An A to Z of Theory | Alain Badiou: Politics

In the eighth installment of his ten-part series on the political thought of Alain Badiou, Andrew Robinson examines the French thinker's specifically political ideas.

In Theory, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Wednesday, March 25, 2015 14:20 - 0 Comments


In an ongoing ten-part series on the political thought of Alain Badiou, I have previously explored Badiou’s ontology, his theory of the state, and his innovative concept of the Event. But in applying these general concepts to political situations in particular, Badiou often develops a range of subsidiary analyses which differentiate political situations from other fields of Evental action. In this essay, I examine Badiou’s specifically political ideas, including the “communist invariants” which separate true Events from reactionary imitations, and the different configurations of subjectivity which create revolutionary, reactionary, and obscurantist subjects. 

Political implications of Badiou’s thought

Badiou is a revolutionary communist in his own orientation, but he provides little basis for this theoretical choice. Instead, Badiou terms himself an ‘interventionist’ thinker. This means that he believes that there is no basis for choosing between political alternatives. Each situation is particular, and gives us a choice. We can choose one side or the other. But we cannot provide, or be given, grounds for choosing a side. Part of Badiou’s basis for this view is that the excluded part can’t be seen from within the situation.

Badiou also sees philosophy as a choice of this kind. He does not, and claims he cannot, provide grounds for his philosophical decisions, such as the proposition “mathematics is philosophy”. If there is a basis for such a choice, it will be knowable only after the implications of the choice are unfolded. In other words, he asks readers to take a gamble on the potential of his philosophy. He believes that no basis is possible to choose any philosophy, except through such a gamble.

Politics has a particular place in Badiou’s analysis. There are four main truth-procedures – or spheres in which Events occur – according to Badiou. These are: art, science, love and politics. Politics is unusual in that it is the only the truth procedure that is “generic” or universal in its location as well as its outcome. The subject of politics is also universal. Politics also stands out for having a collective material (the field on which it operates) and a collective multiplicity or subject. Badiou calls politics the ‘virtual summoning of all’.

Politics begins with an exposure to what Badiou terms the ‘real violence of fraternity’. It begins with an “either-or” choice of sides. However, every politics also declares that its thought is the thought of all. It is sustained through particular actions and public assertions termed ‘demonstrations’ (manifestations).

Badiou’s political work has faced frequent criticisms along two lines. Firstly, he didn’t offer any ethical basis for choosing an Event or Truth over the status quo. He seemed to advocate change for the sake of change. And secondly, he wasn’t able to distinguish desirable Events from undesirable historical changes, such as the rise of Nazism or the neoliberal backlash. Badiou seems to have responded to these critiques by elaborating, or re-elaborating, a set of general criteria or ‘invariants’ which underpin Events.

Badiou has responded to these criticisms by reviving an earlier view that there are certain fixed principles underlying political orientations. In politics, Badiou suggests that equality is good, and inequality evil. A true political engagement always starts from unqualified equality as its criterion. On the other hand, freedom and human rights are taken to be reactionary values. The absence of any notion of alienation or exploitation is also notable.

The idea of fixed principles follows from his earlier idea of ‘communist invariants‘ underlying particular struggles – which express a kind of spontaneous proletarian ideology. The ‘communist invariants’ were originally taken to be a claim of equality, a critique of private property, and rejection of the state. This early idea, advanced in Badiou’s work in the 60s, is still active today. Today it takes the form of the ‘communist hypothesis’. This hypothesis has three ‘axioms’: egalitarianism, the claim that the state as a separate body is not necessary, and opposition to the division of labour.

These invariant orientations are taken as insufficient to create a revolution or a specific Event. They need channelling through specific subjects and names. Nevertheless, these principles provide a basis for selecting progressive Events and excluding reactionary ‘false’ Events.

Badiou rejects the idea of any kind of consensual ethics, or ethics which operates across difference. He sees such ideas as covering up ideological divisions and destroying the possibility of Events. Badiou’s politics also starts from the Same – not from difference. It is not as unrecognised diversity that migrants, for example, are supported. It is as citizens like everyone else, who are unjustly denied recognition.

In his work on ethics, Badiou attacks the idea of recognition of the other, which underpins most contemporary progressive ethical thought. He explicitly theorises an ethics of the Same. Badiou argues that multiplicity, or difference, is simply what is. Any situation always consists of difference. Therefore, what should be is always defined by the Same – the way one orders a situation through a generic Truth. Furthermore, there can be no respect across true political oppositions. There is always an absolute antagonism and struggle.

