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Steve Corcoran


In consensus politics we encounter the attempt to construct a concept of democracy for the postmodern age. We are told that the divisive attitudes of yesteryear precluded the development of a veritable contract by which could be decided the institutional arrangements apt to govern and confront the problems of today’s world. Consensus politics, as the general name given to this model, affirms the ideal of a speech situation in which individuals and social groups reach rational agreement, having “understood” that knowledge of the possible and negotiation among partners is the best way to optimise what can be hoped for given the objective parameters of the situation. Consensus politics is the would-be form of a truly democratic politics in which the properties and sensibilities of the liberal individual’s inner democratic potential may at last flourish. Our point will not be to oppose to this model the republican critique of narcissistic individual to propose a new model of politics founded on older ideals of community. Rather, the point will be to sketch the processes which make this distinction largely irrelevant. The postmodern polis is simultaneously the production of the individualistic citizen and the construction of a new structure of community, of a new figure of the One.

The problem is that the series of existential coordinates selected for the concept rely on a symbolic pact whose universality is manifestly too narrow. Consensual democracy sustains itself through a consensus on what exists and on what this reality determines in the way of political possibility. In keeping with the literal meaning, consensus is an agreement on the sensory givens of the situation, an agreement about what is perceptible. The problem is that the objective constraints consented to are sustained by a series of processes which are not at all impartial or neutral, and whose essential feature is the negation of inventive collective politics. These are processes which ensure that words always refer to things, that speech is reducible to place, and that names directly designate empirically definable categories. The only exceptions to this reduction are the words of the powers that be themselves: policing words (clandestine, illegal immigrant, terrorist, Muslim, ignorant) which, lacking any consistency, have the main function of disqualifying any serious political thinking.

Consensual democracy is presented as a neutral form organically linked to today’s social and economic complexities. It is also the fabrication of a community of sense, of a subjective unity of the community, localised in the state, which declares what is and what is not possible based on the expert knowledge linked to these determining processes. At the macro-level of economy, finance and geo-strategy, the decisions taken are presented as inevitable. Having adopted these “constraints,” governments then adopt an attitude of arbitration in relation to the minimal social possibilities left behind. The space of these possibilities is maintained by a carefully controlled set of rules for discussion. This space is therefore anything but neutral, which is how it is presented by its advocates. What this space excludes are not just the “terrorist” and other clandestine, xenophobic etc., groups, but also the struggles for workers rights and for the rights of collectivities that we saw in Seattle, Genoa and on many other occasions. That is to say, there will always be an indivisible remainder of those who contest limiting political action to a communal symbolic pact. And this since this contestation cannot be quashed by objective means the powers that be will rely on legal, ethical, and repressive measures to do so. For the guardians of the order this simply makes good sense; for those people concerned to invent egalitarian modes of being this is not so good.

What I will briefly sketch in this paper are the processes that the term consensus democracy attempts to encode as natural. The encoding itself relies on symbolic processes, which demarcate the political from the social, speech from the utterance of interests. It is the latest effort to found politics on a mode of life capable of embodying the place of universality. We will alight from a different set of suppositions. We will not suppose that the universality of political form is the accomplishment of a mode of life, a pre-existent subject, destined for a politics defined as managing the affairs of the polis. Our axiom is that the political subject, the people, emerges through the singularity of a form of action which suspends the functioning of power. Democracy proper, as a political act, by a part that, from within the rules of the order, is deemed “impossible” and whose demand for inclusion forces a radical change in the rules of inclusion: radical here means rules that allow people themselves to count themselves in. This form of action thus does not take place in an empty space of political power organically linked to a pre-existent community because political subjectivation is always the out-of-place which suspends the social logic of community. It is a subject which emerges in excess of the “normal” social distribution of titles and qualities by demonstrating a collective capacity, against those who make politics their profession, of everyone and anyone. This demonstration can never be reduced to a state of the social or to a telos of history. Finally, the form of democratic appearing is never neutral or indifferent to its contents. It is radically partisan because the radically of democracy always pits the people against the interests of the state of the situation.

What I will try to show briefly is the singularity of “consensus politics.” I will illustrate this by showing that the form of “democracy” in force today can better be grasped not as the development of the properties of democratic man, but as an attempt to evacuate the emergence of egalitarian, litigious and divisive politics. In doing this I will lean heavily on the work of Jacques Rancière, who presents the present form of so-called consensus democracy not as the truth of the social upon which it would be founded but in terms of a transformation and disfiguration of political subjectivation proper and its dissensual forms.

