Rancière and Democratic Equality

I wrote this essay for a “Contemporary Democratic Theory” class several years ago. It covered a lot of topics that I don’t think about too much anymore, but I enjoyed writing it and am posting it here largely for my own reference.

Contemporary debates over democratic theory often center on questions of political subjectivity, of who should be included in democracy and how that inclusion should function. The deliberative democracy of Iris Young, for example, attempts to expand modes of democratic participation to turn back the tides of political apathy and exclusion. Chantal Mouffe, on the other hand, calls for a radical ‘agonistic’ democracy which seeks to maximize disagreement against the risk of stale ‘consensus.’ Against both of these positions, I consider a democratic politics concerned not with particular models of subjectivity or participation, but with the relation through which democratic citizens rule and are ruled. For Jacques Rancière, democratic politics begins with a presupposition of equality, from which political relations emerge that do not rely on any qualifications for rule or participation.

Rancière attempts to move beyond traditional political institutions in a radical manner, arriving at a conceptualization of politics located in a time and place prior to the establishment of regimes of power’s exercise and distribution. Citing Aristotle, Rancière proposes that political theory is built upon the “part-taking” of governance, in which political rule is distinguished from other kinds of rule by an equivocal relationship between its oppositional terms of ‘ruler’ and ‘ruled’ (Rancière 2001). For Aristotle, the citizen partakes of the capacity both “to rule and be ruled,” establishing a relationship of reciprocity between both ends of the act of ruling (Aristotle, 72). Politics, in Rancière’s view, is focused on what form the relationship between ‘rulers’ and the ‘ruled’ takes, in the “difference” between these “contradictory terms” (Rancière 2001). This opposition is “paradoxical” because is built upon an uncertainty not unlike the classic chicken-and-the-egg problem. After all, the ruler is legitimized from the consent of the ruled, and the ruled are identifiable because someone or something rules over them. Each term derives its meaning from the other, without which it would lack all significance. The paradox arises because one side of the equation would have to be established first, or forced, to get the other: either the ruler precedes the ruled, meaning the ruled had no say in the matter, or the ruled preceded the ruler, which would suppose that the selection or identification of the ruler occurred arbitrarily and without rule. For Rancière, the way this paradox, or “knot,” is resolved is definitive, for this resolution implies a fundamental “relation” between ruler and ruled that comes to produce the subject who participates in political institutions.


Already, this yields startling conclusions about traditional political theory. For Rancière, political philosophies always presuppose a certain notion of the subject, the basic unit of political participation, and proceed by ascribing certain traits to that subject. Classical democracy, for example, considers the individual person to be the basic political subject, and that person exercises their subjectivity by voting. It is important, however, to recognize the contingent and particular character of this notion. It is entirely possible, in other words, to imagine political subjectivity in completely different forms. In the People’s Republic of China, for example, only members of the Communist Party have standing to vote for major national positions. We could even imagine forms of government in which groups, and not individuals, are the basic political units. Karl Marx’s ‘revolutionary subject,’ for example, is not an individual, but the entire working class, whose interests are intelligible only collectively. These examples illustrate that articulations of political subjectivity do not rely on some pre-existing aspect of a person or group that makes them a subject; rather, the subject is made when political theory selects an aspect of an individual or group and defines subjectivity in that term. What is selected and how that selection occurs determines how political philosophy takes shape. In a Marxist lens, for example, John Locke’s claim that individuals have a ‘natural’ right to property authorizes a government designed to protect capitalist interests. Conversely, Marx’s claim that capitalism ‘alienates’ persons from their ‘species-being’ inaugurates a political subject understood as free from property. This should tell us that there is no neutral or natural political subject, but only subjects produced through definition and articulation.

This is not to suggest that the subject is simply invented out of nothing, but rather that the way in which it comes to be matters more than its particular content. For Rancière, political subjectivity is founded when “identities defined in the natural order of the allocation of functions” are “transformed” into political relevance, meaning the subject’s establishment relies on some prior aspect of existence like sex or class (Rancière 1999, 36). Therefore, the particular traits used to construct identities, such as a particular configuration of chromosomes, do have some real existence outside of their political qualification. However, these traits must be converted, in a sense, for them to take on any political character. Specifically, individual characteristics become political when they are the basis for any form of exclusion from community. The political subject is precisely the “supplementary part” to the community, the “part of those who have no-part” of political rule, who make up the ‘people’ (Rancière 2001). Rancière stresses that this ‘part’ is “abstract” and “empty,” meaning that there is no single description that can capture all the ways in which persons are excluded, or at least that this description has yet to be seriously offered.


