Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Ranciere, Politics, and the Occupy Movement

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Ranciere, Politics, and the Occupy Movement

Article excerpt

Abstract. This paper focuses on the work of Jacques Ranciere, his view of politics, and its relevance for understanding key aspects of social protest movements such as the Occupy movement. The paper outlines some of Ranciere's key concepts, such as the distinction between politics and the police, subjectivity, 'in-between spaces', and 'insubstantial communities', and attempts to locate his concept of politics within a wider spectrum of political forms in order to bring out its distinctive nature. Links are then made to the ideas and practices of the Occupy movement as an expression of politics that Ranciere has recently endorsed. The paper concludes with a discussion of some of the critical questions concerning the effectiveness of this style of politics (questions of political organisation and engagement with the state) and the wider consequences for Ranciere's concept of radical politics.

Keywords: Ranciere, equality, politics, in-between spaces, insubstantial communities, the Occupy movement


Debates on the nature and meaning of politics have been much enlivened in recent decades by the stimulating and often provocative ideas of Jacques Ranciere [see Davis (2010) and Tanke (2011) for recent overviews]. He has presented sweeping criticisms of the way in which Western democracies have become progressively 'depoliticised' over recent decades, as real democratic politics has been increasingly squeezed out by the pressures of global economic necessity, deference to technical expertise, and repetitive and superficial opinion polling. As a result, "the absolute identification of politics with the management of capital is no longer the shameful hidden secret behind the 'forms' of democracy: it is the openly declared truth by which our governments acquire legitimacy" (Ranciere, 1999, page 113). In opposition to this trend he has outlined a distinctive alternative vision of what constitutes 'real' democracy, based on a radical concept of equality, which brings into question the very meaning of the term 'politics'.

Nevertheless, some critics, whilst acknowledging the originality of his contributions, have suggested that his theoretical reformulations reduce politics to a rarified, and indeed "extravagantly utopian", possibility (eg, Patton, 2012, page 136). Although he has sketched some historical examples of his vision of politics in action, these have not been developed in great detail. Recently, however, he has suggested that the Occupy movement, which spread rapidly through European and North American cities in 2011-12, presents "the most interesting" recent example of what he defines as radical democratic politics [pointing in particular to its occupation and "detourning" of urban space (Ranciere, 2012, no page number].

This possible connection raises a number of interesting questions. Is Ranciere's assessment correct, or does he perhaps misunderstand aspects of the Occupy movement? What elements of his view of politics are most relevant here? Do the ideas and practices of the Occupy movement illuminate aspects of Ranciere's ideas, or do they perhaps go beyond them and show their limitations? In addressing these questions I will focus on the relevance of Ranciere's ideas rather than giving a wide-ranging evaluation of the Occupy movement as a whole, which is a much broader issue.

I begin with a brief overview of Ranciere's distinctive understanding of what constitutes democratic politics and the concepts that support it. I next try to place his views in a wider context of other modes of politics to isolate what is distinctive about his approach. I then draw some possible connections to the Occupy movement as a way of exploring interconnections between politics, subjectivity, and space in his work, and conclude by pointing to some of the problem areas that emerge as a result.

Ranciere's politics

Ranciere's search for a new political radicalism has involved rethinking the very meaning of politics, subjectivity, and community. …

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