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Steven Corcoran (The University of New South Wales, Australia)

Thinking Politics outside Sovereign Biopower


    What I would like to speak about today concerns the relation of ethics to politics. Starting with the contemporary privileging of ethics over politics, I will attempt to show that this primacy amounts to no more than a depoliticisation. It covers over an effective political situation. Then I will briefly sketch another way of understanding the relation of politics to ethics, as developed by Jacques Rancière, which affirms the primacy of politics and its subjective figures.


Ethics 1: The subject of Human rights

     What does ethics mean today? On a first reading we could say ethics concerns, in a privileged fashion, “human rights.” The subject of these rights is the would-be possessor of rights that are in some sense natural (rights to survive, not to be maltreated etc.) and of fundamental liberties (of opinion, of expression, of the democratic designation of governments). Ethics in this relation means being preoccupied with these rights and liberties, ensuring that they are respected. And politics is entreated to hail to these universal imperatives.

    As a point of historical reference it is essential to recall that this prevailing discourse succeeds in the vacuum left by the failure of projects of emancipation and its political actors. For numerous intellectuals and politicians, now bereft of any sense of history, or of any idea that politics could exist in a scene apart from global capitalism and parliamentary democracy, human rights, once the ideology of the bourgeois enemy, have taken on a form of self-evidence. Even on the left, opposition to the idea of organised political engagement and the defence of formal human rights and its humanitarian individualism is almost universally assented to. 

    For the human rights advocate, such projects are smeared with the taint of evil. It is not uncommon to hear it said that collective political projects turn inevitably into their opposite, the totalitarian evil of the Gulag. It is thus that in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet empire appeared the promise of the “irresistible movement…to a peaceful post-historical world where global democracy would match the global market of liberal economy.”[1] As is well-known, this is not exactly how things turned out. Evil can no longer be thought of as produced by totalitarian regimes.

    The presuppositions of the ethics of human rights may be considered as follows: first, a rejection of any positive determination of the good, or of positive projects of human emancipation; second, the idea that there exists a natural or spiritual identity, the subject of rights, who is the foundation of an ethical doctrine, notably one of the consensual legislation concerning humans in general, their needs, lives and deaths. Moreover, the ethics of human rights presupposes an evident and universal delimitation of that which is evil, of that which is unsuitable for human essence (and, particularly, organised collective political engagement). Kant provides the key reference for much of this discourse, within whose perspective the categorical imperative becomes an imperative in relation to cases of evil. Evil becomes the matter on which is exercised the ultimate instance of ethical judgement. And the ethical capacity becomes the a priori capacity to discern such evil, evil whose self-evidence forgoes the requirement of an investigation of the situation or at least “should not be subordinated to the consideration of empirical facts.”[2] We might note in passing that it is, roughly speaking, this dispositif which has enabled States to dote themselves with the right to interference in the affairs of other states, military adventures which ultimately boil down to the right to invasion under the cover of the protection of human rights.

    The problem for us is this negative definition of the ethico-political task (prevent or resist evil) and its attendant idea of humanity as victim. Or rather, since this human is not only passive but also active, that is, capable of intervening in evil, we can say, along with Badiou that humanity is that which is capable of recognising itself as a victim.[3] It is not hard to see how this

 split ethical subject presents itself on the international stage: on the one hand, the passive subject, the victim who suffers violations of human rights; on the other, the determining or active subject who discerns evil and decides that it must be curbed. It is this split which has marked the international stage: vast numbers of men and women, supposed bearers of natural rights, in fact have no rights to speak of. Abstract human rights are paradoxically the rights of the rightless. The only real rights are citizens rights, individuals whose state is strong enough to protect them. These states are the same states which intervene to uphold the rights of those who have been reduced to their pure status as victim. A mutual dependency is carved out between the victim and the do-gooder of civilisation who intervenes in evil to bring some civility to the uncivilised. The regime of human rights is not without a certain scorn for the other.

    We might say that this is the picture of a politics subordinated to ethics. It outlines a scenario of an ethics which reduces humanity to the status of victim; which bears solely on what is and thus prevents thinking of political invention of the creation of possibles. It is inherently conservative. And it prevents any real analysis of situations: evil is evil, end of question. What matters is the sympathising and indignant judgement of a spectator of the circumstances. But as Žižek, among others, pointed out à propos of the conflict in ex-Yugoslavia: the moment the West constituted itself as the spectator of a human rights tragedy (the tragic whirlpool of ethnic hatreds that are the Balkans) the situation was immediately depoliticised. Yet, as always, each situation has its specific actors who take sides. The position of neutrality taken by the West was a fake.

