The more striking aspect of Badiou’s analysis of the present’s awakening from a decades-long historical slumber is that he does not attribute this slumber to the capitalist restructuration that occurred in the early 1970s. It is common to see the decomposition of the workers’ movement as one of the primary effects of this restructuration, which was itself a response to both a declining rate of profit as capitalism’s long postwar boom lost steam and a peaking out of the global class struggle in the period between 1967 and 1973. This restructuration has in some accounts triggered a cycle of struggles in which a new worker figure emerges – what Antonio Negri called the socialized worker – and an expanded terrain of struggles, the sphere of social reproduction, opens up. What is singular about Badiou’s own approach to this historical periodization is his contention that this dormancy is due to a properly subjective incapacity: an inability to handle certain contradictions immanent to the historical unfolding of this Idea. The ultimate saturation of the Party-form itself can be pinned in particular to two fundamental blockages: the “fusion” of Party and State in the state communist regimes of the 20th century and, in turn, the incapacity to solve the contradiction between State and communism, the consolidation of popular power in a “dictatorship,” on the one hand, and, on the other, the promised withering away of the state. It is these same impasses, Badiou assures us, that would eventually need to be addressed in a new political sequence, with new forms of organization and capacities developed to treat them. 

 

 

For us, it is true that history is the fortune of the event, never to be confused with politics, which is its forced subjective rationality.

—Badiou, Theory of the Subject

Over the past five years or so, Alain Badiou has offered various accounts of the present historical moment as constituting an unprecedented regression in the field of politics.* On the one hand, he argues that the form of power that emerged in the aftermath of the “red years” of 1966-76 and more generally the defeat of the organized, international workers’ movement has come to resemble what he calls the “classical” or “pure” capitalism of the mid-19th century: unregulated markets and the domination of finance – a parliamentary or “democratic” façade screening the properly oligarchic nature of this power. In short, a government of “gangsters” and “bandits,” as Badiou insists on putting it. On the other hand, the riot without Idea, a form of resistance to this archaic mode of domination, is equally characteristic of the same historical moment. What defines our moment is a certain disjunction between often violent riots of the sort seen in Paris in 2005 or in London in 2011 and a scattering of local experiments with what he calls “the communist Idea” (among them episodes as different at the Zapatista movement in Mexico and the Maoist movement in Nepal). The earliest period of the workers’ movement, the so-called “time of riots” between 1830 and 1848, was marked by a disconnection between socialist and proletarian schemes for treating the so-called “social question” and the immediate needs of an emergent working class in their often violent confrontation with and resistance to the transformations of the production process. The present moment would therefore correspond to the period before the fusion of the workers’ movement and socialism, before the moment when the worker riot converges with its own theory, and gets organized. As was the case in the mid-19th century, we find ourselves in the age of communism as mere “hypothesis.”

This account of the present period as a regression to an earlier, “essential” capitalism of the form seen in the 19th century – however intuitive or analogical this hypothesis seems to be – is consistent with a fundamental methodological axiom that governs Badiou’s analysis: never be fascinated with power. Badiou rejects seeking out in the field of power and its evolving forms any novelty that might orient or structure a given historical moment. Unlike those who decipher “immanent” possibilities of communism in the supposed dynamism and creativity of the current production process – who see capitalist relations of production as a kind of formal envelope or mere fetter soon to be “blown sky-high”** by its deep communist content – Badiou insists that historical novelty is to be found on the side of the resistance to and revolt against these evolving forms of power. What is more important, he insists that the innovations produced in popular revolts and the sequences that follow them can never be indexed to objective determinations but must be sought in the immanent unfolding of a subjective capacity.

This unfolding necessarily encounters impasses that, while not having the objective character of the economic determinations, nevertheless have a certain structural dimension. For Badiou, the building of proletarian power from its earliest, immediate forms in the age of riots to the tumult of the Chinese Cultural Revolution is a series of stages with thresholds defined by the impasse of contradictions between revolution and state and between state and communism, and their solution through new organizational capacities. These series of innovations represent phases in the becoming without teleolog y of the communist Idea, in which each successful resolution of a structural impasse immediately generates a new contradiction – what Badiou’s most recent doctrinal work, Logics of Worlds, names a “point” – that will in turn demand a “correct handling,” to use Mao’s famous formula.

