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Who is The Subject of The Rights of Man?

In this article Ben Semple, 4th Year LLB, discusses Rancière's response to the question 'Who is The Subject of The Rights of Man?'

Across his work Rancière identifies the collapse of the Soviet Empire and the formalism of universal Human Rights as a vital process in modern (or post-modern) history that has shifted our comprehension of emancipation and left us with a misunderstanding of the true nature of politics and democracy. In Who Is The Subject of The Rights of Man? Rancière engages with a number of theorists namely Marx and Arendt. Combining aspects of these two theorists with the works of Agamben, Foucault and Schmitt, Rancière applies his Platonic formula of democratic politics to answer the question ‘Who is The Subject of The Rights of Man?’

Rancière immediately engages with the distinction between the spheres of political (public) life and private life, between the man and the citizen. For it is around this distinction that both Marx (On The Jewish Question) and Arendt (Origins of Totalitarianism) outline their own arguments. Ranciére argues that since the shift from ‘Man to Humanity and from Humanity to Humanitarian…it is obviously impossible to revive the Marxist critique’[1]. But the ‘abstractedness’ of human rights that Arendt equates to ‘the rights of those who have no rights’ is plainly an inversion of Marx’s critique of Bauer. Marx argues that the political sphere - and thus the formal human rights constructed within this arena - is abstract since the true controlling power of the market is located within the private sphere. Only once we are emancipated from the domination of commodification and the capitalist market can we come to true realisation as human beings. Arendt on the other hand uses Human Rights to demonstrate that the ‘abstract life’ as life away from politics. ‘Abstract life meant ‘deprived life’. It meant ‘private life’ a life entrapped inside its ‘idiocy’, as opposed to the life of public action, speech and appearance.’ This idea of appearance and speech is crucial for Arendt’s argument that the political arena is where people find their true realisation as human beings. It is at this moment that Rancière hijacks the debate to turn it towards democracy, ‘this critique of ‘abstract’ rights actually was a critique of democracy.’

In other works such as Disagreement and Hatred of Democracy Rancière coincides with much that is in the work of Hannah Arendt primarily in his analysis of the paradoxical nature of democracy and the importance of dissensus. Both Rancière and Arendt define politics as a form of action, as an activity of people, in the plural, and not simply of states. Where Rancière sees political action as manifesting dissensus; Arendt argues that the modern concept of revolution is at the very centre of modern democratic politics. In this piece Rancière marks his departure from Arendt in regard to her division of the political from the social. ‘Arendt's rigid opposition between the realm of the political and the realm of private life’[2] sets up an exclusive realm from which the people must be kept out (Rancière seems to be obsessed with this concept of exclusion, leading to a rather narrow reading of Arendt in my opinion). By excluding the world of private and economic and social concerns from the elevated realm of politics, Arendt, according to Rancière, depoliticises politics by cleansing it of the people and their voices. Voices, of course, being a fundamental instrument that identifies humans as political animals in the first place according to Aristotle. For Rancière the ‘human’ in Human Rights does not refer to a life deprived of politics, rather the human is a litigious name that politicises the distinction between those who are qualified to participate in politics and those who are not. This approach enables us to recognise contests over Human Rights (like that of Olympe De Gouge) as politics, as the staging of dissensus in which those who are deemed to lack speech make themselves heard with a political voice.

This process of depoliticisation is simply the exact opposite of what defines politics for Rancière, that is consensus. Consensus means much more than the procedure of negotiation and compromise to Rancière. It means the attempt to get rid of politics by ‘ousting the ‘surplus subjects’ and replacing them with real partners, social groups, identity groups’[3], in other words it is the process of policing. The aim of consensual practice or policing is the identity of law and fact; the law has to become identical to the natural life of society. To put it in other terms, consensus is the reduction of democracy to the way of life of a society, to its ethos - meaning by this word both the abode of a group and its lifestyle.

The consequence of consensus is that the political space, which was shaped in the very gap between the abstract literalness of the rights and the argument about their veriļ¬cation, turns out to diminish more and more every day. Ultimately, those rights appear actually empty. They seem to be of no use. And when they are of no use, you do the same as charitable persons do with their old clothes. You give them to the poor. Those rights that appear to be useless in their place are sent abroad, along with medicine and clothes, to people deprived of medicine, clothes, and rights. It is in this way, as the result of this process, that the Rights of Man become the rights of those who have no rights, the rights of bare human beings subjected to inhuman repression and inhuman conditions of existence. They become humanitarian rights, the rights of those who cannot enact them, the victims of the absolute denial of right.

The movement appears thus: policing - exemplified strongly in the work of Foucault through biopolitics and governmentality and then even more intensely in the work of Deleuze and Rose through micro and ethopolitics - produces a consensus via the mechanisms of a society of control. This bioeconomics closes ‘the possible gaps between appearance and reality or law and fact’, teaches/forces citizens to be satisfied with the status quo and disables the people from taking action and staging protest which is politics itself. This depoliticisation of society particularly effective in the West (mistakenly identified as modern democracy) is effectively the emptying of the Rights of Man. The rights of man thus are transferred into Humanitarian Rights, which is ultimately the right of intervention in a state of exception as established by Schmitt.

So Who is The Subject of The Rights of Man? Rancière answers this question most simply in his book Hatred of Democracy when he says; ‘The ‘rights of man and the citizen’ are the rights of those who make them a reality.’[4] Rancière stands in contrast to both Marx and Arendt. The subject of the Rights of Man does not coincide with any determinate subject. Rather political subjects are always identified by an interval between identities determined by social relations or judicial categories. The subject that claims its human rights emerges through political subjectification in the interval between the identities of citizen and man which are afforded by a socio-legal order. The subject of human rights emerges through political action and speech that seeks to verify the existence of those rights that are inscribed within the self-understanding of the political community. In doing so political subjects demonstrate the reality of their equality as speaking animals and their inequality within the social order.


[1] Rancière, J. (2004) ‘Who is the Subject of the Rights of Man?’. In: The South Atlantic Quarterly 103 (2/3) 298.

[2] Ibid. 299.

[3] Ibid. 306.

[4] Jacques Rancière, Hatred of Democracy (London: Verso, 2006), 74.


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