   What matters in this vision is the subject and its victim. And moreover, what matters is that good is defined out of Evil and not the reverse. Good is the prevention or interference in evil. Consensus is built around what constitutes evil, which because it has its affects in suffering and deprivation has a certain self-evidence. Human rights are ultimately the right to non-evil. All of this is of course debunked by the evidence of what is visibly going on around us. Imperial crusades, the unchaining of egoisms, the unleashing of ethnic violence etc.


Ethics: Does the Other exist?

     It might of course be said that ethics does not base itself on a general notion of humanity. There are those who claim that ethics is an ethics of the other, an ethics of difference. Politics here would be constrained by its duty to recognise the others alterity (against racism). Or it would consist in an ethics of differences, against substantialist nationalisms which exclude  immigrants, and against sexual discrimination. Or it again it would advocate postmodern multiculturalism, i.e. the non-unifiable dispersion of models of comportment and intellectualness.

    As Badiou writes, if theories of the subject of human rights take Kant as their reference point, theories of the other take Levinas. It was he who first gave radical expression to the primacy of the Other over the Same. What, however, guarantees the primacy of the other? Phenomenological analyses cannot clarify that which proves my original devotion to the Other. The phenomenological analyses of the face, of the caress, of love. There is nothing to prevent such encounters being analysed as the myself-at-a-distance whom I cherish, as the exteriorisation of the self. In the end, the primacy of the Other must be, as Badiou argues, posited as founded on an entirely religious category: the Tout-Autre. This wholly Other is a principle which transcends simple finite experience. (As Badiou says, the ethical name of God). But this is a God which is unpronounceable, and which resists all predication, all attempts to reduce it to the logic of the Same.[4]

    If we can go so far as to say that Levinas’ ethics is the most rigorous attempt to think an originary ethical, then it should remind us that all attempts to make of ethics the basis of thought and action is essentially religious.

    Today’s discourse of an ethics of the other, of respect for alterity, relies upon this thought-dispositif, but suppresses or masks its religious value. Without this religious basis the dispositif is obviously flawed, but it nonetheless retains a functional or an ideological value. We know, for example, that it serves as a kind of subjective supplement for Western governments; and that in the domain of cultural sociology it is a substitute for the analysis of class struggle.

    As several commentators have noted, the problem is that rather than define a respect for alterity, an ethics of the other seems to define an identity or a mode of life. It has not gone unnoticed that this respect for “difference” quickly subsides when anything too different comes along. The culinary, dancing other is fine. As soon as the other in the raw of its enjoyment gets too close it becomes totalitarian, reactionary and still too rooted in its web of spatio-temporal belonging, etc. And when the other in question does not respect this respect for difference, this respect vanishes. There is, in short, no respect for those who do not respect differences in the way that I do. Which means to say, essentially that the other that is respected is only presentable as a “good” other – that is, an other that is what if not the same as us.  

    An ethics of the other only works against the background of “consensus” politics. What is consensus politics? Consensus politics, before it is the preference of a taste for discussion, is the agreement of what is “objectively” the situation. This situation is that of large scale financial and geo-strategic equivalences – posited as necessities – which form the basis for discussion. Each group having accepted these givens then enters into discussion to procure the best share that may be hoped for. This requires that each group submit itself to a logic of representation. Each group must make itself specifiable and thus identifiable, and submit itself to an instance of judgement embodied in the state apparatus. Consensus politics thus calls for state intervention. The current preoccupation with ethics works to hide this thoroughly political dimension of the current situation, its function of governmental legitimation. Moreover, it covers over the fact that this mode of political operation defines an ethos: an identitarian mode of the community which adequates manners of doing, manners of being, and manners of saying.

    Against the background of these large-scales equivalences, the consensus politics of governments relates to a series of possibilities in relation to social, ethical, and cultural questions which are strictly marginal. The left and the right may be placed according to whether they do more or less in the way of such questions. But if a manner of being, a manner of saying and a manner of doing emerges which is heterogeneous to parliamentary-democracy, and to monetary abstraction – like that of the militants in May ’68, or that of the French workers in the strikes of 95 – then they both rally to stigmatise it as being out of step with the being in common of the community, destructive to its being-together. Founding politics in ethics amounts to giving politics an underlying principle or arkhè, it amounts to a totalising logic of the community as without supplement or void, and which, when something emerges that is considered malignant to this being-in-common, needs to be ablated.

