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Politics, Power, and Promises

Jacques Rancière explains the temporality of the promise and how it shapes our political reality.

Verso Books25 March 2021

Politics, Power, and Promises

An excerpt from On the Shores of Politics by Jacques Rancière, now 40% off until April 5 as part of our Spring Theory Sale. See all of the books in our Essential Rancière series.

The now ubiquitously bruited end of politics is readily described as the end of a particular period of time which is itself marked by a particular employment of time: the promise. Immediate political realities offer us a signal example of this. In 1981, we elected a new president of the Republic. At the time he made us a hundred and ten promises. Not a hundred - a hundred and ten. Excess is the essence of the promise. In 1988, we reelected him without inquiring how many of them he had kept. On the contrary, enlightened opinion praised him for the fact that this time - with a scant exception, to which I shall return - he did not make a single one. What this meant, so it was said, was that in seven years he and we had switched centuries. We were leaving behind the ‘dusty philosophical and cultural corpus’ of the nineteenth century, the century of the dream of the people, of promised communities and utopian islands, the century of a politics of the future which had opened up the abyss into which our own century had so nearly foundered. The new outlook of our candidate-president was supposedly that of someone who had finally seen the light, finally rounded the cape and entered the new century. For the original evil was the promise itself: the gesture which propels a telos of community, whose splintered parts rain back down like murderous stones. Politics was now going to renounce its long complicity with ideas of future times and other places. It would now end as a secret voyage to the isles of utopia, and henceforth view itself as the art of steering the ship and embracing the waves, in the natural, peaceful movement of growth of the pro-duction which reconciles the Greek phusis with the everyday art of pushing forward one step at a time; that production which the last, mad century ruined with its murderous use of the promise.

There is one particular idea about the end of politics that goes like this: secularize politics as all other activities affecting the production and reproduction of individuals and groups have been secularized; give up the illusions attached to power, to the voluntaristic representation of the art of politics as a programme of liberation and a promise of happiness. Give up the assimilation of political potestas to the imperium of some idea, some telos of the group; make it more akin to the power of the secularized activities of work, exchange and pleasure. Conceive of an exercise of politics synchronous with the rhythms of the world, with the buzz of things, with the circulation of energies, information and desires: a politics exercised altogether in the present, with the future being nothing but an expansion of the present, paid for, of course, by the requisite austerities and cutbacks. Such is the new sense of time to which we are now said to be acceding. At last, they tell us, we are entering the twentieth century - several decades late.

This is late and no mistake. And what a peculiar configuration modern times thus takes on. Our century has apparently spent the best part of its time being no more than the future - the nightmare - of the previous one. It has only caught up with itself, but identifying with the century to come. This two hundred-year gap is the time it has taken to get rid of the revolution, to destroy both the royal aspect of politics and the revolutionary aspect of its destruction, and so enter a homogenous time, a temporality relieved at last of the double royalty of past and future.

This time, which is no longer divided by promise, must be matched by a space freed of division. This space is ‘the Centre’ - meaning not one area that is central relative to others, but rather, generically, a new configuration of political space, the free development of a consensual force adequate to the free and apolitical development of production and circulation. But if it is easy to decree the beginning and ending of times, the empirical identification of this configuration poses other problems. The centre is ever elusive. The end of politics seems rather to split into two endings which do not coincide - the end of promise and the end of division - and virtually produce two politics of ‘the end of politics’: the party of the new time on the one hand and the part of the new consensus on the other. The French presidential election of 1988 epitomizes this. The defeated candidate had identified himself precisely with the idea of a new time. Opposite a candidate represented as the oldman of promise, of the nineteenth century, he laid claim to the youth of the century to come, the dynamism of enterprise pushing new things before it. He invited us to opt simply for youth as opposed to age, to accept the now obvious fact that the exercise of power qua right (potestas) and the unfettered development of power qua potency (potentia) were one and the same. He sought to reschackle his opponent to his abandoned promises, to make him own up to the very commitments he was trying to conceal by promising nothing at all, to confess that he was ineluctably a man of promise, a man who announced what he is powerless to achieve, who casts old things far ahead instead of pushing new things before him step by step. Thus, in opposition to the man of the old promise, to the old man of promise, who neither can nor dares own up to this, there stood, in the shape of the candidate-prime minister, the man of dynamism, the one who pushes new things before him, the young man who pushes young things, the appropriate winner to carry us as conquerors into the third millennium.

So what happens for such a ‘natural’ outcome to turn out so inconclusively? Very little. In face of the man who sought to capture potestas by means of potentia in order to lead us into the coming millennium, all it took was for the opponent to conjure up another boundary - not the horizon of a voyage but the brink of an abyss; for him to utter not a promise but the opposite of a promise. The very special kind of promise which I mentioned earlier: the candidate-president promised nothing but the worst - namely upheaval and civil war. Evoking this antipromise, which was assumed to have perished along with promise itself, he invoked the political to another end, another limit. And this was all he needed to negate the Two of promise versus potency, to affirm that he was there, in his very muteness, for one purpose only: to rally and preserve that property of Oneness which is alone capable of pulling society back from the brink of the abyss. Suddenly politics was no longer the art of advancing the energies of the world, but rather that of preventing civil war through a rational deployment of the One, of the call to unity. Apparently, multiplicity could not after all attain peace of its own accord. That such pacification might be arrived at spontaneously, through the ruin of the old dualisms, was a chimera. The relationship of the rallying One to the sundering Two was a function of an art, the art of politics, and of a virtue, the virtue of authority.


An excerpt from On the Shores of Politics by Jacques Rancière, now out in a new paperback edition.

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On the Shores of Politics

On the Shores of Politics

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These essays from the 1970s mark the inception of the distinctive project that Jacques Rancière has pursued across forty years, with four interwoven themes: the study of working-class identity, of ...

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