Given that politics may “count the parties and parts of communities in different ways,” it is important to note that this exclusion does not refer just to specific partitions of particular individuals. Rather, it can also cut through persons, in the sense that one aspect of an individual (say, their race) might be adequately counted by the community while other aspects (their sexuality, for example) might not be. The existence of this gap between the totality of the social body (which is the sum not only of all persons but also of all properties of those persons) and the officially constituted community is a “rupture of the logic of arche” because it displaces the grounds upon which the ruling/ruled relationship is legitimized. If this supplement is not adequately represented or counted, then its government lacks any basis for authority over it.

It is in this un-counted space that we find Rancière’s clearest definition of politics, as the act of bringing exclusions to light through “dissensus” (Rancière 2001). Politics interrupts the normal and unassuming procedure of community by pointing out inadequacies and instantiations of ignorance. Where community appears to be whole and all-inclusive, dissensus brings to light the “presence” of another group which has not been given due consideration. The Occupy Wall Street protests, for example, took on political form by reconfiguring supposedly neutral spaces to signify the dissensus between the so-called 99%, representing ‘Main Street,’ and the corporate and financial interests that it claimed had gained de facto control over American government. The ‘presence’ of this dissensus, while literally instantiated in the ‘occupation’ of Zuccotti Park and other public spaces, must also be seen in figurative terms: the movement attempted to characterize as unequal not only these spaces, but also the banks, corporate headquarters, and stock exchanges in which class inequality is produced, as well as the immaterial networks through which transactions and exchanges occur.


Against this, Rancière describes “the police,” the force which opposes politics (Rancière 2001). Whereas politics is the process through which the ‘part of no-part’ is brought to our attention, ‘the police’ is a “partition of the sensible” which denies the existence of any excess or supplement to the community. Rather than being merely repressive, ‘the police’ is a positive apparatus tasked with marking out the “modes of perception” through which the “forms of part-taking” are understood. In other words, the police demarcate the way in which participation is authorized by defining the “symbolic constitution of the social” as complete and lacking of any supplement. This, in turn, shapes the process by which private spaces, or “exclusive parts,” are distinguished from the common. Whereas politics consists in making visible the supplement which has no part, policing divides up social space, giving specified functions to each part, leaving no remainder or void. We can find police-work throughout our previous example of Occupy Wall Street. While Occupy functioned by taking spaces and making them political, the police is the force which denies this, which tells everyone to move along, because “there is nothing to see here” (Rancière 2001). Where politics had sprung up by proclaiming “the presence of two worlds in one,” the police counter with a more simple narrative, that everything is fine, and that nothing is happening. However, the police are not simply people with blue shirts and badges, or even riot gear; as a symbolic force, the police are also the pundits and politicians who decried the protestors as non-political ‘dirty, unemployed hippies.’ Just as Rancière’s politics is not reducible to the formal institutions we normally think of as ‘political,’ so too is the police not simply the legal arm of those institutions, but a process working throughout the social body to conceal dissensus. The way politics and police duel over the sensible manifestation of exclusion and partition undergirds a critical point for Rancière: politics is not formal or procedural, but instead is primarily a disruption or expansion of what is “visible” and “sayable” within the political community (Rancière 2001).

We may better understand Rancière’s account of political partitioning by contrasting it with similar work from radical democrat Chantal Mouffe. For Mouffe, any purportedly objective account of the social body is constructed “through acts of power,” or as “hegemonic” articulations (Mouffe, 21). Identities are contingent, not pre-given, and thus can be defined only against some “constitutive outside,” a manifestation of difference that is excluded to construct a commonality to build community upon. Following German legal theorist Carl Schmitt, Mouffe claims that democracy requires the identification of “substantive equality,” or some aspect common to all in the community, to form the basis for legitimate ‘friendship’ or government (Mouffe, 38). If this equality is to be properly political, however, it must be identified through a “distinction” between itself and something else, an ‘adversary’ against which the community unites (Mouffe, 40). For example, what it means to be an American presupposes a non-American identity, a foreign element which is different from us in some fundamental way. That difference is the basis for American political union; without it, in one form or another, there would be no political at all.

