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Un coup de dés

Something in the notion (Rancière’s) of democracy as a radical equality — so radical it amounts to a supplication of chance — intrigues me. Resonates with me, rather. That, when it comes down to it, what makes democracy more sensible than the rule of kings, merchants, experts, or other elites, is the dumb chance that would make any such rule on ‘natural’ merits arbitrary. What other than chance endows the sons of kings with their patrimony, merchants with their property, experts with their knowledge? Is luck of birth, turn of the market, or impenetrability of field any good reason to grant right of rule? Democracy would have otherwise: it recognizes that what separates you from me is wholly contingent, that what is at base of us both is common life, that the will of the governing is null without the consent of the governed — that, in fact, that consent can quite easily be withdrawn. Of course, this is hateful to those who want to consolidate their position, to engrave its logic into the mythic stone walls decrying natural laws, to stop all chance developments once and for all, to cement the social order as it is now (or was then) and always should be.

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  1. On the back of my copy here of Luciano Canfora’s La Démocratie comme violence, Tocqueville is quoted as a late echo of the senitments of the text analysed within (The Constitution of Athens by who know who maybe Xenophon). “Although equality, in its most extreme degree, is confused with liberty, the taste that men have for liberty and that which they have for equality are seperate, non equivalent things….liberty affords, from time to time, a certain number of citizens the most sublime pleasures; equality furnishes to each man every day a multitude of small enjoyments.”

    Lots of philosophers talking of chance lately; dispassionately it seems though there’s is this insistence on “urgency”; but chance is deeply ambiguous culturally and also a hot topic for reactionary cocacultre, of course traditionally feminine, which can’t be good, but now a good deal worse even that that. Maybe this is what’s at stake in all the recent discussions of contingency which seems so intent on glamourising the word itself: to take up a committed position about democracy involves an attitude toward chance itself that is really and truly demystified. This takes a certain courage perhaps. The sort constantly under attack by mass culture…cormac mccarthy, promoted by oprah…one’s cultural choices seem to be chance secretly God for the Elect or chance the devil. Even the grumpy contemptuous liberal bobo dissident’s chance the gardener seems to be beyond the pale of a mystical culture working overtime to magnify menace, stack the deck, abolish probability and proportion, and flash red alerts.

  2. Chabert, I’m a bit dense so perhaps you will humor me by unpacking what you mean. I liked Rancière’s book, but some of it I could only understand as a response to trends in the French intellectual scene (this may be because there isn’t really an equivalent American intellectual scene, or at least not one that has the same prominence in public life as in France). In response to people like Henri-Levy or whoever else spewing nonsense on the broadsheets about ‘democratie’. In the states we have nonsense about ‘liberty’ or the current unification of the revolution and the terror. It seems that perhaps American intellectuals never repositioned their critique of totalitarianism after the End of History, and those that did imported their thought from the Continent. (I could be wrong here; but then I try to stay out of the thick of fashionable intellectual-product).

    The parts of the book that I thought got at something more fundamental to reaction were centered around contingency and chance, but not for their own sake. What makes contingency and chance in government important is that it adds a corrective to political stupidity (stupidity often as not takes the form of violence). Why democracy is desirable for those of us who desire it is because we recognize that it’s better to have politics countered by reservations about its ultimate contigency rather than naturalized as untouchable for its transcendence. Which is a fancy way of putting: sane government is one we would submit to whoever was at its helm. If chance put the foulest wretch imaginable at the helm and that gave him political rights to commit acts we cannot accept, then the foundations of government need be restructured.

    I thought Chigurh was more an embodiment of the logic of capitalist accumulation than bare chance. He was chance structured around the rationalized, binding contract; rationality that sought to encompass everything into chance reflected in a flip of the coin. Of course, Fortuna herself is much the same thing.

  3. Rancière is mostly after baby with the bathwater dissidents who are agreed with reactionaries that “democracy” is the rule of a mob unfit to rule. Everyone takes inspiration from arendt who said it’s “entirely imaginable” that in a global democracy, a majority would vote to commit a genocide. Rancière is exploring why this would be “entirely imaginable” to a certain class of folks and why they would mistake the product of their people-fearing imagination for both a relevant political analysis and a likelihood to be averted actively in advance.

