As a human being, you have no choice about the fact that you need a philosophy.


Politics, or the Lost Shepherd - Jacques Ranciere

We are led to understand, then, that the evil lies further in the past. The democratic crime against the order of kinship is above all political crime, that is to say, simply an organization of the human community without any relation to a God-the-father. Under the name democracy, what is being implicated and denounced is politics itself. Now, politics was not born with modern unbelief. Before the Moderns cut off the heads of kings so they could fill up their shopping trolleys at leisure, there were the Ancients, and first of all those Greeks, who severed links with the divine shepherd and set down, under the double name of philosophy and politics, the public record of this farewell. The ‘murder of the shepherd’, Benny Lévy informs us, is there for all to see in Plato’s texts. It is in the Statesman, for example, where he evokes the age when the divine shepherd himself directly governed the human flock. And it is in the fourth book of the Laws, where he evokes the golden reign of the god Cronus, who knew that no man could govern others without becoming bloated on injustices and excesses, and who resolved the problem by giving the human tribes leaders chosen from the superior race of daimones. But Plato, that reluctant contemporary of the men who claimed that power belonged to the people, not being able to oppose to these men anything except a ‘care of the self’ incapable of bridging the distance between the many and the whole, effectively countersigned the farewell, relegating the reign of Cronus and the divine shepherd to the era of fables. But he did this at the cost of compensating for the absence of this fable by means of another fable, that of a ‘republic’ founded on the ‘beautiful lie’ according to which God, in order to assure a good order in the community, had put gold in the soul of the governors, silver in those of the warriors, and iron in those of the artisans.

Let’s grant it to the representative of God: it is quite true that politics is defined in contradistinction to the model of the shepherd feeding his flock. It is just as true that one can object to this separation, by staking a claim, on behalf of the divine shepherd or the human shepherds who interpret his voice, to the government of his people. The price to pay for this is that democracy is effectively only ever the ‘empire of nothing’, the latest figure of political separation calling for us to turn back, from the pit of despair, toward the forgotten shepherd. If this were the case, the discussion would be rapidly brought to a close. But it is possible to look at things another way, and ask how turning back toward the lost shepherd has come to impose itself as the ultimate consequence of a certain account of democracy conceived as the society of individual consumers. The aim here is not to discover what this politics represses, but inversely to look at what of politics is repressed by this account in which democracy is made out to be a state of excesses and distress from which we can only be saved by some god. So, let’s look at the Platonic text from another angle: not from the viewpoint of bidding farewell to the shepherd announced by Plato in the Statesman, but on the contrary from the point of view of the nostalgic holding on to the shepherd, of the latter’s obstinate presence at the core of the Republic, where he serves as the reference point by which an opposition between good government and democratic government is established.

Plato reproaches democracy for two things that at first sight seem opposed, but that on the contrary are strictly articulated to one another. On the one hand, democracy is the rule of abstract law, opposed to the solicitude of the doctor or shepherd. The virtue of the shepherd and the doctor is expressed in two ways: their science is opposed first to the appetite of the petty tyrant, insofar as it is exercised purely for the benefit of those they care for; but it is also opposed to the laws of the democratic city because, in contrast to the latter, this science can be adapted to any particular case – to each particular sheep and each particular patient. The laws of democracy profess, on the contrary, to be applicable in all cases. As such they are like prescriptions that a doctor away on voyage would have left once and for all, regardless of the illness or treatment required. But this universality of the law is a deceptive appearance. In the immutability of the law, it is not the universality of the Idea that democratic man honours, but the instrument of his own good pleasure. In modern terms, it will be said that, underneath the universal citizen of the democratic constitution, we must recognize the real man, that is to say, the egotistical individual of democratic society.

This brings us to the core of the matter. Plato is the first one to invent that mode of sociological reading we declare to be proper to the modern age, the interpretation that locates underneath the appearances of political democracy an inverse reality: the reality of a state of society where it is the private, egotistical man who governs. For him, democratic law, then, is nothing but people’s pleasure for its own sake, the expression of the liberty of individuals whose sole law is that of varying mood and pleasure, without any regard for collective order. The term democracy, then, does not simply mean a bad form of government and political life. It strictly means a style of life that is opposed to any well-ordered government of the community. Democracy, Plato tells us in Chapter VIII of the Republic, is a political regime that is not one. It does not have a constitution because it has all of them. It is a constitutional bazaar, a harlequin’s outfit such as is preferred by men for whom the great issue is the consumption of pleasures and rights. But it is not only the reign of individuals who do anything they please. It is properly the regime that overturns all the relations that structure human society: its governors have the demeanour of the governed and the governed the demeanour of governors; women are the equals of men; fathers accustom themselves to treating their sons as equals; the foreigner and the immigrants are the equals of citizens; the schoolmaster fears and flatters the pupils who, in turn, make fun of him; the young are the equals of the old and the old imitate the young; even the beasts are free and the horses and asses, conscious of their liberty and dignity, knock over anyone who does not yield to them in the street.32