That Badiou would be compelled to speak of the present moment as a return to the impasses of the very beginnings of the workers’ movement announces his conviction that the entire series of stages of the communist Idea as they developed through the peak moments of the Paris Commune, the Bolshevik revolution, and the Cultural Revolution – each sequence resolving the impasses of the previous phases, while giving rise to new contradictions – is definitively closed out. If that great cycle was largely, in his account, the emergence of the Party as a form of organized proletarian power, then the current moment bears witness to the necessity to, in a certain sense, start from scratch: to invent, through popular rebellions and organizations that emerge from them, a politics no longer oriented by the figure of the Party – and, by implication, no longer oriented by the horizon of a seizure, and subsequent organized dissolution, of State power.

Badiou’s diagnosis is at once hopeful and bleak: to speak of a return to the starting point of the previous long cycle of struggles means preparing oneself for a long, discontinuous process. Recent revolts are only the first anticipations of a cycle that, in unfolding over the course of a century or more, will be marked by the emergence of an international movement that will at points consolidate its power and at others undergo necessary splits: crystallize brusquely in insurrectionary surges or slowly elaborate liberated or “red” zones, in a process marked by qualitative ruptures, disconnected sequences, intractable problems and quandaries, sudden solutions and patient unravelings.

Badiou’s new book, The Rebirth of History: Times of Riots and Uprisings***, represents an attempt to account for the uprisings of the Arab Spring within this hypothesis of a return to the conditions of the mid-19th century. Like Mike Davis, Tariq Ali, and Perry Anderson, among others, Badiou is quick to identify the sudden eruption of these revolts across an entire region – in not only Tunisia and Egypt but Yemen, Bahrain, and in different ways Libya and now Syria (where western interests have backed antigoverment guerillas in countries whose leaders have never been allies of the west or Israel) – with the continent-wide European rebellion of 1848, making sure to point out that these revolts resulted at best in fig-leaf reforms and quite often in brutal suppression and the strengthening of State power and the dominant classes. In a short text published in Le Monde a week after the deposing of Mubarak and republished here as an appendix, Badiou was quick to affirm that these uprisings – what in Rebirth of History he calls these properly “historical” as opposed to “immediate” riots – have a universal significance, insofar as they remind us (we, the West, who must become the students of these events) that in matters of emancipation “we owe everything to popular riots.” He goes on to assert that these uprisings remind us not only that, despite the prevailing consensus, a popular revolt against state power can be victorious but that, more importantly if more uncertainly, these revolts evoke an idea of communism understood in its most minimal form as the possibility of “free association” outside of any and all presence of the state and its coercion. And not only evoke: militant, compact assemblies put into practice a form of what Badiou calls in this appendix a movement communism, a movement that develops the means to resolve and handle within the movement itself the contradictions (between different social strata, for example) on which the State, to the contrary, lives and thrives.

The Rebirth of History expands and qualifies Badiou’s initial homage to these riots, using their occurrence to address two very different issues: one, the present as defined by the return of the historical riot in its opposition to what he variously calls the “immediate” or even “nihilistic” riot of the sort seen in London in 2011; and the other the distinction and even contradiction between the historical riot or event (or, again, “mass movement” and its movement communism) and a properly political sequence. He begins by proposing a typology of the riot-form: the immediate riot, the historical variety, and a third mediating figure he calls the “latent riot.” The historical riot is said to materialize the formal traits of the typology of the “event” as his most recent philosophical work, Logics of Worlds, presents it. By defining popular revolts in these terms, Badiou underlines that the event as such is only ever the opening of a possibility, an historical parenthesis within which a properly subjective process may or may not crystallize: the formation of a “subjectivized body,” a form of organization capable of internalizing the intensity of the event itself, thus offering it a duration that the event itself cannot sustain.

In characterizing what he calls “immediate” riots, Badiou is quick to underline their weakness. They are invariably triggered by a State murder – even if in the mediated form of the Tunisian Mohammed Bouazizi’s suicide – and tend to stay contained within neighborhoods populated by urban youths, largely male, and often the children of recent immigrants. What is most remarkable about this type of riot is how quickly it spreads. But this expansion is not a qualitative expansion, as Badiou puts it, because it spreads only to other neighborhoods of the same type, and largely fails to bring in other parts of the population. Indeed, the most important sign that we have left the dynamics of the immediate riot is the appearance on the scene of women and older people. It is precisely this that occurred in the rebellion centered on Tahrir square, which involved all social layers of Egyptian society, including petit bourgeois elements, religious organizations, and workers, in addition to the urban youth of imme- diate riots. What is decisive is this qualitative expansion of the riot and its migration out of marginal neighborhoods into a symbolically important, central site.

