Sunday, May 10, 2015

Alain Badiou on the European Left - Greek anti-fascism protests put the left's impotence on display (2013)

This is an edited extract of an article in Radical Philosophy

NB Badiou has joined the flirtation of sections of the left with the Muslim right in France in recent years (from 2004 on). Here's the most recent, a meditation on the Charlie Hebdo murders - DS

I begin with a feeling, an affect, which is perhaps personal, perhaps unjustified, but which I nevertheless feel, given the information at my disposal: a feeling of general political impotence. What is currently happening in Greece is something like a concentrate of this feeling. Of course, the courage and tactical inventiveness of progressive and anti-fascist demonstrators is cause for enthusiasm. Such things, moreover, are thoroughly necessary. But novel? No, not at all. They are the invariant features of every real mass movement: egalitarianism, mass democracy, the invention of slogans, bravery, the speed of reactions … We saw all of these same things, undertaken with the same energy – joyful and always a little anxious – in May '68, in France. We have seen them more recently in Tahrir Square in Egypt. Indeed, these things must have already been at work in the times of Spartacus or Thomas Münzer.

Let us set out, provisionally, from another point of departure.

Greece is a country with a very long history, one of universal significance. It is a country, whose resistance to successive oppressions and occupations has a particular historical density. It's a country where the communist movement, including the form of armed struggle, has been very powerful. A country where, even today, the youth set an example by sustaining massive and tenacious revolts. A country where, without a doubt, the classic reactionary forces are very well organised, but where there is also the courageous and ample resource of the great popular movements. A country where there are certainly formidable fascist organisations, but also a leftist party with an apparently solid electoral and militant base.

Now, everything in this country happens as if nothing could stop the utter domination of capitalism, unleashed by its own crisis. As if, under the direction of ad hoc committees and servile governments, the country had no alternative but to follow the savagely anti-popular decrees of the European bureaucracy. Indeed, with regard to the questions posed and their European "solutions", the resistance movement looks more like a delaying tactic than the bearer of a genuine political alternative.

Such is the great lesson of the times, inviting us not only to support the courage of the Greek people with all our strength, but also to join them in meditating on what must be thought and done so that this courage should not be, in a despairing way, a useless courage. For what is striking – in Greece above all, but elsewhere as well, particularly in France – is the manifest impotence of the progressive forces to compel even the slightest meaningful retreat of the economic and state powers that are seeking to submit the people unreservedly to the new (though also long-standing and fundamental) law of thoroughgoing liberalism.

Not only are the progressive forces making no headway, and failing to score even a limited success, but also the forces of fascism have been growing and, against the illusory backdrop of a xenophobic and racist nationalism, now claim to lead the opposition to the European administrations' decrees.

My feeling is that the root cause of this impotence is not, at bottom, the people's inertia, a lack of courage, or a majority support for "necessary evils". Many testimonies have shown us that the resources for a vigorous and massive popular resistance exist. Nevertheless, no new thinking of politics has emerged on a mass scale from these attempts, no new vocabulary has emerged from the rhetoric of protest and the union bosses have finally managed to convince everyone that we must wait … for elections.

I think that what we are experiencing today is instead that the majority of the political categories activists are trying to use to think and transform our current situations are, as they now stand, largely inoperative. After the sweeping movements of the 1960s and 1970s, we have inherited a very long counter-revolutionary period, economically, politically and ideologically. This counter-revolution has effectively destroyed the confidence and power that were once able to commit popular consciousness to the most elementary words of emancipatory politics – words, to cite a few at random, like "class struggle", "general strike", "revolution", "mass democracy"', and many others. The key word of "communism", which dominated the political stage since the beginning of the 19th century, is itself henceforth confined to a sort of historical infamy. 

That the equation "communism equals totalitarianism" should come to appear as natural and be unanimously accepted is an indication of how badly revolutionaries failed during the disastrous 1980s. Of course, we also cannot avoid an incisive and severe criticism of what the socialist states and communist parties in power, especially in the Soviet Union, had become. But this criticism should be our own. It should nourish our own theories and practices, helping them to progress, and not lead to some kind of morose renunciation, throwing out the political baby with the historical bathwater. This has led to an astonishing state of affairs: regarding a historical episode of capital importance for us, we have adopted, practically without restriction, the point of view of the enemy. And those who haven't done so have simply persevered in the old lugubrious rhetoric, as if nothing had happened.

Of all the victories of our enemy, this symbolic victory is among the most important.
Back in the day of the old communisms, we used to heap mockery on what we called langue de bois, or hackneyed, cliched language – empty words and pompous adjectives.
Of course, of course. But the existence of a common language is also that of a shared idea. 

The efficacy of mathematics in the sciences – and it cannot be denied that mathematics is a magnificent langue de bois – has everything to do with the fact that it formalises the scientific idea. The ability to quickly formalise the analysis of a situation and the tactical consequences of that analysis. This is no less required in politics. It is a sign of strategic vitality.

