Badiou’s Marxism

The Rebirth of History: Times of Riots and Uprisings, Alain Badiou, ISBN: 1844678792

“What is going on? Of what are we the half-fascinated, half-devastated witnesses? The continuation, at all costs , of a weary world? A salutary crisis of that world, racked by its victorious expansion? The end of that world? The advent of a different world? What is happening to us in the early years of the century – something that would appear not to have any clear name in any accepted language?

“Let us consult our masters: discreet bankers; media stars; hesitant representatives of major commissions; spokesmen of the ‘international community’; busy presidents; new philosophers; factory and estate owners; stock market men and boards of directors; chattering opposition politicos; urban and provincial notables; economists of growth; sociologists of citizenship; experts on all sorts of crises; prophets of the ‘clash of civilizations’; heads of the police, justice and ‘penitentiary’ systems; profit assessors; productivity calculators; the prim editorialists of serious newspapers; human resources directors; people who in their own view are of some account; people one would do well not to take for nobodies. What have they got to say about it, all these rulers, all these opinion-formers, all these leaders, all these thimble-rigging tyrants?

“They all say that the world is changing at a dizzying pace and that, if we are not to risk ruin or death (for them it comes to the same thing), we must adapt to this change or, in the world as it is, be but a mere shadow of ourselves. That we should energetically engage in incessant ‘modernization’, accepting the inevitable costs without a murmur. Given the harsh competitive world that daily confronts us with challenges, we must climb the steep slopes of productivity, budget reduction, technological innovation, the good health of our banks, and job flexibility. All competition is sportive in its essence. In short, we must form part of the final breakaway alongside the champions of the moment (a German ace, a Thai outsider, a British veteran, a Chinese newcomer, not to mention the ever vigorous Yankee, and so on), and never crawl at the back of the pack. To that end everyone must pedal: modernize, reform, change! What politician on the campaign trail can dispense with proposing reform, change, novelty? The argument between government and opposition always takes the following form: What the others are saying isn’t real change. It’s a thinly resprayed conservatism. I represent real change! You’ve only to look at me to know it. I reform and modernize; new laws rain down every week – bravo ! Let’s break with routine! Out with the old!

“So let us change. But change what, in fact? If change is to be permanent, its direction, so it would seem, must be constant. All the measures dictated to us by the economic situation are to be implemented as a matter of urgency. This is so that the rich can continue to get rich while paying fewer taxes; so that the workforce of firms can be reduced with numerous redundancies and extensive restructuring; so that everything which is public can be privatized, and thereby ultimately contribute not to the public good (a particularly ‘anti-economic’ category), but to the wealth of the rich and the maintenance (costly, alas) of the middle classes, who form the reserve army of the rich; so that schools, hospitals, housing, transport and communications – those five pillars of a satisfactory life for all – can initially be regionalized (that is a step forward), then exposed to competition (that is crucial), and finally handed over to the market (that is decisive), in order that the places and resources where and with which the rich and semi-rich are educated, treated, housed and transported cannot be confused with those where the poor and their like struggle to get by; so that workers of foreign origin, who have often lived and worked here for decades, can have their rights reduced to nothing, their children targeted, their statutory papers rescinded, and have to endure the furious campaigns of ‘civilization’ and ‘our values’ against them; so that, in particular, young girls can only go out on the streets with their heads uncovered, and the rest too, mindful as they must be of affirming their ‘secularity’; so that the mentally ill can be imprisoned for life ; so that the countless social ‘privileges’ on which the lower classes are getting fat can be hunted down; so that bloody military expeditions can be mounted the world over, especially in Africa, to enforce respect for ‘human rights’ – i.e. the rights of the powerful to carve up states, to put in power (through a combination of violent occupation and phantom ‘elections’) corrupt valets, who will hand over the totality of the country’s resources to the aforesaid powerful for nothing. Those who, for whatever reason, and even if they were serviceable for ‘modernization’ in the past, even if they were obliging valets, are suddenly opposed to the carve-up of their country, to its pillaging by the powerful and the ‘human rights’ that go with it, will be brought before the tribunals of modernization, and hanged if possible.

