June 3rd, 2013
Blogging has been difficult of late, schedules being so hectic and activities multiplying as they have. May passed me by without offering much time for writing. Hopefully June will allow me to thrown down some thoughts. In any case, I’m starting a theory wiki at http://wiki.theriomorphous.co.uk to help focus my interests so there may be some cross-referencing between here and there going on in the future.
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April 24th, 2013
Having initiated my most recent and most intense period of study with ‘French Theory’ (the obvious, Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, Nancy, Sartre, Kojève, Althusser, Badiou, Ranciere) augmented by the Slovenian school of Lacanian psychoanalysis (most manifest in Zizek but also in Zupančič and Dolar) way back in 2006, I have been drawn further and further Left in political conviction, so that alongside Badiou and Ranciere I found myself happily digesting Robespierre, Lenin, the Frankfurt School, Marx, Engels, Luxemburg, more recent socialist work (Mészáros, Callinicos, Seymour) and even the state theorists (Jessop, Poulantzas). I am entirely comfortable with this Leftwards drift in my library and literary habits, especially when considering the Rightward-lurching social background against which it has happened. However, this intricate intellectual framework in which I pretty much live and move has so far lacked what is fashionably named ‘Italian Theory’, and this is the avenue down which my current investigations are taking me. True, I’ve been reading Agamben pretty thoroughly all along, and although inconsistent with much else that occupied me his focus on potentiality and bare life have long fascinated me at the philosophical level. Agamben, however, is something of a renegade with respect to Italian Theory, and is criticised by its more representative authors for having an apolitical approach to one of the most crucial objects of Italian study: biopolitics.
This difference is clearly demarcated by contrasting what Agamben and Virno do with Foucault. Agamben amplifies and sublimates Foucault’s essentially historicist version of biopolitics (from his lectures on the birth of Liberalism), raising it to the status of a metaphysical fracture grounded in the birth of Western philosophy. Virno, in contrast, downplays and minimises the impact of Foucaultian biopower, recasting it as a secondary effect of the commoditisation of labour power.
One might say that for Agamben biopolitics is an ontological consideration, in the manner of a Heideggerian destining of Being, which by dividing life from life has thoroughly shaped Western discourse and consciousness, effectively barring the possibility of a genuine politics. For Virno biopolitics is not the cause, remote or near, of the problematicity of contemporary life, but only a necessary consequence, almost what could be called an unavoidable byproduct, of Capitalism. Insofar as labour power, the generic potential or capacity to perform tasks, has been commoditised and sold on a labour market to capitalists who profit from the actual labour of workers, and insofar as this generic potential is indissociable from corporeality, then the management and disciplining of the worker’s body by capitalists is an inevitable side-effect of capitalism.
While not completely dismissing Agamben’s concern for the ancient philosophical severance of Zoe and Bios, it appears to me now that Virno’s version of biopolitics is the more intellectually persuasive account. Agamben is in danger of positing a historical continuity without rupture that overtheatricalises biopolitics at a level of transhistorical narrative, creating of it a great myth, a ponderous ontological drama undercutting all conversation. To be sure, the fracture of ‘life’ in the incipit of Western philosophy is decisive for every attempt to define or taxonomise life itself, but this problem covers too much with a term, biopolitics, intended as a specific and historicist intervention. Not only was Foucault’s term sharper and more defined, but Virno’s biopolitics is eminently traceable. No great leaps of transhistorical imagination are needed to read biopolitics as a consequence of Capitalism, and this usage at least participates in Foucault’s own paradigm, allowing that the greatest period of Capitalist expansion coincided with the explosion of Liberalism. Indeed a concern for the scope of the term is actually reflected in Agamben’s own inconsistency, for in places he appears to return at least partially to the thesis that biopolitics is, if not exclusively a feature of modernity, then concentrated and intensified there.
My own preference would be to suggest that biopolitics is prefigured or made possible in the transcendental, ontological sense which Agamben discovers in Aristotle and then in Roman Law, but this is not biopolitics as such until much later, when this discursive latency is activated by the intense focus on the potentiality of the body brought about by market liberalism. We can still pose questions, find counterexamples (precapitalist slavery, indentured servitude, feudalism) within such a framework since it allows for forces other than Capitalism to be, in limited and historical contexts, the cause of the actualisation of a biopolitical possibility inscribed into the fabric of Western societies. What concerns us today, and appears to concern even Agamben chiefly despite his melancholic search for archaic foreshadowing, is the intensification of biopolitical measures and disciplines concerning the body under Capitalist conditions.
Consequently I have set Agamben to one side, but within reach, of my investigation into Italian Theory. As might be guessed, I begin my involvement proper with Virno. One of the first things to strike me about his work is how it manages to synthesise a great deal of philosophical thought already traversed in other fields. It is illuminating to compare the following two passages, for example.
We made a critique of Marx, critique in quotes, saying that today the general intellect was no longer deposited in machines but rather existed and lived in the cooperation of living labor. We said it with the following formula: general intellect = living labor in place of fixed capital.
My thesis is that postfordism directly brings to light the background charcteristics of the human species. Postfordism is on the historical and social plane a historical and social repetition of the anthropogenesis. I believe that on the ontological plane or, as it were, in the plane of invariable, constant conditions of our species, of the human species, of homo sapiens, the theory of philosophical anthropology is fitting, at least in part, that says that the human being is, above all, nonspecialized.
We are poorest of the animals in relation to our lack of specialized instincts and lack of a precise, determined environment. In general, culture, society, conceals, hides this condition, creating forms of specialization for the non-specialized animal and creating artificial environments for the animal that has no environment. Then, we say that culture and society hide distinctive aspects of human nature. Postfordism, by contrast, is the first society and the first culture that does not hide those aspects, but rather - on the contrary, valorizes them, places them fully in the light. Think of the universal watchword, as much in Argentina, in Italy and in Korea as in Eastern Europe: flexibility. Flexibility in all the languages of the world means non-specialization. The same occurs with this ugly word globalization, that has, in all forms, as its truth the fact that human beings should live openly, explicitly as those beings that don’t have a well-defined environment. In this sense, postfordism, the contemporary experience, signals perhaps a true novelty because, for the first time, society and culture correspond explicitly to an ontological condition.
In this first passage, Virno is speaking in an interview about his political biography, his membership of the Italian workerists, the restructuration of Capitalism during the 1970s and the evolution of the concept of ‘general intellect’, inspired by the Fragment on Machines in Marx’s Grundrisse, then developed outside the context of machines (which incarnate fixed capital) to describe a series of human social competencies subject to commoditisation. Under Post-Fordism Virno witnessed Human sociality, virtuosity of praxis, linguistic ability and all that was generically ‘potential’ about the human (this focus on potentiality being another reason I do not shelve Agamben just yet) become more and more central to the labouring roles of the worker. This thematic is explored in more detail in his work A Grammar of the Multitude where he advances the position that it is precisely the ambiguity of this human potential which holds the key to emancipation from Capitalism.