Like a state or count-for-one, a Truth arranges unrelated particularities into a set. Unlike a state, it is organised only by the haphazard investigations which connect each particularity to the others. The set itself cannot be named. At best, one can list what its elements are. The main difference between a state’s way of counting and a subject’s way of counting is that states operate by inclusion and stratification, whereas subjects operate by subtraction and separation.

True “humanity” is meant to be connected to the ability to become a subject of a Truth. It has nothing to do with embodied experience or suffering – which Badiou treats as “animal” aspects of humans. Badiou is dismissive of theories of human rights because of their focus on suffering. And he can be callous in his treatment of human experience.

Badiou’s definition of evil is the interruption of a truth-procedure by particular or individual interests. Such interests are always animal in kind. Badiou violently rejects the idea of respect for the Other, particularly in relation to truths.

Badiou rejects any politics which reduces humans to ‘animal’ characteristics. He sees appeals to suffering others as such an ‘animal’ reduction. Badiousian Truth has nothing to do with redeeming trauma, disaster, or abjection. In fact, Badiou insists that there is nothing inherent to an individual that provides a basis for it to have rights or to be preserved. He argues that prohibitions on murder, torture, rape and so on are historically contingent effects of a particular state.

This presumably means that Badiou would also reject animal rights. There’s something of an anomaly here, since, if the characteristics of humans are relevant to the definition of political sets, these sets are not truly extensional. Why wouldn’t political equality also extend to animals?

Classical Marxism is criticised for relying on the “One”, in the form of the class, Party, or social totality. Post-Marxists such as Laclau, Touraine and Gorz are criticised for ignoring the ‘properly political sphere’ by focusing on a supposedly self-regulating social process or movement. This view is taken to be a bourgeois fantasy of smoothly-functioning, comfortable capitalism. Badiou insists on the primacy of antagonism, as in classical Marxism. But he no longer theorises antagonism in terms of classes.

Arguably, Badiou’s opposition to the politics of difference has been weakened in his most recent works. In Logic of Worlds, Badiou changes his theory to take account of degrees of ‘appearance’. Some elements have more ‘appearance’ – or are better connected – than others. For instance, some participants on a protest are more central than others – and hence have more appearance.

The logic of appearance is internal to a situation and its state. Badiou suggests that activists get caught in the logic of appearance when they compromise because of ambivalence towards radical aspects of a movement. For instance, objections to ‘violence’ are taken to be an example of being captured by the logic of appearance.

Basically, no movement can be assessed by any criteria external to its Truth. This position is often criticised for apparently allowing limitless cruelty. However, it also insulates Badiousians against common divide-and-rule tactics. It might be one of the reasons why Badiousians are often exemplary public intellectuals.

Political revolutions are a particular type of Event.  Like all truth-procedures, true politics is exceptional and rare. Also like all truth-procedures, politics unfolds from a subjective Truth, without reference to objective conditions. A true political actor acts on what is right, not what is legal. And politics begins where submission to the overwhelming power of the status quo ends.

In addition to a goal of all Events in a particular sphere, there is also an ‘unnamable’ in each sphere which must not be named. In politics, the unnamable is the social bond. To name the unnamable is always a disaster. It destroys the proper relation of the Truth to the void. So any revolutionary politics must refuse to name the social bond. Any political position which names the social bond (e.g. as nationality, race, and so on) is dangerous and even disastrous. The political community is unnamable. Attempts to name it lead to disasters (such as fascism). A generic community can only exist if it resists naming itself. This is similar in some ways to Peterson’s theory of the activist group as bund.

At one point in Theory of the Subject, Badiou theorised a struggle between bourgeois and proletarian politics in which each tries to win over the people to its side. The bourgeoisie and proletariat are conceived as two distinct subjects. However, the proletariat is a subject (and hence a process) of revolutionary change, whereas the bourgeoisie is a process of maintaining the status quo. Later, he suggests that the bourgeoisie is not not really a subject. The bourgeoisie is a place. There is no political duel between two subjects. There is a place, and the struggle to change it.

Strictly speaking, there is only one political subject. This is the subject that demonstrates the Real of fraternity. In other words, a true political subject is someone who identifies with the collective “we” of a truth-procedure which posits equality. This subject is not so much opposed by a reactionary subject, as opposed by the inertia of an existing regime. A political subject thinks collectively. It cannot stop thinking collectively for long enough to name or define what it is doing.

