Reading the times with Alain Badiou

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Let us therefore trust the eternal Spirit which destroys and annihilates only because it is the unfathomable and eternally creative source of all life. The passion for destruction is a creative passion, too.

Mikhail Bakunin, The Reaction in Germany (1842)

As long as there are no myths accepted by the masses, one may go on talking of revolts indefinitely without ever provoking any revolutionary movement.

Georges Sorel, Reflections on Violence (1908)

There is something which seems to echo as true for all manner of “leftists” in Badiou’s short reflection, “On the current conjuncture” (Verso 21/12/2021): that the wave of protest-insurrectionist movements of the last decade have been largely negative – reactive and opposed to what is -, without a positive conception or vision of what is to follow, without any affirmative demands and political-social goals to be struggled for.

… I believe that everything today turns around the need for negative slogans and defensive actions finally to be subordinated to a clear and synthetic vision of our own objectives. And I am convinced that in order to achieve this, we must in any case recall that which Marx declared to be the kernel of his thought. A kernel that is of course negative in its turn, but at a scale such that it can only be supported by a grandiose affirmation. I am referring to the slogan ‘the abolition of private property’.

If we share the initial observation, we are not entirely convinced by the “slogan” as sufficient for the creation of a “synthetic vision” of a politics-society beyond capitalism.

The fragility of the many movements that Badiou cites (and perhaps the fact that they are conceived of as “movements” impedes us from seeing their limitations or possibilities – Giorgio Agamben) would seem to defy any simple slogan, especially one that lends itself to narrow political-economic interpretations, and thus susceptible to alienating political appropriation.

We would suggest that a step further is necessary, a step that will appear to many as paradoxical, impossible even. What such movements call for are myths, myths which as “precious stones of memory” (Marcel Detienne, L’invention de la mythologie) weave a present to a past powerful enough to project a future, myths which fracture the eternal present of capitalist utility generating profaned spaces and times of collective play, of common joyful expenditure (Georges Bataille, The Absence of Myth: Writings on Surrealism), myths which bind us to our shared ancestors, to the telluric or chthonic dimension of our lives which are not reducible to the managed and cultivated topoi of Gaia. (Giorgio Agamben, Gaia e Ctonia)

Bataille was to describe fascism as an affective political movement, a movement of powerful emotions and passions sustained by myth. To then call for myth again would be to possibly repeat the risk of totalitarianism. And what myth could conceivably arise in the time of the “absence of myth”?

The fact that a universe without myth is the ruin of the universe — reduced to the nothingness of things — in the process of depriving us equates deprivation with the revelation of the universe. If by abolishing the mythic universe we have lost the universe, the action of a revealing loss is itself connected to the death of myth. And today, because a myth is dead or dying, we see through it more easily than if it were alive: it is the need that perfects the transparency, the suffering which makes the suffering become joyful. (Bataille)

Fascism and State driven communism sought to fill the void of the death of myth with new, foundational myths, an exercise condemned to terrifying violence by the madness of trying to liberate “humanity” (whose etymology takes us back to “earthly beings”) from its ancestors through technical-technological liberation; in both instances, excrescences of capitalist progress and its attendant rituals of accumulation (the highest expression of a passionless, demythologised religion – Walter Benjamin, “Capitalism as Religion”).

Our proposed myth is written in the plural – there have only ever been myths -, myths which reveal/create our ties to life, in all of its wildness. If we are condemned to give form to this life, to “teach” it, let it be with the passion and consciousness that all creation rests on destruction.

On the Current Conjuncture

A rational political evaluation of the present conjuncture has become a genuine rarity. Between the catastrophist homilies emanating from the most unwittingly religious sectors of environmentalism (we are on the brink of the Last Judgement) and the phantasmagorias of a rudderless Left (we are the contemporaries of exemplary ‘struggles’, of unstoppable ‘mass movements’, and of the ‘collapse’ of a crisis-ridden liberal capitalism), any rational orientation slips away, and a sort of mental chaos, be it activist or defeatist, prevails everywhere. I would like to advance here a few considerations, both empirical and prescriptive in kind.