Alongside Rancière, then, political community is always contingent and empty for Mouffe, lacking any definite content outside of the constitutive relations of power from which it emerged. However, while Mouffe treats this incompleteness as a necessary and structural principle of politics, Rancière sees it merely as a “provisional accident” of history (Rancière 2001). In this way, for Rancière, Mouffe effectively shuts down the political by accepting the relation of arche through which political subjects are formed. In other words, she locates politics at the level of identity formation, and not in the logic of differences which prefigures how and through what means identity formation occurs. The consequences of this move are disconcerting. Accepting the political relationship prescribed by modern democracy as an ironclad limitation to politics makes weak reformism appear radical; this attempt to undo the aforementioned “knot” of politics by naturalizing the way modern subjects relate politically reduces politics to a matter of, in Mouffe’s words, “multiple and competing forms of identifications” (Mouffe, 56). This dream of “pure politics” confines politics to the terms of state rule, unable to challenge the relations that enable particular exercises of power in the first place (Rancière 2001). Put simply, Rancière places into question the idea that democracy requires an inside and an outside at all.


Mouffe, of course, is hardly the first theorist to unwittingly conserve inequality in political thought. For Rancière, policing is present at the heart of all classical political philosophy, beginning with the ancient categorization of ‘political life’ as distinguished from other forms of life. Plato’s “anthropological conception” of the philosopher-king, a “type of man” specifically qualified for political rule, becomes the theoretical basis upon which all modern political thought proceeds (Rancière 2001). Noting with irony that democracy as an idea was “invented by its opponents,” Rancière suggests that these qualifications of political life are exclusionary in intent; the Ancients considered rule of the people to be unpredictable, anarchic, and dangerous, and devised categories of life to separate the ‘rabble’ from “those who know.” In particular, for Aristotle, humans rise above animals on account of their possession of “logos,” the capacity for communication of higher concepts like justice and injustice, whereas animals make noise only to express pleasure, displeasure, and the like. At first glance, this may appear highly egalitarian, because all humans are supposed to possess such a capacity, and so a community founded on such qualifications would be incapable of excluding anyone. Rancière, however, is concerned that the distinction between animal noise and human language is exceedingly blurry in practice. Whether you “are in the presence of an animal possessing the ability of the articulate language” (in other words, a “human,” a “political animal”) is something that you ‘just’ “know,” says Rancière sarcastically, as if recognition is instinctive or self-evident (Rancière 2001). The inference, of course, is that the difference between ‘speech’ and ‘noise’ is highly relative, so speech can easily be misunderstood as noise, and vice versa. In fact, as Rancière cautions, “[if] there is someone you do not wish to recognize as a political being,” presumably for reasons of personal or ideological interest, then you will consciously or unconsciously fail to hear what they say as speech, to effectively silence their perspective (Rancière 2001).   In this way, exclusion becomes as simple as denying the presence of any logos, painting the concerns of the ‘part of no-part’ as mere noise which reasonable persons have no need to listen to.