According to Virno, when the generic capacities of the human constituting the general intellect come to the surface as specific abilities, then there are two things that can happen. Either there is the creation of a non-statal Public Sphere in which human capacities are deployed in the formation of new communities (Virno explicitly points to the internet as a formation in the name of the General Intellect) or there is a foreclosure of such a Public Sphere and the capacities of the human are immediately available only for commercial interests–a dire possibility which he sees presaged not only in the new ‘cultural’ industries but also in the very industrial workplaces and factories that, undergoing post-Fordist restructuring, had transformed the definition or content of labour so that it was no longer a question of producing (poeisis) end products but that of exercising (praxis) generic capacities such as communicating, adapting, remaining flexible.
This shift from poeisis to praxis—from producing to performing—coincides with the intensification of the politicisation of work, so that labour becomes inherently political; one is concerned in one’s being with what can and must be done to earn a wage and the question of finding or losing a job is no longer a concern with a specific portion of one’s life but a properly existential anxiety involving one’s entire field of potentiality, the shaping of one’s social body and the articulation of all of its latencies. Like Virno, I would argue that it is only here, in this historical event of the generalisation of labour power, that Agamben’s darkest ruminations on biopolitics take on their full significance. I have still-developing thoughts on this which will be posted at a later date.
However, at this stage the comparison I wish to draw is not with Agamben but a figure fairly distant from this milieu, and much closer to the ambit of my earlier theoretical compass, Adrian Johnston (reading Badiou).
In Manifesto for Philosophy, Badiou confesses that the situation-specific socio-economic processes of contemporary capitalism form an immanent condition of possibility (as a “historic medium") for his ontology of the pure multiple-without-One, of the infinite infinities of being qua being (l’être-en-tant-qu’être). The frenetic Heraclitian flows of perpetually mobile virtual capital, flows eroding any fixed and stable solidity, reveal something fundamental about being as such. In other words, the historical particularity of today’s late-capitalism, with its various desacrilizing effects, simultaneously discloses an essential aspect of the more-than-historical ontological domain.[..]
[T]he dynamics of capital present the opportunity for apprehending and appreciating intrinsic facets of the skeletal structure of subjectivity itself.
Badiou and Johnston are not particularly interested in Labour Power of course, but they are concerned with ontology and the overcoming of Capitalist conditions. What interests me primarily in this document (which constitutes the final chapter of Johnston’s Zizek’s Ontology: A Transcendental Materialist Theory of Subjectivity, and is worth reading in full) is the way in which it is again conceded that contemporary Capitalism (’late’ Capitalism, Post-Fordist Capitalism) lays bare the ’skeletal structure’ of subjectivity. Which is to say, reading on, that the inbuilt capacities of the human being to become involved with and entwined with ‘Imaginary-Symbolic’ structures. For a Lacanian, such structures mean society, discourses, communication, shared feelings, communal memory and so on. So once again it is proposed that our time, this time in which we live, happens to be the time when the generic makeup of the human comes to the fore.
This is also emphasised in Zizek’s work when reworking the Marxian concept of proletarianization as the desubstantiating of the subject he cites Marx referencing Hegel on substanzlose subjektivitat (which I really cannot locate, although my memory indicates I once found it). What it all means is that the modern subject is stripped of social ’substanz’, of all the regional and idiosyncratic specificities of its embedded-ness in symbolic networks which would have provided (albeit inconsistent and incomplete) meaning to its existence, emerging as a Cartesian-like and kulturlos place-holder, capable of being this-or-that as its specific capacity. Zizek likens this proletarianization to post-traumatic subjectivity, and indeed likens the meta-capacity of the substanceless subject to an a radical incapacity (to form lasting social bonds, meaningful relationships, commitments to a cause, etc). It is of course part of Zizek’s most fundamental philosophical belief that the most penetrating insights into the makeup of the universe reveal its basic structure to be pathological, that existence itself is as it were a flaw. Yet this radical pessimism is to be found in inverted form in other Continental philosophies, such as Quentin Meillassoux, for whom the sheer pathological contingency of existence, the facticity of there being anything at all, is also reason for hope in the contingent arrival of universal Justice–it is not all ‘bad news’ to think this way.
I do worry that something is lacking in both the Autonomist and Johnston’s Zizekian idea that ‘late Capitalism’ uncovers something basic and transhistorical about human nature. The historicist in me, which I know is not always wrong, wants to shout about how this is a fine coincidence and just a little bit too convenient: that a renewed interest in delineating some kind of basic human structurality overlaps with a phenomenology of contemporary conditions. It is not particularly that we then owe something to Capitalism, indeed ever since Marx’s sometimes deeply appreciative insights we have seen that Capitalism’s ‘unbinding’ power was doubled-edged and that it would give rise to its own grave-diggers. What troubles me more deeply is the idea that ‘now’ is so important, and it makes me wonder how many other ‘nows’ there have been, giving rise to the ridiculous image of a series of thinkers arrayed throughout many disparate and heterogeneous histories each declaiming his or her own as the time in which the truth about the human being finally came to light. There is something here that, on the one hand, smacks of a kind of colonial abridgement of history as contained in the present moment as its ultimate form, and on the other hand, sounds like a Fukuyama-like End-of-History attitude. Within the Zizekian-Hegelian framework this is not necessarily a problem. Since reality is incomplete, there is no actual universally-valid ’survey’ possible, nothing like what Merleau-Ponty called a ‘Kosmotheoros’ or Hegel called an abstract universality. The only real universalities are therefore concrete universalities, universalities which are first of all grounded in a particularity but which then do apply outside of their own particular domain in a universal manner. In a similar way, maybe my initial timidity over the idea of ascribing some kind of universally applicable foundational truth status to the human being as uncovered by the desubstantialising effects of post-Fordist capitalism is misplaced. Why not, after all?
The other thing about Zizek’s reading of the proletarianized modern subject is that his description of it may be one-sided, inasmuch as there is a tendency in his work to side with the position of the ‘objective social field’. And of course, from the vantage point of the social field, with its normative prescriptions of what a person is and what personhood involves (liberal idiosyncracy, be it the result of consumerist choice and individuality or genetic predisposition), the capacity of the proletarianized (or precariatized) worker naturally appears as incapacity. This is obvious enough when considering how a prominent left-wing philosopher (Merleau-Ponty, again) characterised proletarian capacity as the ‘potency of the impotent’ (le pouvoir des sans-pouvoir ). The fact it is ’sans-pouvior’ from the point of view of the state (in the Badiouan sense of state, as the set of all constructible subsets of society) is precisely the point: the labouring flesh and brain, tongue and feelings of the worker belong to society without belonging to any determinate subset of society because their belonging is effectuated only by what they potentiate. Their potency appears not in a powerset, but only as extreme singularity, as a Badiouan ‘evental site’. All elements of the proletariat have no designated ‘place’ as such, only a generic, potentialized immediate-belonging-to-society. It is this peculiar topological quality, the immediation of the potential of the speaking body, belonging only to society itself but not to any of its subsets, which gives to the proletariat the ability to stand for the whole of society as did for example the tiers etat in the case of the French Revolution. Under Jacobin direction, it was the sans-culottes, lacking both the fashionable signifier of bourgeois membership (the culottes) and any (then) lawful claim to the social product, who became representative of the whole, able to speak for society itself. However, this was in a period in which the image of nationhood could also be mobilised in order to conceptualise society; the tiers etat declared itself identical to the nation, France, and it is ‘France’ who authorises the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. Today the precarious proletarianized worker has to reckon with a fundamentally different kind of society, belonging to it through generic human capacities but not in any idealizable, romantic or easily ’spiritualizable’ sense.