“Such is the invariant truth of ‘change’, the actuality of ‘reform’, the concrete dimension of ‘modernization’. Such, for our masters, is the law of the world.

“This short book aims to oppose to this view of things a rather different one, which can be summarized here in three points.

  1. Under the interchangeable rubrics of ‘modernization’, ‘reform’, ‘democracy’, ‘the West’, ‘the international community’, ‘human rights’, ‘secularism’, ‘globalization’ and various others, we find nothing but an historical attempt at an unprecedented regression, intent upon creating a situation in which the development of globalized capitalism, and the action of its political servants, conforms to the norms of their birth: a dyed-in-the-wool liberalism of mid-nineteenth-century vintage, the unlimited power of a financial and imperial oligarchy, and a window-dressing of parliamentary government composed (as Marx put it) of ‘Capital’s executives’. To that end, everything which the existence of the organized forms of the workers’ movement, communism and genuine socialism had invented between 1860 and 1980, and imposed on a world scale, thereby putting liberal capitalism on the defensive, must be ruthlessly destroyed, and the value system of imperialism – the celebrated ‘values’ – recreated. Such is the sole content of the ‘modernization’ underway.
  2. The present moment is in fact that of the first stirrings of a global popular uprising against this regression. As yet blind, naive, scattered and lacking a powerful concept or durable organization, it naturally resembles the first working-class insurrections of the nineteenth century. I therefore propose to say that we find ourselves in a time of riots wherein a rebirth of History, as opposed to the pure and simple repetition of the worst, is signalled and takes shape. Our masters know this better than us: they are secretly trembling and building up their weaponry, in the form both of their judicial arsenal and the armed taskforces charged with planetary order. There is an urgent need to reconstruct or create our own.
  3. Lest this moment flounder in glorious but defeated mass mobilizations, or in the interminable opportunism of ‘representative’ organizations, whether corrupt trade unions or parliamentary parties, the rebirth of History must also be a rebirth of the Idea. The sole Idea capable of challenging the corrupt, lifeless version of ‘democracy’, which has become the banner of the legionaries of Capital, as well as the racial and national prophecies of a petty fascism given its opportunity locally by the crisis, is the idea of Communism, revisited and nourished by what the spirited diversity of these riots, however fragile, teaches us.

“I am often criticized, including in the ‘camp’ of potential political friends, for not taking account of the characteristics of contemporary capitalism, for not offering a ‘Marxist analysis’ of it. Consequently, for me communism is an ethereal idea; at the end of the day, I am allegedly an idealist without any anchorage in reality. Moreover, I am inattentive to the astonishing mutations of capitalism, mutations that authorize us to speak (with an eager expression) of a ‘postmodern capitalism’.

“For example, during an international conference on the idea of communism, Antonio Negri – I was (and remain) very pleased he participated – publicly took me as an e xample of those who claim to be communists without even being Marxists. In short, I replied that that was better than claiming to be Marxist without even being communist. Since it is commonly held that Marxism consists in assigning a determinant role to the economy and the social contradictions which derive from it, who isn’t ‘Marxist’ today? The foremost ‘Marxists’ are our masters, who tremble and gather by night as soon as the stock market wobbles or the growth rate dips. Put the word ‘communism’ in front of them, on the other hand, and they will jump up and take you for a criminal.

“Here, without concerning myself with opponents and rivals, I would like to say that I too am a Marxist – naively, completely and so naturally that there is no need to reiterate it. Does a contemporary mathematician worry about demonstrating fidelity to Euclid or Euler? Genuine Marxism, which is identified with rational political struggle for an egalitarian organization of society, doubtless began around 1848 with Marx and Engels. But it made progress thereafter, with Lenin, Mao and a few others. I was brought up on these historical and theoretical teachings. I believe I am well aware of the problems that have been resolved, and which it is pointless to start reinvestigating; and of the problems that remain outstanding, and which require of us radical rectification and strenuous invention. Any living knowledge is made up of problems, which have been or must be constructed or reconstructed, not of repetitive descriptions. Marxism is no exception to this. It is neither a branch of economics (theory of the relations of production), nor a branch of sociology (objective description of ‘social reality’), nor a philosophy (a dialectical conceptualization of contradictions). It is, let us reiterate, the organized knowledge of the political means required to undo existing society and finally realize an egalitarian, rational figure of collective organization for which the name is ‘communism’.”