Finally, what constitutes the fundamental difference between the historical and the immediate riot is the crystallization in the first of slogans and demands that confer a popular unity on the movement and pose a direct challenge to the State (of the form, for example, “the people want the regime to fall”). But here is the rub: Badiou underlines that it is an error to assume that what he elsewhere refers to as the “communist anticipations”**** of the mass movement could prefigure a “state to come.” We encounter in the gap between the reawakening of History and the political properly speaking this seemingly unresolvable contradiction: the democratic practices of the mass movement must give way, he remarks, to “its dialectical opposite: a transitional dictatorship” (RH 45). The discontinuity between history and politics is situated here, between communist anticipations and popular authority, between mass democracy and the problem of state power.

The more striking aspect of Badiou’s analysis of the present’s awakening from a decades-long historical slumber is that he does not attribute this slumber to the capitalist restructuration that occurred in the early 1970s. It is common to see the decomposition of the workers’ movement as one of the primary effects of this restructuration, which was itself a response to both a declining rate of profit as capitalism’s long postwar boom lost steam and a peaking out of the global class struggle in the period between 1967 and 1973. This restructuration has in some accounts triggered a cycle of struggles in which a new worker figure emerges – what Antonio Negri called the socialized worker – and an expanded terrain of struggles, the sphere of social reproduction, opens up. What is singular about Badiou’s own approach to this historical periodization is his contention that this dormancy is due to a properly subjective incapacity: an inability to handle certain contradictions immanent to the historical unfolding of this Idea.***** The ultimate saturation of the Party-form itself can be pinned in particular to two fundamental blockages: the “fusion” of Party and State in the state communist regimes of the 20th century and, in turn, the incapacity to solve the contradiction between State and communism, the consolidation of popular power in a “dictatorship,” on the one hand, and, on the other, the promised withering away of the state. It is these same impasses, Badiou assures us, that would eventually need to be addressed in a new political sequence, with new forms of organization and capacities developed to treat them.

In Badiou’s account of the present moment as marked by a re-emergence of history and as a time of riots, skeptical readers will note the lack of any reference to the massive crisis undergone by the capitalist order beginning in 2007, a crisis that is a pretext for a capitalist restructuration currently underway, in Europe in particular, under the sign of “austerity.” Badiou has elsewhere written polemically about the properly spectacular nature of this crisis, in perhaps debatable terms, but the absence of any reference to it – which is not simply the classical collapse of a speculative bubble but the surfacing of more fundamental contradictions within this order of which the three-decades old metastasization of the financial sector is a symptom – is most likely attributable to two things. First, for Badiou, the crisis and its triggering of supposedly necessary “reforms” under the sign of austerity represents little else than the acceleration of the program of “unprecedented regression” that has been underway for the past thirty years; and, second, the most powerful mobilizations of the past two years have taken place in North Africa rather than in Europe, in a context and within a dynamic that is not as immediately determined by the crisis enveloping the advanced capitalist economies of Europe and North America in particular. As to this last, in the Egyptian mobilization we witnessed not only the deposing of a particularly entrenched autocratic regime backed by American billions, but, internal to this rebellion, the emergence of what Badiou calls a movement communism that was able to develop capacities for treating or deposing all “the major contradictions that the state claims it alone can manage, without ever transcending them.” Nothing of the sort has yet occurred in Europe, despite very powerful mobilizations in France in 2010, in Spain in 2011 and 2012, and in Greece since 2008. And all these struggles, with those in Greece being exemplary, understand themselves to be anti-austerity struggles, so much so that the most intense demonstrations and rioting – including a series of general strikes – have taken place on the eve of parliamentary votes on the implementation of austerity measures. By contrast, historical riots of the Egyptian kind stage, in a rather elegant fashion, Badiou’s philosophical doctrine of the event and his conception of politics, founded as it is on the structural impasse between the “vanishing” essence of the mass movement and the constructed temporality of an organized politics oriented by concrete, strategic directives and by an invariant communist Idea.