    The pertinent opposition is not between the old ideological, conflictual politics which tends toward totalitarianism, and the new gentle mode of politics which is more attentive to the movements of the social and devoted to upholding human rights. The pertinent opposition is between two modes of politics: a mode which, in pretending to be subordinated to ethics, and in stigmatising all other heterogeneous political sequences with the smear of totalitarianism, is an attempt to cement hegemony; and a mode of political sequences which try to break with this logic of the conservation of property and of being characteristic of parliamentary-democracy and its ideology of human rights, and which attempt to introduce other possibles in the being-in-common of the community. We may say then that the attempt to submit the community to an ethics is but the reduction of politics to the preservation of the status quo, a legitimation of the current order. Indeed, today’s discourse on “illegal immigrants,” on the “war against terrorism,” and on “human rights” barely mean anything else except the conservation of “western” privilege and property.


Ethics not external to but interior to politics

     If neither “man” nor the “other” exist, is it a question then of getting rid of ethics? Yes and no. Yes, if ethics is understood as a specific, a-temporal, domain of thought, with its specific norms, problems etc. No, if ethics is understood as ethics of…as an ethics of political sequences, an ethics of situations. No, that is, if ethics is thought of internal to politics. What has always been essential to progressive politics is to disrupt the logic of the glorious body of the community, since this latter always requires the exclusion of those who do not share the requisite properties. In the terms of Jacques Rancière, this disruption always depends on the emergence of a subject which is in supplement to the logic of the count of the community, and the distribution of its parts into places and functions. And since such hierarchical divisions define manners of being, doing and saying that assign to some the gift of speech enabling them to decide on matters of the common of the community, and reject others into the greyness of inexistence, a political subject emerges to dispute this inegalitarian logic which wrongs the community. A political subject is the emergence of an unheard-of figure (the people, the demos, women, workers, etc.) which through the enacting of this wrong demonstrates an instance of speech which tears speech away from the distribution of titles and qualities defining the communal body. What this figure demonstrates is that when it comes to matters of community, anyone is in principle capable of speaking of matters concerning the common.   

    Contrary to consensus politics, it does not define a simple liberty of opinion. This is the simple liberty of individuals to decide on preconstituted matters concerning the acceptable number of immigrants, the political future of such and such a minister etc. A political subject is an always inventive, irreducibly collective instance of enunciation. This inventiveness may concern the raising of new questions, the politicising of domains of life, such as work, the household, etc. But it always works to include that which was arbitrarily excluded from the political community, which we may call a count of the uncounted. Political subjectivation does not refer back to an immanent unity of non-division: the counted of the uncounted opposes the count of the community, suspending the assignation of speech to a rank on which it depends.

     This moment constitutes a singular instance of speech. But because it affirms the essential equality of anyone with anyone else this singularisation of speech is at once a universalisation. It is a universalisation which is in excess of all group predication. As such it is not, as is the case with “humanitarian” intervention, action performed in the name of “civilisation.” It is a universalisation which, against the logic intrinsic to every socio-political order, which divides beings into those who speak and those who merely emit noise, affirms the fundamental equality of everyone. Politics in this sense is about the recognition of the Same.[5] 

    This politics of the Same rests on certain axioms. First, that there is no God. No instance of Oneness. Instead, the One is not. There is nothing but multiplicity without one. Which means, in essence, that the multiplicity of human activities, their customs of eating, ways of speaking, styles of music, the organisation of their jouissance, etc. is not the simple fact which is to be respected – but which is, as we saw, an unsustainable attitude with even its most fervent advocates – but a simple banality. In Badiou’s words, infinite alterity is simply that which there is.

    What an ethics of the other aims at is precisely these differences, but this has the effect of subordinating politics to ethics. A politics of the Same opposes the banality of what there is, to a sequence which is indifferent to differences. It should not be confused with a politics which would impose a single model of comportment or intellectuality on the irreducible dispersion of norms and values. Badiou’s notion of a politics of the Same inverts this schema, since what becomes important now is the universal as an instance which disrupts the status quo by proposing possibles, the advent of something entirely new, whose address is universal. That this movement or event will be opposed by the inertia of the situation, and the indifference, indeed hate, of financial interest for singular events, takes nothing away from its universality.     

