A Heroism of the Decision, a Politics of the Event

Simon Critchley

In the Republic, Socrates and Plato’s brothers wander out of Athens and walk down to the port of Piraeus, leaving the city behind them. After quickly demolishing the prevailing views of justice in Athenian society, Socrates proceeds to dream of another city, a just city governed by philosophers whose souls would be oriented towards the Good. The familiar objection to Plato, that the ideal of the philosophical city is utopian or impossible to realise, is fatuous. Of course the philosophers’ city is utopian: that is the point. You might argue that it is the duty of philosophy to think in a way that allows us to believe another world is possible, however difficult it would be to achieve.

Alain Badiou is a Platonist, and it is important to keep this in mind when reading the political writings assembled in Polemics. This substantial and well-translated collection, comprising the three volumes of Circonstances published in French between 2003 and 2005 and two fascinating lectures on the Paris Commune and the Chinese Cultural Revolution, is part of a recent flood of translations of Badiou’s work. The source of Badiou’s considerable appeal lies in the particular understanding of philosophy that he defends. ‘Philosophy is something that helps change existence,’ he writes. ‘It is neither technical logic-chopping nor deconstructive, melancholic poeticising’ (what Badiou calls ‘the delights of the margin’). On the contrary, philosophy is an affirmative, constructive discipline of thought. Crucially, this is thought ‘not about what is, but about what is not’.

Philosophy is the construction of the formal possibility of something that would break with what Badiou calls the ‘febrile sterility’ of the contemporary world. He calls this an ‘event’, and the only question of politics, for Badiou, is whether there is something that might be worthy of the name ‘event’. If philosophy is understood, as Heraclitus had it, as a ‘seizure by thought of what breaks with the sleep of thought’, then politics is a revolutionary seizure of power that breaks with the dreamless sleep of an unjust and violently unequal world. As such, Badiou is concerned not with the banal reality of existing politics, which he tends to dismiss as ‘the “democratic” fetish’, but with moments of rare and evanescent political invention and creativity. Like Socrates in the Republic, Badiou dreams of another city in speech; to accuse him of being unrealistic is to refuse to undertake the experiment in thought that his philosophy represents.

In Polemics, there are withering critiques and witty demolitions of the so-called war on terror, the invasion of Iraq, the bombardment of Serbia and the pantomime of parliamentary democracy, using the example of the French presidential elections of 2002. There is a delightful Swiftian satire on the Islamic headscarf affair and a denunciation of the racism that led to the riots in the banlieues late in 2005: ‘We have the riots we deserve.’ Badiou sees France as a politically ‘sick’ and ‘disproportionately abject country’ whose political reality is located not in the endlessly invoked republican ideal of the Revolution, but in the reaction against it. For Badiou, France is the country of Adolphe Thiers’s massacre of the Communards, Pétain’s collaboration with the Nazis and De Gaulle’s colonial wars. In this context, the victory of Sarkozy is an affirmation of Pétainism and Le Penism, and a continuation of France’s long war against the enemy within.

There are some less wonderful moments in Polemics, such as the long, rhetorical and rather silly call for the political fusion of France and Germany. At the centre of the book is a translation of Uses of the Word ‘Jew’, which got Badiou into terrible trouble: he was denounced as an anti-semite when it was published in France in 2005. True, it is uneven, but the central argument is clear and powerful: because of the Nazi destruction of European Jews, the word ‘Jew’ has become an exceptional, indeed transcendent, signifier in contemporary politics, employed in order to legitimate and exonerate Israel’s violent actions against its neighbours and the former inhabitants of its territory. In response to some rather vague questions in an interview with Ha’aretz, Badiou proposes an answer to the problem of the Middle East in the following terms: ‘It is the existence of a single, democratic, secular Palestine (or any other jointly chosen name), where names like “Jew” and “Arab” could be names of the multiple in the same place, names of peace.’ The accusation of anti-semitism is misplaced: Badiou is against all forms of political particularism, whether they take the form of Zionism, Arab nationalism, Islamism or indeed liberal multiculturalism and identity politics.