Context and paradoxes

It is indispensable to recall the context in which the expression “consensus democracy” gained massive usage. The context is that of the apparent triumph of parliamentary-capitalist regimes over their communist rivals. During times in which a fierce rivalry existed between the two, millions of militant communists and socialists vigilantly watched over the implementation of constitutional guarantees and other formal declarations of the sovereignty of the people in our social-democratic societies. For the suspicion reigned, even among many of parliamentary democracy’s proponents, that its forms were purely formal and rather expressed the interests of the capitalist class. To the merely ideal people spoken of in constitutions, communists and socialists opposed the real community of those who would really be equal. The collapse of the communist alternative has led to a widespread dismissal of this Marxist notion of the people and of real democracy. Lifting the weight of this suspicion seemed finally to have yielded a situation in which it became possible to valorise without ulterior motive the forms of our democratic societies – democracy here meaning the institutional mechanisms of the sovereignty of the people – and simply “to identify democracy and state of right, the state of right and liberalism and to see in democracy the ideal figure of the accomplishment of the phusis of enterprising, desiring man as community nomos.”

Yet throughout the world, our “democratic societies” tend to a continual degradation of forms of parliamentary control and other representative mechanisms, as well as to a progressive transfer of political powers to non-responsible instances (judges, experts, commissions etc.,), to a more charismatic conception of the political leader, and so on.

To all this the “philosophical” accompaniment to consensus politics gives a rather ad hoc response. Democratic wisdom, it is said, does not lie so much in paying scrupulous attention to “institutions assuring the power of the people as it does in assuring the appropriateness of the forms of exercise of the political to the modes of being of a society, to the forces which move it, to the interlocking needs, interests, and desires from which the social fabric is woven.” Democracy here would be the appropriateness of a form to the theories of optimal outcomes for the social body, and to the processes of individualisation and to the solidarities they impose. The political form of democracy is thus conceptualised as a reduction of the political to the natural movements of the social. The problem is that this is thus presented in the Marxist terms of real democracy. But having dropped all reference to the Marxist people as the figure of overcoming of politics in its truth, all that is maintained is a sort of rampant Marxism according to which politics is “the expression of a certain state of the social and the bulk of its forms are made up by the development of its productive forces.”

Consensual discourse propagates an inverted Marxism whose aim is to subject all collective willing to a reality principle, whose distillate is the economy, to keep it within the bounds it is thus able to set between the possible and the impossible, the political and the social. This economic reality is deemed to be both necessary and precarious, that is, not to be argued over and best left to expert management so that we do not fall into the pit of economic ruin. The critical value that Marxism afforded generations of militants was precisely the opposite: the consciousness that what was presented as merely natural state of the objective world (that the world of work is private etc.) can be submitted to the collective will. It carried in it the consciousness that the line between the political and the social can be redrawn in the general interest. That is where the Leninist form of the Party drew its legitimacy from. The universality of postmodern polis, on the other hand, appears in the form of judgements on phenomena deemed in or out of step with the times of a forced identitarian attitude.

Proponents of the system characterise it as an adaptation of political form to the new social realities and complexities of the modern world. The “demise” of class-based society and the antagonisms apparently grounded in it, has now given way to a smoother, more consensual polis. Once having agreed to the institutional arrangements for governing the complexities of modern society, rational discussion between consenting partners can take place. What this description of consensus democracy misses, however, is that consensus doesn’t merely refer to a taste for discussion and/or social peace. Before it is a taste for peace over conflict, consensus politics demands that, in order to receive the maximal share of the pie permitted by the objective givens of the situation, negotiation partners conduct themselves as clearly identifiable entities. Consensual centrism, fundamentally orientated around the objectivities of the economy, requires a constant process of self-representation in which groups must first signal their existence, their belonging to social groups, and therefore to categories which have rights. Consensus thus first and foremost means an agreement over the objective, sensory givens of the situation, over who and what constitute that situation. In Rancière’s terms, it is a partition of the perceptible, that is, “a configuration of a field of perception-in-common.” “Consensus,” he says, “means the sharing of a common and non-litigious experience: its essence is the affirmation of the preconditions that determine political choice as objective and univocal.”