Today, one of the great powers of the official democratic ideology is precisely that it has, at its disposal, a langue de bois that is spoken in every medium and by every one of our governments without exception. Who could believe that terms like "democracy", "freedoms", "human rights", "balanced budget", "reforms", and so on, are anything other than elements of an omnipresent langue de bois? We are the ones, we militants without a strategy of emancipation, who are (and who have been for some time now) the real aphasics! And it is not the sympathetic and unavoidable language of movementist democracy that will save us. "Down with this or that", "all together we will win", "get out" "resistance!", "it is right to rebel" … This is capable of momentarily summoning forth collective affects, and, tactically, this is all very useful – but it leaves the question of a legible strategy entirely unresolved. This is too poor a language for a situated discussion of the future of emancipatory actions.

The key to political success certainly lies in the force of rebellion, its scope and courage. But also in its discipline, and in the declarations that it is capable of – declarations having to do with a positive strategic future, and that reveal a new possibility that remained invisible amid the enemy's propaganda. This is why the existence of sweeping popular movements does not by itself furnish a political vision. What cements a movement on the basis of individual affects is always of a negative character: the sort of thing that proceeds from abstract negations, like "down with capitalism", or "stop the layoffs", or "no to austerity", or "down with the European troika'", which have strictly no other effect than provisionally soldering the movement with the negative frailty of its affects; as for more specific negations, since their target is precise and they bring together different strata of the population, like "down with Mubarak", during the Arab spring, they can indeed achieve a result, but they can never construct the politics of that result, as we see today in Egypt and in Tunisia, where reactionary religious parties reap the rewards of the movement, to which they have no true relation.

For every politics becomes the regimentation of what it affirms and proposes, and not of what it negates or rejects. A politics is an active and organised conviction, a thought in action that indicates unseen possibilities. Watchwords like "resistance!" are certainly suitable for bringing individuals together, but they also risk making such an assembly nothing more than a joyful and enthusiastic mixture of historical existence and political frailty, only to become, once the enemy (who is far better politically, discursively and governmentally equipped) wins the day, a bitter redoubling and sterile repetition of failure.

It's not in the contagion of a negative affect of resistance that we might find what it takes to compel a serious retreat of the reactionary forces that, today, seek to disintegrate every form of thought and action that refuses to follow them. It is in the shared discipline of a common idea and the increasingly widespread usage of a homogeneous language.

The reconstruction of such a language is a crucial imperative. It is to this end that I have sought to reintroduce, redefine and reorganise everything that hinges on the word "communism". The word "communism" denotes three fundamental things. First, it denotes the analytic observation according to which, in today's dominant societies, freedom, whose democratic fetishisation we're all familiar with, is, in fact, entirely dominated by property. "Freedom" is nothing but the freedom to acquire every possible commodity without any pre-established limit, and the power to do "what one wants" is strictly measured by the extent of this acquisition. Someone who has lost any possibility of acquiring something does not, as a matter of fact, have any kind of freedom, as is plain to see, for instance, with the "vagabonds" that the English liberals of rising capitalism executed by hanging, without any qualms. This is the reason why Marx, in the Manifesto, declares that all the injunctions of communism can, in a sense, be reduced to just one: the abolition of private property.

Next, "communism" signifies the historical hypothesis according to which it is not necessary that freedom be ruled by property, and human societies be directed by a strict oligarchy of powerful businessmen and their servants in politics, the police, the military and the media. A society is possible in which what Marx calls "free association" predominates, where productive labour is collectivised, where the disappearance of the great non-egalitarian contradictions (between intellectual and manual labour, between town and country, between men and women, between management and labour, etc) is under way, and where decisions that concern everyone are really everyone's business. We should treat this egalitarian possibility as a principle of thought and action, and not let go of it.

Finally, "communism" designates the need for an international political organisation. It endeavours to set people's inventive thinking in motion, to construct, in a fashion unalloyed with the existing state, a power internal to any given situation. The goal is for this power to be capable of bending the real in the direction prescribed by the tying together of principles with the active subjectivity of all who have the will to transform the situation in question.

The word "communism" thus names the complete process by which freedom is freed from its non-egalitarian submission to property. That this word has been the one that our enemies have most doggedly opposed has to do with the fact that they cannot endure this process, which would indeed destroy their freedom, the norm of which is fixed by property. If that is what our enemies detest above all, then it is with its rediscovery that we must begin. Have these verbal exercises taken us far afield from Greece and the concrete urgency of the situation? Perhaps. However, a politics [une politique] is always the encounter between the discipline of ideas and the surprise of circumstances. My wish is for Greece to be, for us all, the universal site of such an encounter.

See more articles about politics in Greece today