Despite initial worries, I continue to synthesise from my reading a theoretical direction which can continue to animate my ever-Leftward reading. Virno is full of surprises so far, and there are some very interesting moments where his work even reinvites Agamben back into the fold, with many qualifications of course. But it is in comparison with Badiou that I mostly want to proceed with reading Italian theory, Badiou being above all my bedrock point of reference in (post-postmodern, political) Continental thinking. The major point of comparison as opposed to contrast is the disinterest in the state, and the idea that we can confront or face the state without being somehow involved in it. This question always troubles me, and it probably shows through in my own inconsistency on the matter.
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April 1st, 2013
There is a certain persistence of arguments, just as there is the persistence of a symptom1. While ceaselessly making the argument for what our opponents sneer at as a 'planned economy', and despite it being planned for equality, universality and justice, we are just as ceaselessly bombarded with the market-liberal claim that we should 'just let human nature take its course': that deregulation is the key to a fair and equitable society. Like me, you will have been deeply suspicious of 'deregulation', and probably doubly so at the invocation of 'human nature'. You will have found a means to argue that deregulation is precisely an organised process in which society is actively mobilised in multiple compositions, varying forms and functions to bring about consensus.
You may have turned to Nicos Poulantzas' or Bob Jessop's State Theory in elaborating how the overzealous libertarian position (that 'the State is the enemy of freedom'), and the instrumentalist-Marxist position (that 'the State is the tool of the Capitalist class'), are both of them dead wrong. You might have pointed out that while the State in its overall function indeed smooths the operation of Capitalist society, Capitalism in itself is far too divisive to ensure any kind of permanent social stabilisation, and therefore it is only with a significant degree of autonomy from the short-term goals of Capitalism that the State manages to mediate with some degree of regularity.
You will have argued, with your usual critical acumen, that the State is not a power bloc but a differentiated series of relations. And finally, if you were up to the job, you would have nailed the argument with what might be called the factum civili, the fact that whatever form a socio-economic order takes, it takes this form because it is this form which is organised, propagated, and reproduced by the relational complex we call 'the State'. Our lives are already regularised, legislated, educated, disciplined, oriented, shaped, coerced and deliberately normativised in particular forms, through manifold means, before we even consider the State as something standing 'over there'. We are permeated by it.
Naturally, our adversaries (and even many of our friends and allies) consider the State in far narrower and impoverished terms deeply coloured by the disconnect between parliamentary politics and contemporary life, a deep fracture which it is the perpetual preoccupation of the media to confront us with. This is the picture they like to paint: We, the people, immersed in our daily lives, and on the other side of the insular moat, Westminster, with its many bureaucratic tributaries and tendrils encroaching on our lives with a creeping insidiousness. There is a certain terror in this image, a certain traumatic truth. But this image is not the State, and we must not reduce the meaning of the State to this. The fact that our lives are already organised, taking certain forms within historically defined choices, our selectivity, a certain degree of moral independence within a certain series of acceptations---the fact that our lives have, collectively, a certain disposition in advance of being 'encroached upon' by any particular governmentality---is due to the existence of the State proper. The State as a relation is society in relation to itself, it is in fact the whole of civil society in all its differentiated complexity and historical depth.
So now you've made this argument, this argument that there is, effectively, no escape from State, no elaboration of the modern society into a form that would exist without this broader sense of State as State-relation, and that the idea of 'the withering' or disparition of the State can therefore at best only mean the end of the Capitalism-smoothing State, that is to say, the end of the existing social order insofar as it serves to reproduce the Capitalist relation. You've taken your cues from state relational theory, which you see as an advance on a vulgarly instrumentalist form of Marxism, and in that respect you're a Thoroughly Modern Millie. Well done. But as is often the case, the argument has been going on longer than you have. Antonio Gramsci, for example, was already honing a position on this in his prison notebooks:
The approach of the free trade movement is based on a theoretical error whose practical origin is not hard to identify: namely the distinction between political society and civil society, which is made into and presented as an organic one, whereas in fact it is merely methodological. Thus it is asserted that economic activity belongs to civil society, and that the state must not intervene to regulate it. But since in actual reality civil society and state are one and the same, it must be made clear that laissez-faire too is a form of state ‘regulation’, introduced and maintained by legislative and coercive means. It is a deliberate policy, conscious of its own ends, and not the spontaneous, automatic expression of economic facts. Consequently, laissez-faire liberalism is a political program, designed to change---in so far as it is victorious--–a state’s ruling personnel, and to change the economic program of the state itself– in other words the distribution of the national income.2
Basically, you're in good company with this argument. It's not that 'we on the left' favour a planned economy as against an economy that 'just happens', as if it somehow spontaneously emerges as an evolutionary best-fit to the human profile. The point to be made, in fact, is that there is no such thing as an unplanned economy---the very term oikonomia, 'rule of the household', attests to that---just as there is no unplanned life. Major advances in many fields of our knowledge about ourselves in recent history have discovered that our lives are deeply regulated and codified on every level, especially including those moments in which we believed we were at our most spontaneous. This is not to say that outcomes are always planned, far from it. Neither is it to say that we always know what we are doing, or even that if we do know, that we always know that we know it. But it does mean that any dream of leaving things alone and letting nature take its course are the worst kinds of bad faith imaginable.
 The accompanying images are taken from the film Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) Dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, based on a play by Tennessee Williams.
 Antonio Gramsci in Forgacs, D. (ed.) VI Hegemony, Relations of Force, Historical Bloc: Some Theoretical and Practical Aspects of ‘Economism’, Part Two: Prison Writings 1929-1935, An Antonio Gramsci Reader: Selected Writings 1916-1935, Schocken Books, New York
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February 22nd, 2013
As Maurice Godelier has emphasized in his underappreciated work of economic anthropology, The Mental and the Material, the mistake has hitherto often been to see the processes of production and distribution as one thing and their mental representation and content as another, similar to Marx’s so abused metaphor of the ‘base’ and the ‘superstructure’… [I]n the real experience of society, these two domains cannot be separated. The mental perception of society (what Godelier calls ‘idéel’), at least insofar as it concerns the processes of production and distribution of goods (the matériel), is an integral part of these processes themselves.
This deceptively simple point is something I always seem to struggle to put into words, and feel that others seem always to express much better than I can. The linked article is actually one of the clearest pieces of writing on the subject of the Labour Theory of Value I’ve come across.
