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Democracy and its Despisers

by Sonja Asal Saturday, Jun. 24, 2006 at 9:34 AM

Characteristics earlier ascribed to totalitarianism like control of the whole social life by the state could now be considered typical for modern democracies.. The whole dfemocratic life degenerates to a kind of market.


By Sonja Asal

[This article published in: Le Monde diplomatique, May 2006 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,,a0055.idx,18]

A new conservatism has been greatly debated in the last years in France among leading intellectuals. Since the pamphlet by Daniel Lindenburg (2002), a new label was devised: “the new reactionary.” Can a “hatred for democracy” be imputed to intellectuals who explicitly understand themselves as anti-totalitarian (like the philosopher Alain Finkelkraut)? The latest book by Jacques Ranciere, one of France’s most important political theoreticians, has this accusation in its title. (1)

Renciere’s book is more than a critique of the type of system conforming “media intellectuals.” The term democracy has lost its positive meaning more and more in dominant intellectual opinion. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the antagonism between democracy and totalitarianism has lost in power. Characteristics earlier ascribed to totalitarianism, control of the whole social life by the state, can now be considered typical for modern democracies. However “democratic individuals” endanger the survival of society today, not state institutions. With their urge for self-realization and their desire for uninhibited consumption, individuals destroy the social cohesion. Finally, the whole democratic life degenerates to a kind of market where the voter selects a party according to his taste, the student becomes a consumer of the commodity instruction and unions, women or minorities enforce their respective interests.

Ranciere decodes a paradoxical logic in his diagnoses of society. The advantage of liberal democracies compared to totalitarian regimes, namely individual freedom, was increasingly re-interpreted into a threat to democracy coming from within in the form of hedonist consumers after the collapse of the communist states, Ranciere says. The call resounds for a “good” democracy in which the rules of cooperative public life are fixed by law and enforced by the state. This call counters the apocalyptic vision of a democracy destroying itself, as Ranciere summarizes the “new hatred of democracy.”

Ranciere discovers one example of this threat in the current headscarf debate where the “good” lay values of the republic are set against individual freedom. Republicanism as a counter-pole to the decay of community is clearly set in the limelight in this debate in individualist positions. However according to Ranciere’s interpretation, republicanism in reality is hardly more than ideological glossing over of the fact that an intellectual elite claims for itself the privilege of dictating its values to the rest of society. A logic of the “police” is followed. The notion that a fixed symbolic place is assigned to every individual in society is a “police” idea according to Ranciere.

Jacques Ranciere born in Algiers in 1940 was occupied very early with the question of the origin of this “police” division of society. In 1965 he gained an audience as co-author of the study “Lire le Capital” published by Louis Althusser and Etienne Balibar. In the course of the 68-movement, he distanced himself from Althusser because he rejected his term ideology where social actors (literally, the proletariat) cannot become conscious of their situation and therefore depend on intellectuals identifying the true causes of their oppression.

In his eyes, the original “scandal” of democracy is that every vote counts in decisions on public affairs – and counts very much. “Politics” as Ranciere defines it means putting in question a dominant order again and again by social groups that are not represented or inadequately represented and as a result interrupting the dominant power structure. Therefore democracy is a conflict over the organization of public life. On the other hand, the logic of consensus prevails in western democracies. Under the excuse or pretext that economic globalization and financial shortage of the social systems allow only very limited possibilities, politics cedes its creative competence to experts and thus is reduced to the role of “manager” of local consequences, Ranciere says. In this way, real democracy and real politics could be extinguished.

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