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  • Ten Theses on Politics
  • Jacques Rancière (bio)

Thesis 1:[1]

Politics is not the exercise of power. Politics ought to be defined on its own terms, as a mode of acting put into practice by a specific kind of subject and deriving from a particular form of reason. It is the political relationship that allows one to think the possibility of a political subject(ivity) [le sujet politique],[2] not the other way around.

To identify politics with the exercise of, and struggle to possess, power is to do away with politics. But we also reduce the scope of politics as a mode of thinking if we conceive of it merely as a theory of power or as an investigation into the grounds of its legitimacy. If there is something specific about politics that makes it something other than a more capacious mode of grouping or a form of power characterized by its mode of legitimation, it is that it involves a distinctive kind of subject considered, and it involves this subject in the form of a mode of relation that is its own. This is what Aristotle means when, in Book I of the Politics, he distinguishes between political rule (as the ruling of equals) from all other kinds of rule; or when, in Book III, he defines the citizen as ‘he who partakes in the fact of ruling and the fact of being ruled.’ Everything about politics is contained in this specific relationship, this ‘part-taking’ [avoir-part],[3] which should be interrogated as to its meaning and as to its conditions of possibility.

An interrogation into what is ‘proper’ to politics must be carefully distinguished from current and widespread propositions regarding “the return of the political.” In the past several years, and in the context of a state-consensus, we have seen the blossoming of affirmations proclaiming the end of the illusion of the social and a return to a ‘pure’ form of politics. Read through either an Arendtian or Straussian lens, these affirmations focus on the same Aristotelian texts gestured to above. These readings generally identify the “proper” political order with that of the eu zen (i.e., a conception of the good) as opposed to a zen (conceived as an order of mere living). On this basis, the frontier between the domestic and the political becomes the frontier between the social and the political; and to the idea of a city-state defined by its common good is opposed the sad reality of modern democracy as the rule of the masses and of necessity. In practice, this celebration of pure politics entrusts the virtue of the ‘political good’ to governmental oligarchies enlightened by “experts;” which is to say that the supposed purification of the political, freed from domestic and social necessity, comes down to nothing more (or less) than the reduction of the political to the state [l’étatique].

Behind the current buffooneries of the ‘returns’ of the political (that include ‘the return of political philosophy’), it is important to recognize the vicious circle that characterizes political philosophy; a vicious circle located in the link between the political relationship and the political subject. This vicious circle posits a way of life that is ‘proper’ to politics. The political relationship is subsequently deduced from the properties of this specific order of being and is explained in terms of the existence of a character who possesses a good or a specific universality, as opposed to the private or domestic world of needs or interests. In short, politics is explained as the accomplishment of a way of life that is proper to those who are destined for it. This partition — which is actually the object of politics — is posited as its basis.

What is proper to politics is thus lost at the outset if politics is thought of as a specific way of living. Politics cannot be defined on the basis of any pre-existing subject. The political ‘difference’ that makes it possible to think its subject must be sought in the form of its relation. If we return to the Aristotelian definition, there is a name given to the subject (politès) that is defined by...