Martin Breaugh, Christopher Holman, Rachel Magnusson, Paul Mazzocchi, and Devin Penner (eds.), Thinking Radical Democracy: The Return to Politics in Post-war France. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015; 277 pages. ISBN: 978-1442650046.

Reviewed by Devin Zane Shaw, Carleton University/University of Ottawa

One defining feature of contemporary, radical French thought is the emphasis it places on political emancipation. The priority given to emancipation distinguishes these thinkers—Jacques Rancière, Miguel Abensour, and Étienne Balibar—from their better-known predecessors, who formulated either an ethics of alterity (Levinas, Derrida, and Lyotard) or a micropolitics of resistance (Foucault, Deleuze, and Guattari). Such schematic distinctions, of course, oversimplify, e.g. Rancière explicitly acknowledges the influence of Foucault and Abensour Levinas. But the emphasis on emancipation, and especially its formulation in terms of collective agency, indeterminacy, and dissensus, is characteristic of Rancière, Abensour, and Balibar. And so are their respective attempts to reclaim democracy in terms opposed to both a deliberative democracy, reliant upon deliberation and consensus rather than collective agency and dissensus, and Marxist or poststructuralist symptomological interpretations of democracy, which treat it as merely a symptom of or mask for political oppression.

The essays collected in Thinking Radical Democracy aim to situate the political thought of Rancière, Abensour, and Balibar within a tradition of radical democratic thought in postwar France that conceptualizes democracy as divisive and emancipatory. The book includes chapters on the “forbearers” of the return to radical democracy (the “French” Arendt, Merleau-Ponty, and Pierre Clastres), the critics of totalitarianism (Lefort, Castoriadis, and Debord), and concludes with essays concerning Rancière, Balibar, and Abensour. Despite the many differences between these figures, the authors and editors of the present volume argue that the radical democratic tradition is defined by its threefold exploration of  “politics, division, and democracy.” (21) Radical democratic thought maintains, first, that politics cannot be reduced to some other structure or structures of social organization, or in Marxist terms, politics cannot merely be reduced, or explained away, by reference to economic structures of society. Instead, politics is the politicization of given structures or institutions of society as oppressive, dominating, or exploitative. And then the politics of radical democracy is divisive insofar as it grasps division or indeterminacy as part of democracy itself. In other words, the political project of democratic emancipation is always subject to revision, renegotiation, or dissensus, as new subjects emerge to contest the oppressive or exploitative apparatuses that govern social organization. Finally, political emancipation is democratic insofar as it emerges through collective political practices.

The chronological organization of Thinking Radical Democracy and its focused structural coherence gives the impression that there is a trajectory leading from Arendt, Merleau-Ponty, or Lefort to the contemporary theorists of radical democracy. For readers interested in Abensour, who has formulated his “critico-utopian political philosophy” through an encounter with many of the thinkers discussed therein (with the exception, perhaps, of Debord), this volume will be invaluable. Indeed, Abensour’s essay, “The Counter-Hobbes of Pierre Clastres,” originally published in French in 1987, is included here as the chapter on Clastres. However, for Rancière, such an influence is lacking. In Hatred of Democracy, for example, he argues that Arendt, Burke, and Agamben depoliticize struggles over rights; that is, they foreclose on the possibility of politicizing rights within an emancipatory struggle opposed to liberal and parliamentarian accounts of rights. (Rancière 2009, 58–62) More importantly, as I will argue below, Rancière challenges the claim, defended by numerous thinkers discussed in Thinking Radical Democracy, that it is possible to delineate the space of “the political” (le politique) before the irruption of politics (la politique).

Nonetheless, Abensour, Balibar, and Rancière share a number of common concerns. First, they emphasize that politics involves collective or intersubjective agency: Rancière calls this a dynamic “political subjectivation” in which subjects emerge through politicizing dissensus (and thus subjects do not precede political practices), Abensour refers to political opposition to the state as “insurgent democracy,” while Balibar maintains that “emancipation can be the work only of those whose rights are at issue.” (218) Second, they hold that politics is egalitarian. This is the central claim of Rancière’s politics and Balibar’s concept of “egaliberty” (égaliberté), while Abensour detects in Clastres’s account of indigenous societies against the state the centrality of conflict within political space: “the primitive [sic] community does not tolerate the appearance of any difference that is likely to produce a cleavage within it—for example, the oppositions between rich and poor, exploiters and exploited, dominators and dominated”; through war, this community “continues to ward off, to prevent, the manifestation of a figure of the One [the state] that is external to the community, removing itself from the community in order to embody it.” (105) Finally, for all three thinkers, politics involves the emancipation of political subjects from domination, be it that of the state, economic exploitation, or policing. A closer examination of their respective approaches to politics, however, reveals key differences between them.