    What defines man is not his being-for-death. Nor is it not this fact that he is capable of recognising himself as a victim, or of devotion to the Other. Such recognition sustains itself on the simple fact of the infinite multiplicity of being. Considerations of this sort thus are not capable of introducing anything new into the web of being, into the multiplicity of possible predications. Humans are defined rather by the singular instances which escape generality. And such singularisations do not rest upon anything but the void. In other words, there is no Subject of universal experience, but as many subjects, in politics, as there are singular political events. These subjects form a series without unification, which is why it is impossible to speak of an Ethics.

    How can we think this instance of singular universality in which ethics, and the relation to an other, is elaborated internally to politics? Jacques Rancière gives us a way of doing this. Schematically, he defines this instance of singular universality as the appearance of a subject (the proletariat, the demos, etc.) which reconfigures the sensible world of the social order which defines a sphere of inequality. For Rancière, politics is the effectuation of a basic presupposition of equality which underlies the inegalitarian social order. Equality here is properly void, a paradoxical property which cannot be set as a goal, thought of as an essence, or inscribed in the law as a given, but affirmed in the here and now. The subject of politics occurs in this event, it is the collective fidelity to this incalculable supplement to every situation. The political subject rearranges the elements of the situation to produce always singular effects of equality – but this equality has no substance and relates to no Subject outside of these singular instances. Political subjectivity – whether it be called, the Man of Rights, the proletariat, women, or those included under the French May slogan of “We are all German Jews” – is always a subject in excess of the distribution of bodies in community which is sustained by nothing other than the void.

    What is the place of the other here? Political subjectivation, happens for Rancière, first and foremost in the process of a disidentification. This could be a disidentification of what it means to belong to such and such a group, nation, etc. It is a dislocation of any shared experience of community which counts in a wronged other, an other who has been excluded. On Rancière’s analysis, for example, the militants of May ’68 in France, with their “third-worldism” were inscribed in a disidentification with the French State that was precipitated by its cover up of the massacre of Algerians in 1961. The militantism of the French students and workers, he claims, passed through this identification of the other in the disidentification of self. The cause of the other, the uncounted and covered up other, became included through this disidentification. A disparity was introduced into the French identity, a questioning of what it meant to be French, that meant the other was not looked on with pity or out of moral indignation. The other was not viewed as a victim, but as a political being, struggling against the contradiction which gave them political citizenship and the juridical system which denied it. 

    The events preceding and May ’68 itself were, he argues, inscribed in the space opened up by this struggle. Their polity did not concern a change in mentalities or mores. On the contrary, Rancière shows how it is possible to think May as operating an essentially political inclusion of the other which is not that of morality. The features of this discourse are threefold[6]: a refusal of an identity fixed in relation to an other (French/Algerian), and so a rupture with a certain self; Second, a demonstration which addresses itself to an other and constitutes a community defined by a certain tort. In the occurrence, the tort of the effacing of the Algerians from the political space and its cover up. Third, an impossible identification  with an other to which, at the same time, one cannot be identified. Exemplary here is the slogan that would be chanted by tens of thousands of French people in May ‘68, “We are all German Jews.” In this slogan the construction of the “we” did not relate to any classifiable social group “wretched of the earth” or otherwise with which the demonstrating activists could be confused.

    But it created an instance of enunciation in which the cause of the other could be espoused. Because it was a movement which, in making this impossible identification, responded to another political difference to self, the juridico-state difference between the French citizen, with supposedly universal rights, and the French subject, posited as a cultural essence from which Algerians were excluded. Opposing this privileged juridical status of the French subject, was the May movement’s invention of a political citizenship as the count of the uncounted. Today, combating political inequity will not be achieved by promoting an ethics to which politics should submit. On the contrary, it will involve disidentifying with ourselves in an impossible identification. Perhaps the appropriate slogan for today is “We are all illegal immigrants.”

[1] Jacques Rancière. ‘Who is the subject of the rights of man?’ p. 1

[2] Alain Badiou. L’Ethique: Essai sur la conscience du Mal. p. 10  

[3] Badiou, L’Ethique p. 12

[4] see ibid. pp.  19-24

[5] Badiou. L’Ethique. p. 25

[6] see Jacques Rancière. ‘Pour cause de l’autre’. Aux bords du politique. Folio essais. pp212-13