In formulating an alternate account of democracy emphasizing public deliberation, Iris Marion Young details a few exemplary ways in which present-day political institutions close their ears to excluded groups. In her opinion, political exclusion can be roughly categorized as either “internal” or “external,” where the latter refers to ways identities are “purposely or inadvertently left out of fora for discussion and decision-making,” and the former, which she takes as her focus, refers to when the assumptions underpinning discussion give undue preference to certain “assumptions,” “styles of expression” and forms of “order” (Young, 53-54). Contemporary democratic thought’s preference for argument, for example, wherein democratic deliberation proceeds through the exchange and elaboration of reasons or justifications underlying particular positions, presupposes the possibility of “shared discursive frameworks” upon which these reasons could be compared (Young, 37). In theory, this mode of reasoning, just like Aristotle’s logos, is sufficiently abstract that anyone, regardless of social location, could adequately voice their concerns within it. Unfortunately, for Young, the “heterogeneity of human life and the complexity of social structures” overwhelms any possibility for wholly inclusive reasoning. A specific example is the norm of “articulateness” present in public culture today (Young, 38). While political institutions affect everyone, political language is expected to proceed through a specific mode of speech that is inaccessible for many in society, because their socioeconomic standing makes it difficult or impossible to attain education sufficient to give them the requisite vocabulary for politics. Public discourse is also expected to be “dispassionate” and neutral in tone, in which speakers remain formal and composed (Young, 39). This expectation denies the possibility that certain grievances may be of such an extremity to warrant precisely the kinds of outbursts that may seem ‘unprofessional’ and informal. It also relies upon a binary between reason and emotion, implicitly placing the latter alongside falsity and untrustworthiness. Each of these norms, moreover, emerge out of particular positions of social privilege; the upper-middle class, straight, white, and male subject is precisely the one who is best equipped to excel within these norms, while success for other groups is much more difficult. Women, for example, are often denigrated as ‘creatures of emotion,’ lacking the logical capacities necessary for responsible political participation and rule. Just as Rancière sees formulations of subjectivity as reflecting particular social and material circumstances, Young stresses the way these norms are not arbitrary or random, but tend to confirm and reproduce certain social privileges.

Despite these difficulties, Young is not willing to give up on the core ideals of deliberative democracy. The aforementioned complexities and inequalities present today demand, for her, a politics committed to expanded inclusion, in both discursive and institutional dimensions. While speech norms may exclude particular groups, she considers them redeemable and open to reform, starting with the addition of three additional modes and aspects of political dialogue: greeting, rhetoric, and narrative. Greeting, first, imposes an obligation of acknowledgement, in which political dialogue takes on an element of “vulnerability” and “exposure” to difference through the simple act of hailing the other and audibly recognizing their legitimacy as an interlocutor (Young, 58). Greetings express the possibility of dialogue characterized by “politeness” and “deference,” and can be adapted for a litany of communicative contexts (Young, 60). Second, rhetorical flair allows for ideas to be expressed persuasively without reliance on the kinds of expert knowledge and logical reasoning that reflect and produce social privilege. Honest, direct political speech may allow issues to be raised that would otherwise be ignored. Rhetoric can also be adapted to make political discussions more accessible to their target audiences. Third, narrative and other alternatives to the strict ‘giving of reasons’ provides a way to, essentially, make arguments without the form of argumentation, by providing a basis for dialogue between persons that otherwise lack “sufficiently shared understandings” for pure exchange of reasons (Young 70). When different people possess socially determined modes of reason that seem nearly incommensurable, self-narration may provide a capable surface to make particular social goals more intelligible to others. For example, a wealthy male CEO may think little of social programs like food stamps because he has never lived in squalor himself. Mere reasoning about the structural nature of poverty may fail to persuade him, because he feels as if anyone should be able to accomplish the things and achieve the successes that he has. Narration of the vicious and cyclical lifestyle borne on a daily basis by those suffering from economic hardship, however, may overcome his ‘well-reasoned’ positions to the contrary by making what seemed abstract appear very immediate and intelligible.

While these adjustments to deliberation may seem appealing in their own right, it is important, from the perspective of a thinker like Rancière, to understand them in context of the political positions which they presuppose. Returning, for a moment, to Young’s distinction of ‘internal’ and ‘external’ modes of exclusion may bring into focus the point at which her vision of democracy falls back into the terrain of Rancière’s police order. While Young considers internal exclusion more worthy of discussion on account of a relative lack of philosophical attention, Young ultimately grants that external exclusions “more fundamentally impede political equality” than internal exclusions, because the former makes discussion impossible, while the latter makes it, at worst, ineffective (Young, 56). Implicit here is a concept of democratic political dialogue as a definite “process” occurring in particular formal spaces to which everyday non-political life is literally ‘external’ (Young, 55). However, if politics is a question of presupposed relations, as it is for Rancière, then we might be curious about why Young feels it necessary to divide life into ‘political’ and ‘non-political’ terms at all. While she endeavors to expand political discussion, this expansion still rests on a divide between politics and society, to which Young attaches so much importance that being able to show up to the conversation at all takes precedence over how that conversation proceeds.

