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.

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