Nothing is missing, as you can see, from the census of evils that, at the dawn of the third millennium, the triumph of democratic equality has brought us: reign of the bazaar and its colourful goods, equality between the schoolmaster and the pupil, the resignation of authority, the cult of the young, of children, and of animals. All that the long list of deplorable misdeeds of mass individualism in the age of supermarkets and mobile telephones does is add a few modern accessories to the Platonic fable of the untameable democratic ass.

We might be amused by this, but even more be surprised by it. Are we not continually reminded that we live in the age of technology, of modern States, of sprawling cities and of the global market, an age which no longer has anything to do with those small Greek towns which were once the sites of invention of democracy? The conclusion we are invited to draw from this is that democracy is a political form belonging to another age and unsuitable for ours, at least not without serious modifications and, in particular, not without considerably recanting on the utopia of the power of the people. But if democracy is a thing of the past, then how are we to make sense of the fact that the description of the democratic village elaborated 2500 years ago by an enemy of democracy can be taken as the exact portrait of democratic man at a time of mass consumption and global networks? Greek democracy, so we are told, was appropriate to a form of society that no longer has anything to do with ours. But immediately after this has been posited we are shown that the society to which it was appropriate has exactly the same characteristics as ours. How are we to make sense of this paradoxical relation between a radical difference and a perfect similitude? By way of explanation, I will offer the following hypothesis: the still-applicable portrait of democratic man is the product of an operation, at once inaugural and indefinitely renewed, that aims to ward off an impropriety pertaining to the very principle of politics. The entertaining sociology of a people comprised of carefree consumers, obstructed streets and inverted social roles wards off the presentiment of a more profound evil: that the unnameable democracy is not a form of society refractory to good government and adapted to the lowest common denominator, but the very principle of politics, the principle that institutes politics in founding ‘good’ government on its own absence of foundation.

To grasp this, let’s take up the list of inversions that manifest democratic excess: governors are like the governed, the young like the old, slaves like their masters, pupils like teachers, animals like their masters. Everything here is of course upside down. But this disorder is reassuring. If all the relations are inverted at the same time, then it seems that they are all of the same nature, that all these subversions express the same inversion of the natural order – and hence it appears that this order exists and that the political relation also pertains to that nature. The entertaining portrait of the disorder of both democratic man and society is a way of putting things in order: if democracy inverts the relation of the governing and the governed in the same way it inverts all the other relations, then it confirms a contrario that this relation really is homogeneous to the others, and that governors and governed can be distinguished by means of a principle of distinction that is as certain as the relation between those who beget and those who are begotten, those who come first and those who come after: a principle that assures continuity between the order of society and the order of government, because it firstly assures the continuity between the order of human convention and that of nature.

Let’s refer to this principle as arkhè. As Hannah Arendt reminded us, in Greek this word means at once commandment and commencement. She logically concluded from this fact that, for the Greeks, it signified the unity of the two. Arkhè is the commandment of he who commences, of what comes first. It is the anticipation of the right to command in the act of commencing and the verifying of the power of commencing in the exercise of commanding. The ideal is thus defined of a government which consists in realizing the principle by which the power of governing commences, of a government which consists in exhibiting en acte the legitimacy of its principle. Those who are capable of governing are those who have the dispositions that make them appropriate for the role, those who are capable of being governed are those who have dispositions complementary to the former.