It is in her acceptance of this social-political opposition that Young reaffirms the same anthropological qualifications that Rancière criticizes in Plato and Aristotle. As we have seen, the Platonic republic is founded on a purification of the political, in which sociological description is deployed to keep undesirable social elements out of government. Just as the Ancients qualified political life in specific terms, social life is also defined to demarcate spaces and establish particular norms of rule and practice. If all of politics follows from how political relations are conceived, then accepting the principle of social and political qualifications effectively rigs the conversation in advance. The legitimacy of exclusive political partitioning remains intact, so deliberation becomes merely a question of rearranging those partitions. For Rancière, this is just subtle policing. Authentic politics “requires a rupture in the idea that there are dispositions ‘proper’ to” qualifications of political subjectivity, and is therefore averse to piecemeal efforts toward inclusion (Rancière 2001). Specifically, democratic dialogue cannot simply be a project of shifting the norms of political speech to make them more inclusive; politics is not a matter of overcoming deficiencies in mutual understanding, but in knowing “whether the subjects who count in the interlocution ‘are’ or ‘are not,’ whether they are speaking or just making a noise.” (Rancière 1999, 50). In this sense, we might consider Young’s articulations of the ways in which rational deliberation is exclusionary as politically useful not as opportunities for particular reforms, but as points through which the legitimacy of modern arche is disrupted. The challenge, however, is to think about her call for change in a way that reconfigures the existing logics of political rule. Anything less is merely policing with more effective communication skills.


The central problem of democracy, for Rancière, always returns to qualification. When political life is qualified in one way or another, borders on the political emerge in need of policing, and dissensus is stifled and denied. Democracy, then, is defined as the “complete absence of qualifications for governing” (Rancière 2001). Nothing about who rules or is ruled is predetermined in democracy; everything is left up to “pure chance.” Rather than requiring an equivalence between rulers and ruled, democracy is characterized by “an absence of reciprocity,” in which the logic of arche itself goes out the window. Democracy cannot be just another “political regime,” for this would require the return of policing to ensure that democracy remains pure and stable. Illusions of constitutional safety must be left behind. Instead, democracy is the “wrench of equality jammed… into the gears of domination,” the separation of policing and politics itself (Rancière 2011, 79).

One may object that a lack of qualifications for rule would permit any kind of political community, no matter how unfair. The point Rancière is making, however, is that this is true of every kind of politics: if the political subject is formed out of philosophical qualifications that are essentially arbitrary (and probably self-serving), then we are already ruled unjustly. Under police rule, our political autonomy is drawn up for us before we even get the chance to accept or deny it. Admittedly, there is “a worse and a better police,” but Rancière considers the latter to be the police who are blatantly unfair and corrupt, for the obvious injustice it engenders makes political response all the more lively (Rancière 1999, 31). The police of our modern democracies may seem “sweet and kind,” but it is accompanied by a generalized political lethargy, which makes it all the more contemptible.

We may understand Rancière’s democracy more clearly in contradistinction to that of Mouffe’s. For Mouffe, politics, understood as “the ensemble of practices, discourses and institutions” organizing social coexistence, is determined by prior assumptions about “the political,” the “dimension of antagonism that is inherent in human relations” (Mouffe, 101). The dimension of the political, formulated above in terms of constitutive exclusions, leaves two options for democracy: either democracy can deny its exclusivity and presuppose an ‘us’ for which no ‘them’ is opposed, or it can affirm this conflictual element and seek to construct ‘them’ not as an absolute enemy, but as an “adversary” to be afforded respect and legitimacy (Mouffe, 101-2). Mouffe defines this latter approach as the attempt to move from “antagonism” into “agonism” (Mouffe, 103). Agonistic democracy entails an acceptance of different ideas and positions as desirable for a lively and productive society. Any emergent consensus is considered temporary and open to further revision. Antagonistic democracy, on the other hand, is characterized by a denial of this constitutive relation of enmity, generally within the utopian presumption of a universal and all-inclusive model of consensus. In other words, antagonism is defined by its refusal to acknowledge the existence of social conflict. For Mouffe and Schmitt, this state of denial does not eliminate conflict; instead, it can lead not only to “apathy and disaffection,” but in displacing conflict from its occupation of the political, risks “an explosion of antagonisms that can tear up the very basis of civility” (Mouffe, 104). Denying social and political conflict, in other words, only causes it to return in more excessive and self-defeating forms. The consequences of this denial can be seen in the rise of moral and religious fundamentalisms, which refuse to even consider the possibility that ‘alternative’ lifestyle choices might be socially acceptable, as well as the mainstream left’s shift towards a ‘third-way’ politics which avoids any position that appears even remotely radical, sacrificing progressive principles for political expediency (Mouffe, 113-5). Only agonistic democracy, for Mouffe, provides the basis for a leftist politics that can adequately grapple with the difficulties inherent to the political.