Slavoj Žižek has characterised the dominant dynamic of the post-political universe as a particularisation-in-globalisation. This expression captures nicely the two levels at work here. First, there are the large-scale equivalences of financial, economic and geo-strategic power which, having come to the stage of the whole world, are posited as the minimum of objectivity around which we can orientate ourselves. This situation of constraint, adopted by both the left and the right, positions the state as an expert manager of these general constraints. It thus enables politics to be perceived as an affair of experts, and as the place where by virtue of their expertise they can norm access to the state of social reality. Once the constraints are adopted, the government then takes an attitude of arbitration in relation to the remaining possibilities. But these possibilities are strictly marginal. Having adopted the “objective” constraints, the left and the right can no longer distinguish themselves by any dispute over the characterisation of the common space, common problems etc., but only by a little more or a little less in the way of redistribution, by a little more or a little less sensitivity to cultural and lifestyle questions etc.

Often the left is thought progressive in its advocacy of minority rights, multiculturalism etc. is opposed to a right still fixated on economic, and conservatively moral questions. The point here is not to deny the essential necessity to oppose bigotry, sexism, racism etc. It is to note that this distinction between left and right is no longer really viable and, worse, sometimes functions as a displacement of fundamental antagonisms. For the state in general today positively thrives on the multiplication of identities and differences. Consensual centrism feeds upon a complexification of the elements needing to be taken into account within a community. The more there is to be accounted for, the more arbitration is called for. There is thus no incompatibility between the macro-orientation unifying the community and organised by the state, and the micro-politics of proliferating multiple identities and shifting ad hoc coalitions. On the contrary, this consensual state supports itself upon the multiple, or at least upon a certain idea of the multiple as that which lets itself be objectified and counted. What consensualism rejects, on the other hand, is the multiple that functions as a supplement to the count and in rupture with the autorepresentational logic of society.

The point is not to oppose genuine struggle for minority groups. It is to stress that if there are common processes of oppression, classification, stigmatising, exclusion, etc., then the stress should lie not so much on the multi-cultural as on the common struggle. And as soon as you admit that it is a question of a common struggle, you admit that the individual and group identities can be sacrificed, as Badiou would put it, dissolved in its adherence to a collective project which exceeds it. You admit that there are fundamental rights of collectivities to invent, rights which never belong to individuals as such.

The apparatus of appearance of the people

Rancière formulates this transversal political subjectivity, which he characterises as the appearing of the people, in terms of an always singular rupture with the “normal” social distribution. It has three chief elements.

First, there is a sphere of appearance specific to the people. Appearance here is not illusion as opposed to the real. It refers to the appearing – historically signalled by names such as the demos, worker, women, proletariat, etc. – of a supplementary part in relation to the situation, whose real effects produce a radical modification in the field of common experience through the introduction of a visible which modifies the field of the visible. This modification takes place not by redoubling reality with utopian images of a possible egalitarian future but by demonstrating, and thus making appear here and now, an uncounted political capacity. We could describe this unforeseen political capacity as the odd term which interdicts every totalising count or representation of the social totality.

Second, the people is the mark of a unified subjective capacity allowing those who are uncounted, who are consigned to political inexistence, to count themselves in as uncounted and radically alter the rules of political appearing. It is here that Rancière locates the specific effectivity of the people as an effectivity irreducible to any people understood in ethnic or population terms, and as an effectivity which cannot be appropriated or counted by the procedures of state. Indeed, the fact that it cannot be ontologically located in any particular feature is also the reason why the coherence of its demonstration can be occulted.

Third, the place of the appearance of the people is the place of the conduct of litigation. The people argue that the inegalitarian social order wrongfully excludes the possibility of certain subjective capacities from the order of political speech. The dispute waged is therefore irreducible to a conflict of interests. It is a conflict over the very count of parts itself, and on the quality and existence of those present on the scene. Political subjectivation involves an irreducible dissensus or conflict over principles.

It is on this basis Rancière redefines democracy as a specific form of action as opposed to one political regime among others. Democracy for him is the form of appearance of the people through this ternary apparatus. Since what is at stake in “consensus democracy” is the attempt to propagate the self-evidence of a tangible being of the one of the community, it is for Rancière nothing less than a contradiction in terms. It might be better termed post-politics. I mentioned above the problems we have in understanding the singularity of the conjuncture in terms of the consensus politics story. The problem with it lies partly in trying to understand politics in terms of different regimes where democracy would be one institutional regime among others. From this point of view of democracy as regime it would seem that all that could happen politically are the actions of great politicians or regime change. Bush are his cronies would certainly like to make us think so.

