The political philosopher Jacques Rancière would like to encourage the disruption of the normal order that is real democracy. Julian Baggini hears his campaign
If you rage against the growth of consumerist individualism, the dumbing down of education in the name of widening participation or the shallow hedonism of modern life, you're probably just expressing a deep-rooted hatred of democracy. That's the provocative thesis of Jacques Rancière, one of France's leading political philosophers, who challenges head on the tendency of leftist intellectuals to combine a professed concern for the masses with a haughty dismissal of virtually everything the masses actually think or do.
You'd be in good company, though. Rancière claims that hatred of democracy - a phrase he uses as the title of his latest book - is as old as politics itself. "I got my idea of democracy from Plato, from the greatest critic of democracy," he says in his staccato, effervescent English. "Plato would say democracy is the drawing of lots, the government of chance."
But what Plato saw as the horror of democracy was really its great virtue. Democracy is, says Rancière, the denial that there is any natural social order or hierarchy that determines who should rule over whom. In this way, it is close to anarchy.
"The political principle (behind democracy) is in a certain sense anarchic because there is no grounding legitimacy for any government, no specific legitimacy for any group to rule over other groups." This anarchic element explains why it is a mistake to identify democracy with any particular form of government or society. "From my point of view, democracy should be understood as a political process," he explains. "Democracy is the idea that, ultimately, anybody and everybody can legitimately govern."
This radical equality at the heart of democracy - the "drawing of lots" that so horrified Plato - is what strikes fear into elites, who are worried that political equality in practice means giving power to shallow, materialist drones. It has been the same throughout history, Rancière says.
"For example, in 19th-century France, when there were many laws against any kind of association, professional and so on, there was no political democracy. But you could still hear the elites saying: 'Oh, democracy, that is the reign of individualism, of sheep, of people seeking only pleasure.'"
This deep resistance to democracy among elites helps explain why "in a proper sense there has never been a pure democratic government. I would say that any government is, in fact, oligarchic because a government is a government of the minority". And, because oligarchies always seek to maintain their power, "democracy is a kind of disruption of the normal order". Whether democracy can ever ultimately win the struggle against oligarchy is something on which Rancière reserves judgment.
Contemporary resistance to democracy from political, rather than intellectual, elites takes the form of the dissemination of the belief that, in an increasingly complex world, citizens are not qualified to make informed choices about what is best for them.
"The global economic system, for instance, operates in such a way that governments have to be more and more expert in linking national and global necessity, so there is a kind of dissonance between a government that is supposed to be expert and a government of the people. The expert view suggests there is only one way of seeing things, that there is only one given reality. Democracy is always obliged to put things on the table again, saying: 'This is not the only reality. What do you mean when you say that that is given or necessary?'"
Rancière does not deny that we need experts, in economics and politics, but he says the reliance on one type of expertise is anti-democratic. This need for democracy to provide a challenge to oligarchies and elites is one reason why mechanisms such as the popular vote, welcome as they may be, are not sufficient to create true democracy, he says. "It has to be supplemented by real activity by citizens. They need to do more than just vote. They need to be able to construct their own projects, their own movements and their own political propositions."
At times like this in our discussion, Rancière strikes an almost utopian note that brings to mind his long-term commitment to the Left.
"I would say that I have a continuity of interest in movements of emancipation," he says of his own intellectual development. "But I would also say that I had to break with the kind of Marxism that was around when I was young, which promoted a kind of scientific idea that people are subjugated because they are ignorant. The power of science was always at the core of Althusserism. In the aftermath of (the student riots in) 1968, I worked for a very long time in the archives researching workers' emancipation movements, and I thought that they had to be understood, not in a scientific way, but as a broader aesthetic and intellectual movement."
For others on the Left, however, the response to 1968, and later to the fall of the Berlin Wall, was more reactionary. "Left-wing people in France recycled the Marxist critique of bourgeois society. There was a disappointment that was transformed into a kind of resentment. So we still have the same kind of attacks against commodification, consumption and so on, but they are all now directed against democratic individualism."
There does seem to be some kind of irony, however, in the fact that Rancière's attack on elites comes in the form of an elitist publication. "I would say that French political philosophy is influential more in intellectual debates than in the sphere of public debate," he concedes. "I don't think that it is a great force, but in France after 1968 intellectuals tended to become interpreters of society and culture for the governmental elite. I don't think that French critical thinking is deeply engaged with specific political movements, but there is a certain difference between political debate and intellectual debate about politics."
Still, Rancière has an influence on real politics that his British-based colleagues might well envy. "In France there are four lines of my book that were quoted by Ségolène Royal (the Socialist candidate for president), but I don't think she read it, of course. Somebody around her put those lines in the speech because they had a nice ring to them." Indeed they do: "Among those who know how to share with anybody and everybody the equal power of intelligence, democracy can conversely inspire courage, and therefore joy."
Rancière certainly does hope that his work will have at least some impact on the struggle for democracy it describes.
"This is just part of an attempt made by people in many places to have their say in political matters. It is something that you can see very clearly in France because there is such a distance between the official stage of what is called politics and what people experience and think.
There is a lot of debate in many places. What's important is not so much the result of the debates but the intensity of the discussion. For instance, over the referendum on Europe people read the constitution very closely before debating it. I think people have a real desire to intervene in political debates. It's very difficult to know how, but I think the most important thing is to say to people that they can do it."
Julian Baggini is editor of The Philosophers' Magazine . Jacques Rancière's Hatred of Democracy is published by Verso, £17.99.