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February 9th, 2013
The Real is simultaneously the Thing to which direct access is not possible and/the obstacle that prevents this direct access; the Thing which eludes our grasp and the distorting screen that makes us miss the Thing. More precisely, the Real is ultimately the very shift in perspective from the first to the second standpoint: the Lacanian Real is not only distorted, but the very principle of the distortion of reality. (Slavoj Zizek, The Year of Living Dangerously, p.25)
Very well then. I think we can accept that the discovery that this double inscription of the Real can be translated to the fields of cultural study, ideology critique, and in general to the political sociolinguistic, is a perspicacious and productive insight, because it is clear that the complicated nature of desire is at stake in such domains. What is less clear, and which presents a host of problems, is the following:
This is also how, for Deleuze, in a strict conceptual homology, the economic plays its role of determining the social structure ‘in the last instance’. Here the economic is never directly present as an actual causal agent, its presence is precisely virtual, it is the social ‘pseudo-cause’, but, precisely as such, absolute, non-relational, the absent cause, something that is never ‘at its own place’: ‘that is why “the economic” is never given properly speaking, but rather designates a differential virtuality to be interpreted, always covered over by its forms of actualization’ [Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition New York: Columbia University Press 1995, p.186] (ibid.)
The chief problem here is with the ’strictness’ of the conceptual homology. Can the Marxist thought of the economic be so easily translated to the Lacanian thought of the Real? This not only raises the ghosts of long debates over the base-superstructure model of the economic within Marxism itself but also queries the rationality of approaching the economic through the conceptual apparatus of Lacanian metapsychology. The questions of how the Economic plays a part within a totality, and to what extent, and in which ways it does so, are vexed questions precisely to the point of Marxism. For Zizek, who is articulating his arguments always from the position of his idiosyncratic readings of German Idealism (Hegel, Schelling) filtered through Lacan, it presents no problem to think of the totality (in which the Economic plays a part) as analogous with a giant ‘mind’ the workings of which can be explained and understood via metapsychology. This nominally ‘materialist’ Hegelianism is more problematic for a Marxist orthodoxy in which the economic is the determinative factor for the nature of the totality. Zizek furnishes an expanded and deeply problematic ‘homology’:
How then does the ‘determining role of the economy’ function, if it is not the ultimate referent of the social field? Imagine a political struggle fought out in the terms of popular musical culture, as was the case in some post-socialist Eastern European countries in which the tension between pseudo-folk and rock functioned as a displacement of the tension between the nationalist-conservative right and the liberal left. To put it in old-fashioned terms: a popular-cultural struggle ‘expressed’ (provided the terms in which) a political struggle (was fought out). (As today in the US, with country music predominantly conservative and rock predominantly left-liberal.) Following Freud, it was not enough to say that the struggle taking place in popular music was here only a secondary expression, a symptom, an encoded translation, of the political struggle, which was what the whole thing ‘was really about’. Both struggles have a substance of their own: the cultural is not just a secondary phenomenon, a battlefield of shadows to be ‘deciphered’ for its political connotations (which, as a rule, are obvious enough).
The ‘determining role of the economy’ thus does not mean that, in this case, what all the fuss ‘was really about’ was the economic struggle, with the economic functioning as a hidden meta-Essence ‘expressing’ itself at a distance twice removed in cultural struggle (the economy determines politics which in in turn determines culture…). On the contrary, the economic inscribes itself in the course of the very translation or transposition of the political struggle into the popular-cultural struggle, a transposition that is never direct, but always displaced, asymmetrical. The ‘class’ connotation, as it is encoded in cultural ‘ways of life’, can often invert the explicit political connotations. Recall how, in the famous presidential TV debate in 1959, generally held to be responsible for Nixon’s defeat, it was the progressive Kennedy who was perceived as an upper-class patrician, while the rightist Nixon appeared as his lower-class opponent. This, of course, does not mean that the second opposition simply belies the first—that is, that Kennedy who, in his public statements, presented himself as Nixon’s progressive, liberal opponent, signalled by his lifestyle that he was really an upper-class patrician. But it does mean that the displacement bears witness to the limitations of Kennedy’s progressivism, since it does point towards the contradictory nature of his ideologico-political position. [infra: The same reversal continues today, when the opposition of liberal-left feminists and conservative populists is also perceived as an opposition between upper-middle-class feminists or multiculturalists and lower-class rednecks] And it is here that the determining instance of the ‘economy’ operates: the economy is the absent cause that accounts for the displacement in representation, for the asymmetry (reversal, in this case) between the two series, the couple ‘progressive/conservative politics’ and the couple ‘upper/middle class’.
‘Politics’ is thus a name for the distance of the economy from itself. Its space is opened up by the gap that separates the economy as the absent Cause from the economy in its ‘oppositional determination’, as one of the elements of the social totality: there is politics because the economy is ‘non-All’, because the economy is an ‘impotent’, impassive, pseudo-cause. The economic is thus here doubly inscribed in the precise sense that defines the Lacanian Real: it is simultaneously the hard core ‘expressed’ in other struggles through displacements and other forms of distortion, and the very structuring principle of these distortions. (Zizek, The Year of Living Dangerously)
The only way to view the Economic (according to Zizek) as a Real cause is to view it as the shift in perspective between the two (or doubled) forms of its inscription: as the parallax involved in shifting focus from ‘absent cause’ (to which direct access is by barred by displacements and distortions) to the structuring principle of these very distortions. We must switch our vision from ‘economic determination in the last instance’ to purveying the gaps in the ‘relative autonomy’ of the superstructural/social field which prevent it from being self-consistent. Zizek supports this refocusing through recourse to Lacan’s distinction between Cause and Causality. Causality is precisely the network nature of the social field, the cause-and-effect nature of the social enchainment of things, whereas Cause proper is absent, distant, and only becomes apparent where Causality breaks down and there is a ‘gap’ in the social chain. So rather than squinting to see the Economic as some power bloc lurking behind or beneath social reality, determining it, we must blink and examine the ways in which the social reality, particularly in its inconsistency, produces a distorted sense of relations between things. Finally, in a further moment of adjusting our aperture, we are to see how these distorted relations are not just what the Economic produces, but the material action of the Economic itself.
The Zizekian ‘trick’, then, is to perceive how the Economic can appear as an absent Cause only because it is itself the very form of the distortions in relations of Causality. Shifting from a thought of the Economic as that which is determinative but in an occulted way, to the Economic as the form of this very occultation, we are supposed to reconstruct how, en passant, Economic determination exists in the difference between two different levels of determination. And for Zizek, this is because the Economic functions as the Real, which in Lacanian metapsychology has not one but two forms: R1 and R2, where R1 acts as an absent Cause which ’sets the signifying chain in motion’, and R2, which is the structuring principle of the signifying chain.