When Badiou imagines an alternative to the world’s increasingly easy indulgence of social inequality, he describes an ‘Enlightenment, whose elements we are slowly assembling’. Such an Enlightenment can be understood neither as what Badiou calls ‘state democracy’, i.e. parliamentarism, nor as ‘state bureaucracy’, the socialist party-state. Political struggle is ‘a tooth-and-nail fight to organise a united popular force’. This requires ‘discipline’ – a word often repeated in these essays. It is important to emphasise that this is not party discipline in the Leninist sense. What is at issue here is the invention of a politics without party and at a distance from the state, a local politics that is concerned with the construction of a collectivity.

But what might this mean? In order to understand Badiou’s idea of politics, it is helpful to consider the proximity of his views to another sometime Platonist, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In The Social Contract, Rousseau, like Badiou, is trying to establish the formal conditions of a legitimate politics. The more Marxist or sociological question of the material conditions for such a politics is continually avoided. In Badiou’s view, Rousseau establishes the modern concept of politics, which is based in the ‘act by which a people is a people’, as he puts it in The Social Contract. For Badiou, the key to Rousseau’s idea of popular sovereignty is the collective and unanimous declaration by which a people wills itself into existence. This act is understood as a collective moment of creation. The radicalness of such an event consists in its not originating in any structure supported within what Badiou calls ‘being’ or the ‘situation’, such as the socioeconomic realm or the dialectic of relations and forces of production in Marx. The political event is the making of something out of nothing through the act of the subject. Badiou is a political voluntarist.

Rousseau is the great thinker of what Badiou calls the ‘generic’. Politically, the generic is not a particular maxim of action, but a universal norm: equality. Politics has to be based on the rigorous equality of all persons and be addressed to all. The means for the creation of a generic, egalitarian politics is the general will, conceived as the political subject whose act of unanimity binds a collectivity together. Politics, Badiou writes, is ‘about finding new sites for the general will’. He insists that a true generic politics can only be realised locally and is opposed both to capitalist globalisation and to its inverse, the so-called anti-globalisation movement. But the fact that all politics is local does not mean that it is particular. On the contrary, Badiou, like Rousseau, argues for what we might call a local or situated universalism.

The issue then is how to identify a locale for politics. Rousseau struggled to find examples of legitimate politics. For a while, he looked to Geneva, until they started burning his books after the publication of The Social Contract in 1762. He also held out hopes for Corsica, and wrote a fascinating speculative constitution for Poland, but both failed him in the end. If true politics is the act by which a people wills itself into existence as a radical and local break with what existed beforehand, then it is extremely rare. The only real example Badiou gives is the Paris Commune.

Badiou’s reflections on the French elections of 2002 culminate in a restating of Rousseau’s arguments in The Social Contract against representative, electoral government and majority rule. The general or generic will cannot be represented, certainly not by any form of state government. Politics is not about governmental representation through the mechanism of the vote, but about the presentation of a people to itself. ‘The essence of politics, according to Rousseau,’ Badiou writes, ‘affirms presentation over and against representation.’ This leads Rousseau to follow Plato in his critique of theatrical representation or mimesis and to argue instead for public festivals, in which the people would be the actors in their own political drama.

However, Badiou and Rousseau go a step further, a step I am not able to take. Badiou doesn’t just defend popular sovereignty, which is as controversial as apple pie in the modern era (as long as no one puts it into practice). He also defends Rousseau’s argument for dictatorship sketched towards the end of Book Four of The Social Contract. Rousseau argues, thinking as ever of Roman history, that dictatorship is legitimate when there is a threat to the life of the body politic. At such moments of crisis, the laws that issue from the sovereign authority of the people can be suspended – Roman jurists called this iustitium, a state of exception. Badiou’s claim is slightly different: ‘Dictatorship is the natural form of organisation of political will.’ The form of dictatorship that Badiou has in mind is not tyranny, but what he calls ‘citizenry discipline’. In other words, what Marx, Lenin and Mao called ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’.