I will now briefly illustrate how the contemporary situation can be better grasped in its singularity as a singular way of forgetting the specificity of properly political division and argumentation. Rather than being seen as an order based on a new principles of communal regulation whose rationality derives from the properties of democratic man, post-politics is more appropriately grasped as a series of operations which work to transform democratic appearing by transforming the coherence of its ternary apparatus. Rancière argues that this transformation of the miscount, appearance, and litigation specific to the people through the singular post-political conjunction of a regime of opinion and the regime of right. We will briefly sketch the main features of these regimes.

The regime of opinion

The symbolic efficiency of the appearing of the people is the efficiency of a part which advenes on the surface of forms of domination and objectification symbolising its position as that of a Wrong claiming, against the other parts, that it stands for the universality of equality. Such demonstrations are always singular in their occasion and universal in their implication. They are singular because they always cut across the particular differences of status, origin, ethnicity, religion etc., by which bodies “normally” appear. They evince a singular political difference with respect to the forms of domination which present bodies as functions of empirical categories. And if the implications of singular demonstrations of equality are universal, it is because anyone is capable of freely assenting to or participating in them.

Compare this with Baudrillard’s analyses which reveal vast processes of simulation. In this world the real and its simulacra have become indiscernible. There is no room for the real to eventuate because everything is always already visible; images no longer hark from identities but rather identities are already prefigured in their images: caught in a totalising visibility. Now, capturing the people in a total visibility is not, as Baudrillard would have it, so much a loss of the real as it is a loss of appearing and its powers. It is the loss of this political difference with respect to social objects. This can be alternatively construed as the turning of the people from a subjective capacity of demonstration into an object of knowledge. We might characterise this becoming object of subject in the following three points.

1. The turning of the people as appearance into the people as spectacle. Consensualism transposes real political antagonism into a game between purportedly pre-formed negotiating partners. The very form of the rules of negotiation norms the appearing of bodies. For bodies to claims rights, they must first signal their belonging to social parts, and therefore to categories which have rights. This regime of opinion requires above all that bodies integrally present themselves as belonging to a empirically definable groups which can be counted. Its utopia is that of an “uninterrupted count which presents the sum of public opinion as being identical to the people” without remainder.
In this integral presentation of society to itself the people no longer appear as the mark of a difference with the social distribution but as spectacle to be appropriated. It is the place of “a population exactly identical to the break down of its parties.” This is not, as some claim, the space of a new politics of the multiple; it is the non-place for troubling subjectivities which organise litigious communities and take affairs into their own hands.

2. In this imaginary relationship of the people with itself, the subject of politics, transformed into an object of knowledge, loses its specific effectivity. The indivisibility of the people which worked to make visible a world of equality, to experiment with the gap between speech and place, words and things, gets transformed into a statistical sample. The effectivity of speech proper to the people can then become identical to the instant effectuation of its opinion, reflected in the mirror of a scientific knowledge which breaks down the behaviour of the population in terms of its real, i.e. its socio-economic categories and age cohorts.

3. Post-democratic equality mimics the radical equality of anyone and everyone reinventing it within inequality. Rather than a scene of visibility in which new objects and previously unheard-of voices appear, the space of the specularity of opinion is the incessant enumeration of social parts and places, and of procedures for fitting opinions to their places. The community of “equals,” governed by a science of opinion, is that in which each opinion, and thus each individual, is in the appropriate place. Leave it to the experts to tell us about the realities of the economy, you speak like workers about the problems of your work, and you speak like students, that is, like functionaries in the word trade piling discourse on top of discourse. Here the equality of anyone and everyone gets realised as the fact of not thinking anything other than what your place authorises you to express. Here rather than speaking of common affairs, each parties’ expression is simply its way of partaking “equally” in the community.

The regime of right

Within this specular reign of the commodity form, the law starts to play a different role. The appearing of the people and its difference to itself having been dealt with, the law steps up to settle accounts with the litigation or dispute of the people. In consensual post-politics litigation becomes simply the name of a problem. Whereas the litigation brought on by the people involved symbolising their wrongful exclusion from and equal right to reconfigure the public space, with the regime of right wrong turns into an objective problem. Whereas instituting a wrong is an irreducible conflict over principles, the formulation of a problem is the treatment of a simple lack whose resolution requires only technical solutions. Every obstacle to communal harmony, to unemployment, to immigration, every democratic deficit, gets construed as the time of a delay, which is the delay of its technical solution. And hence, rather than the activity of the people, the problem calls for state intervention: “investigation of what has to be known, of the margins of choice the situation allows, of the parts of the social body that the problem calls forth, and the parties that need to be constituted to discuss it.” You see here that this problem-form itself is not neutral but formative. It leads to a formation of the proper opinions, to the production of the opinions which engender “reasonable” solutions in line with the recognised order of possibilities. Rather than an empty container for various particular problems, the very putting of litigation into the form of the problem works to determine what will count as speech.

