Living in the beginning times

Jacques Ranciere – What Times Are We Living In? (Polity)

Paul Ricoeur – Philosophy, Ethics and Politics (Polity)

Here are two books of interviews – both published by Polity – with French philosophers whose surnames begin with ‘R’. One is dead, the other still with us – and very active. Both books speak strongly to our times, one as its stated aim, the other less directly.  

The Ranciere book was published in France in 2017 and will be out in English in 2021. In it, interviewer Eric Hazan talks about Wolfgang Schäuble’s comments on Greece’s financial crisis.

Hazan cites Schäuble’s statement in 2015 that elections must not change anything, that Greek fiscal austerity must continue, as a precursive indication of the state of democratic politics today.

Hazan suggests that via such examples we might be seeing the ‘last throes of the representative system’, a notion which seems to be everywhere, as I write. But Ranciere counters this by saying:

‘If the representative system were in its death throes each time a left-wing party betrayed its electoral promises, it would actually have been dead for a good century, which is not the case. The objection rests on a false idea, which equates three different things with one another – representation, election and democracy – and takes the representative system to result in the simple “democratic” illusion whereby people are subjected to a power whose source they imagine themselves to be.’

This is not the case, Ranciere states. It is not simply that people believe in a representative and so vote for them. Belief ‘does not found adherence, adherence founds belief’. The whole political process, then, produces politics, not just a ‘representative system’.

As an English Labour voter who gets what I call ‘Dr Strangelove arm’ in polling booths and hits Labour every time – no matter how cynical and sold-out he feels about the party – I understand this point perfectly well.

But others – they are now called ‘the red wall’ – have been getting over this affliction. Their arms seem freer to scan, pencil in hand, the choices on the ballot paper. Many of them have been siding with old enemies whom they now seem to view as allies.

Ranciere does not really deal with this fully, but he does talk about ‘unbelief’, the idea that one expresses political choice via contempt. The red wall is perhaps more in focus through this lens. Ranciere says that ‘you submit to a form of domination to the extent that it gives you the most possibility to show contempt for it.’ We hate Tory but vote for them because Labour are shit. We hate them all so vote Boris because he’s already a joke. The crappiest rebellion, perhaps worse than ballot spoliation.

This is surely a key feature of what is now called ‘populism’, to the extent that it should be renamed ‘unpopulism’. A zombie politics, haunted by individual mortality and the death of any discernible future, which takes place in the present, on top of that mortality.

Ranciere describes the ‘expiry of work as a common world’ as part of the malaise. Vast, horizontal, common-world networks existed from the mid-nineteenth century until the collapse of western industrialism in the late 20th; strong elements within which could see how it needn’t be mediated by capital and commodities any more, and worked towards that future. That world of work is no longer here.

I would add that the ‘end of work’ as a leftist ideology is not separable from the end of work as a strongly connected collective consciousness either. A joined set of intelligences that can occasionally result in large-scale collective action. Ranciere describes the hypothetical universal basic income (UBI) as something to compensate for deindustrialization. But ‘there is no longer any community already there that guarantees the community to come’ he says, the lineage is broken and the dangers should, I think, be obvious. Community ‘has become above all an object of desire’.

This is not to downplay the very positive actions some might point to, for instance the organising of some of the most precarious workers against capital, but merely to say that the weakened position of workers and voting via contempt are surely always already connected.

The sight of individuals – as Ranciere describes them – managing their ‘human capital’ invokes a mild sense of nausea in those of a certain age, a peakiness which actually points to a vast existential void below.

But then I remember the factories I worked in, and which my father worked in, and how the workers were bought off the moment the union had anything on the bosses, and I don’t believe in the simplistic explanation of a strong worker collective in the past versus a weak one now either. In some places the unions were strong, in others, they barely had a grip and the workers were as selfish as the current advocates of populist leaders.

‘One does not work for the future’ Ranciere says, ‘one works to hollow out a gap, a furrow traced in the present, to intensify the experience of another way of being.’ This is what my parents did, I am sure of that.

In this way Ranciere is cynical about what he calls the ‘great defeatist mash’ which describes interlinked global oppression. He sees much more heterogeneous oppressions, as well as resistances, Occupy, Nuit Debout:

‘What happens in these large gatherings is the same thing that happens in the specific struggles. The singularisation of struggles in the gathering together of actors occurs outside the idea of any fusion oriented by a view of history and the future.’

For Ranciere there are ‘singular instances of speech’ that ‘keep open the space of their compossibility.’ The compossible is a phrase of Leibniz’s, later used by Deleuze.