Each political subject constitutes itself at a distance from the state – termed la distance politique by Badiou. It is foundational of any political Truth to refuse the state as a norm. Politics begins by measuring the excess of state power. It ruptures the situation where the state seems incalculably, massively powerful. Instead, it acts, and forces the state to show its hand. The state responds with repression so as to restore the status quo. In doing so, it shows that it is a particular, contingent, calculable power, rather than an incalculable excess.

This position of ‘distance from the state’ might authorise certain kinds of autonomous politics. Peter Hallward gives the example of the MST. Instead of campaigning for legalisation, the MST act at a political distance from the state. They create a new situation, a fait accompli, which in turn leads to the state’s granting of recognition to land claims.

Configurations of Subjectivity

In Theory of the Subject, Badiou suggests that there are four possible outcomes of an Event. The situation may simply repeat itself, defeating the Event. This is the ‘rightist deviation’. It may recuperate the Event, making the new group a part of the existing structure – as in social-democracy. The Event may assert its own identity regardless of the situation, which Badiou sees as a dead-end. He terms this a ‘leftist deviation’. (Today he terms this obscurantism). Or the excluded part can apply its own force to determine its own placement in the situation. This is the process Badiou saw as desirable. The process is infinitely ongoing, because the outcome – even in the best case – is structurally similar to the initial situation. These processes were conceived as extra-individual. It is only lack of trust in a historical force which generates deviations. Oliver Feltham humorously notes that the applicability of these categories to all spheres of the everyday means that a Badiousian could condemn colleagues, partners and friends for ‘deviations’ of the various kinds.

In these early works, attempts to think ‘force alone’ – or the excluded part (offsite) without the situation – leads to a ‘leftist deviation. Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophy is mentioned as an example of this in politics. Leftist armed opposition groups in Europe are seen as political examples of the same tendency. Badiou seeks to avoid such a ‘deviation’ by balancing force against structure.

Also in Theory of the Subject, Badiou theorises four political affects (or emotional states) – courage, justice, anxiety and the superego. The superego represents the force of law, and hence of the established order. Anxiety arises from a lack of symbolic order, and impedes decisive action. Justice is the opposite of the superego. It rejects adherence to present laws. Instead, it expands the symbolic order to include new elements. It is the basis for a new commonality. Courage is the opposite of anxiety. It allows decisive action without guarantees.

A subjective process comes about through the combination of courage and justice (although the other affects also have a role in its negative aspects). This combination sustains the undecidability of the situation, without higher authority, and the subjective position of deciding on a course of action. When courage is combined with the superego, the result is what a Deleuzian would call a reactive type of political movements. These are movements where militants sacrifice themselves for a higher authority such as God, the nation, or a dogmatically defined cause.

In more recent works, there are also different ways to relate to an Event. The desirable way for Badiou, as we have seen, is “fidelity” (which is shown by the master and the hysteric). Two other ways to relate, which exist in tension with fidelity, are the “reactionary” and “obscure” responses.

The reactionary is a type of subject who refuses to recognise a Truth. S/he insists on making the Event relative to the order of knowledge or the existing count. (In his earlier work, Badiou treated reactionaries as simply anti-subjective). Fidelity to the Event involves being fully contemporary with current situations. A reactionary refuses this present orientation, denying the urgency of the present. The reactionary response seeks to deny and suppress the Event. (This raises the question of what happens if a present is itself reactionary in its direction of change. Must we always go along with the flow of history?)

The obscurantist response tries to follow the event through into the void, without using it to change the situation. The obscurantist sticks to a rigid conformity to a past Event rather than unfolding its consequences. A true fidelity to an Event is oriented to its unfolding. Fidelity treats the Event as unproven. Change is always incomplete. In contrast, obscurantism treats the Event as entirely present.

Hence for instance, an obscurantist response to the Russian Revolution would seek to imitate the exact Bolshevik methods and models, regardless of local context. An obscurantist Christian would focus on the fine points of theological doctrine and divine commandment. Salafis might also be a case of Badiousian obscurantism.

Obscurantism also occurs when – as in neoliberalism – a discourse makes a previous period unreadable. Badiou terms neoliberalism obscurantist in that it seeks to conceal the breakthroughs of Marx, Freud and Darwin. He claims that it bases its discourse on the 1820s. (It is widely accepted among radical theorists that the backlash is directed, at least, against the breakthroughs of the 1960s).

