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Jacques Rancière, Hatred of Democracy, Verso, 2009.

From what I can tell, after reading just two of Rancière’s books, his political project is based on a radical egalitarianism that I’m not sure I’ve seen to urgently expressed anywhere else. In The Ignorant Schoolmaster, he argues for a recognition, or at least an a priori, axiomatic positing, of the equality of intelligence, the fact that anyone can learn anything. In Hatred of Democracy he argues that democracy is the political condition predicated upon the fact that anyone can govern. This, naturally, is not to the liking of all those oligarchs of birth, wealth, and expertise for whom government is good insofar as it is based on a natural legitimacy or “title to rule” which, of course, has typically been based on birth, wealth, and expertise. It is for this reason, Rancière argues, that oligarchs throughout history (including Plato) have hated democracy. Democracy is the government based on no principle of legitimacy, government based on the idea that anyone can be both governor and governed.

The pairing of democracy viewed both as a rigid form of government and as a permissive form of society is the original mode in which the hatred of democracy was rationalized by Plato himself. (94)

Oligarchies of all kinds - including the oligarchies of representative democracy - are seeking at all times to find a principle of legitimacy to set up a “natural” distinction between governor and governed, and at the same time denigrate the excesses of democratic society. They see the ills of society not in domination and exploitation, but in the limitless desires, appetites and pleasures of the democratic consumer. It is this argument that justifies their attempts to curtail democracy. As Rancière puts it, it is the foundational fact of equality that supports inegalitarian societies.

This is not an easy book - it is extremely dense and allusive and, I think, presupposes a deep familiarity with French culture and recent history, as well as all the intellectual dynamics and polemics the circulate among them. However, close attention is repaid in the wealth of radical ideas - the concept of a fundamental, bedrock egalitarianism among them. The book also refers enigmatically to Ranci&egraves;re’s complete political theory, laid out in Dis-Agreement: Politics and Philosophy, which I have yet to read, so I’m not sure I quite understand everything that’s going on.

Finally, it is a bleak book. After discussion all the ways in which democracy - the concept of radical equality - is undermined, exploited, and dominated by oligarchs of birth, wealth, and expertise, and the ways that this plays out in contemporary society, Rancière argues that the traditional beacons of political hope are illusions.

The collective intelligence produced by a system of domination is only ever the intelligence of that system. Unequal society does not carry an equal society in its womb. Rather, egalitarian society is only ever the set of egalitarian relations that are traced here and now through singular and precarious acts. […] It is only entrusted to the constancy of its specific acts. (96-97).

But this only goes to show that democracy is precisely an activity of contestation, an ongoing struggle between egalitarianism and inequality.

Democracy is neither a form of government that enables oligarchies to rule in the name of the people, nor is it a form of society that governs the power of commodities. It is the action that constantly wresrs the monopoly of public life from oligarchic governments, and the omnipotence over lives from the power of wealth. (96)

In the end, I think Rancière does, in fact, offer a very modest suggestion for how to act under the totalizing logic of the current system of domination. It is throughsmall acts of democracy, of total and fundamental egalitarianism, that the (re)distribution of public and private can always be contested, though this too is not without its risks.

This can provoke fear, and so hatred, among those who are used to exercising the magisterium of thought. But among those who know how to share with anybody and everybody the equal power of intelligence, it can conversely inspire courage, and hence joy.

It is the mention of the equality of intelligence that ties this book (and political equality) with the equality of The Ignorant Schoolmaster. Bit by bit I think I am starting to get an inkling, piecemeal, of Rancière’s intriguing political and intellectual project.


As with Rancière’s positing of equality of intelligence, this radical egalitarianism has deep consequences for libraries. The current governance model of libraries (and universities) is one predicated on the title of expertise - whether that’s defined as experience or “excellence”, marking a clear distinction between governors and governed. This hierarchy also exists in the privileging of “leaders” and “leadership”. What is interesting here is the absent terms in these “natural” hierarchies. We don’t have a common term for “librarians who aren’t managers”, nor do we hear about the “followers” required for “leadership” to have any material basis. Following Rancière, I would argue that this absence is based on precisely the same hatred of democracy present in society at large. The fiction of a natural hierarchy in our profession (of experts and… non-experts) is maintained precisely on the absence of the subservient term despite the physical presence of the people the term should describe. The principle of collegial governance, lacking but paid lip-service to, is predicated on exactly the capability of anyone to govern, which is exactly why it remains an impotent signifier within the structures of domination at play in academic libraries. The situation becomes even worse when we expand our scope beyond MLIS-holding librarians to the hierarchies of governance stretching “down” through library technicians to support staff and subcontracted service workers (labour which is, as we know, supported by “natural” hierarchies of race and gender). As Rancière maintains, the inequality of our profession - like the inequality of our society - is based precisely on a denial of equality which is - radically - enshrined in our very democracy itself.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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