The two main phenomena of this regime of right concern the progressive increase in the reach of the law and the increasing particularisation of the idea of rights. These are described by proponents as part of a softer, more minimalist state which gives up something to the judiciary on the one hand and to the social on the other. The result is presumed to be a suppler, more just system apt to adapt to the new sensibilities, new lifestyles and exigencies placed upon us by the modern world and the growing interdependency of economies. But something quite other is at stake in the extension of the juridical domain and the particularisation of areas of law. From the point of view of political subjectivity, always concerned to demonstrate the gap between fact and right, the increasing adaptation of the juridical norm to social and economic initiatives by the extension of rights and their fitting to the shifting particularities of markets, lifestyle and mentalities, appears as the tying of right to fact. The most symptomatic instance of this is the right to work, or the rights of workers. Twenty and thirty years ago worker was a political name in which all could count themselves. With today’s post-politics, it has been reduced to the bare self-evidence of a sociological category. Worker’s rights are increasingly the rights of those who have work, rights which they are “obliged” to have continually “ground away” so they can maintain the privilege of working. The worker is caught between this erosion of rights and the susceptibility of becoming a half-worker, an occasional worker, or simply unemployed. Instead of being a political name, workers now are broken down into the particularity of their place. The heart of this process is the splitting of the “politicised” worker into a “sociologised” two: on the one hand, the “national worker” and, on the other, the “immigrant” become a “problem” threatening the stability of work and object of pre-political hate.

Concerning the extension of the juridical domain, according to Rancière it takes two principal forms.

1. The submission of legislative activity to an expert juridical authority, to experts who tell us what is and what is not in conformity with the spirit of the constitution and the community it defines. Any insignificant article can be declared contrary to the spirit of the community. You can see that what is at stake here is not the submission of the political to the juridical but a statist suppression of political initiative via the juridical. Politics does not require experts who norm access to the spirit of the community. If politics often relies on constitutions it is rather to argue for existing inscriptions by demonstrating the gap between these inscriptions and the effective functioning of the social order. But to submit politics to the figure of the juridical is to deny the demonstrative, evincible, self-configuring nature of the political scene. In other words, the whole point of this consensual operation is to make demonstrations of equality lose the self-evidence of their appearing by making equality appear differently, juridically reinterpreted as giving the same to sameness and difference to difference.

2. The second form, briefly evoked above, lies in the activity of “multiplying and redefining rights, aimed at getting law, rights, the rule of law and the legal ideal circulating throughout society, at adapting to and anticipating all the movements of society.” (153/111). Of course, this can only pass via a fundamental recognition that rights are the rights of parties, not the right of egaliberté appropriated by the empty part of the demos, but a right belonging to a clearly identifiable part of a community; it thereby transforms parties of societies from beneficiaries of rights who fight for those rights, into individuals who are owners of rights, militants of themselves, running from contract to contract, from pleasure to pleasure.

The sum of these processes enable us to see that today’s individual is not the pre-existent moral and enterprising individual of liberalism. The individual is the point at which the particularity of rights and the equality of expressing opinion conjoin in a body. This body is the ideal point of a new type of citizenship as expression of the spirit of the community. This spirit would show itself in the individual, who is no longer that which is convoked by collective projects exceeding him or her, but a microcosm reflecting the global principle of the macrocosm. Contrary to a political subject, a spirit does not pursue, it reveals itself in an ethos. This ethos of citizenship is what all the talk about responsibilities is about. Its ideal is to have the identity of the community to itself constantly mirrored in the multiplicity of energies and responsibilities that look like rights. Only when you pass beyond a certain threshold, and are no longer able to embody this union of energies and responsibilities, no longer able to be the enterprising and desiring individual which reflects the whole, you simply fall out.

To conclude, the form of democracy being proposed today has as its ultimate horizon this growing equivalence between the production of legal relations and the management of market forces. The consensual space marks the absenting of politics, which never belongs to the state and their experts, by putting it in the grip of economic necessity on the one hand and the juridical rule on the other, and uniting them both in the definition of a new citizenship, a citizenship in which the power of the individual proprietor of rights is at the same time the impotence of everyone to redefine the common space. What democracy names today, and what it is a question of breaking with, is none other than this dual referral as the form of politics itself.