. If you really are a leader of a popular movement, you participate in this movement, in its initiatives, in the creation of autonomous forms, rather than trying to pick up seats every five years.

04. The institutional measures make sense when they are born by a movement which has its own dynamic, its own structures.

Aude Lancelin : In order to restore the democracy in our system, you nevertheless propose in your 2005 book “The hate of democracy” to introduce sortition, obviously to introduce short service terms, non-cumulative, non-renewable offices, various measures which have been discussed since, particularly by Nuit debout. Does this mean that for you something good can emerge from the ballot box, despite everything? Is there still something that can be saved in the electoral system?

Jacques Ranciere: The electoral system is created from behaviors, attitudes, beliefs and a whole set of things that affect our lives. My idea is that we are not going to have the revolution by electing a president from the Left; but we are not going to wait for the real struggles, the general revolt bring about a revolutionary power in total ignorance of all of that. No, a political movement walks on two feet and as a result can use its institutions, or in any case define define itself in relation to them, which is not the same thing. We can have a strategy with regard to the presidential elections, a strategy of calling for a boycott of these elections, a strategy of running a candidate for a non-presidency, or I don’t know what. It is possible. At that moment, we interact with the existing system, as we do with a whole set of existing system. These are all forms of domination. Consequently, we have a way for interaction with this form like we do with the others. We can propose institutional measures, but we propose them knowing that it only take up meaning when they grow from a movement with its own dynamic, its own structures. That is what’s important. The movements which simply say “6th republic, constitutional assembly, and all will be well”, they do not have meaning. We could always write on a piece of paper the constitution of the 6th republic, that means nothing unless it grows out of a movement capable of backing up the demands that are written in that constitution.

AL: You followed what happened with Nuit debout in the spring of 2016. What do you see as its strategic errors (in focusing on the Socialist party, and on the catastrophic track record of the Left in government)?

JR: It is not at all my place at all to say what Nuit debout did wrong or should have done. I think that a movement like Nuit debout is very much a heterogeneous movement, with the old ways of social struggle and revolution, and the people who show up. And then there is this problem which we find I think with all street movements. Namely, that there is what seems like a direct implementation of democracy. We are together, we are assembled, we are equal, we are happy to be equal… It becomes very difficult to combine this form of “being together” we “being against”. That is not a question of knowing who is responsible for what. I believe that we have not gone beyond this juxtaposition, between the people for whom the important thing is above all being together, constituting an assembled people, and those for whom the important thing is to fight against the enemy with the idea that we are going to assemble the people and declare a violent struggle and force the people to choose a side. We have not invented the logic which will take us forward from there. There are some countries where it has gone a little farther. I am thinking of Greece, about the movement of the free social spaces which are trying to institutionalize forms of being together which are not at the same time parties, which are not at the same time ephemeral forms of the General assembly. There is something that happened there.

AL: Coming back to your definition, your thinking about democracy. In your eyes, this does not consist of choosing, like we do today, between rival factions of power professionals. It does not consist of choosing this one or that one from among the same class of experts, all very careful with the interests of the oligarchy. On the contrary, democracy, for you, is the power of those who are not qualified to exercise power. Today, unfortunately we know well that those who are not qualified to exercise power, notably the popular classes, are totally excluded from the game by different processes – be it by massive abstention, or by the vote for the xenophobic Front national which condemns them to certain marginality. It there nevertheless something that is still authentically democratic in our system?

JR: We need to understand what we mean by “system”. We live in the paradoxical systems in the sense that the foundation they provide is democratic but ultimately power comes back to those who are not qualified to exercise it. Fundamentally, we cannot say that the functioning of our institutions is democratic. Representation, not always but initially, was clearly opposed to democracy. The problem is that gradually with the universalization of suffrage, we have come to completely confound the two systems. Especially today with the idea of choice having become ubiquitous. And this absolutely absurd constraint of choosing all the time has become a constraint of following this same logic. Basically, it is this which is inside the idea of the electoral system as it functions. We are obliged to choose but we do not really choose. Who chose among the twenty five platforms offered in most voting districts during the last elections? No one. Ultimately, we choose because we know the people or we know the parties to which they belong, we choose because we are find certain types of rhetoric appealing. We choose because it is a thing that is imposed on us, because we have a president and it is necessary for him to have people to do what needs to done. We are in an oligarchical system which creates at the same time a distorted image of democracy. Democracy is a mode of action, not a choice. Therefore democratic institutions are institutions which allow initiative, which allow putting into work an intelligence, the intelligence of anyone. It is necessary to create conditions where the multitude effectively are having the initiative, participating in making a political life. That doesn’t mean that everybody participates, but it means that there is no appropriation. In the sense that in the idea of sortition, it’s not that there are no more deputies in the representation but simply that these deputies are not the representatives of a class. I think that we are in a world where the large part of the decisions are come from above, where popular initiative is reduced to somewhat cartoonish forms. There is a displacement of action by choice, where free will is expressed in choice, rather than in action. It is toward this that the movements which took place over the last few years – the occupation movements, the street movements – had a meaning. Because we had people who expressed themselves in the streets and not by choosing who is going to represent them. That doesn’t mean that there is no need to sometimes make that choice, but it is better to choose the decisions, to choose actions, rather than choose people.

