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‘The Far Right Are Succeeding Again in Appealing to the Most Primitive Identity Symbols’

Jacques Ranciere interviewed in Chile about his work, contemporary politics and the rise of the far-right.

Jacques Rancière11 January 2019

‘The Far Right Are Succeeding Again in Appealing to the Most Primitive Identity Symbols’

A few days ago, Jacques Rancière (75) was in Chile, invited by the rector of the University of Valparaiso, which granted him a doctorate honoris causa. The afternoon he was about to leave, I visited him at his hotel on behalf of TheClinic, and we had a wide-ranging conversation, without guidelines or precise topics, which allowed the philosopher to expand on a large number of issues: the impulse of democratic movements in the early years of the new century and the dark counterpoint that recently followed with the victory of Donald Trump, the various configurations of the ‘people’, struggles for equality and the always imprecise borders between the performances of art and those of politics. Rancière is an atypical philosopher: far from the expected pauses for reflection that we usually recognize in a hesitant orator, he speaks at full speed, releasing bunches of phrases that explode one after the other, driven by a restless, snatched prose that he employs passionately to immerse himself in the matter to hand. His style is as sharp as it is simple, typical of those who reveal in philosophy a long and cherished association with equality as the presupposition of all politics.

Perhaps we should start with the ‘people’, a notion that the political-philosophy fashion of the 1990s had given up, but that several of your books reintroduced. Things were going well, the new century opened with movements, marches, Springs and intifadas, neoliberal democracies falling to pieces – and then suddenly we have the impeachment of Michelle Bachelet, Macri, Brexit, Le Pen, Donald Trump.

I believe that the century, as you say, began with a snowballing of democratic movements, movements that in some way tried to create a new idea of ‘the people’. That is my point. But my point is also that the people do not exist per se, this is not something in itself, but rather the effect of a construction: we are the people when we meet in a square, when we put forward our demands, but the constitution also creates a people, the media create a people, and so the question to be asked, the one that interests me at least, is what people we have now.

And what people do we have?

Well, I’d answer the question from the other side. I think that in countries such as France or the United States there has been a monopolization of this theme by a very small political class. Within that political class, the parliamentary right and left have become increasingly indistinguishable, have lost their specific characters and tend to be more or less the same today. At the same time, there are still those smaller movements that propose another idea of the popular, movements that generate the space for the enunciation of a ‘we’. This seeks to escape the ever-increasing integration of political power and financial power, so what we have again is a division between the political elite and all those who are excluded from the system.

But Trump speaks to a good part of these excluded, no matter how much we don’t like this.

Trump demagogically occupies an empty place: the place of a people unable to represent themselves. He pretends to represent deep America, in the same way that Marine Le Pen evokes ‘la France profonde’, when what they are actually doing is producing a kind of imaginary identification from above. We must not forget that the material of politics is the symbolic.

But in your writings the material of politics is rather palpable experience, the relationship between bodies, life in common. Here in Chile there is a radio program called ‘La comunidad de los iguales’,while our historians are mainly largely at present between those who still appeal to the voice of those who have no voice, and those who, like Miguel Valderrama, postulate a kind of post-history in which there is no longer any centre or axis, no horizon to be promised, a bit similar to how you put it in your fine book on Béla Tarr.

Yes, but I would not confuse what I wrote about Béla Tarr, a time of waiting or a time remote from the promises of history, with this imaginary of a post-historical or post-political nature that somehow ends up being functional to the politics of consensus. For me this is the ideology of those who monopolize power today, and the defenders of this ideology, regardless of what you say about post-history, know very well how to mask neoliberalism with this false policy of consensus. This fosters a belief in the end of politics or, even worse, that politics can ultimately be reduced to the management of power, when what happens rather is the conjunction between two phenomena: on the one hand, the far right simulate the embodiment of the people, strategically locating themselves outside the ‘establishment’ of the political class, while on the other hand, it reminds us that politics is not dead, that it needs symbols, it needs certain devices of collective symbolization. That is the first point.

And secondly?