At an almost planetary scale, and for some years now – certainly ever since what was called ‘the Arab Spring’ – we are in a world awash with struggles, or, more precisely, with mass mobilisations and assemblies. I propose that the general conjuncture is marked, subjectively, by what I would term ‘movementism’, namely the widely shared conviction that significant popular assemblies will undoubtedly achieve a change in the situation. We see this from Hong Kong to Algiers, Iran to France, Egypt to California, Mali to Brazil, India to Poland, as well as in many other places and countries.

All these movements, bar none, seem to possess three characteristics:

1. They are composite in their social origin, the pretext of their revolt, and their spontaneous political convictions. This polymorphous aspect also elucidates their number. They are not groupings of workers, or demonstrations of the student movement, or revolts of shopkeepers crushed by taxes, or feminist protests, or ecological prophecies, or regional and national dissidences, or marches by what are termed migrants and I call nomadic proletarians. It’s a little bit of all of these, under the purely tactical rule of a dominant tendency, or several, depending on the place and circumstances.

2. There follows from this state of affairs that the unity of these movements is – and cannot fail to be given the current state of ideologies and organisations – strictly negative in kind. Needless to say, this negation bears on disparate realities. One may revolt against the actions of the Chinese government in Hong Kong, against the power grab by military cliques in Algiers, against the stranglehold of the religious hierarchy in Iran, against personal despotism in Egypt, against the manoeuvres of nationalist and racial reaction in California, against the actions of the French Army in Mali, against neofascism in Brazil, against the persecution of Muslims in India, against the backwards stigmatisation of abortion and non-conventional sexualities in Poland, and so on. But nothing further – in particular nothing that would amount to a counter-proposal with a general scope – is present in these movements. At the end of the day, lacking a common political proposal that would break clearly with the constraints of contemporary capitalism, the movement ends up directing its negative unity against a proper name, usually that of the head of state. One moves from the cry ‘Mubarak must go’ to that of ‘Out with the fascist Bolsonaro’, by way of ‘Racist Modi, go away’, ‘Trump out!’ or ‘Bouteflika, retire’. Without forgetting, of course, the invectives, notices of dismissal, and personal attacks against our own natural target, who is no other than the little Macron. I propose then that all these movements, all these struggles, are ultimately ‘get out-isms’ (dégagismes). There is a wish that the leader in place sling their hook, without having the least idea, neither of what will replace him nor of the procedure through which – supposing he does in fact go – one can be assured that the situation will indeed change. In brief, negation, which unifies, is not the bearer of any affirmation, any creative will, any active conception of the analysis of situations and of what could be, or must be, a politics of a new type. In the absence of which, one ends up – and this is the signal of a movement’s end – with that final form of its unity, namely that of rising up against the police repression it has been the victim of, against the police violence it has been forced to confront. In other words, the negation of its negation by the authorities. I am directly familiar with this from May ’68 when, in the absence of common affirmations – in any case at the beginning of the movement – one shouted in the streets: ‘CRS = SS!’ Happily, this was followed at the time – once the primacy of the rebellious negative had passed – by more interesting things, at the price, of course, of a clash between opposing political conceptions, between distinct affirmations.

3. Today, over time, planetary movementism only achieves the reinforced reproduction of the powers that be or largely cosmetic changes that can turn out to be worse than what one revolted against in the first place. Mubarak went, but Al-Sisi, who replaced him, is another (possibly worse) version of military power. In the end, China’s grip on Hong Kong has been reinforced, with laws more in line with the ones prevailing in Beijing, and massive arrests of activists. The religious camarilla in Iran is intact. The most active reactionaries, like Modi or Bolsonaro, or the Polish clerical clique, are in fine shape, thank you very much. And little Macron, with 43% favourability ratings, is in much better electoral health today – not just compared to the beginning of the struggles and movements, but even by contrast with his predecessors whom, whether we’re talking about the very reactionary Sarkozy, or the ersatz very socialist Hollande, who, after the same length of their presidential term, were barely managing around 20% in terms of positive opinion.

