Samuel Chan
May 6, 2018 · 11 min read

Reading Rancière's Hatred of Democracy — What exactly is Democracy?

When we hear the word “democracy”, what usually comes to mind is some specific form of government. Rancière, in his Hatred of Democracy, incisively debunks this association by problematizing the narratives of those who “hate” democracy. Interestingly, these “haters” are not anyone else but us.

Do we hate democracy? If not, why do we reject democracy, in its pure and direct form? We often reply that the compromise has to be made in the modern era. “Direct democracy might have suited the ancients who gathered by the thousands at a plaza,” we sigh in resignation, “but now that there are billions of us, it just would not do.”

To frame the problem in this manner, argues Jacques Rancière in his Hatred of Democracy, is to misunderstand how we have historically interacted with the idea of democracy. To correct this misunderstanding, Rancière invites us to see how our “modern” concerns are not that dissimilar with those of Plato.

Most of us are familiar with Plato’s seafaring analogy (in Book VI, Republic). The craft-less sailors take over the ship and steer it to their own delight. These sailors are not only ignorant of the art of navigation; they are convinced that the art is unneeded. Oblivious to the seasons of the year, the sky, the stars, and the winds, they sail on with neither destination in mind nor sight of the deadly storm that looms ahead of them. These sailors turn out to be our democratic citizens who, lacking political expertise, undermine the common good and turn the state into the instrument of the egotistical individuals’ own good pleasures.

What underlies Plato’s (and our) repugnance at democracy, according to Rancière, is his (our) sociological and anthropological reading of it (Chapt.1&2). Anthropologically, the democratic citizens become egotistical individuals who make decisions based on their varying moods and pleasures without any concern for the collective order. Sociologically, democracy designates a society where private interests undermine all traditional social relations (e.g. men & women, fathers & sons, governed and governors etc.) and leave us with private relations between isolated individuals. Such is the reading in play when modern intellectuals, be they Marxists, Communitarians, or Republicans, charge that our democracy is but a mass individualistic society that pursues nothing but the limitless growth of the capitalist economy.

The connection, however, goes deeper. If democracy is but a social order of narcissistic individuals, there is not much to fear — an individualistic order is still an order after all. But what if this order turns out to also be a ruse? In Plato’s Laws (Book III), he discusses seven governing titles: the first four pertain to birth, the fifth to the strongest, and the sixth to those who are knowledgeable. The seventh is the queerest — it is the title of authority granted by the law of chance (i.e. by drawing lots), a governing title that is simultaneously the absence of any title. A democracy, by recognizing the authority of this seventh title, becomes an anarchic government in the sense that those who govern have their authority “based on nothing except the absence of every title to govern” (41). The political at this moment, and at this moment only, becomes an autonomous sphere because the relationship between those who govern and those who are governed is severed from the social (social differences) and the anthropological (natural differences). To the extent that democracy characterizes a person and a society, it is a person with “neither order nor necessity in his life” and a society where rulers behave like subjects and subjects behave like rulers, fathers behave like children and children behave like fathers, teachers flatter their students and students despise their teachers, a society which “in the end even breeds anarchy among the animals” (Book VIII, Republic). In short, both democratic societies and citizens are essentially random.

If this randomness is most explicitly exhibited by the ancient method of drawing lots, it is equally present and vividly felt in modern elections. Logically, we know that elections are plagued with paradoxes, as Arrow’s impossibility theorem and the subsequent social choice theory literature have so elegantly demonstrated to us. Empirically, the rise of “populist” candidates is one of the most commonly shared fear among progressive intellectuals in western liberal democracies. These fears are emphatically pre-modern. Historically speaking, Rancière argues (Chapt.3), it is this fear of randomness, and not the inconvenience of growing populations, that led politicians to containing our democracy and rejoining political power with natural or social inequalities. Representative democracy was not a system employed to compensate for the growth of population, but an oligarchy designed to link political power with property owners. For both the American founding fathers and the French revolutionaries, representation was seen in contrast to democracy as a way for the elites to exercise power. Even as suffrage universalized, democracy remains contained both by a constitution that preserves the order of property-owners and by institutional forms that guarantee the control of aristocratic legislators, bureaucrats, and experts. The social order is further maintained by education: either the government extracts the elites within the education system to rule, or the government imposes a homogenous education on all levels to reconstitute this social harmony. In either way, the distribution of knowledge brings about the distribution of positions, guaranteeing a government of natural elites.

