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Rancière, human rights and the limits of a politics of process

posted on 2023-06-08, 23:52 authored by Tom Frost
In thinking about Rancière and Law, as this collection exhorts us to do, I have turned my attention to one of the most well-known areas of Rancière’s writings, the Rights of Man. In “Who is the Subject of the Rights of Man?” (Rancière 2004b), Rancière aimed a broadside at the rights-scepticism which can be traced in much of critical theory to the writings of Hannah Arendt (on the left), and an older tradition on the right exemplified by Edmund Burke and Jeremy Bentham. Rancière’s writings and thought cover a wide range of areas, but it is the famous focus on rights which interests me here, as it brings to bear the problematisation of the ‘subject’ which Rancière develops in his writings. Rancière does not take an ontological view of the subject. Rancière’s writings on human rights attempt to get out of an ontological trap he sees being promulgated in relation to them (Rancière 2004b, p.302). These writings on rights and the subject illustrate Rancière’s conception of politics as a process, which emphasises a dynamic staging of conflicts and the impossibility of stepping outside that discussion and conflict. My starting point is Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. This eighteenth century piece of literature is key for the discussion about the subject of human rights, and the paradoxes which those rights contain. This novel was used in United Nations debates to justify parts of the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). In basing the subject of human rights in part on the eponymous hero of the same novel, the drafting committee (advertently or inadvertently) constructed a vision of the human subject which conflated the figures of man and citizen. The subject of human rights was not a natural man, but intimately connected and indivisible from the society in which he was living. I connect Arendt’s critique of the right to have rights to these debates at the United Nations, illustrating how they lend support to Arendt’s criticisms of human rights. I then outline Rancière’s counter-critique of Arendt, and his defence of politics and rights. I show how Rancière’s distinction between politics and the police envisions a subject which is created through ‘dissensual’ acts. These acts of ‘dissensus’ are the very divisions, the strife or the conflict which constitutes the stage on which politics occurs (Rancière 2009, pp.114-115, 122). Rancière’s subject does not need to act politically in an existing public sphere where individuals recognise each other as equal and distinct. Rather, the acts they commit help contest the very meaning of rights and politics; a politics which always entails the verification of equality as such. I want to turn to the consequences of this processual politics. I use Rancière’s writings on politics and his defence of rights to illustrate how, in his schema, political subjects can be formed and new subjects hitherto unrecognised can be created through dissensual acts. I argue that in Rancière, any judgment on the quality of a political act, and the subject it can create, is necessarily made ex post facto. Rancière’s separation of politics from ethics forces us to avoid pre-judgments of the political nature of acts. This carries the risk that the reader of Rancière will interpret only the acts they are already sympathetic towards as ‘political’ and dissensual. The political remains in the eye of the beholder. As a result, this processual politics must be supplemented with a later judgment to be able to differentiate between potential political acts. In treating Rancière as a serious thinker of modernity and of rights, we need a way to distinguish between an act which is, for example, carried out by racists or those who oppress rights, and an act carried out by a demonstrator or as an act of resistance against hegemony. I argue that it is possible, following Rancière, to conceive of both as acts of dissensual politics potentially giving rise to political subjects. This in turn highlights the key issue for me in relation to Rancière’s thought. How can we distinguish between the quality of actors who act politically, without falling back on a presumed political sphere (as in Arendt) or modern liberal political philosophy? I conclude that a stronger questioning of the types of judgment needed to differentiate between political acts is required to avoid Rancière’s thought being used to justify forms of action the reader finds sympathetic.


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Rancière and law




Nomikoi critical legal thinkers

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Julen Etxabe, Mónica López Lerma

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