At the same time, the collapse is real. The logic of all this is complex though. Ranciere notes that ‘extra-parliamentary movements were at their peak in times when the parliamentary system still fed hopes’, but now ‘electoral despondency readily finds its counterpart in half-resigned movements of protest and radical revolutionary theories that often borrow their arguments and their tone from the disenchanted theories of civilisational catastrophe.’

Ranciere, broadly, does not believe the great defeatist mash. Turning to the book of Ricoeur interviews, not for him either the morbid pronouncements of the end of things, philosophy for instance, or declarations that language is dead.

Ricoeur explained that to make such statements we would have to be able to posit another sort of language or philosophy, we cannot. There seems something ecological in this, Darwinian even. I am reminded of Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s book on ‘Ecology, Media and Power’ Dreamers of the Absolute that I have been re-reading. Our species-being and environment – including that which we have created in language – is total for us.

What remains of Freud most strongly in Ricoeur is that we do not straightforwardly know ourselves. Humans are not fully in control and they do bad things. Because of evil, Ricoeur fuses phenomenology (the structure of experience) with hermeneutics (interpretation). Language slips, and here Ricoeur folds into many other 20th c. French thinkers, structuralist and what misleadingly became known as post-structural. Like Ranciere though, he does not easily fit into either category.

Now that’s the very big picture, and these interviews focus on discussions with Ricoeur from one whole period of his career. But what’s useful about the discourses is how they speak to now. They will always speak to a now of course, even if it is a different now to this one. So what is it about Ricouer we need today?

There is so much to go into here that I want to concentrate on one interview, in order to try to communicate what I think that is. Its title is ‘Sketch of a Plea for the Capable Human Being’.

There is something of D.W. Winnicott’s ‘good enough’ here, of the human being who can survive and individuate, something hard won, even in so-called ‘civilisation’. Damaged, perhaps, but working, yes, as in ‘functioning’.

We all need that now, as we’re being forced to face a much steeper kind of adaptation. Actually, I think that the way Ricoeur addresses Marx here speaks to that task.

In this interview, Ricoeur is asked ‘from the standpoint of human emancipation, do you think there could still be a future for a deontology in which Marx would be seen as a thinker of the possible?’ He replies that, along with others he shares the view ‘that it is as if Marx’s work were covered over by Marxism’, particularly ‘by the German Marxism of the Second International.’ (Ital mine).

‘In truth’, he says, ‘what failed historically was the legacy of that Marxism.’ From this ‘sprang the invention of the most stupid conceptions, such as the opposition between “proletarian science” and “bourgeois science,” “proletarian art” and “bourgeois art.” And probably also the idea that politics, morality, and religion are “superstructures.”‘

Again, Ranciere makes very similar points in our time. A deepened Marx is needed to become a thinker of the possible again. An uncovered Marx.

Ricoeur also seems to be agreeing with Ranciere from out of the past by stating that the problem is no longer ‘the singular’ but rather ‘the abstract historical’.

This is expressed in the return of nationalism. On the one hand, nationalism has ‘richness of content’, its ‘mores, its convictions’. On the other hand, we find ‘a purely abstract conception’. Ricoeur says that connecting these abstracts with communities poses great difficulties.

I would add, in our time, ‘danger’. If community, as Ranciere says, is an object of desire, then double danger.

There ‘is now a fringe of marginal people who are no longer members of the social contract’ Ricoeur states. ‘How are they to be integrated? By helping them to find work, housing?’ Here, he really seems to be speaking to us. But Ricoeur died in 2005. The popular vote and the ‘disenfranchised’ comes later.

The ‘endness’ of our times that Zizek describes is very real, but we are always also beginning again in the middle as Deleuze put it.

In ‘regressive situations’ Ricoeur says, ‘faced with moments of disaster’, only ‘a few committed individuals, only a few indomitable consciences, are responsible, in reality, for the future of civilized society.’

For Ricoeur, ‘conviction’ comes when ‘the hierarchy of preferences compels me, the intolerable transforms me from a timid or disinterested spectator into a person of conviction, who discovers in creating and creates in discovering.’ The ‘lucidity of our gaze does not spare us from engagement in protest or from the will to repair breaches.’

Here there is a great deal of traffic between what Ricoeur was saying right up to his death and what Ranciere is currently saying about the state of things, namely, that there are still possibilities, and we all need those now. And if you agree with that, then maybe you need these books.

But it is also necessary to say that the future belonging to that committed individual who is transformed from spectator to person of conviction could apply equally to Hitler, Ghandi, Mussolini and Rosa Luxemburg.

The final point is that we always need to translate the abstracts of our philosophers into material specifics, and to do it well.

Steve Hanson

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