Ranciere: What times are we living in?, part 3 of 3

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. Parts 1 and 2 of the translation are here and here. [My translation, corrections welcome. -YG]

05. The question today is that of rethinking forms of organization, ways of being together for the long term, outside of the electoral forces.

Aude Lancelin: Your book is also a severe blow to those who today are pinning their hopes on the famous cortège de tête: the group of young people who clash with the police after the demonstrations. You have some ironic words on this subject. For you it is primarily a varnish of radicality which is applied to quite traditional demonstrations. The political meaning of all that and its future are not at all assured in your eyes. Do I misinterpret your thinking?

Jacques Ranciere: First thing: the cortège de tête is not simply the professional revolutionaries who think that it is necessary to radicalize the struggle and who radicalize the struggle by breaking shop windows. There are also people who think that breaking windows is the time of assembly of people who come from different horizons, who come from the political struggle or who come from delinquency in the suburbs, and who suddenly discover themselves. That is a way of gathering people that is classic anarchist or revolutionary politics, and suddenly the people that the movement appeals to and who are involved, who arrive with their own actions, their own revolt or their own ways, are coming first from the world of delinquency rather than from the world of politics. The cortège de tête are not simply people with a specific strategy. Another thing that I am trying to say is that the violent actions of the cortège de tête are also symbolic and not any more strategic in fact than the assemblies of the Nuit debout. Because, in fact, what is it that they are really doing? They take aim at symbolic targets; an ATM, a shop window, a nice car… But that is not at all a strategic action. There is this idea that it is necessary to radicalize, to create an irreversible situation. In my experience, that is not irreversible. It is not that some actions create an irreversible situation. I don’t think that existing conditions create a great realignment. Basically, the question is knowing how to manage this interaction between gathering the greatest number and striking the enemy. But what does “striking the enemy” mean? I don’t really know. I think that in the so-called “radical” thinking, there is always a double logic. On the one hand, the logic of confrontation (“we are going to confront them and it is through the confrontation that we rattle the enemy”) and at the same time a logic of desertion (“if we secede the system will collapse”). In the texts of the Comité invisible there is always this double logic. I think that neither of those two logics is really proven. But I am not trying to give lessons, I am just responding to the questions.

AL: It is necessary nevertheless to mention that in your book you talk with Eric Hazan, the editor of the Comité invisible, which authored the book l’Insurrection qui vient (The approaching revolt), which is sympathetic with that movement. That the exchange is rather harsh on these questions. Because you carry with you, since your experience in the ‘60s and ‘70s, a rather disenchanted or ironic view of the young people who are retaking the steps which were already taken 30 or 40 years ago.

JR: I don’t believe at all that they are simpletons who are ignorant of what happened 30 or 40 years ago. They simply think that 30 or 40 years ago people were not as radical as they are. And that being more radical they will do better than those 40 years ago. That is what is at the heart of the thinking of the Comité invisible, that the difference compared to the 60’s and 70’s is that those were movements which considered themselves as part of a grand offensive of workers’ struggles, struggles of independence, anti-colonial struggles, anti-imperialist. Their logic was that violent confrontation was created by a historical movement. While now it is rather the opposite. It is the idea that there is nothing anymore, that it is the void, everything is going to collapse. In consequence, the violence is being thought of as a means for disintegration, that is we are going to help this world disintegrate of itself, because there are no great formations behind us – the working class, the labor movement, the global anti-imperialist movement. There is a gamble no the “void” (here again I am presenting a cartoonish summary).

AL: This is what is terrible about the current situation which you describe the book. That we don’t know anymore exactly toward which direction to turn. The representative system leads you toward a total disenchantment, the street movement leaves you skeptical. The old schemas of class struggle, that is a confrontation where the activists are face-to-face with capital and not bathed in the amniotic fluids of capital, seem to you completely unsuitable and out of date. The movements of the type of the Comité invisible which present a fantasy of destruction and a return to the rural, of withdrawal at the end of which the system may collapse by itself, draw your sarcasm. We don’t know anymore toward which horizon to turn.