The deeply Rousseauian character of Badiou’s approach to politics becomes clear in the two lectures that conclude Polemics. What interests Badiou about the Paris Commune is the ‘exceptional intensity of its sudden appearing’. Everything turns on the moment on 18 March 1871 when a group of Parisian workers who belonged to the National Guard refused to turn over their weapons to the government of Versailles. It is this moment of resistance and the subsequent election of the Commune government on 26 March that constitutes a political event for Badiou. What takes place in the Paris Commune is a moment of collective political self-determination, a making of something out of nothing – what he calls the ‘existence of an inexistant’. But, crucially, Badiou’s understanding of the Commune is freed from Lenin’s hugely influential critique in The State and Revolution, where its failure is used to justify the Bolshevik seizure of state power in 1917.

It is this moment of the Paris Commune that was repeated – very self-consciously repeated – in the Shanghai Commune in February 1967. This followed intense power struggles within the Chinese Communist Party and Mao’s mobilisation of the Red Guards against what he saw as the ‘revisionism’ and bureaucratism of the regime. Although Badiou is well aware that Mao ordered the dissolution of the Shanghai Commune and its replacement with a Revolutionary Committee controlled by the Party, it is this brief moment of the self-authorising dictatorship of the proletariat that fascinates him. Having attempted to mobilise the masses politically in the early stages of the Cultural Revolution, Mao criticised the Shanghai Commune for ‘extreme anarchism’ and for being ‘most reactionary’.

If politics is what Badiou calls an ‘evanescent event’, the act by which a people declares itself into existence and seeks to follow through on that declaration, we might say that politics is the commune and only the commune. ‘I believe this other world resides for us in the commune,’ Badiou writes, very Platonically. The commune is the sudden transformation of the febrile sterility of the nothing of the world into a fecund something, a moment of radical rupture that obsesses Badiou, a seizure by thought in an event that is a seizure of power. Furthermore, the event doesn’t last. After 72 days, the Paris Commune was crushed by the military forces of Thiers, the future first president of the Third Republic. Some twenty thousand Parisians were slaughtered.

This brief moment of politics without party and state was repeated in a slightly different register in May 1968. Understood biographically, the category of the ‘event’ is Badiou’s attempt to make sense of the experience of novelty and rupture that accompanied the événements of 1968. At its simplest, Badiou’s general question is: what is novelty? What is creation? How does newness come into the world? Understood politically, the event is that moment of novel, brief, local, communal rupture that breaks with a general situation of social injustice and inequality.

Compelling as I find Badiou’s understanding of politics, his taste for dictatorship is hard to accept. The liberal protestations of Hannah Arendt notwithstanding, I sympathise with the idea that the problem of politics is the formation of the general or generic will, of a popular front, what Marx called ‘an association of free human beings’. But surely this shouldn’t lead to an apology for dictatorship. Why not embrace instead the anarchist politics that Badiou steadfastly rejects, a politics that is also without party and at a distance from the state? Behind Badiou’s talk of discipline, even if it is no longer party discipline, there is an affectionate and deeply misguided nostalgia for revolutionary violence. Seductive as it is, Badiou’s conception of politics suffers from a heroism of the decision, a propaganda of the violent deed in all its deluded romance. To address the current situation, resistance to the violence of military neo-liberalism must not take the form of counter-violence – that is the neo-Leninist logic of al-Qaida – but should be devoted to the prosecution and cultivation of peace. But peace is not passivity or a state of rest. It is a process, an activity, a hugely difficult practice.

For all the apparent optimism and robust affirmativeness of Badiou’s conception of philosophy, the suspicion remains that there is something deeply pessimistic at its heart. The formal conditions that define a true politics are so stringent and the examples given so limited, it is difficult not to conclude that long after the Commune, and forty years after 1968, any politics of the event has become impossible. But this would be to forget Plato’s image of Socrates dreaming of a just city. Rousseau ends his Second Discourse by showing that the development of social inequality culminates in a state of war between persons, tribes, nations and civilisations. At the present time, in the face of such a state of war, the philosopher’s dream of another city will always appear hopelessly utopian. To that extent, the impossibility of Badiou’s politics may be its greatest strength.