‘The True Life’ reviewed by Hans G Despain

The True Life

Translated by Susan Spitzer, Polity Press, Malden: MA, 2017. 80pp., £9.99/$12.95 pb
ISBN 9781509514892

Reviewed by Hans G Despain

About the reviewer

Hans G Despain is Professor of Economics and Department Chair at Nichols College, Massachusetts. He …


Alain Badiou is an avowed Marxist, with strong sympathies for Mao, and identifies as a modern-day Platonist. Plato’s dialogues are typically conversations between Socrates and young people. In his new book The True Life, Badiou writes directly to, and about, today’s young people. According to Badiou, capitalism corrupts the process of personal development, where “the individual is prevented from becoming the subject he or she is capable of being” (59). The True Life is divided into three essays based on lectures Badiou delivered to audiences of “mainly” “young people,” in a variety of places “including high schools” (vi). 

Informed and inspired by the transformational accomplishments of Mao, Badiou unapologetically aligns philosophy with politics. For Badiou, the function of philosophy is more critical than conservative regarding what constitutes reality. This critical function of philosophy renders it political. The political aspect and critical function of philosophy aim to understand and articulate a language of new possibilities. Philosophy reflects upon the meaning of political struggles, and endeavours to inform these struggles so as to assist the right action. According to Badiou, philosophy can inform (young) people when to be rightly obedient or rightly disobedient. Philosophy is the “logical revolt” aspect of emancipatory politics. To paraphrase Marx’s 11th thesis on Feuerbach, for Badiou, philosophy should interpret the world in various ways, and also be rightly critical of the world, so as to be able to change it.

According to Badiou there is a continuous call for emancipatory politics from the constant refusal to accept the brutality of capitalist social relations. These social relations manifest monopolisation of resources, inequality, precarious income and labour relations for workers, economic instability, financial crises, xenophobia, war, and terrorism. Badiou thus informs his reader: “You are living in a time of crisis” (28). Many on the Left believe “it’s a crisis of modern finance capitalism. But it’s not! Not at all! Capitalism is expanding rapidly all over the world” (30). Instead, the crisis is the inability of “young people in finding their place in the new world” (30). A disorientation of the young (46), joblessness for many, low income and precariousness for most, and general meaninglessness for participants in capitalist reproduction (84)Young people’s inability to find their place is a crisis of monopoly finance capitalism. The system generates the disorientation, joblessness, inequality, and meaninglessness. Monopoly finance capitalism is a system of exclusion that generates inequality and manifests injustice in a crisis of excluding the young.

According to Badiou, degradation of personal well-being leads to protests and people taking to the street. Such Events manifest a need for philosophy to help articulate the meaning of and the way forward from the Event. Badiou attempts to converse with the young, recognising that the burden of understanding the meaning of these Events, and the way forward, always concerns the future, and therefore especially the young.

The particular social conditions facing youth today demand urgent philosophical articulation, critical commentary and emancipatory change. In addition to the young having to mature within dysfunctional socio-economic structures of inequality and injustice, Badiou maintains that they are subjectively corrupted in their process of personal development. “Let’s review the current situation”, he writes. “As Mao Zedong used to say, we should always ‘have the figures in mind.’ Today, 10% of the world’s population own 86% of the available capital, 1% own 46% of that capital. And 50% of the world population own exactly nothing, 0%” (31). In this context, young people are encouraged to “pursue a career” (61), make money, and “buy things.” What things? “Toys, ultimately – big toys” (23). The constitution of the capitalist monster “wants two things: for us to buy the products on the market if we can, and, if we can’t, for us to just keep quiet” (85). Badiou warns this is a type of “false life” (8), meaningless and unfulfilling (9). The individual is “prevented from becoming the subject he or she is capable of being” (59).

Similar to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, young people are shackled to a reality that is partly false and partly true; a reality that is full of illusions and ideology. The philosopher’s job is to identify the illusions and falseness, help articulate the Ideas of truth, and to then (going back down into the Cave) participate in the political struggles for emancipation and Truth. In other words, “the philosopher’s role has always been to corrupt youth” and emancipate them from an impoverished form of personal development based on an illusionary reality and false life (71). Capitalist freedom is merely a freedom to consume (29), pursue money and struggle for power (8).

For Badiou, the conventions of capitalist culture are hollow. The freedom to shop and consume is a radically incomplete freedom (29), the pursuit of money is unfulfilling, the struggle for power is noxious, and commitment to bourgeois careerism is a thoroughly nihilistic “hole-plugger of meaninglessness” (64). “After all, what capitalism requires is a [false] life consisting of work, [consumption] needs, and satisfactions” fulfilled through shopping and consuming (99).

The rise of capitalistic “modernity is the abandonment of tradition” (29), as Badiou points out by quoting Marx and Engels’ famous remark in the Communist Manifesto: “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned” (35). Today, there are no longer any rituals of initiation for youth into adult life (17). “Adolescence”, in contemporary capitalism, “is the time of fundamental conditioning in the service of market competition, the time of initiation into the market itself,” initiation without initiation (59). The capitalistic choices facing the young are careerism and the pursuit of money or precariousness (37). Then consume if you can, shut up if you can’t (84). 

