Lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living

Jacques Rancière’s neoliberal pedagogy

Reading an excellent article from Nina on the possibility of a more just educational system, which makes a determined attempt to enlist Rancière in this project. As it happens I’ve been reading a chunk of Rancière for my dissertation of late, which has sharpened my skepticism towards him, and I’m more convinced than ever that Rancière is of no use in thinking about liberatory education. Maybe this is a result of differences between francophone and anglophone intellectual cultures, but the “mastery” Rancière attacks seems absurdly anachronistic, a model of education swept away at least by the late 60s (indeed, rejected by progressive educators since the 20s). Not to belittle the importance of these reforming projects, but not only is Rancière’s advocacy of an exploratory and democratic education, as against a directive and hierarchical one, rather pushing at an open door, it’s pushing at an open door that has proved to be a plausible entry point for neoliberalism. Indeed it’s worse than that: Rancière’s ignorant schoolmaster is, it seems to me, the perfect figure of neoliberal authoritarianism.

The way in which a schoolmaster-supposed-to-be-wise can be authoritarian is fairly clear: the master posits a knowledge to which they alone have access, and they control the student by regulating their access to this supposed knowledge. But a pedagogy based on knowledge can also be egalitarian, if the knowledge of the master marks a purely contingent difference: the teacher happens to know something which in principle anyone can know, and the process of teaching consists in offering this knowledge to the student, for the student to do what they wish with. In the case of the ignorant schoolmaster, such equality is not possible. If the schoolmaster and the student are equally ignorant, what differentiates them? Either a purely arbitrary authority, or an authority grounded not in knowledge but in technique; the ignorant schoolmaster does not know what is being taught, but nonetheless knows how to teach it. This supposedly subject-neutral technique is the domain of Department of Education civil servants planning the National Curriculum, or university administrators deciding which departments to ax. Our contemporary Jacotot is Michael Gove.

That a supposed egalitarianism ends up underwriting a marked authoritarianism is consistent with a more general failing of Rancière’s work, which is that his radicalism seems to be limited to that of early 19th century republicanism. The axiom of equality is, after all, an axiom of liberalism, and Rancière’s equality is, like liberalism’s, formal and ultimately obfuscatory. This is illuminated by the connection Nina draws between Rancière’s positing of educational equality and Virno’s discussion of the “general intellect” in post-Fordist, communicative, capitalism. This is an extremely interesting connection but not one which is, I think, ultimately to Rancière’s credit. The fundamental difference between Rancière and Virno is that Rancière’s equality is a posited universal indifferent to any actual realization, while the general intellect is a real abstraction, something that develops through a specific set of material circumstances.

Politically, this means that Rancière focuses on discursive strategies that supposedly obscure this fundamental equality, ignoring the problem of real inequalities, and the material and institutional arrangements that reproduce them, and which might be reconfigured to produce a real equality. When Rancière attempts to show the denial of equality that produces the class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, he admits that “it had doubtless ceased  to be said that the members of the modern proletariat, the equivalent of the plebians of antiquity, are not speaking beings. It is simply assumed that there is no connection between the fact that they speak and the fact that they work” (Disagreement, 51). I’m not sure that this was ever true, but it’s surely not true in today’s capitalism, where communication is a crucial instrument of proletarianization.

More generally, Rancière’s focus on an equality that is prior to any actual arrangements of inequality means that he abandons class politics in favor of the kind of liberal universalism criticized by Marx in “On the Jewish Question.” Yes, Rancière claims that equality introduces the political division between the community and the part-with-no-part which has nothing in common with the community but this bare equality. But this assertion of equality works as an assertion of equality of the excluded with the rulers; the plebians “execute a series of speech acts that mimic those of the patricians” (Disagreement, 24). This is an assertion of equality purely on the patricians terms, not one which challenges the structures that produce patricians and plebeians. It is the same politics of dressing-up that Marx identifies in the republicans of 1848, who could only act by mimicking a reflection of a reflection of ancient Rome. What’s missing from Rancière is an understanding of a social revolution which would involve a genuine reconfiguration, rather than a shuffling of appearances: a political movement where “the content goes beyond the phrase.”

(I seem to remember Nina once describing Rancière as a “grumpy anarchist.” I suppose one could see this post as a grumpy—probably too grumpy—Marxist response.)