The Rebirth of History: Times of Riots and Uprisings
Translated by Gregory Elliott, Verso, London and New York, 2012. 120pp., $19.95 / £12.99 hb
Reviewed by Ishay Landa
Ishay Landa is Senior Lecturer in History at the Israeli Open University. He has published on Nietzscheanism, Marxism, political theory and popular culture (firstname.lastname@example.org ).
In this short but ambitious and richly argued book, Alain Badiou attempts to distill the philosophical and political import of the popular riots sweeping across the globe, particularly “the Arab spring” (the French original was published in 2011). The wave of uprisings and mass demonstrations, which has not subsided since the book’s publication, provides the French thinker with an opportunity to apply his theory of the Event – abstractly unfolded in such weighty works as Being and Event and Logic of Worlds – to present-day political happenings. It is asked to what extent the global turmoil can be seen, or might potentially develop into, an evental break, a watershed of “universal significance.” (106)
The book comprises ten chapters, brief but typically highly charged, and two appendices, that originally appeared in the French press. The introduction poses the fundamental questions right away:
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? (1)
The book’s aspiration, however, is not to describe the occurrences; nor can it be said simply to diagnose, explain or even pronounce a judgment on them. The ultimate goal appears to be a philosophico-political intervention, an effort to canalize the disparate and somewhat incongruous events in such a direction as to fuse them into an Event. Badiou’s assumption is that the global revolts are not yet a coherent force. They are, he asserts, “as yet blind, naive, scattered, and lacking a powerful concept or durable organization.” (5) And the challenge is precisely to furnish them with such a concept. Riots of all kinds are deemed vital, yet insufficient, unless supplemented by a great, ground-breaking Idea. As Badiou affirms, this “is precisely my problem: if riots are to signal a reawakening of History, they must indeed accord with an Idea.” (21)
Chapters 2, 3 and 4 (I will in due time return to the first chapter which is, I think, of crucial importance for understanding and assessing the book) focus respectively on describing three main forms of riots, starting with the most simple one, “immediate riot” – a more or less impulsive and blind (“one cannot really see clearly” (26)) spate of protest and street violence against injustice, of the type which was witnessed in London in August 2011. While in sympathy with such protests, Badiou also chastises “the corruption of popular subjectivity” which they manifest, and describes them adversely as “profitable pillaging.” (26) From there one ascends to the more opaque category of the “latent riot” – which refers to comparably more restrained mass protests and strikes, especially in Western, affluent society.
The highest category of such revolts, finally, are the “historical riots,” of the kind that have erupted in a number of Arab countries. Such revolts are uplifting in their unprecedented reach, zeal and determination, yet they too are limited and do not of necessity facilitate a breakthrough to a new order. “An historical riot is […] a riot which is neither (below it) an immediate riot, nor (beyond it) the large-scale advent of a new politics.” (27) While, like immediate riots, they are not political, historical riots can at least claim to be “pre-political,” for they bring us to the threshold of the political properly speaking. (33) To cross such threshold however, what is obligatory is the empowerment which comes “from the sharing of an Idea.” (40) Without such an ideological foundation, riots, no matter how heartfelt and spectacular, must remain “essentially negative.” The masses know what it is they do not want – say, Mubarak – but not what they are positively striving for.