To put this into more concrete terms will require bringing back the Marxian analysis. Recall that in Marx’s definition of ideology as ‘false consciousness’—for later analyses insufficient—it is the distortive social representation, or social relation, which reverses the money-commodity relationship. In the capitalist transition from CMC -> MCM the parts played by money and commodities are swapped. Money, which is originally a means of representation of commodities’ values, allowing their presence to one another and fungibility in exchange, itself acquires the weight of an exchangeable presence, which commodities then serve merely to mediate. Marx sees this new relation as a moment of false consciousness embedded, or ‘incarnated’, in the very nature of capitalist exchange and ultimately in the commodity itself under Capitalism. Furthermore, Marx’s critique of earlier economists accuses them directly of false consciousness insofar as they take the emergence of the MCM relation for granted in their analyses. When things get sold for money, which is what these economists presuppose, an awareness of money’s function as common denominator, means of exchange or mediator of value-representation evaporates, to be replaced by an ideological vision of money as a thing in itself: a supercommodity which it is then the purpose of all objects to mediate.
It is clear that this mediator thus becomes a real God, for the mediator is the real power over what it mediates to me. Its cult becomes an end in itself. Objects separated from this mediator have lost their value. Hence the objects only have value insofar as they represent the mediator, whereas originally it seemed that the mediator had value only insofar as it represented them. (Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich (1975), Collected Works, International Publishers, New York, volume III, p.212)
Marx speaks of money as the mediator-become-God, that is to say, enjoying an autonomous existence no longer moored or anchored to the value of commodities. In many ways this autonomy of the representation prefigures what would later be known as Postmodernism. Indeed, when postmodern philosophers such as Baudrillard would later speak of the closure of the realm of representation upon itself so that it no longer referred to anything outside itself, it was relatively easy to compare this to the ‘virtual international autonomy of Finance Capitalism’. What is more crucial, and perhaps more difficult, to understand however is the ways in which both Postmodernism and Finance Capitalism were effects of the acceleration of the economic processes which Marx has described. There is more than an analogy at stake; it is not only that the autonomy of the level of slipping semiosis detached from any substantive grounding in reference resembles a Finance Capitalism in which money can be borrowed from the future, arriving before it is sent, and in which debts can be recoded as credit and so on, without substantive reference to any material accumulation of resources, but that ‘late capitalism’ and Postmodernism are, in a sense which Frederic Jameson elaborated, the same thing. Moreover the ‘relative autonomy’ of the superstructure from an economic base, and the way in which a post-Fordist or neo-liberal society has moved from a focus on production to representation (death of industry in favour of private services; communicative, immaterial and affective labour) are in themselves new ways in which the economic base itself operates. In other words, what we must understand here is that a ‘false’ understanding of the role of money is not merely an aberration arising at the superstructural level of social representation: this ideological understanding of money is inscribed into the economic base itself, and it is precisely this which makes our economic mode of production a capitalist mode, i.e. one in which production occurs for the sake of capital gain. Late Capitalism, Neoliberalism, Post-Fordist or ‘nonproductive’ Capitalism is still for all this Capitalism, a mode of production. The conclusion we should reach is that ‘a false understanding of the role of money’, and perhaps even more so, a false understanding of the determining role of the economy, is at the basis of the real functioning of the economy.
In more abstract or structural terms we can identify what occurs here as the means of representation being always-already inscribed into presence. It means that, yes, the strict separation of presence and representation collapses. However, this collapse is precisely what preserves and actualises the determining power of the economy. For it is precisely by establishing the idea, as Market Libertarians do, that the freedom to speculate money into existence ends the old exploitation of productive labour, that the old exploitation of labour continuing unabated in a new global outsourcing out of sight, is guaranteed. Someone somewhere is still picking cotton, sewing trainers, gluing plastic and assembling phones. And this while new forms of exploitation condition the new service or knowledge economies. So while European and Anglo-American capitalism may well appear to be an autonomous bubble of ungrounded activity, its very existence ‘bears the trace’ or ‘feels the draught’ of the process of mass outsourcing of productive labour by which productive infrastructures have been displaced and occluded and its own means of exploitation have been reinvented. Postindustrial society does not escape its history, but requires i) that industrial history of productive labour to be still underway and ii) that history to be displaced not just in the temporal terms of its own self-concept, but in actual geopolitical space.
Thus the game we are asked to play or offered by neoliberalism and postmodern philosophies alike involves first an immense hecatomb, the oblivion, of our reliance on nonwestern productivity. We are asked to think ourselves as uncaused actors, drifting untethered free of time in the bubble of ‘the End of History’. And by appearing to compare the economic base of capitalism to an absent cause, Zizek plays right into this ideology, or at the very least is guilty of making himself insufficiently clear on the necessity to process his analysis twice over. There is something of an invitation in Zizek’s formulations to read him as an idealist, that make him all-too-amenable in this way. It is only on a second reading, one which would recall the existence of a world than is not just restricted to Euro-Anglo-America, which can see the failure of the first reading—and see it as a distortion structured precisely by the intrusion of the economic base into our very thinking—that we are led out of idealism and touch the Real. Deleuze’s phrasing ‘the economic is never given’ is haunting and disturbing when seen in this context. It is not enough then to perform Zizek’s parallax between Real as absent cause and principle of distortion, but we must think very carefully the full consequences of taking up a position in order to reject it, and whether we can ever really reject it if it has been a decisive step along the way to reaching a conclusion, however different. There is a moment in this, after all, in which we have played the very game we are trying to destroy—do we efface this with a twist? Are we destined to always fail on first attempts at concept formation, and what are the consequences then of not reworking our thinking? We will always be too late. We will only ever understand how we failed to understand, and how our failure to understand was necessary in order to reach a point where there is a touch of the Real. Deleuze’s never-given Economic is a dangerous starting point. It should perhaps be read in that mode of understanding, originally hermeneutic and theological, in which absence is only ever a mode of presence, which is to say, in which the true stake is remoteness. Rather than speaking of an absent cause hereafter we would always speak of a displaced cause, an ideologically occulted or mystified cause; never a formal absence, for this erases a great many labouring lives.
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January 14th, 2013
I’m not going to preface this blog with some lengthy apology of how, being white cisgendered  male, I have no intrinsic right to some position in this debate. This is not because I hold with a philosophy in which no-one has intrinsic rights to anything, or because I think that rights-based argumentation is the wrong way to approach this. It is simply because such a ‘deferral’ of critical judgement is in principle problematic: could it not also be spontaneously inverted to a complete insolidarity: “what happens to group xyz has got nothing to do with me”? On the contrary I fully assert as a living human that it has got something to do with me, and this is true irrespective of, or at least independent of, ‘my’ intrasocial identity. I use this term intrasocial to designate or qualify ‘identity’ in recognition of the anti-essentialist insight that the question of identity is in the last instance (after the account of strategic mimesis is settled) not some self-identical ipseity but a question of social-relational practise. This would equally go for an ‘in-the-closet’ identity as much as a openly valorised identity, perhaps also to some extent it would even go for a repressed identity (insofar as suppressed ‘closet’ identities and repressed identities are nonetheless social practices of suppression and repression, they are socially-relational).