third way

Mouffe would undoubtedly suggest that a democracy like Rancière’s is too far in the ‘antagonistic’ direction. Rancière, after all, likely considers Mouffe’s concept of the political to be historically contingent and non-necessary, as described above. For Mouffe, however, the idea that the political could ever be overcome is an “illusion,” because power relations inevitably return in more subtle and potentially violent forms (Mouffe, 21). Rancière’s democracy, in particular, might be seen as orderless and anarchic for the fact that it refuses to qualify individual subjects in political terms at all; no longer can there be authentic ‘allies’ and ‘adversaries,’ because such descriptions would entail a determination of life that would be policing and not politics. In the view of radical democracy, the fundamental logic of dissensus, that politics emerges in the moment that political relations are disturbed, is precisely the delimitation of enmity that risks reverting into a Hobbesian state of nature, in which everyone can potentially be the absolute enemy.

Once again, however, we must recall that all this follows from Mouffe’s fundamental assumption that conflict is the inescapable form of relation taken by the political, which Rancière vigorously denies. As we have seen, for Mouffe, equality is possible only in limited and particular terms, constructed on top of a prior relation of inequality. The conclusion we may draw is that inequality is what is fundamental; every instantiation of Mouffe’s politics presupposes and accepts inequality in one form or another. Rancière’s response is remarkably simple: he suggests that we presuppose equality instead. Equality is “not a given that politics then presses into service,” or any sort of identifiable essence (Rancière 1999, 33). Instead, equality is the surface upon which inequality is made possible, a kind of self-evident premise that provides the foundation from which everything political follows. It is always present, for example, in relations of unequal rule; for a ruled subject to obey a rule, he or she must first understand the rule, and also understand that the rule is to be obeyed (Rancière 1999, 16). This faculty of understanding implies for Rancière a prior equality present in every unequal relation. The work of dissensus, then, implies a presupposition of equality which is actualized in the demonstration and critique of particular instances of inequality and exclusion. Occupy Wall Street, returning to our earlier example, presupposes equality by questioning whether certain spaces should be qualified as ‘for the wealthy.’ If there is a normative element to Rancière’s political theory, it seems to lie here. Granted, equality is not just another ideal to be achieved, but exists as an “actuality” in the “history” and “tradition” of “emancipation,” of “the ongoing effort to recreate forms of the common” other than the state (Rancière 2011, 79-80). While his language can be abstract and difficult to navigate, one detects a very faint inclination here that the work of democratic politics is important, although it can be risky and unstable in practice.

Inequality originates in the qualifications of forms of life that demarcate a community and exclude ‘the people.’ Perhaps the problem with “jaded spirits” is that their profound pessimism about the prospects of emancipation and equality produce the same kinds of apathy and frustration that they seek to oppose (Rancière 1999, 33). Centering democratic politics on the question of the political relation working under the assumption of basic equality provides the impetus for optimistic vigilance against policing without throwing in the democratic towel.


Aristotle. (1998). C. Reeve (Ed.), Politics. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.

Mouffe, C. (2000). The democratic paradox. New York: Verso.

Rancière, J. (1999). Dis-agreement: Politics and philosophy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Rancière, J. (2001). Ten theses on politics. Theory & Event,5(3), Retrieved from https://muse.jhu.edu/journals/theory_and_event/v005/5.3ranciere.html

Rancière, J. (2011). Democracies against democracy. In W. McCuaig (Ed.), Democracy in what state? New York: Columbia University Press.

Young, I. M. (2000). Inclusion and democracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


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