For a Leftist Appropriation of the European Legacy

For a Leftist Appropriation of the European Legacy
For a Leftist Appropriation of the European Legacy
For a Leftist Appropriation of the European Legacy

How, for Ranciere, did politics proper begin? With the emergence of demos as an active agent within the Greek polis: of a group which, although without any fixed place in the social edifice (or, at best, occupying a subordinated place), demanded to be included in the public sphere, to be heard on equal footing with the ruling oligarchy or aristocracy, i.e. recognized as a partner in political dialogue and power exercize. As Ranciere emphasizes against Habermas, the political struggle proper is therefore not a rational debate between multiple interests, but, simultaneously, the struggle for one’s voice to be heard and recognized as the voice of a legitimate partner: when the ‘excluded’, from the Greek demos to Polish workers, protested against the ruling elite (aristocracy or nomenklatura), the true stakes were not only their explicit demands (for higher wages, work conditions, etc.), but their very right to be heard and recognized as an equal partner in the debate-in Poland, the nomenklatura lost the moment it had to accept Solidarity as an equal partner. Furthermore, in protesting the wrong (le tort) they suffered, they also presented themselves as the immediate embodiment of society as such, as the stand-in for the Whole of Society in its universality, against the particular power-interests of aristocracy or oligarchy (‘we-the ‘nothing’, not counted in the order-are the people, we are All against others who stand only for their particular privileged interests’). Politics proper thus always involves a kind of short-circuit between the Universal and the Particular: the paradox of a singular which appears as a stand-in for the Universal, destabilizing the ‘natural’ functional order of relations in the social body. The political conflict resides in the tension between the structured social body where each part has its place-what Ranciere calls politics as police in the most elementary sense of maintaining social order-and `the part with no-part’ which unsettles this order on account of the empty principle of universality, of what Etienne Balibar calls egaliberté, the principled equality-in-freedom of all man qua speaking beings. This identification of the non-part with the Whole, of the part of society with no properly defined place within it (or resisting the allocated subordinated place within it) with the Universal, is the elementary gesture of politicization, discernible in all great democratic events, from the French Revolution (in which le troisieme etat proclaimed itself identical to the Nation as such against aristocracy and clergy) to the demise of ex-European Socialism (in which the dissident Forum proclaimed itself representative of the entire society against the Party nomenklatura). In this precise sense, politics and democracy are synonymous: the basic aim of antidemocratic politics always and by definition is and was depoliticization, i.e. the unconditional demand that `things should return to normal’, with each individual doing his or her particular job. Ranciere, of course, emphasizes how the line of separation between police and politics proper is always blurred and contested; say, in the Marxist tradition, ‘proletariat’ can be read as the subjectivization of the `part of no-part’ elevating its injustice into the ultimate test of universality, and, simultaneously, as the operator which will bring about the establishment of a post-political rational society.

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Here one should oppose globalization to universalization. Globalization (not only in the sense of global capitalism, the establishment of a global world market, but also in the sense of the assertion of ‘humanity’ as the global point of reference of human rights, legitimizing the violation of State sovereignty, of police interventions, from trade restrictions to direct military interventions, in parts of the world where global human rights are violated) is precisely the name for the emerging post-political logic which progressively precludes the dimension of universality which appears in politicization proper. The paradox is that there is no universality proper without the process of political litigation, of the `part of no-part’, of an out-of-joint entity presenting/manifesting itself as the stand-in for the universal.

Ranciere is right to emphasize how it is against this background that one should interpret the fascination of `public opinion’ by the unique event of holocaust: the reference to holocaust as the ultimate, unthinkable, apolitical crime, as the Evil so radical that it cannot be politicized (accounted for by a political dynamics), serves as the operator which allows us to depoliticize the social sphere, to warn against the presumption of politicization. Holocaust is the name for the unthinkable apolitical excess of politics itself: it compels us to subordinate politics to some more fundamental ethics. The Otherness excluded from the consensual domain of tolerant/rational post-political negotiation and administration returns in the guise of inexplicable pure Evil. What defines postmodern `post-politics’ is thus the secret solidarity between its two opposed Janus faces: on the one hand, the replacement of politics proper by depoliticized ‘humanitarian’ operations (the humanitarian protection of human and civil rights and aid to Bosnia, Somalia, Ruanda, North Korea …); on the other hand, the violent emergences of depoliticized `pure Evil’ in the guise of ‘excessive’ ethnic or religious fundamentalist violence. In short, what Ranciere proposes here is a new version of the old Hegelian motto `Evil resides in the gaze itself which perceives the object as Evil’: the contemporary figure of Evil, too ‘strong’ to be accessible to political analysis (holocaust, etc.), appears as such only to the gaze which constitutes it as such (as depoliticized). To put it in Hegel’s terms, what is crucial is their speculative identity, i.e. the `infinite judgement’, `Humanitarian depoliticized compassion is the excess of Evil over its political forms’.