On this basis I am arguing that the recent treatment of trans* people by a certain fraction of middle-class feminist journalists is indeed also ‘my business’. My position, such as I can advance one, is simple and perhaps even vulgar. I considered double-coding what I am about to say, in order to give it the affectation of profundity, but let’s be honest: it’s a simple point.
My position can be summed up: what the middle-class ‘liberal-left’ feminist journalists Suzanne Moore and Julie Burchill are presently demonstrating is that they no longer know what they are fighting for.
It is clear that at some point their grasp of the cause(s) they serve has become misdirected, displaced, losing critical contact with it. This is patent in the way they have raised to an absolute value the cause of fighting the neoliberal assault on the welfare state, while subordinating and relativising the value of other existing social antagonisms. And this is because, ultimately, the social antagonism that lurks in a complex way in the issues raised by the transition of state form between a Keynesian Welfare National State to Schumpeterian Workfare Postnational Regime (see Bob Jessop, also Nicos Poulantzas, and for background Althusser) is not about holding on to sentimentalised nostalgic feelings towards Keynesian economics and the postwar settlement, nor about the piss-angry reaction to the experience of loss or bereavement in its passing. To be clear, the social antagonism that has always properly situated the dynamic in question was class.
So why did we like the postwar settlement? Why did we want to keep this social-democratic model, lukewarm at best? The answer is because it materialised some form of social justice by which the excesses of runaway capitalism could be ameliorated; it helped to assuage the gaping wound of capital—product of its contradictions—and to this extent appeared to at least partially ‘heal’ the antagonism of class. As we know, this was never really more than an appearance, but today even the mildest of social-democratic measures like welfarism are screamed about in the McCarthyite right-wing world, as in the gusty temples of free market libertarianism, as evidence of a ‘creeping’ socialism, if not communism. As one of the last remaining signs of 20th century forms of leftist politics (the others being unions, the NHS, and public services) the welfare state functions as a sort of anchor for the rage of the melancholic. The last vestiges must be preserved! At all costs! But rather than mock this attitude, we must extract the rational kernel: the thing that the welfare state stood for in (what for want of a better term we can call) the social imaginary, if never actually delivering, was justice and equality, a ‘levelling up of the playing field of capitalism’, else some people were born into absurd wealth (and its networks) and others into equally absurd poverty (and its isolation). It was about being fair.
With this in mind, it becomes easier to see how Moore and Burchill have completely lost the plot. Arguing that interventions directed at stopping the Schumpeterian ‘creative-destruction’ in a neoliberal state (most poignantly visible in Thatcher’s Britain, and in the present coalition’s devastating attack on the welfare state, but also in New Labour and the Blairite legacy) should take precedence above all else, they have misplaced the true aim of recovering from that dim social-democracy under attack the rational and fair society which would be born of the light of a class awareness. ‘What sort of society do we want?’ asked the pioneers of welfarism. One in which the contingently disadvantaged must always fall isolated by the wayside while the contingently privileged find a rewarding life already within reaching distance? Or one where rationally planned intervention—the ever-mediating ‘human’ element in Western Metaphysics—into the chaos of contingency would ensure that everyone would have a qualified existence, irrespective and independent of social class? For Atlee and Bevan, as for Beveridge, the aim was permeated with a sense of ‘fair play’ and wholesomeness, at levelling alienating differences. But welfarism always lacked any deeper class analysis, never breaking the mould of bourgeois economics or properly taking up a socialist mandate. Consequently, dogmatically pursuing a cause of welfare-conservation in the face of radically revanchist governments—and particularly to the detriment of all intersectional struggles—does not directly address the underlying social antagonism so much as indirectly and obliquely attempting to patch up the increasingly glaring fact of class struggle. In this respect our present Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government have rendered us a great service, in once again bringing to light some glimpse of the true antagonism that should be the proper object of a revolutionary consciousness. Not that we should thank them for anything.
The bitter irony of those well-publicised scathing attacks on trans* people by Moore and Burchill is that they threaten precisely that which it was the original motivation of social democracy to protect: some sense of social cohesiveness in which the dignified and humane treatment of other people is a normative practise. Rather we find them unconsciously recuperating their own struggle to a strangely competitive cause, which will ultimately turn out to be none other than capitalism. We don’t need to bear witness to the way in which such writers situate their vitriol, amidst banquets of lobster and champagne, so as to generate social distinction—human capital—for themselves. We don’t need to note that their production of outrageously hostile and inflammatory comments occurs to a paid deadline. In their uncritical acceptance of the terms of an already shrill debate (Welfare State Capitalism versus Neoliberal Capitalism), a debate which the government and the media are all too happy for us to have since it manages to avoid the critical question, their failure to make any kind of effective intervention is all too clear.
Since I’ve now put my neck out enough to suggest that there is a crucial question that is being missed, it behoves me to define it a bit more substantially than an impressionistic hand-wave at ‘class struggle’ and ’social antagonism’. I’m not going to (here), because this post was not about clarification of some theoretical term but rather the clarification of how this particular fiasco is symptomatic of a badly misplaced motivation: when with what probably started out with good intentions, a middle class liberal ends up gesturing like a malicious aircraft steward to the door marked ‘emergency exit’, suggesting that when times get hard, we should probably use it. Instead of defining terminology I would again simply advance the idea, however still-unformulated, that what those who aspired or still aspire to become radical in their politics (through whatever social antagonism or intersections thereof) probably see of value in Keynesian economics is more or less reducible to its ‘less injurious’ impact, its ‘compromise’. By this I mean that at a fairly superficial level of social justice;it appeared to offer shelter for the disadvantaged and to circumscribe within reasonable limits the tendency of capitalism to run towards economic crisis; it did not emphasise the value of greed or self-interest to the extent that classical liberalism or neoliberalism did. So what is the implication to draw from Moore and Burchill’s less-than-radical attitude that we should fastidiously cling onto this period of ‘making-do’ with a bastardised, incomplete form of socialised democracy? And what should we make of the message, doled out in piecemeal tantrums on twitter, that we should cling onto it while letting go of everything else, including any respect for anyone identifiably different?
The implication seems to be that any aspiring radical has in view at the very least the image of a future society in which capitalism has been defanged, tamed, contained, maybe kept as a game for kids to play at weekends or as a museum piece to reflect on, precisely because the conditions of capitalism as a social relation are known to be just those which give rise to and exacerbate gross social injustices and existential injury to human relations. My argument is that this idealistic vision of the future is not enough to qualify as radical practise, and tends to mask a nostalgia, a euphoric recall, of 20th century social-democracy.