—Alain Badiou

In Defence of (New) Dogma

Although written for a US audience, Periodizing the 80s seems just as applicable to the UK. Seriously, this chapter of A Leftist Ontology: Beyond Relativism and Identity Politics is well worth a read.

I don’t concur with the conclusion, which I feel sneaks out of the room in which the argument had been developing. Everything up until page 77, when the author moves on from implicating the tired ‘positive’ or ’emancipatory’ use of Foucauldian biopolitics to discussing Virno’s multitude, chimes clearly with critical insights the Left must adopt with respect to the recuperation (to use a Debordian term) of past victories by capital. The impulse towards nostalgic repetitions of our history must contend with historicity itself: we can’t repeat anything because we are always in a different sequence, we have to always start afresh from where we are. The conclusion that the author toys with, but ultimately fails to draw, is that today the project of emancipatory justice is not one of freeing ourselves from a regime in which repression takes the form of essentialist, institutionalised dogma but is perhaps more a project of constructing or developing a dogma of our own, against what has become a normative liberal-capitalist flow of pseudo-rebellious, adaptive, mutating simulacra of ‘liberation’.

A Plea for Malignant Substances: Revolution, Totality, Utopia

Here’s something worth reading:

21. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly; or, the Baby and the Bathwater.—It has been said that the essence of liberalism is a facile separation of the good from the bad, as though systems—economic, philosophical, whatever—could be simply carved up and the undesirable elements discarded: Competition is good but poverty is bad, so let’s just get rid of poverty (while retaining the dynamic that sustains it); Marx is good but revolution is bad, so let’s forget about revolution (while educating undergraduates in the poetry of Capital). Totality, incidentally, is the name for the rejection of this tendency, which is as common as ever—it is virtually the editorial policy of the New York Times—but a seemingly contrary tendency is equally insidious. This is to conflate a philosophical concept not with its dialectically necessary other but with an ideological cognate. Utopia is a case in point: the construction of utopias is a transparently ideological operation, but the notion of utopia—that is, the reservation within thought of an horizon that is not merely the present—is essential to any genuine politics. Indeed, the failure to think utopia in this strong sense leads directly to utopia in the first sense—in particular, to the utopia (never called that) of a market without poverty. This corresponds to Hegel’s “bad infinity” of infinite approximation as opposed to the properly infinite judgement. The same goes for Totality, the denigration of which in current thought serves to discredit the dialectic by associating it with the thematics of the eradication of difference, with which it has nothing in common.

Leftist Ontology: Beyond Relativism and Identity Politics, William E. Connolly (Foreword), Carsten Strathausen (Editor), Bruno Bosteels (Afterword), ISBN: 0816650292

The above is from Nicholas Brown and Imre Szemán’s Twenty-five Theses on Philosophy in the Age of Finance Capitalism (which are fairly consistent in their brilliance) in A Leftist Ontology: Beyond Relativism and Identity Politics (contributions in which vary considerably in strength). As the post title indicates, I link the content of this thesis with Zizek’s observation that ideology often functions by offering something ‘deprived of its malignant substance’ (decaffeinated coffee, non-fat cream, love without ‘falling in love’—that is, dating-agency-arranged relationships). Beyond equally nefarious ‘risk-free trials’, many of the final forms taken by cultural commodities promise to deliver the processed goods free from their harmful contents, which have been isolated and neutralised. According to the still-current yet laughable ‘totalitarian thesis’ which has been so fondly taught by liberals, the risk of totalitarianism is latent in any thought of totality, and particularly so in the construction of utopias which dare to think counterfactually (i.e. philosophically) rather than in terms of a merely ‘improved’ reproduction of the extant. The liberal response to the question of progressive social change and emancipatory justice has been, therefore, to present an always defanged—counter-revolutionary, reformist, and finally substanceless—notion of progressive change.

There are several others among the twenty-five theses that also merit attention, so I’ll post some of them up sometime.