We have thus come full circle back to Plato, for whom randomness needs to be put in chains so as to not undermine our common good. However, contrary to what Plato believes, this common good is not objective; rather, the common good remains common only in so far as an anthropological common and a social common is maintained, either through education or through a carefully sustained hierarchy. To be more precise, our common good is produced and reproduced through the careful governing of the population (with the vast range of spatial and knowledge apparatuses, the most visible being the census), a centrally planned education system, and the selective usage of social and political sciences. This process of production comes before and without politics (in Rancière’s sense of the word). Our democratic processes are judged in terms of whether their results match the common good thus produced. To the extent that democracy is relevant, it is relevant as a threat (populist or not) to this system of production.

Thus, if we value democracy, it is precisely because we wish to threaten this oligarchic system of production and the domination inherent within it. Domination, Rancière suggests, is exercised through a logic of distribution of the private and public spheres. By separating the two spheres, the equality of men is retained within the public sphere whereas in the private sphere the liberties of all prevail — the liberties of those who possess the immanent powers of society. Additionally, after the public sphere is purified of these private interests, it becomes a privatized public sphere, reserved for institutions and the monopoly of those who use them to their advantage.

When we see democracy as a society or as a government, we fail to see the oligarchic nature of our “democratic” governments and the domination running through the veins of our society. Democracy should be understood as a process, or rather, as a movement that struggles to contest this distribution and enlarge the public sphere. This enlargement entails both (a) the recognition as participants those previously excluded from the public sphere and (b) the recognition of the public character of types of spaces and relations left to the discretion of the power of wealth. This renewed understanding of democracy should renounce not only our blind faith in institutional or constitutional forms but also our myth of an objective common good — after all, nothing guarantees democracy except by the constancy of democratic actions.

It is not at all clear, however, why we should accept Rancière’s conception of democracy or endorse his subsequent conclusions.

What should immediately worry the reader is how narrowly Rancière defines democracy. By limiting democratic (or even political) action to the contestation of the distribution of spheres, Rancière seems to be disregarding the political interactions within the private and public spheres respectively. Legal, legislative, and administrative practices and struggles, to the extent that they happen within the currently recognized public sphere, become undemocratic/unpolitical in Rancière’s framework. If Rancière believes that a movement that calls for the minimum wage is democratic because it contests the current private nature of wage relations and demonstrates that this is a public matter, it seems counter-intuitive for Rancière to dismiss as a-democratic the subsequent negotiations about the level of minimum wage within the legislature. We could ask the same question that Benhabib poses to Honig: why should we endorse only “the angelic realm of social movements” and abandon “the unholy realm of state and its institutions” (Hospitality, Sovereignty and Democratic Iterations, 164)?

Perhaps this narrowing of democracy could be justified. After all, if Rancière is correct about how domination is sustained by the distribution of public and private spheres, by challenging this distribution, we are in effect challenging domination. It is this anti-domination force that characterizes democracy. This answer, however, reveals a more fundamental problem.

Rancière claims that his analysis of domination derives from Foucault’s conception of power, yet Foucault’s conception undermines rather than supports his analysis. Two of Foucault’s insights regarding power are that (a) power is not exercised from a stable central point (i.e. the sovereign state); rather, power’s condition of possibility is found “in the moving substrates of force relations” that are always local and unstable (The History of Sexuality Vol. I, 93), and; (b) power is no longer exercised primarily through a negative exclusion, but, by technique, normalization, and control, through positively taking charge of individual persons as living bodies and groups as populations (The History of Sexuality Vol. I, 90). Rancière’s account of domination, however, reveals precisely a negative sovereign conception of power: the sovereign state exercises its power by delimiting the boundaries between public and private spheres and excluding specific persons and issues from the public sphere. Rancière’s account is reassuring even — it is almost as if the moment we successfully contest against exclusion we liberate ourselves from the grasp of power. This illusion can be sustained, of course, only by blinding ourselves to all the other forms and relations of power.

Under this light, Rancière’s conclusions become ungrounded, and his suggestions unwarranted. As McNay (The Misguided Search for the Political, 157) has pointed out, it is unclear how, for Rancière, disruptions of domination could emerge “in the first place other than ex nihilo”. Rancière’s assumes too swiftly the agency of the oppressed “as a spontaneous, unproblematic given”, brushing aside processes of marginalization, fragmentation, and division that block effective mobilization (The Misguided Search for the Political, 163). To those whom Rancière declares to be most concerned about, those who are excluded and oppressed under the current order, his advice sounds naïve, if not outright condescending.

