I read Ranciere's Hatred of Democracy yesterday. There is something appealing in his discussion of the scandal of democracy, although, ultimately, I'm not convinced of his underlying thesis.
What's appealing? Ranciere's emphasis on chance (he gets here via a reading of Plato). The drawing of lots attests to a form of government that allows a role for chance, that is, for those with no claim to rule actually to rule. Ranciere argues, then, that democracy is well understood as a law of chance.
I find this idea quite provocative, and, yes, a scandal. It reminds me that insofar as there is no entitlement to govern--complete idiots have as much right to rule as anyone--democracy has this wonderfully irreverent core (I'm tempted to call it democracy's 'being there' in an effort to cite the Peter Sellers film somewhat against the grain in which it is typically invoked). This scandal thumbs its nose at theorists, intellectuals, and ideologists who focus on principles and premises. It moons the consistent and snickers at the ethical--for democracy rests on neither consistency nor ethics but on an absence, an absence of foundations and guarantees, in other words, on chance.
But, Ranciere links this chance to equality in a way I don't quite get. He points out thatt the heart of democracy there is a fundamental contingency that cannot be effaced by aristocracy or expertise. Even the rich and old, in order to rule, require a supplement to their power:
Their power must become a political power. And a political power signifies in the last instance the power of those who have no natural reason to govern over those who have no natural reason to be governed. The power of the best cannot ultimately be legitimated except via the power of equals.
Politics, it seems, requires that power be justified. And this requirement, seems for Ranciere, to involve not something like free consent (as in the liberal tradition) but rather equality:
[there is] no force that is imposed without having to justify itself, and hence without having to recognize the irreducibility of equality needed for inequality to function. From the moment obedience has to refer to a principle of legitimacy, from the moment it is necessary for there to be laws that are enforced qua laws and institutions embodying the common of the community, commanding must presuppose the equality of the one who commands and the one who is commanded. ... Inegalitarian society can only function thanks to a multitude of egalitarian relations.
I'm not sure I follow this. If equality refers to the element of chance (it could me or you, him or her), then there is an equalizing force here. You could be the one commanded; I could be the one commanding. But, is this the same as a principle of legitimacy? It could be-- a friend of mine, Rainer Forst, argues for a right to justification. So, perhaps Ranciere has something like that in mind--as soon as a legitimation must be offered, as soon as grounds for obedience are required, then equality slips in--if men have to tell women why they are incapable of reason, then women must be capable of reason. But, does this apply to command: the general tells the private to shoot--does this rely on an underlying supposition of equality between the commanded and the commander? In other words, is Ranciere's last sentence above sensical? I'm inclined not to think so--yet, I confess that the more I try to think of examples to counter, the more promising the idea becomes: justification and legitimacy presuppose an underlying equality.
Yet, isn't it the case that most inequalities persevere unjustified and illegitimate? Without anyone even bothering to explain them? And, couldn't it be that the very explanations/justifications rely on inequality: oh, my wealth is fully justified--I work hard and you are a lazy drug addict. So, here, the equality to which Ranciere appeals is trivial and damning, a means of cementing the more fundamental inequality.
Ultimately, I'm not persuaded of Ranciere's argument overall because, for all it hope, its makes democracy into a given. Democracy is not a form of government or a form of society (he argues):
Democracy can never be identified with a juridico-political form. This does not mean it is indifferent to such forms. It means that the power of the people is always beneath and beyond these forms. Beneath, because these forms cannot function without referring in the last instance to that power of incompetents who form the basis of and negate the power of the competent, to this equality which is necessary for the functioning of the egalitarian machine [I love that]. Beyond, because the very forms that inscribe this power are constantly reabsorbed, through the play itself of the governmental machine...
Democracy is a constitutive force, one that state power tries to organize, control, contain, direct, and diminish. So, it is primarily resistance and response, perhaps a kind of excess and overflow. This is likely satisfying to some activist mentalities, forever critical; but it avoids responsibility for power and for instantiating particular kinds of organization, control, containment, direction, and diminishment.