Jacques Rancière Interview: “Democracy is not, to begin with, a form of State”

This is a translation of an interview with Jacques Rancière published in last Sunday’s Público. I have translated it from Spanish, which in turn was translated by the newspaper from French. 

I doubt the double translation makes a great deal of difference but thought I’d mention it nonetheless. I can’t remember if statal is a word in English but I’m to tired to check so let’s assume it is.

 I didn’t think Hatred of Democracy had made that much of an impression on me when I read it, in fact I’d sort of forgotten about it, but translating this interview I began to realise, given all the things that I naturally agreed with here, that in fact it made a pretty big impression.

Are we living a “political moment” in Europe? How would you describe this moment?

“In Europe, all the governments are applying the same programme of destruction of what is public.”

I would prefer to say that the conditions are being laid down for a moment in so far as we find ourselves in a situation in which it becomes more evident every day that national states only act as intermediaries to impose on the people’s the wills of an inter-statal power, which is in turn closely dependent on the financial powers. Almost everywhere in Europe, governments, of the left as well as the right, apply the same programme of systematic destruction of public services and all forms of solidarity and social protection that guaranteed a minimum of equality in the social fabric.  Almost everywhere, then, the brutal opposition is revealed between a small oligarchy of financiers and politicians, and the mass of the people subjected to a systematic precarity and dispossessed of its decison-making power, as has been put on display spectacularly in the matter of the referendum planned and immediately cancelled in Greece. Therefore there arise, it is true, conditions for a political moment, that is, for a scenario of a demonstration of the people against the apparatuses of domination. But for such a moment to come into existence, it is not enough for the circumstances to be there: it is also necessary that these be recognised by forces likely to turn this into a demonstration, once intellectual and material, and to turn this demonstration into a lever that is capable of modifying the balance of forces by modifying the very landscape of what is perceivable and what is thinkable.  

What do you think of the Spanish case in particular?

Europe throws up very different situations. Spain is definitely the country where the first condition has been fulfilled in the most obvious way: the 15-M movement has thrown into sharp relief the distance between a real power of the people and a set of institutions that are called democratic but in fact are completely under the control of the international financial oligarchy. The second condition is yet to arise: the capacity to transform a protest movement into an autonomous force not only independent of the statal and representative system, but at the same time able to drag that system under the direction of public life. In most European countries we are still far off the first condition.


“For a rebirth of politics collective organisations with their objectives and their media are needed.”

Are the 15-M and Occupy Wall Street movements politics?

These movements respond undoubtedly to the most fundamental idea of politics: that of the power possessed by those to whom no particular motive determines that they should exercise power, that of the manifestation of an ability which is that of any one. And they have materialsed this power in a way that also conforms to this fundamental idea: by affirming this power of the people through a subversion of the normal distribution of spaces: normally there exist spaces, such as the street, destined for the circulation of individuals and goods, and public spaces, such as parliaments or ministries, destined for public life and the treatment of common affairs. Politics is always manifested through a distortion of this logic. 

What should we do with the present political parties?

“The demonstrators today possess no horizon that gives validity to their battle. They are outraged.”

The political parties we know today are simply apparatuses intended for taking power. A rebirth of politics involves the existence of collective organisations that subtract themselves from this logic, that define their objectives and their own means of action, independently of statal agendas. Independently does not mean by losing interest in or acting as if these agendas did not exist. It means building one’s own dynamic, spaces of discussion and ways of circulating information, motives and ways of action directed, first of all, towards the development of an autonomous power to think and act. 

In May 68, people discussed the ideas of Marx.., but there does not seem to be any philosopher in the 15-M or OWS

As far as I know, both take an interest in philosophy. And we must remember the recommendation that the occupies of the Sorbonne in May of 68 gave to the philosopher who had turned up to support their cause: “Sartre, be brief.” 


When a collective intelligence affirms itself in the movement it is the moment of doing away with philosophical providers of explanations or slogans. It is not, in fact a matter of presences or absences of philosophers. It is a question of the existence or the inexistence of a vision of the world that naturally structures collective action. In May 68, although the form of the movement was far from the canons of Marxist politics, the Marxist explanation of the world functioned as the horizon of the movement: despite not being Marxists, the militants of May situated their action in the frame of a vision of history in which the capitalist system was bound to disappear under the blows struck by a movement led by its enemy, the organised working class. The demonstrators today no longer have a floor nor a horizon that gives historical validity to their battle. They are, firstly, outraged, people who reject the existing order without being able to consider themselves agents in a historical process. And this is what certain people take advantage of in order to denounce, in a self-serving way, their idealism or their moralism.