Secondly, I think it is important to consider that neoliberalism today is not only an economic creed, it is also a global way of thinking. This global thinking involves the belief that a society can be founded on inequality. They have a hatred of equality, a contempt, as if equality were something infamous. But there is also a paradox here, since the word ‘neoliberalism’ is designed to pretend that politics is dead, whereas at the same time this same neoliberalism needs to be given a political aspect. What these elites maintain is something that I believe is not true: that politics can be reduced to the management of power and that community can be based on inequality.

Yes, but it was always a bit like that.

But the novelty this time lies in the fact that the far right are again being successful in their evocation of very primitive and elementary identity symbols, so that what is produced is a fusion between the identity symbols imposed by the far right and political faith in a programmed inequality. You will recall that until very recently in France, and also in the United States, the right refused to call themselves that.

Here they still refuse.

(Laughter.) They refuse? Well, they will unveil themselves, like they did before, whereas until recently they said things like ‘we’re the centre’, and they also said, however much it wasn’t true, that they believed in equality. What is new today is that these people all proclaim themselves right-wing and openly proclaim that they want inequality.

Trump actually says anything, he says almost everything that comes into his mind, which is actually experimental in a way, in the sense that it produces unpredictable connections. He is outside the establishment, he attacks the most powerful media, he denounces the unproductiveness of the financial system, he confesses his devotion to Putin, and so on. And at the same time, he calls for a return to a rather conventional identity that is far from any form of experimentation.

It is true what you say, Trump connects two forms of discourse that are normally antithetical: on the one hand he presents himself as triumphant, a champion, a businessman who represents the America of those who win against the America of the losers, and on the other he appeals to the excluded, those who have been abandoned by the political class. This generates a very unusual confluence between the triumphalist America and the America of those who suffer. Why do they suffer? Do they suffer because of the Mexicans, the Latinos, the immigrants? Trump has cleverly combined the two forms of American identity.

But I understand that at the same time politics for you doesn’t have much to do with this. It is not a matter of management or life, not even probably of power. In your work, politics is played out rather in the perpetual struggle between rich and poor.

Politics for me effectively consists in that struggle, that opposition, simply that rich and poor do not correspond to specific sociological categories or to specific social groups: they function rather in the symbolic structure of this opposition. Movements such as Occupy Wall Street, to give an example, result from the conjunction of many groups, many identities, many forms of subjectivation. In this sense, the place of the oppressed is heterogeneous, it is multiple, as you suggest, but at the same time these oppressed construct themselves in opposition to the neoliberal management of power.

That’s what happened to us with the student movement in 2011: it left its mark, it left an important mark, a transformed sensibility...

Certainly, because what we’re dealing with is a configuration that generates a new type of people as a collective symbol, people who come from very different horizons and yet occupy the same space, the same place. What they construct in this way is a sort of opposition to the official world, to politics understood as the management of power.

But isn’t there a certain conformism in viewing things in this way? Some people have come to see you as a kind of sophisticated social democrat.

(Laughter.) Social democrat? No, no, nothing further from my position!

Well, I know, I’m asking because having you here, I’d like to know first hand how you define yourself. As a non avant-garde communist, an anarchist, a left-wing populist?

I define myself as a radical democrat. Now, if the communism you refer to, even just the communism of humanity, meant anything, it would be a kind of radical democracy, just as anarchism would be a kind of radical democracy. I mean that what I am advocating is actually a radical implementation of equality, and this certainly has nothing to do with social democracy, which, as we know, is part of parliamentary politics. As far as populism is concerned, I think it is a very ambiguous concept, partly because, on the one hand, it refers to the people as a very important symbol of politics, while, on the other hand, it designates as we know a very specific form of relationship between the people and the leader.

And how do you apply this to the United States?

I think that what happened in the United States (and not only in the United States) was that politicians found it useful to create enemies of this kind: populism is the enemy, populism is what is on the other side and all who do not agree with those of us who currently wield power are actually populists. They thought it was smart to do this, and then what happened was Trump.

So for Rancière, left-wing populism is not good fortune.

As left-wing militants we could not speak of ‘populism’, since what is generally referred to by that name is the monopolizing of democratic forces by a charismatic leader, for example Cristina Kirchner, who clearly sought to govern by embodying the people. The little problem is that the people cannot be embodied.

