There is a double context for Rancière’s political work (cf. Davis 2010, 99-100). First, the triumphalist announcement of the end of history, where our ideological evolution is said to have culminated in liberal democracy (Fukuyama 1992). Fukuyama himself makes a cameo appearance as the “conspicuous American” (Rancière 1990, 3). In a sense, the ideas of the end of history and the end of politics are part of the same impulse: namely to liberate politics from its inherently threatening character. Rancière traces the legacy of this impulse to classical philosophy, so that philosophy becomes a project to eradicate politics. At the far end of this project, the knot is tied even more intimately. Now that politics has declared itself triumphant in getting rid of its philosophical agitators, philosophy is finally successful in saving politics from itself. Strategies that are used to get rid of politics focus on reducing the social to the political, or vice versa (ibid, 11). The success of such strategies provides the second context within which Rancière operates:the jettisoning of political and emancipatory discourse in favour of a political philosophy that reflects on the ethical matter of how best to live together.
Rancière’s diagnosis is that the very division between the social and the political ceases to exist, so that no political task remains but managing the social in a way that maximizes the well-being of the collective body. Rancière here reverses the promise of classical Marxism: in particular, the Saint-Simonian hope that politics could be abolished, so that only ‘the administration of things’ would remain. In the post-Marxism of Rancière, this idea is turned on its head. The Marxist dream of the ‘withering away of the state’ in classless society is now the unofficial motto of everyday (non-)politics; and it does not inspire hope, but its opposite. Institutional politics and the order that is safeguarded by it is what he calls police, the political form that does away with politics by insisting on a stable order that is definitive of society. It is composed by elements that are undeniably part of society. This excludes the ‘supplement’ of society, the “part of those who do not take part” [le part des sans-parts] (Rancière 2010, 12). For Rancière, democracy and therefore true politics is only possible as a violent reaction that disrupts the unity and order of police. One might thus call Rancière a perfect spokesperson for political difference: there is the inability of institutional politics to ‘capture’ all of society, and the fleeting intrusion (Rancière 2004, 6 speaks of an “accident”) of the political into the given order of things. What is generally designated as the political sphere thus calls for a “dividing line” between police and the political [politique] (ibid).
A historical example is in order here. The women of the French Revolution were not regarded by any other group in society as capable of political speech or action. Olympe de Gouges challenged this manner of drawing the line between the political (men) and the non-political (women) by stating “if women were entitled to go the scaffold, then they were also entitled to go to the assembly” (Rancière 2010, 69). Here we can see the various elements in action. Police logic presents society as an unproblematic whole and becomes exclusionary through its claim that all of society is ‘countable’; politics here occurs from without society, from a point that cannot be located on the current political map and for that reason problematizes the political parameter, since the women of the French Revolution are after all part of society. It follows that a society that allows women the right to go to the assembly (the right to vote) and draws the line slightly beyond will find itself in what is formally the same position. It again defines itself in a unified fashion, albeit a slightly different unity – having recognised past errors – but it still encircles itself on the political map, and because of this it is encircled by political others.
For Rancière, “governments and experts” have for a long time practiced the art of maintaining the balance between the different elements within society, thus avoiding the “democratic factuality” of an internally divided society that can never be ‘whole’ (Rancière 2007, 78; 1990, 95). But the imbalance has its revenge: Rancière cites the rise of parties of the extreme right, who reject the “oligarchic consensus”, but also the French and Dutch ‘No’ during the referendum about ratification of the proposed constitution for the European Union. We can substitute in the more recent Brexit turmoil and continue to follow Rancière’s analysis: “a majority of voters (…) judged that the question was a real question, not a matter calling for the simple adherence of the population, but a matter of popular sovereignty and therefore a question to which one could respond no as well as yes”; and this surprised the analysts all the more since the experts had spelled out that adherence would be in everyone’s best interests (Rancière 2007, 79). All of these operations of consensus wrongfully assume an “objectivation of the problems and part of the community” (Rancière 2004, 7); here, Rancière comes close to Mouffe.
In summary, the basic figure of Rancière’s analysis of politics is that it consists of an oversimplified unit (police) that cannot see how its internal difference is co-constitutive of the society it aims to describe to the exclusion of that difference. It should be clear that the political is defined by acting-out of said difference from the paradoxical position of being both within and without society. Consensus is, in addition, the mode of reducing politics to police; and “the extreme limit of the logic of consensus” is the dissolution of all political differences and juridical distinctions into the indistinct and totalising domain of ethics” (Rancière 2004, 7-8). We will have to spend another post on Rancière in order to zoom in on his conception of consensus, the connection with ethics/morality and the evils (pun intended) he associates with both.