Saturday, April 18, 2009

what is Badiou about?

If we consent to compare, say, Marcus Garvey with the English parliamentary reformer Henry Hunt this does not mean we're necessarily committed to a view of the world in which Europe inevitably proposes models that are subsequently imitated in other contexts. The political problems faced by humanity often reoccur, so similar solutions are often proposed. The political conjuncture out of which Latin American populism has developed might well correspond to the European future.

I mention this because if we want to understand Alain Badiou it might be useful to refer back to previous periods in which the prevalent intellectual culture was disconnected from everyday life. If it seems incomprehensible now that working men earnestly attended lectures by people like John Ruskin or William Morris it is sufficient to recall the lectures by Badiou and Zizek attended by fee paying students and future call centre workers. If we permit ourselves to assert that the prevalent intellectual culture is disconnected from the culture of everday life this does not mean we are obliged to find fault with the latter. Intellectuals are not so much expected to say the unsayable (that is, to rationally undermine the hypocrisy and cant of the establishment) as to dramatise the sublimation of language: its "becoming unintelligible". This is a social problem, and does not follow from the excesses or eccentricities of a few writers. Badiou has inherited this situation. This is not to say it doesn't affect his work.

Doesn't this follow from Badiou's quite correct assertion that the organised left, that is, the political structures of the working class, have for some time been in abeyance?

Badiou's article in the New Left Review introducing the ideas he develops in his book on Sarkozy is illustrative of the disjuncture I have mentioned between ordinary culture and a supposed elite culture that certainly shouldn't be mistaken for bourgeois culture tout court. Badiou is celebrated as an inventor of abstruse theory. This is connected, by various personal, social and historical circumstances to his political engagement on behalf of "a minority of the poor". I think both these activities are quite justifiable, but their interplay here results in a decidedly leftfield political theory.

It shouldn't be too surprising that Badiou is able to accurately criticise some of the contradictions of modern politics. The outcome of the election won by Sarkozy:

"affirmed the manifest powerlessness of any genuinely emancipatory programme within the electoral system: preferences are duly recorded, in the passive manner of a seismograph, but the process is one that by its nature excludes any embodiments of dissenting political will. "

"The underlying rationale is, of course, that of the single party: since all accept the logic of the existing capitalist order, market economy and so forth, why maintain the fiction of opposing parties?"

The interest in the essay, and one assumes the book, is the way this social critique connects with Badiou's philosophical system. It's something like a brittle crust overlaying molten Badiouism.

The argument seems to develop like this:

Badiou sees the French public and the capitalist state as mutually determining. The election results demonstrate the public's consent toward their government and political system. The political system is integrated with the capitalist system. The capitalist system molds public opinion:

"We should not underestimate the role of what Althusser called the ‘ideological state apparatus’—increasingly through the media, with the press now playing a more sophisticated part than tv and radio—in formulating and mobilizing such collective sentiments. Within the electoral process there has, it seems, been a weakening of the real."

The mutual determination of public and state might be thought of as a "virtuous circle". It is at least consistant with formal democracy. Nevertheless the foreign policy advocted by the french government is entirely cynical:

"a total consensus reigned on Palestine, Iran, Afghanistan (where French forces are fighting), Lebanon (ditto), Africa (swarming with French military ‘administrators’). Public discussion of alternatives on these issues was on neither party’s agenda."

and blame for domestic problems is fallaciously attributed to:

"ill-intentioned elements of the population—currently, foreign workers and young people from the banlieue."

In effect Badiou has described a political impasse - an "essential conservatism" - and the negative externalities that follow from it. The central problem, for Badiou, appears to involve the authenticity of the electorate and their failure to acheive a universal view of events. It appears that the system of mutual determination constantly recirculates "sad passions", hence the emphasis on fear. At the same time this means the system is abstracted from reality as a whole.

In the theory of avant garde art an abstracted status quo is negated and subsumed by an original form of art. In demonstrating the abstraction of the political status quo Badiou is able to apply the rules of this theory of art to politics. The regime itself understands in what direction its negation lies:

"What is haunting the regime, under the name of May 68? We can only assume that it is the ‘spectre of communism’, in one of its last real manifestations."

from which follows the conflation of disparate popular struggles with "communism" as a "transcendental invariant" and the real avant garde. This is to give history a strange reeducation camp flavour, easily refuted by enquiry into the events involved, for instance the first stages of the Chinese revolution, the Spanish civil war and so on.

The deficiencies in the argument as a whole follow from the failure to recognise the electorate's real economic interests. This allows a wholesale denigration of parliamentary politics, and by implication the customary right of political franchise. What is perhaps a temporary conjuncture is taken for a transhistorical "invariant". The right to vote has been useful in the past and probably will be again. The theory of avantgardism is a strange modern phenomenon that ought to be analysed properly before serving as the basis of some kind of neo-maoism.

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