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Two interconnected traps are to be avoided at all costs apropos of the fashionable topic of the `end of ideology’ brought about by the present process of globalization: first, the commonplace according to which today’s main antagonism is between global liberal capitalism and different forms of ethnic/religious fundamentalism; second, the hasty identification of globalization (the contemporary transnational functioning of capital) with universalization. As we have already seen, the true opposition today is rather between globalization (the emerging global market New World Order) and universalism (the properly political domain of universalization of one’s particular fate as representative of global injustice). This difference between globalization and universalism becomes more and more palpable today, when capital, on behalf of penetrating new markets, quickly renounces requests for democracy in order not to lose access to new trading partners. This shameful retreat is then, of course, legitimized as `respect of cultural difference’, as the right of the (ethnic-religious-cultural) Other to choose the way of life it suits it best-as long as it does not disturb the free circulation of Capital.

This opposition between universalism and globalization is best exemplified by two names: France and the USA. French republican ideology is the epitome of modernist universalism: of democracy, based on a universal notion of citizenship. In clear contrast to it, the USA is a global society, a society in which the global market and legal system serve as the container (rather than the proverbial `melting pot’) for the endless proliferation of particular group identities. So, the paradox is that the proper roles seem to be reversed: France, in its republican universalism, is more and more perceived as a particular phenomenon threatened by the process of globalization, while the USA, with its multitude of groups demanding recognition of their particular, specific identity, more and more emerges as the ‘universal’ model.

So why shouldn’t we simply accept this post- (political, ideological …) universe and just strive for a comfortable niche in it? The problem with this easy way out is, as we have already seen, that re-emerging populist fundamentalism, far from being a simple remainder of a primitive ideological past, is the inherent product of globalization, the living proof of the failure of the post-modern abolition of politics, in which the basic economic logic is accepted as the depoliticized Real (a neutral expert knowledge which defines the parameters within which the different strata of population and political subjects are expected to reach a compromise and formulate their common goals). Within this space, the political returns in two guises: Rightist populism; the ‘wild’ demands for social justice, for security of employment, etc., which are then denounced by ‘neutral’ economic specialists as ‘irrational’, `out of touch’ with the new reality of the demise of the welfare state, as the remainders of `old ideological battles’. The (potential) partner is also neutralized here, not acknowledged as a partner at all: the position from which he speaks is disqualified in advance.

Multiculturalist openness versus new fundamentalism is thus a false dilemma: they are the two faces of today’s post-political universe. In this universe, the conflict of global ideological visions embodied in different parties who compete for power is replaced by the collaboration of enlightened technocrats (economists, public opinion specialists, etc.) and liberal multiculturalists; via the process of negotiation of interests, a compromise is reached in the guise of a more or less universal consensus. This late-capitalist solution is best epitomized by the name ‘Singapore’, designating the paradoxical combination of capitalist economic logic with a corporate communitarian ethics which precludes any politicization of social life. It is deeply significant that, in the last years of his life, the late Deng himself, the father of Chinese reforms expressed his admiration for Singapore as the model to be followed in China. The motto of the ‘wise’ Asian rulers like Singapore’s Lee Kwan You-the combination of the full inclusion of their economies into global capitalism with the traditional Asian values of discipline, respect for tradition, etc.-points precisely towards globalization without universalism, i.e. with a suspended political dimension. In a different way, the model towards which the USA seems to move-the permissive co-existence of the multitude of ways of life within the global capitalist framework-approaches in another way the same result of depoliticization.

The opposition of globalization to particular cultural identity embodied in a specific way of life is thus misleading: what is effectively threatened by globalization is not the cosa nostra (our private secret way of life from which others are excluded, which others want to steal from us), but its exact opposite: universality itself in its eminently political dimension. One of the common wisdoms today is that we are entering a new Medieval society in the guise of the New World Order-the grain of truth in this comparison is that, like Medieval times, the New World Order is global, but not universal, since it strives for a new global order with each part at its allocated place.

[Extract from Journal of Political Ideologies, February 1998 (Vol. 3, No. 1, pp. 63-78).]