Should we then simply leave Rancière behind and conclude, as Hallward does, that Rancière’s account is nothing more than an “inconsequential account of democracy” (Jacques Rancière: History, Politics, Aesthetics, 157)?

There is something remiss in this remark, for even if Rancière’s account proves defective, it is by no means unsalvageable, and not by any account rendered less insightful.

Let us recall that Rancière’s conception of democracy is not just process simpliciter, but rather a rupturing process against natural and social hegemonies. In that sense, Foucault’s conception of power enriches (although also complicates) rather than negates Rancière’s analysis. The practices of domination are multifold and complex. Through appeals to security, people (detainees, refugees, migrant workers etc.) get excluded from the status of political objects; through appeals to economic efficiency, entire spheres get delegated to corporations; through practices of governmentality, public spaces are privatized and controlled by administrative units; through practices of individuation, the social regains its reign over individuals even in their speeches and actions within the “public sphere” proper. However diverse these phenomena are, they share one key trait: some individuals are losing effective say over some spheres, without violating any democratic rules or constitutions.

Rancière’s general insight thus remains: defining democracy as a constitution or a society misses these instances as they can very well occur within any constitution or society and can well co-exist with these definitions of democracy. After all, even within the most democratic form of government, what is actually happening within and under it could well bear little resemblance to democracy. To see democracy as processes of contestation both alert us to these oppressions and give democratic grounds for us to challenge these exclusions.

However, to avoid Rancière’s romanticizing of the process, we may want to turn his theory around. As he admits, his conception of democracy as process is not indifferent to forms of government, as some forms of government enable democratic processes while others undermine their possibility. Taking this as an anchor point, we should extend this beyond institutional forms: what resources do the oppressed need to realize these challenges? What kinds of resistance correspond to the specific relations of power that exclude the oppressed? How should the oppressed organize themselves? How should various democratic activist groups relate to each other? What forms of discourse further these contestational processes? In short, how do we turn these processes into reality in face of the actual exclusions we face?

Such an operation puts political theory on its head by putting the process as the core of theorizing. Instead of seeking the perfectly democratic form of government, we ask instead how we best preserve and enable the conditions of possibility for people to contest against the exclusion of certain individuals and of spheres. We no longer assume that a form of the government is by itself sufficiently democratic, nor do we give ourselves the burden to design a perfect system. Instead, we expand the scope of democratic theory beyond the state and problematize the manifold relations and sites of power, the complex techniques of governmentality and individuation, and the actual sufferings, injustices, experiences, and difficulties of those excluded from these formal sites of democracy. Then we search for the corresponding actions of resistance and locate their conditions of possibility.

Admittedly, this exercise comes with its own risks. Rancière, for one, would be unsatisfied: by putting natural and social realities back into the discussion, does this not limit the radicality of democratic action? Granted, but this purity is probably neither feasible nor desirable. Given that each site of action is imbued with multiple relations of power and a complex network of social norms, it is quite impossible for an action to divorce itself from every single relation of power and social norm. It is equally difficult to envisage how such a radical action, if it exists, manages to be understood by the society. Rancière remarks in passing that democratic actions exist in the interval of identity and non-identity. If so, democratic actions probably exist also in the intervals of various relations of power and social norms. An appeal to universal human rights by those denied their rights (such as refugees) is exactly of this nature. So is Martin Luther King Jr.’s mobilization of American values in his fight against segregation.

Radical democracy, as Rancière claims, need not provoke fear and hatred, but rather among those who know how to share with anybody and everybody the equal power of intelligence, it can conversely inspire courage, and hence joy” (97). To Rancière’s dismay, however, there exists no external anchor point for radical democracy; if it is possible, its conditions of possibility lie exactly within those very intervals of inequalities.


Benhabib, Seyla. 2006. “Hospitality, Sovereignty, and Democratic Iterations.” In Another Cosmopolitanism, by Seyla Benhabib & Robert Post, 147–177. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1976. The History of Sexuality Vol. 1: The Will to Knowledge. Translated by Robert Hurley. London: Penguin Books.

Hallward, Peter. 2009. “Staging Equality: Rancière’s Theatrocracy and the Limits of Anarchic Equality.” In Jacques Rancière: History, Politics, Aesthetics, edited by Gabriel Rockhill and Philip Watts, 140–157. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

McNay, Lois. 2014. The Misguided Search for the Political: Social Weightlessness in Radical Democratic Theory. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Rancière, Jacques. 2014. Hatred of Democracy. Translated by Steve Corcoran. London: Verso.

Samuel Chan

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Current PhD student in Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley; Interested in politics, philosophy, sociology, and literature.