I’m absolutely not arguing for accelerationism, but nor do I think it is enough to simply slam on the brakes and attempt to turn back the clock in the hope that the future will then resemble some rose-tinted memory of a shiny new postwar society with its very own National Health Service, trains and welfare system. Any radical act must break the surface on which this narrative unfolds, cutting at a diagonal. Those who haphazardly quote Benjamin on applying the brakes to the train of capitalism misunderstand the larger point he was making. In an image I shamelessly pluck from Zizek’s repertoire, activists turn their guns on the clock-tower not because they want to simplistically halt the onward march of capitalism, but because they demand a new form of time, a new history. Of course we want a fair society, we want social justice, and we want equality—if we didn’t want those things we would be solipsists excluding ourselves from any collective identity. But these are in the end the social relations we must ourselves generate and reproduce, and to generate them we must possess the means to generate them, which requires a truly radical transformation of the social order. This transformation can only come via a linkage of the particular and the general in the creation of a universal order.
Consequently, what is absolutely vile in Moore and Burchill’s argumentation is the implication that the social antagonisms faced by trans* people are to be considered somehow epiphenomenal or secondary, in any way, to the social antagonisms which are more comfortably discussed—or likely as not obscured—in mainstream public debate.
My suggestion , following a theory of universalism most discernible in Badiou (but also to some degree in Ranciere, Buck-Morss and in Mouffe and Laclau), is that we must not forget the following: any particular social antagonism in which identity plays some part (class, feminist, queer, Palestinian, literally ‘whatever’) has always already been transcendentally framed by the historical conditions of capitalism in which we first arrived and now live, and in such a way that such an antagonism always takes the form of a particularism, whereas, in the deepest of contrasts, it is only through our practise of a collective solidarity (and of a kind that Moore and Burchill so clearly lack) that the universality of a particular struggle—its significance for everyone—is realised.
 Regarding the prefix Cis-, my initial ignorance over its derivation was easily remedied with a very quick internet search. The information is out there and exists in very accessible forms. There really is no excuse for not ‘getting’ it.
Cisgender has its origin in the Latin-derived prefix cis-, meaning “to/this the near side,” which is antonymous with the Latin-derived prefix trans-. This usage can be seen in the cis-trans distinction in chemistry, or in the ancient Roman term Cisalpine Gaul (i.e., “Gaul on this side of the Alps"). In the case of gender, however, cis- refers to the alignment of gender identity with assigned gender.
 It would be tedious for you to have to witness me, as a man, attempting to ‘correct’ Moore’s feminism, but I would float the apparently novel idea that a trans* female is also eo ipso a female and thus merits at least the same degree of feminist solidarity as a cisgendered female. This is structurally similar to the argument I am making about class, except that I am, obviously, far less qualified to make it.
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January 7th, 2013
The following is an excerpt from Philosophy for Militants, Badiou’s latest book published in English and translated by Bruno Bosteels as part of Verso’s ‘Pocket Communism’ series. As with some of Badiou’s other smaller published works there is an marked absence of that difficult idiosyncratic theoretical style—a mixture of Lacanianism, Post-Maoist ontology, and axiomatic set theory—which makes some of his more theoretical work so forbidding for a wider audience. In this work we find Badiou showing some sensitivity towards our present political milieu, aware of the battle-lines being drawn by revanchist governments against the people, and a willingness for his thought to be conditioned by, while still exceeding, this history. The author dwells on the ambiguity of democracy in the relationship between politics and philosophy, arguing that a democratic politics is necessary for the emergence of philosophy, while philosophy itself is in the curious position of having no necessary democratic mission yet (ideally) takes a ‘mathematically’ pure democratic form in that, via philosophy, anyone can speak, anyone can have an argument. The philosophical argument is, for Badiou, independent of the position of enunciation, and he finds in this a pretext for a philosophical argument—communism, if you like—which would have as its goal the maintenance of its own conditions of possibility, which is to say, a truly democratic politics. We are explicitly returned to the figure of Socrates made to die for a role perceived as influential in shaping young minds; implicitly we are asked to think the question: would Socrates likewise have to ‘disappear’ today, and what sort of configuration of the political-philosophical relationship would be necessary to obviate his disappearance?
Arguing towards the freeing of the role of Plato’s aristocratic ‘guardians’ for the generic human, Badiou draws from Jacobin and Maoist sources to place before us a decision that will determine everything: either we fall in with a conservatism (however ‘liberal’) pledged to the corruption of parliamentary politics under capitalist conditions or we face the struggle of founding the polis for ourselves in terms of a democratic philosophical-political nexus in which equality and justice for all overcomes the incessant ideology and pseudo-democracy of individualistic liberties and personal freedoms. Citing his ‘friend-enemy’ Rancière, Badiou advances the position that the firmest commitment to such a relationship (again, communism), eschewing the false freedom of opinions for a conviction towards durable philosophical Truth, alone guarantees an equality of participation and thus the proper freedom of universality: a city-state in which it doesn’t matter who you are, your voice has its own independent weight, the weight of ‘the same’ being a perennial principle of the people.
Naturally we will not be without some criticisms for this vision, and more particularly the problematic of the precise details of how we materially arrive at it, but given the accessibility of the work and its motivation towards the only real freedom of our moment, the broad laying out of alternative axiomatic choices that will determine our future—the repetition of capital or the labour of a new human society—this chapter of Philosophy for Militants is probably one of the better places to start reading for anyone new to Badiou.
Before broaching the paradoxical relationship between philosophy and politics, I would like to raise a few simple questions about the future of philosophy itself.
I will begin with a reference to one of my masters, Louis Althusser. For Althusser, the birth of Marxism is not a simple matter. It depends on two revolutions, on two major intellectual events. first, a scientific event, namely, the creation by Marx of a science of history, the name of which is ‘historical materialism’. The second event is philosophical in nature and concerns the creation, by Marx and some others, of a new tendency in philosophy, the name of which is ‘dialectical materialism’. We can say that a new philosophy is called for to clarify and help with the birth of a new science. Thus, Plato’s philosophy was summoned by the beginning of mathematics, or Kant’s philosophy by Newtonian physics. There is nothing particularly difficult in all this. But in this context it becomes possible to make a few small remarks about the future of philosophy.
We can begin by considering the fact that this future does not depend principally on philosophy and on its history, but on new facts in certain domains, which are not immediately philosophical in nature. In particular, it depends on facts that belong to the domain of science: for example, mathematics for Plato, Descartes or Leibniz; physics for Kant, Whitehead or Popper; history for Hegel or Marx; biology for Nietzsche, Bergson or Deleuze.
I am perfectly in agreement with the statement that philosophy depends on certain nonphilosophical domains, which I have proposed to call the ‘conditions’ of philosophy. I merely want to recall that I do not limit the conditions of philosophy to the comings and goings of science. I propose a much vaster ensemble of conditions, pertaining to four different types: science, to be sure, but also politics, art and love. Thus, my work depends, for instance, on a new concept of the infinite, but also on new forms of revolutionary politics, on the great poems by Mallarmé, Rimbaud, Pessoa, Mandelstam or Wallace Stevens, on the prose of Samuel Beckett, and on the new figures of love that have emerged in the context of psychoanalysis, as well as on the complete transformation of all questions concerning sexuation and gender.