“Democracy is not a form of State. It is a power of the people, always in tension with the State”

You have written that during the last 30 years we have lived through a counter-revolution. Has this situation changed with these popular movements? 

Certainly, something has changed since the Arab Spring and the movements of the indignados. There has been an interruption of the logic of resignation before the historical necessity advocated by our governments and sustained by intellectual opinion.  Since the collapse of the soviet system, intellectual discourse contributed to back up the efforts of the financial and state powers to blow up the collective structures of resistance to the power of the market. This discourse had ended up imposing the idea that revolt was not only useless, but also harmful. Whatever the future might hold for them, the recent movements will have, at the least, put that supposed historical fatality into question. They will have served a reminder that we do not have to see things in terms of a crisis of our societies, but an extreme moment in an offensive intended to impose everywhere the most brutal forms of exploitation; and that it is possible that those who are the 99% make their voice heard when confronted with this offensive. 

What can we do to recover democratic values?

“The power of the citizens is the power to act for themselves, to have autonomous force”

To start off we would have to be agreed on what we call democracy. In Europe we have got used to identifying democracy with the double system of representative institutions and those of the free market. Today this idyll is a thing of the past: the free market can be seen increasingly as a force of constriction that transforms representative institutions into simple agents of its will and reduces the freedom of choice of citizens to variations of the same fundamental logic. In this situation, either we denounce the very idea of democracy as an illusion, or we rethink completely what democracy, in the strong sense of the word, means. Democracy is not, to begin with, a form of State. It is, in the first place, the reality of the power of the people that can never coincide with the form of a State. There will always be tension between democracy as the exercise of a shared power of thinking and acting, and the State, whose very principle is to appropriate this power. Obviously states justify this appropriation by citing the complexity of the prolems, the need to the long term, etc. But in truth, politicians are a lot more subjected to the present. To recover the values of democracy is, in first place, to reaffirm the existence of a capacity to judge and decide, which is that of everyone, against this monopolisation. It is also to reaffirm the necessity that this capacity be exercised through its own institutions, different from those of the State. The first democratic virtue is the virtue of confidence in the capacity of anyone.

In the prologue to your book you criticise politicians and intellectuals, but, what is the responsibility of the citizens in the current situation and in the economic crisis?

To characterise the phenomena of our times we must, first of all, call into question the concept of crisis. One speaks of a crisis of society, a crisis of democracy, and so on. It is a way of blaming the current situation on the victims. Now, this situation is not the result of a sickness of civilisation but of the violence with which the masters of the world direct their offensive against the peoples. The great fault of the citizens continues to be that of always: that of allowing oneself to be dispossessed of one’s power. Now, power of th citizens is, above all, the power for them to act for themselves, to constitute themselves into an autonomous force. Citizenship is not a prerogative linked to the fact of being registered as an inhabitant and voter in a countryl it is, above all, an exercise that cannot be delegated.  As such, it is necessary to oppose clearly this exercise of citizen action against the moralising discourses that can be heard nearly everywhere about the responsibility of the citizens in the crisis of democracy: these discourses deplore the lack of interest by citizens in public life and they blame it on the individualist drift of consumer individuals. These supposed calls for citizen responsibility  only have, in fact, one effect: to blame the citizens in order to capture them more easily within the institutional game that only consists of selecting, between members of the ruling class, those they would prefer to allow ro dispossess them of their power to act. 

“There is no particular role to be assigned today to culture as a global entity”

You are also a devotee of cinema and literature. What are the consequences of this crisis for culture? 

The current situationis a crisis of common values where the power of capital over society manifests itself in consumerist individualism. In this frame, culture is presented both as the threatened fabric of common edperience, invaded by mercantile values, and as the instance charged with providing a remedy for the effects of this invasion, by placing demands for autonomy for art in opposition to commercial aesthetics or by re-knitting the bedraggled networks of the social bond. From my point of view, capitalist power is exercised firstly from the top down, through statal policies which, with the pretext of fighting against the selfishness of privileged workers and individualist democrats, imposes, in the name of the crisis, a programme of subordination of all aspects of life in common to the laws of the market. The result is that there is no particular role to be attributed to culture as a global entity. And what dominates today on the scene are, to a larger extent, official cultural celebrations, and intellectual discourses which are supposedly critical but are really subordinated to official logic. 




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2 responses to “Jacques Rancière Interview: “Democracy is not, to begin with, a form of State”

  1. tamara

    thanks for this! would you know if the french version/original is available anywhere?

  2. Pingback: CrimethInc. – Direct Democracy or Self-Determination? | Robert Graham's Anarchism Weblog

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