No, of course not, but I was not referring to articulation or embodiment, rather the spontaneous proliferation of collaborative networks that operate away from large financial centres and the political establishment. The philosopher Rodrigo Karmy speaks of intifadas without guides or vanguards, and Kaurismaki calls all this ‘idyllic communism’, a communism that is immanent to the practices of bodies and does not correspond to any utopian horizon. You say this yourself in your preface to Blanqui’s Eternity by the Stars: ‘Communism is the equality of men who share the same knowledge of the heavens.’[2] It is a very interesting definition, which postulates in passing the indivisible character of intelligence: intelligence as something that was always common, and that anyone can use and subordinate to their will.

Well, of course, an intifada without a vanguard assumes that equality of intelligence is the basis of communism, and this means that what is at the basis of communism is this kind of creed, of faith, in an intelligence that is shared by all. This basis for me is confidence in each person’s ability and has nothing to do, for example, with Negri and Hardt’s idea of the general intellect or the supposedly common skills that the new technologies give rise to. I don’t think in this way, this is not what I mean, rather that communism is something constructed or woven at every moment, in every relationship. The point that interests me is that in each of these moments, in each type of relationship, in each instant, equality can be assumed or inequality can be reproduced. And so we either build a communist world or we reproduce the logic of inequality.

I couldn’t agree more. Equality is in any case for you an assumption, not a promise or something we aspire to conquer. It is a starting point, one that when exercised gives the impression of having a definitely performative character. When this happens, the logic of the spectacle gives way to that of the carnival, and something of this happened in Chile from 2011.

That is true, I believe we must consider all forms of creativity, all intelligences that are activated or exercised when the normal order of things is subverted. We are in some way the testimony of all those revolutionary movements, all those revolutionary times, all those revolutionary days when people do a multiplicity of things: performances, acts or parties whose unruliness undermines the forces of inequality. These are the moments when men, women, peoples can prove to themselves their ability to do things for which they were not supposed to have any capacity. But that is only one side of the matter; the other has to do with temporality, which you sum up very well in the figure of carnival.

But I guess you don’t like carnival.

No, it’s not that I don’t like it; the problem with carnival is that it’s a form of popular invention or popular subversion that responds to a certain institutionality. There is a time each year when men or women of the people become kings or queens and subvert the world, turn it around or upside down, but do so in a specific time. And for me that’s different from this capacity of people who show up at unexpected moments, without any programme or any schedule. Carnival is the time of the people, but after this time everyone goes home, goes back to work, back to their condition. What I think of these rituals is that they don’t have a really subversive effect, partly because for me what is involved in the suspension of the incapacity that others attribute to us is something quite different: it is the invention of a new temporality.

As in Proletarian Nights.

Exactly, from which I could take a rather incidental example: that ‘night of the proletariat’ began at the beginning of March and normally extended to the thirty-first, because after that, as we all know, April begins. But curiously here there was no April, but the thirty-second of March and then the thirty-third of March and so on. This is only incidental, but it illustrates this idea of the subversion of time or the invention of a new time.

But the carnival is underpinned by what all history has forgotten: the irruption of the egalitarian potentialities of popular traditions. Isn’t there a kind of collective performance that is precisely a theme of both art and politics?

Of course, because what is interesting within the movements and practices of peoples is precisely an indetermination between political performance and artistic performance. What we have is the idea of politics as a way of moving, a way of bodies arranging themselves, the demarcation of a temporal unit. This is equally present both in the most recent political movements and in the most recent artistic performances. And that’s why I think we should talk about two attempts that are very distinct: the first of these attempts is to put all the signifiers of politics on the stage of art, to recreate politics from the point of view of art; while the second consists in the ties or promiscuous relations that already exist between those forms that come from political protest and those that derive from artistic performance or invention. What I think about these practices is that they are indeterminate.

And the conjunction between them likewise.

And the conjunction too, a demarcation that is imprecise. And this I oppose to the artistic pretension to recreate the word of politics through the media of art.

Thank you very much, Rancière.

Interview by Federico Galende,[1] 4 December 2016. Translated by David Fernbach


[1] [The philosopher and writer Federico Galende is a professor at the University of Chile.]

[2] [Jacques Rancière, ‘The Radical Gap’, preface to Auguste Blanqui, L’Eternité par les astres, Radical Philosophy 185, May-June 2014.]