It is here that democracy creates trouble, or rather that it reveals the trouble. This trouble is something that manifests itself in the third book of the Laws33 in a list echoing the list of perturbed natural relations that in the Republic presented us with the portrait of democratic man. Given that in every city there are governors and governed, men who exercise the arkhè and men who submit to its authority, the Athenian undertakes a census of the titles required to occupy one or other of the positions, in the cities as in the home. These titles are seven in total. Four of them are presented as differences relating to birth: naturally those who are born first or who are highborn command. Such is the power of parents over their children, the old over the young, masters over their slaves, and highborn people over men of no account. Then come two other principles that also express nature if not birth. First, we have ‘the law of nature’ celebrated by Pindarus, the power of the strongest over the weakest. This title of course is bound to provoke controversy: how to define the strongest? In the Gorgias this term is shown to be totally indeterminate and the conclusion is drawn that this power can only be made sense of if identified with the virtue of those who know. Such is precisely the sixth title inventoried: the power which is accomplished by the law of nature properly understood, the authority of those who know over those who are ignorant. Each of these titles fulfils two prerequisites. First, each defines a hierarchy of positions. Secondly, each defines this hierarchy in continuity with nature: continuity by the intermediary of familial and social relations for the first four; direct continuity for the last two. The former titles base the order of the city on the law of kinship. The latter assert that this order has a superior principle: those who govern are not at all those who are born first or highborn, but those who are best. That is effectively when politics commences: when the principle of government is separated from the law of kinship, all the while claiming to be representative of nature; when it invokes a nature that cannot be confounded with the simple relation to the father of the tribe or to the divine father.

That is where politics begins. But that is also where, as it attempts to separate out the excellence specific to it from the sole right of birth, it encounters a strange object, a seventh title to occupy the superior and inferior positions, a title that is not a title, and that, the Athenian tells us, is nevertheless considered to be the most just: the title of that authority that has the ‘favour of heaven and fortune’: the choice of the god of chance, the drawing of lots, i.e., the democratic procedure by which a people of equals decides the distribution of places.

Therein lies the scandal: the scandal for well-to-do people unable to accept that their birth, their age, or their science has to bow before the law of chance; scandal too for those men of God who would have us all be democrats on the condition that we avow having had to kill a father or a shepherd for it, and hence that we are infinitely guilty, are in inexpiable debt to this father. And yet the ‘seventh title’ shows us that breaking with the power of kinship does not require any sacrifice or sacrilege. All it requires is a throw of the dice. The scandal is simply the following: among the titles for governing there is one that breaks the chain, a title that refutes itself: the seventh title is the absence of title. Such is the most profound trouble signified by the word democracy. It’s not a question here of a great howling animal, a proud ass, or an individual pursuing pleasure for his or her own sake. Rather is it clearly apparent that these images are ways of concealing the heart of the problem. Democracy is not the whim of children, slaves, or animals. It is the whim of a god, that of chance, which is of such a nature that it is ruined as a principle of legitimacy. Democratic excess does not have anything to do with a supposed consumptive madness. It is simply the dissolving of any standard by which nature could give its law to communitarian artifice via the relations of authority that structure the social body. The scandal lies in the disjoining of entitlements to govern from any analogy to those that order social relations, from any analogy between human convention and the order of nature. It is the scandal of a superiority based on no other title than the very absence of superiority.

Democracy first of all means this: anarchic ‘government’, one based on nothing other than the absence of every title to govern. But there are many ways of dealing with this paradox. One can simply exclude the democratic title because it is in contradiction with every title to govern. One can also refuse to accept that chance is the principle of democracy, thereby disjoining democracy and the drawing of lots. That is how our moderns have done it, experts, as we saw, at alternately playing on the supposed difference or the similitude of the times. The drawing of lots, so they say, was fitting for ancient times in those small towns with little economic development. How could our modern societies, made of so many delicately interlocking cogs, be governed by individuals chosen by drawing lots, individuals who know nothing of the science of such fragile equilibria? We have found more fitting principles and means for democracy: representation of the sovereign people by elected members; and a symbiosis between the elite, elected representatives of the people, and the elites educated in our schools about the mechanisms by which our societies function.

But differences in time and scale are not the heart of the matter.34 If the drawing of lots appears to our ‘democracies’ to be contrary to every serious principle for selecting governors, this is because we have at once forgotten what democracy meant and what type of ‘nature’ it aimed at countering. If, conversely, the question of the part to assign to the drawing of lots remained active in reflections on democratic and republican institutions from the time of Plato to that of Montesquieu; if aristocratic republicans and thinkers little concerned with equality accepted it, that is because the drawing of lots was the remedy to an evil at once much more serious and much more probable than a government full of incompetents: government comprised of a certain competence, that of individuals skilled at taking power through cunning. The drawing of lots has since been the object of a formidable work of forgetting.35 We habitually oppose the justice of representation and the competence of governors to arbitrary justice and the mortal risks of incompetence. But the drawing of lots has never favoured the incompetent over the competent. If it has become unthinkable for us today, this is because we are used to regarding as wholly natural an idea that certainly was neither natural for Plato, nor any more natural for French and American constitutionalists two centuries ago: that the first title that calls forward those who merit occupying power is the fact of desiring to exercise it.

