Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Mission Impossible -- with Alain Badiou

It is not often than a momentous Badiouian event occurs.  And the recent events in Tunisian & Egypt are all the more amazing for their spontaneity.

This is your mission should you choose to accept it.  All that is solid melts into air.

Badiou's (somewhat utopian) goal is to follow the "destiny of an event" to solve "unsolvable problems without the help of the state..."  [All quotations here from Badiou's editorial last month in Le Monde.]

Badiou celebrates "the principle that Marat never stopped reminding us of: when it comes to freedom, equality, emancipation, we owe everything to popular uprisings."

Badiou is against all forms of constituted statehood.  " ...our states ... prefer management to revolt, they prefer claims, and “orderly transition” to any kind of rupture."   One can read this absolute rejection of the state as a call for a kind of Maoist continual or permanent revolution.

His politics becomes almost pure math.  The event resonates out of revolutionary movement, a movement which is paradoxically without a party.  More generic than general, it's far less organized and more spontaneous than any party.  Badiou's "event is the sudden creation, not of a new reality, but of a myriad of new possibilities."
It's a brilliant abstract mathematics, against all forms of representative democracy.

One may want to spin Badiou's theory of the event in a more practical way vis-a-vis Egypt, e.g., to argue that the fidelity to these heroic recent events generates a kind of universal obligation, very broadly felt, that will impact how things unfold.  This optimism is very compelling, i.e., one wants to believe that the fidelity to this event will "haunt" -- in a very good way -- what unfolds.  I think it will prove to be a very powerful point of reference both for citizens and future leaders.  But this sort of statement is probably too practical for Badiou, who has given up on all representative forms of governance.  And his notion of "fidelity" -- or fidelity to the idea of fidelity -- is to him useless in reconfiguring or reconstituting a political state or any economic situation.  Thus for example, he could have little to say about the problem of the Egyptian military as an institution engaged in both economics and politics.

In the wake of the immediate climax (the evacuation or literal separation of heads of state), Badiou has perhaps nothing left to theorize -- it is as if these events demonstrate or prove his theorems.

It is tempting to read Badiou's editorial in Le Monde as a post-coital cigarette.  He promises his fidelity to this most lovely event in more than 200 years, aka the Paris Commune.  He's been dreaming of this night for a long time.

The problem that arises after the post-coital cigarette is that the heads of state won't stay evacuated.  Undoubtedly when the "new" state is constituted, power will corrupt.

The events of Tunisia and Egypt provide what may be Badiou's best of all possible examples.  Hard to believe that he will not scratch out more formal paeans to these events, which he may take as mathematical proofs of concept.

At bottom, the problem is that he never ever engages economics.  He sneers at the very idea.  The State is his problem, and it's an exclusive problem.  To him perhaps the Market is always a secondary problem, ie, merely part of the situation that will be overthrown with the state.

One can understand & largely agree with the critique of the how "democracy" under neoliberalism has lost any connection to the direct expression of the people, with the complete commodification of political choices.  Did you hear that Sarah Palin was trademarking her name (aka her brand)?  If only this were a joke.  And of course with the so called global economy, many states are just doing the best they can (eg, like a CEO of a corporation) to maintain the position of their economies in the global market.  How "democratic" is that, really?  Not very.  The independence of the monetary policy and judiciary in the US can't really be thought of as consistent with democratic expression of the people.  It strikes me that Ranciere is right to say that democracy should no longer be used as a noun.  But as an adjective it can still be useful; that is, behaviors, structures, institutions can be categorized as more or less democratic (i.e., rule by and for the people; or an expression of the people).

Badiou refuses to engage the excruciatingly complex network in which any subsequent actions have to occur.  Perhaps he just can't bother with practical details.  He is, before anything else, a thinker of the event.  (I'll have to try to engage Badiou's Handbook on Inaesthetics, and how his modernist readings fit into his model, at a later time.)

One last comment to connect to the discussion on Badiou v Schumpeter that I missed a couple weeks ago at the autonomous university general reading group.  Schumpeter embraces a similar theory of the heroic (and for him, a competitive) event, though it's an economic event not a political one.  Schumpeter's celebration of capitalism's creative destruction, i.e., a disruption introduced via innovation, is a frighteningly close analog to the disruptions that Badiou celebrates in his politics against the state.  Both are thinkers of the event, but they are almost a yin/yang match for each other.  What Badiou lacks, a theory of the event for economics, Schumpeter provides.  And vice versa.

For Schumpeter, Capitalism is a “process of industrial mutation – if I may use that biological term – that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one. Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism.” [see S. Shaviro's excellent blogpost on Schumpeter]

Schumpeter completely perverts politics, turning democracy into a market-driven representative form that will serve his notion of violent economic events, aka capitalism.  As Charles Mudede once said, Schumpeter is the poet of the neoliberals.  Perhaps by analogy this makes Badiou the poet of the anarchists?

All apparent contradiction aside, whether one thinks of the violence of the New as a problem or an occasion for celebration, it seems true that the new is not always so violent.  The anthropocentric schemas of Badiou and Schumpeter don't account for less heroic lower-case events.  For B&S these are not events at all, but sometimes something very small can have very large impact.

The bright lines drawn by B&S don't allow for the more realistic shades of gray which, in Seattle at least, completely engulf us.

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