A historical comparison springs to mind here. In the years between 1847 and 1850, there were, across large swathes of Europe, great movements of workers and students, great mass risings, against the despotic order established after the Restoration of 1815 and shrewdly consolidated after the French revolution of 1830. Lacking a firm idea of what – beyond a fervid negation – could represent an essentially different politics, all the furore of the revolutions of 1848 only served to introduce a new regressive sequence. In particular, the French balance sheet was the endless reign of a typical proxy for emergent capitalism, Napoleon III, a.k.a., according to Victor Hugo, Napoleon the Little.

However, in 1848, Marx and Engels, who had taken part in the German uprisings, drew the lessons from this entire affair, both in texts of historical analysis – like the pamphlet entitled Class Struggles in France – and in that finally affirmative handbook, which described – in some sense for eternity – what an entirely new politics must be, and whose title is Manifesto of the Communist Party. It is around this affirmative construction, bearing the ‘manifesto’ of a Party that does not exist but must, that begins, in the long run, another history of politics. Marx will reoffend twenty-three years later, by drawing the lessons of an admirable attempt that, notwithstanding its heroic defensive stance, once again lacked the effective organisation of its affirmative unity, namely the Paris Commune.

Needless to say, our circumstances are quite different! But I believe that everything today turns around the need for negative slogans and defensive actions finally to be subordinated to a clear and synthetic vision of our own objectives. And I am convinced that in order to achieve this, we must in any case recall that which Marx declared to be the kernel of his thought. A kernel that is of course negative in its turn, but at a scale such that it can only be supported by a grandiose affirmation. I am referring to the slogan ‘the abolition of private property’.

Taking a closer look, slogans such as ‘defend our freedoms’ or ‘stop police violence’ are, strictly speaking, conservative. The first implies that we enjoy, within the status quo, true freedoms that must be defended, while our central problem should instead be that without equality, freedom is but a lure. How could the nomadic proletarian deprived of legal papers, and whose arrival here is but a cruel epic, call herself ‘free’ in the same sense as the billionaire who holds real power, the owner of a private jet and of its pilot, protected by the electoral decoy of his proxies working within the state? And how could any coherent revolutionaries imagine – if they do indeed entertain the affirmative and rational desire of a world other than the one they contest – that the police of the established powers can always be friendly, courteous and peaceful? That it might say to the rebels, some of them masked and armed: ‘The path to the Elysée palace? The great gate, on the street to the right.’

It would be better to go back to the heart of the question: property. The general unifying slogan can immediately and affirmatively be: ‘collectivisation of the whole process of production’. Its negative intermediate correlate, within immediate reach, could be ‘abolition of all the privatisations decided by the state since 1986’. As for a good, purely tactical slogan, giving some work to those dominated by the desire for negation, it could the following: let’s install ourselves in the offices of a very important department of the Ministry of Economy and Finances, called the Commission of Participations and Transfers. Let’s do so in the full knowledge that this esoteric name, ‘participations and transfers’, is but the transparent mask of the Privatisation Commission, created in 1986. And let’s have people know that we will station ourselves in this privatisation commission until the disappearance of every form of private property in what concerns everything which, in one way or another, can be considered a common good.

Simply by popularising these objectives, both strategic and tactical, we will, believe me, open another epoch, after that of ‘struggles’ and ‘movements’ and ‘protests’, whose negative dialectic is in the process of exhausting itself, and us. We will be the pioneers of a new mass communism whose ‘spectre’, to speak like Marx, would once again haunt not just France or Europe, but the whole world.

Alain Badiou

Man shall not live by bread alone …

Mathew 4:4

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