Inequality, Loneliness, and Political Appearance: Picturing Radical Democracy with Hannah Arendt and Jacques Rancière

Date01 February 2021
Published date01 February 2021
Subject MatterArticles
920215PTXXXX10.1177/0090591720920215Political TheorySchaap
Political Theory
2021, Vol. 49(1) 28 –53
Inequality, Loneliness,
© The Author(s) 2020
and Political
Article reuse guidelines:
Appearance: Picturing
DOI: 10.1177/0090591720920215
Radical Democracy
with Hannah Arendt
and Jacques Rancière
Andrew Schaap1
Radical democrats highlight dramatic moments of political action, which
disrupt everyday habits of perception that sustain unequal social relations.
In doing so, however, we sometimes neglect how social conditions—such
as precarious employment, social dislocation, and everyday exposure to
violence—undermine political agency or might be contested in uneventful
ways. Despite their differences, two thinkers who have significantly influenced
radical democratic theory (Hannah Arendt and Jacques Rancière) have been
similarly criticized for contributing to such a socially weightless picture of
politics. However, attending to how they are each preoccupied by the social
conditions of inequality and loneliness enables us to recognize two distinct
aspects of democratic politics–emancipation and civility. Cultivating an
interpretive flexibility to shift between these aspects of politics might enable
radical democrats to more clearly picture how struggles for appearance are
limited and shaped by the social conditions within which they are enacted.
Balibar, emancipation, civility, agonistic democracy, superfluousness
1University of Exeter, Penryn, Cornwall, UK
Corresponding Author:
Andrew Schaap, Politics, University of Exeter, Penryn Campus, Penryn, Cornwall TR10 9FE, UK.

To picture radical democracy with Hannah Arendt and Jacques Rancière is to
highlight dramatic moments of political life in which subjects appear other-
wise than the social identities ascribed to them. Radical democrats are drawn
to mobilizations, such as Black Lives Matter, Idle No More, the Indignados,
the Occupy Movement, the Arab Spring, the Sans Papiers, and the Aboriginal
Tent Embassy, because they demonstrate the possibility of social transforma-
tion. Such eventful mobilizations are politically significant insofar as they
interrupt our habits of perception by disclosing and, potentially, reconfigur-
ing our common sense of the world. This picture is limiting, however, if the
social conditions that provide the background for political action recede too
far from view. For we might then become captive to a picture of politics that
either obscures the agency of marginalized groups or exaggerates the agency
of those who are socially isolated. For experiences such as intergenerational
trauma, sustained poverty, precarious employment and housing, being treated
with disrespect, and living in an atmosphere of violence are an everyday real-
ity for members of those marginalized social groups that radical democrats
often valorise.
Radical democrats have, indeed, been criticized for offering a rarefied
view of political action due to our concern to delimit the specificity of poli-
tics. Lois McNay, for instance, rejects the idea of constructing a model of
democracy based on an imputed essence of the political.1 She advocates,
instead, that democratic politics should be pictured in relation to negative
experiences of social suffering. Yet Arendt and Rancière do reflect on the
social conditions in which democratic politics is enacted. Similar to Aristotle,
Arendt and Rancière each trace the specificity of politics by contrasting the
political appearance of the citizen to the social condition of an emblematic
noncitizen—the dominated slave (Rancière) and superfluous stateless person
(Arendt). Moreover, for both thinkers, the extraordinary forms of social suf-
fering to which these noncitizens are exposed is indicative of more ordinary
social conditions experienced by citizens within nominally democratic soci-
eties—inequality within what Rancière characterizes as post-democratic
social orders and loneliness within what Arendt calls mass society.
By examining the work of Arendt and Rancière alongside each other, I
defend the view that the political significance of struggles for appearance
inheres in their world-disclosing potential. Arendt and Rancière enable us
to envisage how democratic politics is not only a matter of struggling to
appear within an already delimited social context but is also a matter of
constituting public spaces in relation to which we appear to others. However,
delimiting the specificity of politics need not lead to a socially weightless
picture of radical democracy. On the contrary, reflecting on how agonism
takes shape in relation to the negative social conditions of inequality and

Political Theory 49(1)
loneliness enables us to distinguish between two important aspects of radi-
cal democratic politics.
With Rancière we can picture democratic politics as an emancipatory
struggle through which social inequality is made visible and contested. This
involves politicizing a social order by contesting what counts as a political
issue, who counts as a political subject, and how the political community as
a whole is represented. As a matter of emancipation, democratic politics is
oriented to overcoming inequality through counter-hegemonic mobiliza-
tion. With Arendt, on the other hand, we can picture democratic politics as
a civilizing struggle to constitute and preserve a world in common. Such a
politics is not simply a matter of avoiding conflict by leaving deep dis-
agreement out of the public sphere, as a liberal conception of civility sug-
gests. Rather, it involves the institution of public spaces within which
struggles for appearance across social differences are possible. Such spaces
of appearance are constituted through the exchange of opinion among plu-
ral citizens and preserved through collective self-limitation. As a matter of
civility, democratic politics is oriented to overcoming loneliness by experi-
menting in solidaristic action.2
I begin by outlining how both Arendt and Rancière have been similarly
criticized for encouraging a socially weightless form of political thinking.
Due to radical democrats’ insistence on the specificity of the political, McNay
argues, we tend to treat the social world as contingent, devoid of any signifi-
cance of its own and, therefore, able to be reshaped in limitless ways.
Consequently, a disjuncture emerges between the apparently heroic forms of
political agency that we valorize and the everyday experiences of oppression
and isolation, which make the possibility of such action seem remote for most
people.3 To respond to this criticism, I proceed in the second section to dis-
cuss how Arendt and Rancière each formulate their understanding of the
specificity of the politics in relation to the situation of an emblematic nonciti-
zen—the stateless person and the slave. In the third and fourth sections, I
demonstrate how Arendt and Rancière offer more insightful accounts of the
social conditions that animate their conceptions of democratic politics than
are often appreciated.
Far from leading us on a misguided search for the political, I contend,
picturing radical democracy with Arendt and Rancière enables insightful
interpretations of how exemplary moments of praxis disclose the political
possibility of emancipation and civility within existing social conditions.
Importantly, we need not mistake either of these emergent pictures as models
of radical democracy any more than we need take agonism to be the essence
of politics. Rather, picturing radical democracy as emancipation and civility
draws our attention to how struggles for appearance are constrained and

shaped by the social conditions that they seek to transform. As such, it enables
what Bert van den Brink calls aspectival flexibility, allowing for a productive
aspect change when interpreting the significance of political struggles for
appearance.4 Cultivating such aspectival flexibility might enable radical
democrats to thematize the political significance of events and actions that
disrupt established habits of perception while remaining attentive to the
social conditions in relation to which democratic politics takes shape.
Picturing Radical Democracy
Radical democrats picture politics as agonistic. Hannah Arendt and Jacques
Rancière have both contributed significantly to this picture of politics,
according to which political subjects are constituted through democratic
struggle. As Rancière acknowledges, he shares Arendt’s understanding of
politics as “a matter of appearance . . . of constituting a common stage or act-
ing out common scenes rather than governing common interests.”5 Arendt
and Rancière both distinguish politics from other aspects of human interac-
tion and tend to characterize the social context in relation to which struggles
for appearance are enacted as unpolitical or even antipolitical to the extent
that social relations are typically unreflexive and unequal. For both, demo-
cratic politics does not only involve the interaction of political agents within
an already established institutional setting. More fundamentally, it entails the
constitution of public space that delimits how subjects appear to each other.
If the political is disclosed obliquely through such struggles for appearance,
what is always also at stake in...

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