As James D. Ingram points out, Balibar differs from other radical democratic theorists because his political thought has been developed through a persistent engagement with Marxism rather than the outright rejection of a Marxism reduced to a form that is deterministic, economistic, or anti-political (i.e., the interpretation of politics as a symptom, expression, or superstructure of more fundamental economic processes). In contrast to these versions of Marxism, Balibar argues that politics is autonomous from other social forms (such as economic structures) insofar as it cannot be reduced to them. He contends that modern emancipatory politics, as formulated in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, demands the realization of egaliberty: the simultaneous realization of equality and liberty. The Declaration does not merely define whether or not given individuals have rights within a political community (as Rancière argues, against Arendt, individuals do not have rights; political subjects enact them). Instead, on Balibar’s account, by identifying the rights of man with the rights of the citizen, the Declaration abolishes distinctions between so-called civil, political, and social rights. Thus, for Balibar, the “Declaration declares all denials of anyone’s freedom or equality illegitimate.” (218)

Unlike other Marxist accounts of rights, Balibar introduces an egalibertarian account of rights as the normative core of emancipatory politics. His account of egaliberty, though, cannot be categorized as a variety of liberalism either. Rights are not distributed “from above” by government institutions; they can only be enacted by “those whose rights are at issue.” (218) Therefore, for Balibar, “egalibertarian politics is by definition waged against the state and existing juridical categories, and bears an essential relation to ‘negativity,’ even ‘insurrection.’” (217) Where Balibar differs from Abensour or Rancière is in his attempts to conceptualize the obstacles and impediments—such as nationalism, racism, and “ethnicization”—to instituting egaliberty. Indeed, by conceptualizing radical democracy through Marxist critique, Balibar stands out for his “unflagging attention to the difficulty of ‘democratizing democracy,’ to the obstacles to thinking and realizing it.” (211) Yet there is concern in Ingram’s account that conceptualizing the politics of emancipation in relation (even if this relation is opposition) to existing institutions and the ideological state apparatuses that impede “democratizing democracy” carries the risk that emancipatory politics could come to be inflected by the language of liberalism. The risk, for example, of Balibar’s recent work on civility, in which he conceptualizes how institutions could function as instruments of emancipatory politics, is that the language of civility could ensnare his project within a project of building consensus for political justifications.

By contrast, both Abensour and Rancière explicitly reject political philosophy’s task of offering justifications for domination and inequality. Rancière sees the processes of consensus and justification, and much of what is considered to be politics (voting, deliberating, governing), as the policing of society. For Rancière, no political justification can be offered for inequality; instead, the inequalities of any given social and political order are contingent and arbitrary. He argues that policing relies upon the supposition that there are two orders of humanity—those who rule and those who must be ruled. Politics, by contrast, enacts the presupposition of intellectual equality.

Rachel Magnusson’s account of Rancière’s presupposition of equality is one of the most concise and incisive that I’ve read. Magnusson argues, persuasively in my view, that Rancière’s declaration of the equality of intelligences must be interpreted literally and not figuratively. She cites a passage from Todd May’s essay “Rancière in South Carolina” as an example of a figurative interpretation. May claims that the equality of intelligences “has nothing to do with standardized tests or with the ability to do advanced math or physics. Instead, it has to with the ability of people to shape their lives.” (Quoted at 204) According to Magnusson, the caveat that equality “has nothing to do…with the ability to do advanced math or physics” undermines the subversive and disruptive force of Rancière’s declaration of intellectual equality. To concede that there are some forms of expertise that fall outside the ambit of intellectual equality contravenes Rancière’s literal point that the declaration of equality demands of us to act as if all human beings are equally intelligent. She asks:

what if we operated in teaching and in the world as if we were all, really and truly, equally intelligent—in other words, if we operated precisely on the assumption that we are all equally capable of learning any subject matter, including “advanced math or physics”? What if we believed that there were not people who were “just smarter”—and thus might deserve more riches, power, voice, and so on—but that in fact anyone was capable of learning anything? (205)

To underline the disruptive force of the presupposition of equality, she points toward the workers of Proletarian Nights, such as Gabriel Gauny, who asserted that they, too, were artists, poets, and philosophers. If we treat this assertion figuratively, their intellectual endeavors would demonstrate that they had the capacity to shape their lives as they saw fit. However, the figurative reading blunts the subversive sting of Rancière’s reading: these workers became artists or intellectuals; they both subverted the social categories that distinguished between those whose task it is to think and those whose task it is to work and they undermined the distinctions between what counts as art, poetry, or philosophy, and what is merely the derivative non-knowledge of autodidacticism and craft. Indeed, in support of Magnusson’s argument, I would point to the still underappreciated passages in Proletarian Nights where Rancière treats Gauny’s account of panopticism and surveillance as a corrective to Foucault’s. (Rancière 2012, 87–91)