In Chapter 5, however, titled “Riots and the West,” Badiou gives the impression that there actually is an element of positive longing in the Arab riot, yet he rigorously warns against such wish. The aspiration in question is the desire to join the West, attain its way of life, its diverse freedoms, enjoy its affluence and so on and so forth. Here there is a certain ambiguity in Badiou’s description. On the one hand, such aspirations are reduced to outward Western projections and hegemonic attempts to ideologically co-opt the riots and nip in the bud their truly radical potential: “Basically, our rulers and our dominant media have suggested a simple interpretation of the riots in the Arab world: what is expressed in them is what might be called a desire for the West, a desire to ‘enjoy’ everything that we, the drowsy, satiated inhabitants of the affluent countries, already ‘enjoy.’” (48) Badiou argues that such Western signification of the events is “infinitely […] debatable.” (49) Yet shortly thereafter he is forced to concede that this is not a mere misinterpretation, and that the Egyptian masses are genuinely tempted by such vision. This fills him with apprehension. “Who,” he asks, “will protect us from the all too real subjective power of the desire for the West?” (54) For him, everything hinges on moving away from the hated Western model: “a phenomenon of Western inclusion cannot be regarded as genuine change. What would be a genuine change would be an exit from the West, a ‘de-Westernization.’” (52)
Such Western temptation, in truth, appears to be so powerful, and to pose such a lethal threat to the merely embryonic prospect of genuine change, described as a necessary “daydream,” that the next two chapters (6, 7) are dedicated to explaining the need to protect this delicate sprout by recourse to consciously minoritarian, indeed even authoritarian politics. Here Badiou draws on his critique of democracy – found in many of his earlier works – as the sheer rule of numbers, a rule of interpellated “opinion,” posing a nearly insurmountable obstacle to the realization of Truths. Drawing on his own sobering experience during the May 1968 uprising which the ensuing general elections put the lid on, he contrasts the radical passion of the truly revolutionary Egyptian subjects, filling the streets and plazas, with the apathetic majority at home, which – given parliamentarian mass democracy – is ultimately going to decide the fate of the events, in what would signify “a guaranteed fiasco” for the revolution. The radical movement, he asserts, “is always utterly minoritarian.” (58) The only possible remedy is to substitute “popular dictatorship” for “democracy.” Whereas the latter is a mere instrument of the state, the former is the only means to shield the nascent political truth and avert the falling into Western ways:
It emerges – this truth – on the edge of an historical riot, which extricates it from the laws of the world (in our case from the pressure of the desire for the west) in the form of a new, previously unknown possibility. And the assertion (and then […] the organization) of this new political possibility is presented in an explicitly authoritarian form: the authority of truth, the authority of reason. (60-1)
In positive terms, the Idea put forward by Badiou and which he regards as germinating on the historical riot’s edge, is a social order transcending all present particularisms and identitarian forms, infused with universal egalitarianism. “What is involved,” he clarifies, “is the organization not of ‘real democracy,’ but of the authority of the True, or of an unconditional idea of justice.” (97) Chapter 8, on “State and Politics: Identity and Genericity,” contains a penetrating attack on the hegemonic-cum-exclusionary function of the modern state, mainly via the example of France, and a deconstruction of the national claim to represent fixed identities. In the penultimate chapter, “Doctrinal Summary,” this universality is again posited as the positive content which must be attained:
Truths – but of what? Truths of what is actually the collective presentation of humanity as such (the communal of communism). Or: the truth of the fact that, over and above their vital interests, human animals are capable of bringing into being justice, equality and universality. (87)
What are we to make of such propositions and prescriptions? This brief summary of the book’s core arguments already brings to light, I think, some of its weaknesses. The pitfalls of the authoritarian solutions are only too obvious, both in themselves – can a viable future “communism” really represent the convictions of a minority, however “massive”? – and in the space they open up for pernicious appropriation at the hands of diverse “identitarian” movements, be they racists, religious fundamentalists, or neo-fascists, wishing to impose their own “truths” on the dead numbers. Let us, therefore, not be so quick in dismissing the silent majority, or in assuming its automatic support for reaction or the status quo.
Yet beyond this “identitarian” danger – which Badiou excels at analyzing and denouncing, even as he recommends dubious methods of obviating it – the main weakness of Badiou’s book, and perhaps of his political thought more generally, is the way in which it raises up against another universalism, which it un-dialectically denigrates. Paradoxically, in the final account Badiou’s principal nemesis is not any identitarianism, but precisely an alternative universal project, which he refers to, somewhat misleadingly, as “the West.”
In order to elucidate this point, it is necessary to go back to the first chapter, “Capitalism Today,” in which Badiou defends himself against those who, like Antonio Negri, criticize his idea of communism on account of its idealistic and non-Marxist nature. In defense of his position, Badiou emphasizes that he is in fact completely rooted in Marxism. Yet he paradoxically proceeds to define it in such a narrowly political way, so as to attest to a far-reaching break with Marxism as traditionally understood: “Marxism [. . .] is, let us reiterate, the organized knowledge of the political means required to undo existing society.” (8) Many important things are lost when Marxism is thus reduced. Most significant among them, in our context, is the way that Marx envisaged communism not as the simple abolition of the present, but rather as its dialectical sublation.