The category of obscurantism also seems to be directed against forms of politics Badiou considers too anarchic or extreme. Basically, the point of an Event for Badiou is a general shift – however small – in the dominant system. This shift will alter the situation, but cannot yield a world without exclusion and oppression (since these are constitutive). So ultimately, Badiou is a kind of revolutionary reformist, using revolutionary means to achieve otherwise impossible structural reforms.

He is hostile to autonomous movements which go further than this – by seceding from the dominant situation, creating other worlds, or refusing to re-enter the alienating regime of the count-for-one. The label “obscurantist” easily captures such movements – in much the same way ideologies always name excluded parts.

For an obscurantist, nothing matters but the original Event itself. Truth requires an escape from time. Badiou seems to have in mind theories of exodus such as Negri’s. Badiou sees Negri as glorifying the internal processes of capitalism. Negri’s multitude remains what it is, and so does not escape capitalism. He similarly criticises summit protests because they focus on the sites where global leaders meet, instead of creating their own sites.

Badiou’s work on ethics also involves theories of false fidelities, or ‘evils‘. The danger of ‘terror’ or ‘evil’ arises because the Event is undecidable. A Truth effectively involves foregoing the world. This means it is at risk of paranoid insecurity.

A Truth is founded on the void.  This means that, for a Truth to remain true, it must stop short of investigating or containing everything. If it encompasses everything, it refuses to recognise the underlying void. No truth should try to be all-encompassing. Every truth should recognise something unnamable and excessive that it articulates. Otherwise it closes the gap between ontology and the Event, and loses its contact with the void. This is related to the claim in set theory that there cannot be a set of all sets (since a bigger set of the relations within any particular set can always be made, or ‘forced’). No Truth should try to prevent further Events which further enlarge the set.

There are various types of evil in Badiou’s theory. They are all either corruptions or simulations of truth-procedures. They are always ‘diagnosed’ substantively, through an analysis of a particular Event and its unfolding. They do not involve general, abstract criteria applied to an Event.

For instance, evil occurs when a subject tries to specify and fill the void of the situation – to name the unnamable. This happens whenever belonging is defined in terms of a substance, rather than a void. (This criticism would apply to the various qualitative theories of resistance discussed above – Deleuze, Lefebvre, Bakunin, Marx, Situationism, and so on). Truths must also respect the difference between a Truth and the regime of opinion or knowledge. They must not seek to abolish the order of opinion or knowledge.

Some evils apply to Events, leading them astray. Others look like Events, but aren’t. The Nazi movement, for example, seemed like an Event. It was formally indistinguishable from an Event. It fooled Heidegger into thinking it was an Event. But it wasn’t an Event, because its reference was substantive. It did not come from an excluded part, or Evental site. Therefore it was what Badiou terms a ‘mythic Event’.

The only subject able to restrain a Truth is the Truth’s own subject. A true politics seeks to guard the void. An evil politics seeks to eliminate it – for instance, by exterminating or assimilating those who cannot be counted. The total imposition of a Truth is always a disaster.

A false fidelity might also seek to cling to the void which appears in the Event itself – instead of moving beyond it, into a new situation. Nostalgia for the void is evil. So is celebrating an Event as divine, pure, or sacred. Such framings seek to control the Event. Various philosophers who operate with a substantial theory of truth – such as Heidegger, Husserl and Kierkegaard – are deemed to have succumbed to this kind of evil. Debord and Breton are also accused of this deviation in art.

There are reformist implications to Badiou’s account of evil. Basically, the prohibition of the wrong kind of fidelities serves to uphold the formal structure of axiomatics and lack. A Truth can resist opinion, but cannot overcome it. The structure of void, count-for-one, exclusion, and situation must be maintained. Ultimately, there can be no Badiousian revolution against the entire structure.

Badiou does not seem able to answer the question of what to do when two Truths collide. In Theory of the Subject, Badiou suggests that someone affected by two Truths would exist at their intersection.

For the rest of the essays in this series, visit the In Theory page.

Andrew Robinson

Andrew Robinson is a political theorist and activist based in the UK. His book Power, Resistance and Conflict in the Contemporary World: Social Movements, Networks and Hierarchies (co-authored with Athina Karatzogianni) was published in Sep 2009 by Routledge. His 'In Theory' column appears every other Friday.

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