Plato knew, though, that chance cannot be so easily pushed aside. Of course, he puts all the desirable irony into recollecting the principle regarded in Athens as that ‘favoured by heaven and fortune’ and as supremely just. But he retains in this list this title that is not one. And it is not simply because the Athenian is drawing up an inventory that he cannot exclude from the investigation the principle that regulates the organization of his city. There are two more profound reasons for his doing this. The first is that the democratic procedure of drawing lots is compatible with the principle of the power of experts on one point, which is essential: good government is the government of those who do not desire to govern. If there is one category to exclude from the list of those who are capable for governing it is in any case those who set their sights on obtaining power. Besides, we know from the Gorgias that, in the eyes of the latter, the philosopher has all the vices he attributes to the democrats. The philosopher, too, embodies the inversion of all natural relations of authority; he is the old man who plays at being a child and teaches the young to despise their fathers and educators; the man who breaks with every tradition that people of substance in the city, and who are for this reason called upon to govern it, pass down from generation to generation. The philosopher-king has at least this point in common with the people-king: some divine chance must make him king without him having desired it.

There is no just government without chance playing a role, that is, without a part for that which contradict any identification of the exercise of government with the exercise of a power both desired and conquered. Such is the paradoxical principle involved whenever the principle of government is disjoined from natural and social differences, in other words, whenever there is politics. And such is the stake of the Platonic discussion about the ‘government of the strongest’. How to think politics if it can be neither an extension of differences, that is, of natural and social inequalities, nor a place to be seized by professionals with cunning? But if the philosopher is to pose the question, the condition of his posing it is that democracy must have already – without having had to kill any king or shepherd – proposed the most logical and the most intolerable of responses: the condition under which a government is political is that it is founded on the absence of any title to govern.

This is the second reason why Plato cannot eliminate the drawing of lots from his list. The ‘title that is not one’ produces a retroactive effect on the others, a doubt concerning the legitimacy they lay claim to. They are, to be sure, real entitlements to govern to the extent that they define a natural hierarchy between governors and governed. But exactly what kind of government they found remains to be seen. That the highborn distinguish themselves from the lowborn is something some people wish would be acknowledged so they can call their government an aristocracy. But Plato knew perfectly well what Aristotle would state in his Politics: that those called the ‘best’ in the life of cities are basically the richest, and that an aristocracy is never anything but an oligarchy, that is, government by wealth. Politics effectively begins whenever the power of birth is undermined, whenever the power of the highborn who lay claim to some founding god of the tribe is declared for what it is: the power of property-owners. And this is well highlighted by the reform Cleisthenes made in instituting Athenian democracy. Cleisthenes recomposed Athens’ tribes by artificially combining, via a counter-natural procedure, demes – that is, territorial circumscriptions – that were geographically separated. In so doing, he destroyed the indistinct power of the aristocrat-proprietor-inheritors of the god of place. It is very precisely this dissociation that the word democracy means. The criticism about democracy’s ‘criminal tendencies’ is therefore correct on one point: democracy signifies a rupture with the order of kinship. Only this critique forgets that it is exactly this rupture that realizes, in the most literal manner, exactly what this critique calls for: a structural heterotopy between the principle of government and the principle of society.36 Democracy is not a modern ‘limitlessness’ which allegedly destroys the heterotopy necessary to politics. It is on the contrary the founding power of this heterotopy, the primary limitation of the power of forms of authority that govern the social body.

For, supposing that the titles to govern cannot be contested, the problem is to know what government of the community can be deduced from them. The authority of the eldest over the youngest reigns in families, of course, and one can imagine a government of the city modelled on it. One will qualify it accurately in calling it a gerontocracy. The power of the learned over the ignorant prevails with good reason in schools and one could institute, in its image, a power that would be called a technocracy or an epistemocracy. In such a manner, it is possible to establish a list of governments based on the respective titles to govern. But a single government will be missing from the list, precisely political government. If politics means anything it means something that is added to all these governments of paternity, age, wealth, force and science, which prevail in families, tribes, workshops and schools and put themselves forward as models for the construction of larger and more complex human communities. Something additional must come; a power, as Plato put it, that comes from the heavens. But only two sorts of government have ever come from the heavens: the government of mythical times, i.e., the direct reign of the powerful divine shepherd over the human flock or the daimones that Cronus appointed to the leadership of the tribes; and the government of divine chance, the drawing of lots for governors, that is, democracy. The philosopher strives to eliminate democratic disorder in order to found true politics, but he can only do so on the basis of this disorder itself, which severs the link between the leaders of the city tribes and the daimones serving Cronus.