Marx expressly disowned the notion that communism aims to reshape reality in agreement with some lofty idea or moral injunction; his goal was rather to facilitate the revolutionary transformation which is already in the offing, “under our very eyes.” (The Communist Manifesto) For Marx, communism was maturing in the womb of capitalist society, predicated on its contradictions, its shortcomings as well as its historical achievements. Communism was conceived as the product of history giving birth. For Badiou, in stark contrast, communism is conceived as a “rebirth of history, as opposed to the pure and simple repetition of the worst.” (5)
Thus, notwithstanding the introductory avowal of allegiance to Marxism, The Rebirth of History reads very much like a protracted, if never explicit, series of refutations of Marxist contentions. To start with, Badiou’s very notion of the Event as a supra- and anti-historical rupture has little to do with Marx and is much more indebted to Nietzsche and Heidegger, the former wishing to “break the history of the world in two,” the latter protesting against profane “historicality” and striving to reconnect with the ontological bedrock. Badiou’s communism must therefore look beyond history. “History,” he stresses, “does not contain within itself a solution to the problems it places on the agenda.” (42) For Badiou, (a minoritarian) commitment to truths has a much greater role to play in a revolutionary transformation than the (majoritarian) defense of their material interests on the part of the “human animals,” a materialism which is construed as the very mainstay of the status quo. He ironically represents the establishment’s point-of-view: “Our rule remains: ‘my standard of living first and foremost.’ We’re not really resigned to seeing this principle undermined by the flea-ridden of the world finally rallying to speak the truth.” (119) For Marx it is rather the structural inability of capitalism to satisfy the masses’ material needs and aspirations which will trigger the eventual collapse of the system. Hence it is fundamentally a fight for keeping (and improving) one’s standard of living which drives the masses onto the streets from Cairo, to Athens, to Rio de Janeiro (while certainly encompassing aspirations for a more just, humane and fulfilling order).
Similarly, the way Badiou considers “immediate riots” inferior on account of their non-political and avaricious nature, appears to reproduce the very complaints voiced in 1844 by the young-Hegelian Arnold Ruge against the Silesian weavers’ rebellion, which he considered deficient in terms of political understanding. For Marx, on the contrary, defending the weavers, political understanding is not a pre-condition of revolution but a luxury:
It is entirely false that social need produces political understanding. Indeed, it is rather the truth to say that political understanding is produced by social well-being. Political understanding is something spiritual, that is given to him that hath, to the man who is already sitting on velvet.
A neat illustration of the objective discrepancy between Badiou and Marx, is the former’s sweeping denigration of the modern world. Badiou dismisses with contempt the notion that modern technology has played any significant role in inciting the revolts. He pooh-poohs those who have dared to link the Arab riots “to the use of Facebook or other vacuities of alleged technological innovation in the postmodern age.” (22) In the next page he scoffs at today’s “sheep-like electronics.” This compares unfavorably with the way that Marx and Engels have shown themselves keenly aware of the subversive potential of new technologies, and have done so more than 150 years ago, in the Manifesto:
The real fruit of their battles lies, not in the immediate result, but in the ever expanding union of the workers. This union is helped on by the improved means of communication that are created by modern industry and that place the workers of different localities in contact with one another. It was just this contact that was needed to centralize the numerous local struggles, all of the same character, into one national struggle between classes.
And this is just a sample of the objective disagreements between “communism” and “communism.” Ultimately, Badiou’s bid to rebuff the “desire for the West” seems to confuse the – entirely justified – rejection of Western imperialism and its attendant repressive and hypocritical institutions, with the – much more problematic – negation of western civilization qua mass society. And after all is not “the communist” idea organically interlinked with the West, as well, as opposed to representing merely “the East Wind”? (119) And when Badiou claims that the plot of the rulers is to incorporate the Arabs into the West, is this not a simplification? Was/is not the Western powers’ support for Mubarak and his ilk meant, precisely, to thwart the universal spreading of the Western model of mass democracy and the welfare state? To keep the standard of living in “third-world” countries artificially below that of the West? In short, not to westernize the Arab world, but to keep it under the Western thumb? While we are entitled to question the workings of parliamentary democracy and envision improvements, nay alternatives, it would be hazardous to forget the popular struggles which alone enabled that model to materialize, and to ignore the numerous democracies throughout the world which the West has helped undermine.
Badiou’s project of “communism” as envisaged in the book has strong merit. It keeps alive an inspiring utopian belief in absolute beginnings, in a realm of freedom which transcends the systemic catastrophic logic of capitalism. And the book has many brilliant and sometimes even moving passages. But, as in much of Badiou, alongside the vital contributions, is also a more problematic aspect, where a progressive critique of the ills of capitalism is obscured by an essentially Nietzschean aloofness, an attitude which Georg Lukács once aptly characterized as the “primary alienation of bourgeois ideologists from the progressiveness of history, from a recognition of the progressive tendencies and perspectives in the present.”
30 July 2013