JR: I am not here to say toward which horizon to turn. I tried, in response to questions that were posed to me, to say in what ways, for me, it is no longer possible to think about radical transformations of the world. We can neither conceive of them in the old way on the basis of a historical movement which recognizes its calling, nor in the way which can be called maybe modern nihilism, that is: as if everything is collapsing and it suffices to give it a kick and it will keep collapsing. At the same time we note the limits of recent democratic movements. But noting the limits is at the same time noting what it is that exists, that there is something, that there is despite of everything some growth in awareness of what may be called “democracy” if one wants to take the word seriously. An awareness of the question of who is the enemy today, who has to be contended with, of how to reconcile the creation of political forms with the creation of different forms of life. There is no reason that I would know about these more than my contemporaries. My editor and friend Eric Hazan told me: you have been talking about democracy, you have been talking about sortition for twelve or fifteen years, have we not gone beyond all this? I respond no, I don’t have the impression that we have gone beyond this. We are trying merely to leave behind schemas of historical evolution which are outmoded and say in which times we find ourselves. Can we think of ourselves as being at a time of a historical evolution that has its term specified, at a time where of a strategy which also has its instruments specified? We are not in such a situation at all. We are in a time of disruption. Basically, the interesting political movements which are known to us are of moments of disruption. It is true that the disruption is one of the ambiguous forms of politics. The strike has always been both a form of struggle and a form of withdrawal. The general strike was also something archetypal. The street movements, Occupy, etc. are also movements of disruption. That is they created something in specific times, in specific spaces, spaces of disruption of the normal logic. We always hope that of that new temporalities can emerge. At the same time, this is not something new. The great forces of political action are always born of disruption. 1789, 1830, 1848, the resistance, la liberation, May 1968 in its own way – if we talk only of French history – are disruptions which created forces and energies. Beyond that we don’t really know what is done with those energies, whether they are released in a recovery of the electoral parties, or rather in the space of avant-garde rhetoric in its different forms.

AL: Is it the case that all the alternatives, as embryonic at the are, sometimes unfocused, do not address the strangeness of our situation? In some way, there is at the same time a clarification and a refining of the situation. The power of capital is more and more naked, the recent events of French politics – the collapse of large parties and the fusion into a single space of the oligarchical powers – leave the forces of social progress extremely helpless. Isn’t there also at the same time a risk of a democratic fetish, which is also necessary for our governments to legitimate public policy and generate and appearance of consent, a risk that this democratic fetish become useless?

JR: The term “democratic fetish” invokes the idea that basically everything is not as it appears, or that appearances are nothing but an illusions. I think that we are in systems that reinforce their authoritarianism. We live in systems of compromise because the state of urgency has been in effect for a year now. We see at once how it is a state of urgency that is in one respect soft, because people are demonstrating, going in the streets, and at the same time can easily harden when necessary. We are in this framework, i don’t see then why our rules are attempting to radicalize it. There is no particular reason. This is a hardening or the representative system. This is why there is no solution other than trying to think of constituting forces which are autonomous with respect to this system.

AL: In a system which is quite restrictive, which is more and more authoritarian, where rules are enacted by decree, and where the media is completely controlled, isn’t the recurrence of violence inevitable? You know that many of the people on the Left pin all their hopes on street action, be that demonstrations or violence. Doesn’t the current functioning of the French democracy condemn it to this fate? In 2016, when the movement of the labor law, there were dozens of demonstrations for months on end for no political gain.

JR: “Political gain” may mean different things. In any case the law in fact passed. There were nevertheless some situations where laws did not pass because of the force of movements. There was also the case of the Law of first employment where the law was passed and where it was finally revoked because the street movement had made it inapplicable. Actually, we are not in this situation, but no one believes that because there will be more clashes with the police then we will be able to better resist the laws. I think that the question today is that of rethinking forms of organization, ways of being together which would be for the long term, and at the same time outside of the electoral forces. Forms of action which can be more or less violent, but not with the idea that this is because by smashing more stores we make progress, nor because it will increase our numbers in the street. There is confusion around the question of what can be effective. I think that the first thing is to try to create forms of reflection, forms of communal action, that instead of producing immediate results, produce a clarification of what the people want and can do together.

One Response

  1. Lancelin keeps asking Ranciere for a constructive proposal and all he has to offer is a “let’s come up with new ideas”. Admirably humble, but not very useful.

    While Ranciere is rightfully skeptical about both the traditional- and the anarchist-style of thought and action, it is not clear to me why he avoids making a specific proposal around an allotted chamber. He indicates that he has some faith in sortition, but apparently does not think it would be a good drop-in replacement for elections. Unfortunately, he is neither asked, not does he volunteer, his thinking on this matter.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: