Thinking with Rancière: the dissensual politics of Extinction Rebellion

By Alex Scott

This short piece centres on themes explored in a current research project which explores to what extent the Extinction Rebellion social movement can be conceived as what Jacques Rancière calls an ‘properly political moment’. The blog post will briefly summarise some of Rancière’s key ideas before considering how useful a Rancièrian framing is in order to understand the political potential of the protest tactics used in this social movement.  

Since its conception in 2018, the social movement known as “Extinction Rebellion” has carried out non-violent direct action in a bid to force global governments to properly address the emergent climate crisis. Extinction Rebellion (XR) has three main demands for the UK government: firstly, that governments ‘tell the truth’ by declaring a climate emergency (which has been met in the UK); secondly, that the government ‘act now’ by trying to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2025; thirdly, that governments go ‘beyond politics’ and create citizens’ assemblies to aid in the changes that need to be made. Through the occupation of various sites in London – and subsequently over 60 cities worldwide – the movement has forced governments to respond to the climate crisis, with varying levels of success. While the UK has indeed declared a climate emergency, there has been no sign of a Citizens’ Assembly[1] and the UK government are currently only aiming to be carbon neutral by 2050. Saying this, achieving carbon neutrality significantly earlier than 2050 is thought to be implausible, a new report modelling shifts in transport and energy infrastructure has found[2]. Whether their demands are realistically achievable or not, the movement’s sustained action continues to disrupt urban spaces and force climate issues into the collective consciousness as well as political agendas. It is these acts of subversion and unsettling that bring questions of political theory to the fore, which I examine through the work of philosopher Jacques Rancière (1940-).

Jacques Rancière is a French political philosopher whose thought centres on concepts of disagreement, equality and post-democracy. Of particular relevance for thinking about the development of a social movement is Rancière’s work on ‘dissensus’. For Rancière, dissensus is a wholly equalitarian event that involves the action of revealing spaces and people which are not accounted for in the ‘distribution of the sensible’ (Rancière, 2010). This distribution of the sensible is a social ordering that marks who is separated and who is excluded from political matters, and what political affairs are made visible for public debate. As such, dissensual practices aim to subvert any reduction of politics to a purely governmental affair and of the people to a homogenous population. Indeed, dissensual politics becomes the incendiary, radical event that challenges this hierarchical order by forging spaces of dissensus that are not accounted for by a society characterised by consensual politics; in short, dissensus arises when “the natural order of domination is interrupted by the institution of a part of those who have no part” (Rancière, 1998, p.11). Individuals who have been previously excluded by the distribution of the sensible create new spaces of dissensus that underline and expose the deep-rooted incongruencies between the rigidity of the distribution of the sensible and egalitarian society.

Rebel for Life blog post imageImage 1: XR protestors in London holding a “Rebel For Life” banner. Wikimedia Commons. Published 23 November 2018. Accessed 03 August 2020.

It is Rancière’s eighth thesis on politics in his 2010 work Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics that perhaps best summarises the mission statement for his brand of politics:

“The essential work of politics is the configuration of its own space. It is to make the world of its subjects and its operations seen. The essence of politics is the manifestation of dissensus as the presence of two worlds in one.” (Rancière, 2010, p.37)

A Rancièrian politics, then, is one that opens up new spaces, possibilities and conversations – something that the Extinction Rebellion movement has tried to achieve in its short lifespan to date. The following section of this blog post turns to the various protest tactics deployed during the movement’s protest actions to evaluate the success of these dissensual events in instigating a political intervention in Rancière’s terms.

 The physical occupation of space and the disruption to the usual everyday patterns of urban life that this entails is one of the key ways in which XR has actualised a dissensual politics, finding novel ways to extend our collective ways of being in these spaces. By blockading streets and climbing on top of tube trains XR has incited unavoidable conversations about the environmental impact of contemporary urban infrastructure. Furthermore, it has widened our field of view when it comes to thinking about how we interact with our urban spaces. Indeed, “politics is effective whenever it does manage to bring about a global change in the perception of social space” (Corcoran, 2010, p.6). Through the occupation of bustling locations such as Piccadilly Circus and Waterloo Bridge, the vibrant, diverse groups of people and their protest art have expanded our collective perception of these spaces and in doing so have generated novel political pockets in cities around the world. Rancière labels these spaces of politics as ‘in-between spaces’, arguing that “political being-together is being-between” (Rancière, 1998, p.137). Through the construction of a number of these ‘in-between spaces’, XR has demonstrated the political potency of protest events to create a stage that includes the government and other institutions that have typically contributed to a culture of consensual politics. By deploying a range of protest tactics, the government has been forced to join the conversation, whether they like it or not.

One of the key protest tactics that Extinction Rebellion uses to achieve its demands is mass arrest. Learning from the role of mass arrest in driving the activism of movements such as the East German democracy movement, XR’s founders identified it as a tactic that could generate high levels of disruption and increase media coverage. In the April ’19 UK protests alone, 1,076 rebels were arrested, 234,125 hours of police overtime (on a mean rate of £30 per hour) were required, while £16 million was spent policing the rebellions. The irony of a state focused on capital accumulation spending all that money on policing those who oppose such economically driven policies is certainly not lost on me. The identification of politics with the accumulation of capital is now “the openly declared truth by which our governments acquire legitimacy” (Rancière, 1998, p.113), yet XR’s radical politics has seen the government being played at their own game.

XR’s use of protest art has thus far played a significant role in expanding the dissensual politics of the movement. Visual art, dance and music have all been utilised to generate its own ‘metapolitics’ – its unique way of rethinking art as a political issue and asserting the political potential of art (Rancière, 2010). Whether it be the gallons of fake blood sprayed on the Treasury in London, or the politically charged songs of the “SOS from the Kids” choir, the artistic medium has been used to great effect by the movement’s participants in order to convey political and social messages without censorship. The true political potency of these individual artistic experiences lies in their ability to take on a life of their own and create new, unexpected, and even unintended, sensibilities: “what happens in the aesthetic regime of art is that artists create objects that escape their will” (Rancière, 2008, p.74). Indeed, Rancière sees the power of protest art in both its local context and its multiplicity, as the art transcends its own creation and generates novel affective capabilities.

To constitute a true rebellion, Rancière asserts that those involved must go beyond thinking of their own needs and identities in order “to think for anybody” (Rancière, 2006, p.3). In this sense, Rancière’s politics is wholly egalitarian in nature. Just like the Occupy movement before it, the Extinction Rebellion movement has actively distanced itself from identity politics and committed itself to radical equality through the renouncement of an internal hierarchy of leaders, instead keeping the movement fluid and open to self-reflexive, emergent change. As such, the rebellions have been largely processual events, contributing to the creation of new subjectivities. Yet, the issue of identity politics has been noted by many critics of the movement. Questions over the middle-classness of the organisation have been raised, while there has been much criticism concerning the white privilege that pervades the movement’s rhetoric on mass arrest. Perhaps then, XR isn’t quite the ‘properly political moment’ that Rancière presents, but can it ever be if his dissensual politics rejects the inherent identity politics that will be present in any large-scale political mobilisation of the population? Rancière’s notion that emergent ‘in-between’ subjectivities take precedence over groups united by common identity marker erases the prejudices that manifest within such large-scale movements. While Rancière’s thinking here is rather reductive, the XR movement is constantly evolving, and when it expanded to the US, a fourth demand to governments was added that prioritises indigenous sovereignty and those most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Identity politics is a present and necessary part of XR’s structure and is crucial for developing a movement which supports the most marginalised groups in society. 

Blocking of Lambeth Bridge by Extinction Rebellion, London
Blocking of Lambeth Bridge by Extinction Rebellion, London, 07.10.2019

Image 2: XR protestor being arrested by police on Lambeth Bridge. Wikimedia Commons. Published 7 October 2019. Accessed 03 August 2020.

A ‘properly political moment’ sees ties with the prevailing social order cut, where “unimaginable things can very quickly enter into the field of possibilities” (Rancière, 2011, p.242). Through a range of dissensual protest tactics, including mass arrest and various aesthetic tactics, Extinction Rebellion has certainly achieved the above, yet perhaps its biggest achievement is reminding us that “political thought … is produced immanently by the collective of those engaged in political action” (Corcoran, 2010, p.8). A collective, however, has its components, and an egalitarian politics must attend to the needs of these components, whether they are groups based on identity markers or not.

 

References

Bassett, K. (2014) “Rancière, Politics, and the Occupy Movement”, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 32(5), pp. 886–901.

Corcoran, S. (2010) Editor’s Introduction: The Aesthetics of Politics. In Rancière, J. and Corcoran, S., Dissensus: on Politics and Aesthetics. London, Continuum.

Extinction Rebellion (2020) Citizens’ Assembly. Accessed at: https://extinctionrebellion.uk/act-now/resources/citizens-assembly/ Accessed: 02/08/2020

Rancière, J. (1998) Dis-agreement: Politics and Philosophy. Trans. Rose, J. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota.

Rancière, J. (2008) “Art Is Going Elsewhere. And Politics Has to Catch It”, Jacques Rancière interviewed by Sudeep Dasgupta, Krisis, Issue 1.

Rancière, J. (2010) Dissensus: on Politics and Aesthetics. London, Continuum.

Rancière, J. (2011), “Against an ebbing tide: An interview with Jacques Rancière”, in Bowman, P, Stamp, R. (Eds.) Reading Rancière (London, Continuum), pp. 238–251.

[1] The third core demand of the Extinction Rebellion movement asks for a Citizen’s Assembly on Climate and Ecological Justice to be formed, in order that citizens can be empowered to work together and address the ‘climate crisis’. Every member is given the same platform to voice their opinions and the decision-making processes are transparent. Citizen’s Assemblies are also especially useful when we are faced with difficult trade-offs; the Assembly may evaluate and choose the most effective option from a number of proposed policies which address a demand made by the public.

[2] BBC (2020) Climate change: UK ‘can’t go climate neutral before 2050’. Accessed at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-51804212 Accessed on: 02/08/2020

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