AL: You say that democracy is not a choice, it is an action. In your new book you write that to get out of our current political impasse it is necessary to learn how to conceive of problems other than those which we are handed to, processed and prepackaged, by successive governments. And that it is necessary also to conceive a different temporality which is autonomous in order to address with the official political agendas. Concretely, what do you think are the forms that this can take?

JR: That can take the form of organizations which have their own objectives and a whole series of domains, like labor, educations, reception of refugees, of migrants, and so forth. Organizations which have their own themes, their own campaigns, their own agendas that are not dependent on laws made by government. Some things have been done. In Spain, for example, around some municipalities, where rather than simply creating a party which is a vehicle for people’s demands, organizations were created concerned with carrying out several concrete actions. The new team in Barcelona city hall was created primarily by people who fought against the expulsions, for example. We have a case where a determined, specific struggle creates a collective capacity of a new type which eventually, we always hope, will enable forms of institutional actions which are somewhat different. There were a few things like that having to do with free social spaces in Greece which are mixtures of social services and popular assemblies. These are particular cases, it is very difficult indeed. Alternative forms function well when we have a specific case, a particular gathering. When it concerns generalization, from the outset, from the moment of gathering we immediately find ourselves more or less under the control of specialists in generalities, meaning well established organizations which already know how to assemble movements, or who propose simply a new form of assembly. In my opinion that is impossible. If we think about what the workers’ parties were for a time, they had campaign for such and such form of struggle, even only for improving labor conditions. They had eventually a foot in parliament and a foot outside of parliament, and pursuing their own campaigns without being directed by the fixed deadlines of the governments. We live today in a world where there is only one political event in France: the presidential elections. To begin with, we have to start preparing for the 2022 elections, to ask ourselves how we are going to regroup. And probably the popular movements are going to be called upon, cornered in this way. There is a logic to disrupt in order to engage with the oligarchical system which is in place. How to go about it? That is not easy, we do not see the end of the road but the absolutely essential condition is to preserve an autonomy in order to engage with a system where we see very well that is going to forever recycle itself.

3 Responses

  1. Down with programs

    Ranciere highlights the contradiction between occupying the key role in the system and pretending to change it. But he doesn’t get to the heart of the matter, political parties.

    Parties are a means of organising and concentrating enough power to take over government either by constitutional means or by force.

    All modern governments are run by parties. Dictatorships stressing a unitary objective, usually for “the People ” as a whole trying to shape society from the top. Democracies allow two or more parties , permitting regular changed of parties in power. That allows freedom within limits for non-government parties. Parties in government can impose what they like, provided they doing not try to enact changes beyond certain limits.It can lead to polarisation and instability.

    In either case the people are limited to reacting to what the party leadership wants. Any dissidence has to fit the party’s commitments.

    The solution is to replace the pursuit of totalisingtop-down visions by bottom-upwards processes, giving initiative to specific changes and changing the whole only by a process of mutual adaption between those initiatives. The ecological model instead of head and members model. I have suggested a way of starting in that direction by proposing a way of generating agreement among people about what needs to be done in regard to specific problems.


  2. John,

    >Parties are a means of organising and concentrating enough power to take over government either by constitutional means or by force.

    A more historically-accurate narrative would be that parties have helped to civilise the perennial struggle for power, by replacing war-war with jaw-jaw and have brought some measure of accountability to the political process. Of course this has been less than optimal but whether your programme to replace the struggle for power with rational discussion is possible is another matter.


  3. […] 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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