This is exactly the problem. There is a natural order of things according to which assemblies of men are governed by those who possess titles to govern them. In history, we’ve known two great entitlements to govern: one that is attached to human or divine kinship, that is, the superiority of birth; and another that is attached to the organization of productive and reproductive activities, that is, the power of wealth. Societies are usually governed by a combination of these two powers to which, in varying degrees, force and science lend their support. But if the elders must govern not only the young but the learned and the ignorant as well, if the learned must govern not only the ignorant but also the rich and the poor, if they must compel the obedience of the custodians of power and be understood by the ignorant, something extra is needed, a supplementary title, one common to those who possess all these titles but also to those who do not possess them. Now, the only remaining title is the anarchic title, the title specific to those who have no more title for governing than they have for being governed.

This is what of all things democracy means. Democracy is not a type of constitution, nor a form of society. The power of the people is not that of a people gathered together, of the majority, or of the working class. It is simply the power peculiar to those who have no more entitlements to govern than to submit. One cannot rid oneself of this power in denouncing the tyranny of majorities, the stupidity of the ‘great animal’, or the frivolity of individualist consumers. For then one must get rid of politics itself. Politics exists only if there is a supplementary title for those who function in the ordinary run of social relations. The scandal of democracy, and of the drawing of lots which is its essence, is to reveal that this title can be nothing but the absence of title, that the government of societies cannot but rest in the last resort on its own contingency. There are people who govern because they are the eldest, the highest-born, the richest, or the most learned. There are models of government and practices of authority based on this or that distribution of places and capabilities. Such is the logic that I’ve proposed be thought under the name of ‘police’.37 But if the power of elders must be more than a gerontocracy, and the power of the rich more than a plutocracy, if the ignorant are to understand that they have to obey the orders of the learned, their power must rest on a supplementary title, the power of those who have no other property that predisposes them more to governing than to being governed. 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.

This is the paradox that Plato encounters in the government of chance and that, in his furious and amusing repudiation of democracy, he must nevertheless take into account when portraying governors as men without properties that only a happy coincidence has called upon to occupy this place. It is this paradox that Hobbes, Rousseau and all the modern thinkers of the contract and sovereignty in their turn encounter through the questions of consent and legitimacy. Equality is not a fiction. All superiors experience this as the most commonplace of realities. There is no master who does not sit back and risk letting his slave run away, no man who is not capable of killing another, 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. Those who think they are clever and realist can always say that equality is only the fanciful dream of fools and tender souls. But unfortunately for them it is a reality that is constantly and everywhere attested to. There is no service that is carried out, no knowledge that is imparted, no authority that is established without the master having, however little, to speak ‘equal to equal’ with the one he commands or instructs. Inegalitarian society can only function thanks to a multitude of egalitarian relations. It is this intrication of equality in inequality that the democratic scandal makes manifest in order to make it the basis of public power. Only it is not the case, as is usually said, that the equality of the law exists to correct or attenuate inequalities in nature. This is because ‘nature’ itself is redoubled, because natural inequality can only be carried through on the presupposition of a natural equality that assists and contradicts it: impossible otherwise for pupils to understand their schoolmasters or for the ignorant to obey the government of experts. There will be those who say that the army and the police force are there for that. But it is still necessary that these latter understand the orders of the experts and the interest they have in obeying them, and so on.

This is what politics requires and what democracy contributes to it. For politics to exist a title of exception is required, a title that is added to those by which societies, large and small, are ‘normally’ ruled, and which in the last analysis come down to those of birth and wealth. Wealth aims at endless growth, but it does not have the power to transcend itself. Birth asserts its claim to transcendence, but the price of doing so is to leap from human kinship to divine kinship. It founds a government of shepherds, thereby resolving the problem, but at the cost of eliminating politics. What remains is the extraordinary exception, the power of the people, which is not the power of the population or of the majority, but the power of anyone at all, the equality of capabilities to occupy the positions of governors and of the governed. Political government, then, has a foundation. But this foundation is also in fact a contradiction: politics is the foundation of a power to govern in the absence of foundation. State government is only legitimate insofar as it is political. It is political only insofar as it reposes merely on an absence of foundation. This is what democracy means when accurately understood as a ‘law of chance’. The customary complaints about democracy’s ungovernability in the last instance come down to this: democracy is neither a society to be governed, nor a government of society, it is specifically this ungovernable on which every government must ultimately find out it is based.

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