The ultimately emptiness of these choices and the violence (37) that enforces them leaves young people existentially adrift and disoriented regarding what constitutes the “true life” and meaningfulness (22). The lack of traditional rituals of initiation necessarily mean that youth fail to fully mature. Simultaneously, it is the puerilisation and infantilisation of adults.

 In addition to external forces, Badiou warns of “two inner enemies” identified by Plato. The first is passion and the desire for the immediate life of amusement and pleasure(9 – 10). The second is the internal desire for conventional social success (10). What Plato called the pursuit of “Honour,” the need and desire for ontological safety, control, and prestige, become in capitalism the pursuit of wealth and money, power, and consumption. According to Badiou these inner enemies in the structural context of monopoly finance capitalism manifest the “conservative cult of the existing power structure” (12). To overcome the conservative cult of existing monopoly finance capitalism, (young) people must come to understand both the inner enemies within, and the existing power structure. 

According to Badiou, there is a triple bind prohibiting a full understanding of this circumstance. First, the extension of capitalism and the notion that ‘There Is No Alternative’ (TINA) have generated political apathy and reconciliation to the existing power structure (38). The “uncertainty” of any emancipatory politics is a serious challenge (58). Second, when an alternative s sought, typically it is nostalgic return to traditions of old, typically in the guise of a religious narrative (p. 85). This generates a “false contradiction,” an apparent clash of cultures, i.e. capitalism versus various fundamentalisms (38). Third, capitalism creates a “Life without Ideas” (80), “the stupid life” (84). The dictum “consume if you can afford to; otherwise shut up and get lost” (84) both requires and depends upon us continuing to “Live without Ideas” (83). The radical demotion of Ideas occurs in two primary ways. First, the infantilisation of adults means that thoughts and Ideas fail to mature. Second, thought is encouraged and promoted without mediation. The culture of capitalism fails to promote depth of thought, whereby the critical element of philosophy and science is not fully appreciated and understood (86). 

Institutions of education tend to fail in promoting “a life of ideas” and thought. This is because “we no longer require schools to deliver shared knowledge” and deep thinking. Instead, schools simply “separate out and protect” those deemed “deserving” of careers from those destined for wage-labour and precariousness (67). Real shared knowledge, depth of thinking, “true intellectual creativity, and self-proficiency are marginalised in schools, what rules now is how to get ahead career-wise,” i.e. what us economists call human capital skills. Badiou warns: “the crisis of education is only just beginning. The process of dismantlement, privatisation, social segregation, and educational inadequacy are going to accelerate” (66 – 7).

I found the book’s third chapter on the specific differences for female youth unconvincing and problematic. Although I did draw heavily from the chapter in my review above, Badiou argues that “prematurity” is the primary problem for girls. Although there is surely some truth here, the bigger problem remains that most girls, just like most boys, according to Badiou, are not fully maturing. Badiou claims that a “woman is always herself the earthly proof that God doesn’t exist” (95). This seems goofy and out of place in the argument of the book. He further claims that whereas boys are failing to grow up, women are making successful careers. A young boy hauled to court faces a lawyer or judge who could be his sister. Or a boy with a STD sees a doctor who is a sister or female cousin (83). I find these comments bizarre. Badiou fails to understand that most lawyers, judges, and doctors are predominately male.

In all three essays Badiou suggests what is to be done. In short, this requires the Communist Idea, or “an egalitarian symbolisation that will guide, code, and form the peaceful subjective basis for the collectivisation of resources, the effective elimination of inequalities, the recognition of differences, with equal subjective rights, and, ultimately, the withering away of separate, state-type entities” (41). In the second essay, Badiou says that there needs to be a “shattering” and “new violence” toward the conditions that render us in “thrall to commodities” (79). In the third essay, he calls for the need for females to “invent a new girl” (105); he spends half a page asking “what is a woman who engages in the politics of emancipation?” (104). Well, his answer is that women are working on it: “I don’t know what women will invent […] But I trust them absolutely” (105).  

I could be generally sympathetic to a broad generalisation of the Communist Idea, but to an audience of high school students after a deep and radical critique of their personal development in the context of existing power structure, such a conclusion is a let-down. The shattering and new violence, along with inventing “a new girl”, seem to completely lack argument and needs an explanation.

The strength of Badiou’s essays are in his identification of a crisis in personal development and the articulation of the “false contradiction” between ‘There Is No Alternative’ or a return to dogmatic fundamentalism. Badiou’s point is that traditions matter and need to be established on the basis of a Communist Idea of egalitarianism. This is important, and the claim that new traditions that enable self-efficacy need to be produced seem correct. Likewise, philosophers, political economists and social theorists more generally need to insist on CINA: ‘Capitalism Is No Alternative’.

22 September 2017

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