It is precisely for this reason that, from a certain perspective, Badiou’s brief account of what he calls the “latent riot” in France in 2010 forms the center of Rebirth of History. The latent riot is, within the book's conceptual framework, merely a transition between the destructive, “nihilistic” riot (looting, arson) and those uprisings that are deemed properly historical. But the latent riot also exhibits the forms of struggle – tactical innovations, if not organizational novelty – most commonly seen in Europe during the recent economic crisis (as also in Argentina in the early 2000s). Badiou underlines, indeed, that the most remarkable aspects of the French mobilization in 2010 consisted in the deployment of the blockade as a tactic, whether this be the blockading of refineries or the deployment of the strike by “proxy.” The great innovation of the French mobilization was to be found in

 

 

 

the practice of “proxy” strikes or “free” strikes: a specific factory or establishment goes on strike even though its wage-earners declare themselves to be at work. This involves an external popular detachment, mainly composed of people not obliged to work (retired people, students, holidaymakers, unemployed people, and so on), occupying the site and blocking production, with the agreement of the relevant wage-earners obviously. Thus the strike situation is absolutely real even though the wage-earners are not legally on strike and can get paid. This procedure makes it possible to extend a strike with an occupation – an extension which especially today, when life is very difficult for the working poor and unions are much too weak to support strike funds, remains impossible beyond a few days in most instances. (RH 30) 

 

One of the questions this account of the strike by proxy – the mass, “flying” picket or blockade – poses is why it is that this tactic has taken on a certain urgency in the current historical moment, precisely at a moment when the classical general strike, despite recent attempts to revive its figure, no longer has the capacity to sustain itself “beyond a few days.” It is likely that the global circulation of this tactic (even recently occurring twice in the U.S., in Oakland in 2011******), the formation of a tactical ring of fire connecting disparate struggles, would have to be explained through recourse to an account of the massive restructuration of production process over the past forty years, moving the terrain of struggle in the West outside the point of production, and increasingly into the hands of the unemployed, students crushed by debt, and those tasked with servicing the global distribution of commodities.


* See, in particular, The Communist Hypothesis (Verso, 2010).

** Karl Marx, Grundrisse (Penguin, 1973), 706.

*** Alain Badiou, The Rebirth of History: Times of Riots and Uprisings (Verso, 2012).

**** In his De l’idéologie, written in 1976.

***** One of the more persistent objections to Badiou’s political thought arises among those who, claiming a broadly Marxist perspective, insist on what they perceive as the absence of the concepts of class and class struggle in his concept of politics and, as a result, an inability to conceive of the “dialectical” relation between the dynamics of material or objective processes and the constitution of a class politics. This perception is both correct and incorrect. For Badiou, it is absolutely necessary to separate class struggle as a constitutive aspect of the historical situation defined variously as the capitalist mode of production or bourgeois society, and class politics as the organized process of transforming or destroying that society. Class struggle in its strict determination is the more or less organized worker struggles around the wage and the length of the working day. The organizational form these struggles assume is that of the trade union. In a famous letter to J. Weydemeyer written in 1852, Marx makes it clear that the concept of class struggle was discovered not by him, but by bourgeois political economy, and that his own decisive contribution is the theory of Marxist politics, that is, the question of class dictatorship. In his account of worker struggles around the working day in Capital, moreover, it is quite clear that the primary function of class struggle is to be the motor of the development of capitalism itself, particularly insofar as the pressure of these struggles drives the changes in the organic composition of capital, on the one hand, and the passage from absolute to relative surplus value on the other (or, in a different register, from formal to real subsumption). In De l’idéologie, Badiou cites, for example, an analysis by Engels that characterized the organized struggles of workers as having the function, in the first instance, of regulating the labor market. But we can just as well turn to the verdict of someone like David Harvey – whose position could not be more different than Badiou’s on most matters – who remarks in his recent A Companion to Marx’s Capital that “collective class struggle can be a stabilizer within the capitalist dynamic” (157).

****** On the blockade, see “Blockading the Port is Only the First of Many Last Resorts,” http://www.bayofrage.com/featured-articles/blockading-the-port-is- only-the-first-of-many-last-resorts/

 

 

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