Like Rancière, Abensour dispenses with the task of justification. In his essay, “The Counter-Hobbes of Pierre Clastres,” Abensour argues that the process of justification—when political philosophy deliberates over which rights should be exchanged for so-called social peace—rests on a mistaken assumption about social relations. This assumption has been inherited from Hobbes, who not only opposed society to the state of nature, but also identified the state with society and the state of nature with presociality. In other words, for Hobbes, sociality is only possible through the state, while war and conflict (recall that Hobbes treats political conflict—factionalism—as an internal form of war) is presocial. Clastres, Abensour contends, effects a “Copernican revolution” in political thought. Clastres concedes that war is “the permanent state of primitive society,” but war is a complex set of social relations that wards off or prevents the institution of the state. Thus, for Clastres, “primitive”—indigenous—societies are societies against the state. (110)

Abensour, in my view, seeks to recover a counter-Hobbesian tradition of political thought that thinks, in a formulation that evokes Clastres, democracy against the state. Hence, for Abensour, we cannot assume the necessity of the social body and then explain how plurality arises within it. Instead, the fact of social plurality (of individuals, groups, etc.), and thus social division, must orient political thought. As Martin Breaugh notes, “the idea of social division and of conflict as a motor of freedom permeates Abensour’s work; it even offers his work its distinct flavor.” (237) From this supposition, Abensour traces a counter-Hobbesian tradition that emphasizes the relation between social conflict and emancipation, running from Machiavelli and La Boétie, through Montaigne, Spinoza, and Rousseau, to Marx.

But his research extends beyond the canonical figures of Western political thought; while it might initially appear contradictory, one of his major fields of interest is 19th- and 20th-century utopian thought. Breaugh’s chapter highlights the importance of this dimension of Abensour’s work, which, I am told, is currently being translated into English. Abensour argues that utopian thought from the 19th century forward can be classified in three categories: “utopian socialism” (including Saint-Simon, Fourier, and Owen), “neo-utopianism” (Louis Blanc, Edward Bellamy, and Étienne Cabet), and the “new utopian spirit” arising with Pierre Leroux and “born of a self-critique of the utopian movement, in reaction to the failures of neo-utopianism and to the radical critique of neo-utopianism by Marx and Engels.” (246) For Abensour, the “new utopian spirit” forges a path between utopia and democracy. He argues that emancipation must be both utopian and democratic. Emancipation is utopian insofar as it institutes the social bond as plurality and difference; it is democratic insofar as it irrupts against the state and its apparatuses of domination and oppression. The “new utopian spirit,” as Breaugh suggests, describes more than a historical or theoretical movement. It also imbues what Abensour has at points called a “hermeneutics of emancipation,” the “politics of reading,” and a “utopian disposition”: the politics of emancipation, and more specifically its utopian character, Breaugh writes, “serves as a reminder that the quest for a free political regime, a regime of non-domination, is a never-ending one and that we must accept to live within the ‘gap’” of social plurality. (249)

Certainly, this regime cannot be a regime in the currently accepted sense of the term. However, Abensour speaks, in Democracy against the State, of the possibility of politics instituting emancipation. As Paul Mazzocchi suggests in his contribution to Thinking Radical Democracy, Abensour’s concept of institution draws on the later Merleau-Ponty, positing it “as an experiential and practical matrix, possessed by an ‘imaginative dimension, one of anticipation, which in itself has the potential to engender customs, or rather attitudes and behaviours, consistent with the emancipation it announces.’” (82) This concept of institution, in my view, bears some similarity to Rancière’s account of how politics and aesthetics transform what he calls a given “distribution of the sensible.” Thus while Abensour conceptualizes democracy against the state, and while Rancière conceptualizes politics against policing, they need not concede that their politics is merely oppositional; instead, they maintain that political struggle must be socially transformative.

Thinking Radical Democracy is an important intervention in contemporary debates concerning political thought; it demonstrates both the historical roots of radical democratic theory and the respective merits of the work of Abensour, Balibar, and Rancière. One aspect of the book, and radical political thought, though, that remains to be interrogated is the distinction between politics (la politique) and the political (le politique). Though the editors, at points, treat the terms as synonyms (13–14), the difference between politics and the political plays an important role—for different reasons—in the work of Arendt (38), Lefort (124–125), Castoriadis (156), and, as I’ve pointed out in a review of Democracy against the State, Abensour. Broadly speaking, each of these figures treats the political as the ontological foundation of society or community, while politics is its particular expression; that is, the political is the essence of community that precedes its existence. As Rancière argues, prioritizing “the political” assumes that it is possible to demarcate a space proper to politics before politics takes place, opening the possibility that defining the political—consider, here, Arendt’s distinction between labour, work, and political freedom—comes to police politics. Like Rancière, I think politics is an-archic; politics is not foundational, but rather the demonstration that all foundations are historically contingent. The existence of politics precedes its essence, which is to say: there is no essence of politics, only its existence in emancipatory practices.

Additional Works Cited

Rancière, Jacques (2009), Hatred of Democracy, (tr.) Steve Corcoran (London: Verso).

––––. (2012) Proletarian Nights, (tr.) John Drury (London: Verso).