    His tracing this to Furet’s rereading of the French Revolution does make it kind of a french centred thing, but I think what he says does apply in the US too, where while the word “democracy” has not reverted to a contemptuous smear meaning the rule of zombified consumers, there is the same rhetoric, “lowest common denominator”, anti”populism”, democracy is the “civilisational catastrophe” brought on by the decadent selfish and ignorant masses. At the same time a critique of democracy which attributes to democracy all the former evils attributed to totalitarianism, which is now understood to be a kind of excess of the equality aspect of democracy, while the decadent civilisational catastrophe which is signified by the rule of the consumer taste of the “lowest common denominator” is an excess of the individualism and libertarian aspect of democracy. so any which way, democracy is the villain, the mob and not the oligarchy are responsible for all the evils of all the societies ever, with even the evils of dictatorships, fascim and stalinism, attributed to excesses of mob rule as much as the evils of the existing formal democracies.

    But I just meant that his argument about the role of randomness in the chosing of democratic governments - which is something french reactionaries have seized on to ridicule in a special way since de Maistre - is, while it does not address this, sharing a theme - the coup de dés - with an awful lot of product arising from his milieux. For Ranciére, the dice throw that chooses governors as you say is an alternative to the dice throw disguised as something else that choses governors in an oligarchy or despotism, but then again, not stacked in ways that perpetuate systematic equality - the oligarchy is just a dice throw for the individual in it, not for the oligarchy itself.

    Anyway, the point was meanwhile, across the hall, or in an adjacent building, or in another niche of this institution, contingency is isolated from its various contexts and considered by itself. One of the things arising from these considerations of isolated contingency is that it is the most deconstructible concept imaginable, fraying when it is moved from one context to another, any such shift so distressing its integrity that it seems about to collapse into necessity.

    And meanwhile, a pop culture fascination with the coup de dés as fate, or disguise of occult powers, on the one hand, and on the other as the means by which the effects of “globalisation” are experienced by the privileged (chance meetings, chains of meaningless collisions, bring the privileged into contact with from those whom structure and order are suppose to keep them apart). The general feeling about chance seems to be bad, its become a bludgeon in the battle to incite cries for order (the “random” feature of victims of terrorism…randomness is at the heart of the definition/demonisation of “terrorists” and simultaneously, in utter contradiction, at the heart of the innocence of state terrorism and murder for profit . Perhaps this accounts for the cultural preoccupation as well as for the incoherence.) I haven’t seen that coen bros movie actually, just the trailer, but that sounds right to me what you say…

  4. tho i suppose if the coin toss is binding, but one “chooses” at gunpoint, it’s kind of a satire of consumer “choice”, which is the official definition of both “freedom” and “democracy” in the decrepit liberalism of the US.

  5. I found the linking of democracy with atrocity to be a common theme. It’s not only the nominal right that does this; I believe in Zizek’s introduction to the Verso pocket Robespierre he ties the Revolution indissolubly to the Terror. And a couple of days ago I heard Daniel Bensaïd say on the radio that for young people the revolution is the terror. This, with the revisionism against 68 shouldn’t be taken as innocuous. It’s a systemic effort to disenchant democracy and revolution.

    You’re right: “lowest common denominator” does crop up; I hadn’t remembered it. I don’t watch TV or read the papers for ‘news’, so I am off in la-la land ignoring many ideological trends. The ones I do catch become stunningly glaring from isolated vantage though.

    Anyway, the point was meanwhile, across the hall, or in an adjacent building, or in another niche of this institution, contingency is isolated from its various contexts and considered by itself.

    Yea. This is weird to me. It was weird to me even while I was in school, and the general attitude that underlies it is one of the things that makes me a bit leery about going back. It is classic reification, sophistic essentializing, etc, and likely as not will only serve to reinforce the revisionism currently underway.

    The general feeling about chance seems to be bad, its become a bludgeon in the battle to incite cries for order

    It could also be that people have internalized the terrible precarity of their economic position. The notion that it is only luck that keeps GM afloat another year, or with numbers good enough not to relocate manufacture overseas, and not the effect of trade contracts. One way to deal with this is with reaction.

    t’s kind of a satire of consumer “choice”, which is the official definition of both “freedom” and “democracy” in the decrepit liberalism of the US.

    Yea, exactly. But I dunno if it was the Coen bro’s intent to make a critique of capitalist logic (if that matters). I was determined to give the movie a satisfactory ‘read’, having just shilled out 16 USD for my wife and I to see it.

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