Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Political Science


Leonard Feldman

Subject Categories

Continental Philosophy | Ethics and Political Philosophy | Intellectual History | Political History | Political Theory


radical democracy, participatory democracy, radical reform, revolution, constitutive power, institution building


This thesis advances a critique of the political theory of Jacques Rancière, focusing on the problems that arise as a result of its rigid form combined with its narrow content. I argue that Rancière gets caught in a practice of immanent critique that merely presupposes bourgeois abstract right; and that his ontological and pragmatic commitments prohibit him from projecting a norm that would transcend the liberal order. I trace these ontological and pragmatic commitments in detail by examining the intellectual milieu from which Rancière’s project emerged, the post-foundational political philosophy of the 1980s, with particular attention given to Claude Lefort. After demonstrating Rancière’s debt to that movement, I argue that he transforms certain ontological presuppositions of the post-foundational perspective in ways that are politically demobilizing. Specifically, he transforms the typical post-foundationalist thesis that society is necessarily riven by conflict. Rather than focusing on the conflict as such, and imagining how we could construct new political institutions (participatory or otherwise) that would favor the oppressed and downtrodden, I argue that Rancière abstracts two principals away from the conflict and posits them as universal structures of any possible society. For Rancière, there is the principal of the strong (inequality, oligarchy), which animates every possible “police order.” There is also the principal of the weak (equality, emancipation), which is the pragmatic presupposition of every political action. Political actions are only those actions that presuppose equality and disrupt the inequality of the social order. The possibility that we might construct a society that is predominantly animated by equality is ruled out in advance by Rancière, stunting his perception of history and vastly constricting his emancipatory imagination. By hypostatizing the universality of the reign of oligarchy with his thesis of the necessity of (material/social) inequality, he occludes from view political and social institutions from both the past and the present that are not animated by an oligarchic impulse (e.g. the Athenian democracy, the democratic confederalism of contemporary Rojava, practices of municipal participatory budgeting, and radical agrarian reform achieved by movements for Food Sovereignty such as the Landless Rural Workers Movement in Brazil). On the other hand, by hypostatizing the universality of (immaterial/intellectual) equality, he occludes the processes through which persons in disadvantages positions are able to slowly build their capacities for achieving political equality. I argue that this dual hypostatization of both inequality and equality has politically demobilizing effects on Rancière’s readership. I offer a defense and reconstruction of one portion of Rancière’s theory, his conception of “singularity,” which I believe to be an important tool for understanding how political transformation occurs. After reconstructing his notion of singularity through an engagement with the phenomenological theory of “play” offered by Eugen Fink, I conclude this work with a critique of Rancière’s representation of the Athenian democracy. Drawing on the work of Cornelius Castoriadis, Josiah Ober, and Martin Oswald, I offer my own representation of the Athenian democracy with a focus on the transformations of both political institutions and egalitarian norms. My goal is to encourage political action in the present that aims to move beyond liberal equality and to construct participatory institutions of radical democracy.