As the presidential elections get into gear in France and the United States, observers on both sides of the Atlantic are thinking about how Occupy and the Indignés might play a part in those elections. Two very contrasting pieces from veterans of 1968 indicate the pressures that autonomous politics are going to be placed under in the forthcoming months.
If the possibilities from France seem exciting from this side of the Atlantic, a new interview with Jacques Rancière reminds us of the sober realities. For Rancière, Western “democracy” is a compromise between the actual power of the oligarchy (what we might call the one percent) and the potential power of all (the 99%). Further, he insists that representation is itself
an oligarchical principle: those who are thus associated with power represent not a population but the statute or the competence which founds their authority over that population: birth, wealth, knowledge (savoir) or others.
Rancière has insisted that the properly democratic system is not voting but a random allocation of office by lot, on the model of Athenian democracy. In such a system, competency is assumed to be a common characteristic–or more exactly, there is a commons in which all are assumed to be competent to participate. The point of such a system would be to
deny the seizing of power by those who desire it.
Here we can see why Rancière now calls himself an anarchist in the strict sense (rather than being associated with one of the nineteenth century strands of anarchism like that of Kropotkin or Bakunin): like David Graeber, he understands the an-arche of democracy to be a system that impedes the monopolization of power.
The French presidency is, of course, precisely the opposite of such a system. Devised first to end the revolution of 1848 and revived by de Gaulle to circumscribe any possibility of a revolution in 1945, the French president amasses remarkable power that is therefore denied to the people. The use of presidential elections to curb the revolt in 1968 is only the most recent example of this concentration.
In Rancière’s view, the Left Movement candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon is “inside and outside” this system at once. In this view,
a true left-wing candidacy would be a denunciation of the presidential system itself. And a radical left would suppose the creation of an autonomous space, with institutions and forms of discussion and action not dependent on official agendas.
He recognizes Occupy as the closest form existing to such a space because it is open to all, regardless of identity. Nonetheless, like so many others, he wonders whether it has the capacity to last, while recognizing how long the creation of a truly autonomous space would need to be.
In the U. S. this understanding of qualification for representative power can help us see why Mitt Romney’s wealth is all that is required to legitimate his claim to the presidency: as one of that class, he will rule in their interests and it is a matter of indifference to them if he throws the right a few anti-women or anti-LGBTQ bones to do so. At the same time, Rancière’s analysis of racism as a top-down government inspired strategy has a certain force in France, where Sarkozy and Le Pen have tried to stir up agitation about halal meat where none existed before. It’s clearly different in the settler colony.
A more familiar view is expressed by Tom Hayden in a long Nation essay about the Port Huron Statement, which, like myself, is 50 years old. Here Hayden wants to claim that Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was the avatar for Occupy, while disavowing its radicality. The Port Huron Statement itself was
cleansed of ideological infection, with an emphasis on trying to say what people were already thinking but hadn’t put into words.
So, in fact “people” weren’t “thinking” these things but feeling them inarticulately, waiting for the SDS to make words for them. This is precisely the representative function that Rancière warns against.
Hayden is nonetheless pleased to claim the “participatory democracy” of OWS as being the same as that of 1962, while also wanting to emphasize the need, as he sees it, for “radical reform.” He doesn’t take a clear position on Occupy preferring to “wait and see”–presumably to wait and see whether the movement gets involved with electoral or other representative politics. All anarchist–not to mention Marxist because he doesn’t–influence should be set aside in favor of a “progressive majority.” How come the Port Huron group failed to accomplish this 50 years ago? The answer is apparently the assassination of JFK. Oh, and the war in Vietnam. And all the other political killings. And the fact that SDS became quickly more radical than the Port Huron Statement. And so on, this story has been rehearsed many times.
SDS was not really a precursor to Occupy unless you are willing to identify Occupy with Hayden’s concept of participatory democracy. Rancière has a clearer understanding of autonomy and democracy to offer but in typically French fashion, it’s at a level of abstraction. It’s time to try and see if we can get a little further down the road than 68 managed. No disrespect.