We could thus say that the future of philosophy depends on its capacity for progressive adaptation to the changing of its conditions. And, if this is indeed the case, we could say that philosophy always comes in the second place; it always arrives aprés coup, or in the aftermath, of nonphilosophical innovations. It is true that this is also Hegel’s conclusion. For him philosophy is the bird of wisdom, and the bird of wisdom is the owl. But the owl takes flight only towards the end of the day. Philosophy is the discipline that comes after the day of knowledge, after the day of real-life experiments—when night falls. Apparently, our problem concerning the future of philosophy is thereby solved.
We can imagine two cases. first case: a new dawn of creative experiments in matters of science, politics, art or love is on the verge of breaking and we will have the experience of a new evening for philosophy. Second case: our civilisation is exhausted, and the future that we are capable of imagining is a sombre one, a future of perpetual obscurity. The future of philosophy will thus lie in dying its slow death at night. Philosophy will be reduced to what we can read at the beginning of that splendid text by Samuel Beckett, Company: ‘A voice comes to one in the dark’ A voice with neither meaning nor destination. And, in fact, from Hegel to Auguste Comte, all the way to Nietzsche, Heidegger or Derrida, without forgetting Wittgenstein and Carnap, we find time and again the philosophical idea of a probable death of philosophy—in any case the death of philosophy in its classical or metaphysical form. Will I, as someone who is well-known for his contempt for the dominant form of our time and his staunch criticism of capitalo-parliamentarianism, preach the necessary end and overcoming of philosophy? You know that such is not my position. Quite the contrary, I am attached to the possibility that philosophy, as I already wrote in my first Manifesto for Philosophy, must take ‘one more step’
This is because the widespread thesis about the death of metaphysics, the postmodern thesis of an overcoming of the philosophical element as such by way of novel, more hybridised, and more mixed, “less dogmatic intellectualities—this thesis runs into a whole series of difficulties. The first difficulty, which is perhaps overly formal, is the following: for a long time now the idea of the end of philosophy has been a typically philosophical idea. Moreover, it is often a positive idea. For Hegel, philosophy has reached its end because it is capable of grasping what is absolute knowledge. For Marx, philosophy, as interpretation of the world, may be replaced by a concrete transformation of this same world. For Nietzsche, negative abstraction represented by the old philosophy must be destroyed to liberate the genuine vital affirmation, the great ‘Yes!’ to all that exists. And the analytical tendency, the metaphysical phrases, which are pure nonsense, must be deconstructed in favour of clear propositions and statements, under the paradigm of modern logic. In all these cases we see how the great declarations about the death of philosophy in general, or of metaphysics in particular, are most likely the rhetorical means to introduce a new path, a new aim, within philosophy itself. The best way to say ‘I am a new philosopher’ is probably to say with great emphasis: ‘Philosophy is over, philosophy is dead! Therefore, I propose that with me there begins something entirely new. Not philosophy, but thinking! Not philosophy, but the force of life! Not philosophy, but a new rational language! In fact, not the old philosophy, but the new philosophy, which by some amazing chance happens to be mine.’
It is not impossible that the future of philosophy always takes the form of a resurrection. The old philosophy, like the old man, is dead; but this death is in fact the birth of the new man, of the new philosopher. However, there exists a close relationship between resurrection and immortality, between the greatest imaginable change, the passage from death to life, and the most complete absence of change imaginable, when we place ourselves in the joy of salvation. Perhaps the repetition of the motif of the end of philosophy joined with the repeated motif of a new beginning of thought is the sign of a fundamental immobility of philosophy as such. It is possible that philosophy must always place its continuity, its repetitive nature, under the rubric of the dramatic pair of birth and death. At this point, we can come back to the work of Althusser. It is Althusser who argues that philosophy depends on science, all the while making an extremely strange argument, namely, that philosophy has no history at all, that philosophy is always the same thing. In this case, the problem of the future of philosophy in fact becomes a simple one: the future of philosophy is its past. lt boggles the mind to see Althusser, the great Marxist, become the last defender of the old scholastic notion of a philosophia perennis, of a philosophy as the pure repetition of the same, a philosophy in the Nietzschean style as eternal return of the same.
But what does this ’same’ really mean? What is this sameness of the same that is equivalent to the ahistorical destiny of philosophy? This question obviously brings us back to the old discussion on the true nature of philosophy. Roughly, we can distinguish two tendencies in this debate. For the first tendency, philosophy is essentially a reflexive mode of knowledge: the knowledge of truth in the theoretical domain, the knowledge of values in the practical domain. And we must organise the process whereby these two fundamental forms of knowledge are acquired and transmitted. Thus, the form that is appropriate for philosophy is that of the school. The philosopher then is a professor, like Kant, Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger and so many others, myself included. The philosopher organises the reasoned transmission and discussion of questions concerning truth and values. Indeed, it belongs to philosophy to have invented the form of the school, since at least the Greeks. The second possibility holds that philosophy is not really a form of knowledge, whether theoretical or practical. Rather, it consists in the direct transformation of a subject, being a radical conversion of sorts—a complete upheaval of existence. Consequently, philosophy comes very close to religion, even though its means are exclusively rational; it comes very close to love, but without the violent support of desire; very close to political commitment, but without the constraint of a centralised organisation; very close to artistic creation, but without the sensible means of art; very close to scientific knowledge, but without the formalism of mathematics or the empirical and technical means of physics. For this second tendency, philosophy is not necessarily a subject—matter belonging to the school, to pedagogy, to professors and the problem of transmission. It is a free address of someone to someone else. Like Socrates addressing the youth in the streets of Athens, like Descartes writing letters to Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia, like Jean-Jacques Rousseau writing his Confessions; or like the poems of Nietzsche, the novels and plays of Jean-Paul Sartre; or, if you allow me this touch of narcissism, like my own theatrical or novelistic works, as well as the affirmative and combative style that infuses, I believe, even the most complex of my philosophical writings.
In other words, we can conceive of philosophy, to speak like Lacan, as a form of the discourse of the University, an affair for philosophers and students in reasonable institutions. This is the perennially scholastic vision of Aristotle. Or else we can conceive of philosophy as the most radical form of the discourse of the Master, an affair of personal commitment in which the combative affirmation comes first (above all against the sophists and against the doubts of the sages who honour the University).
In this second view of things, philosophy is no more knowledge than it is knowledge of knowledge. It is an action. We could say that what identifies philosophy are not the rules of a discourse but the singularity of an act. It is this act that the enemies of Socrates designated as ‘corrupting the youth’. And, as you know, this is the reason why Socrates was condemned to death. ‘To corrupt the youth’ is, after all, a very apt name to designate the philosophical act, provided that we understand the meaning of ‘corruption’. To corrupt here means to teach the possibility of refusing all blind submission to established opinions. To corrupt means to give the youth certain means to change their opinion with regard to social norms, to substitute debate and rational critique for imitation and approval, and even, if the question is a matter of principle, to substitute revolt for obedience. But this revolt is neither spontaneous nor aggressive, to the extent that it is the consequence of principles and of a critique offered for the discussion of all.
In Rimbaud’s poetry we find the strange expression; ‘logical revolts’. This is probably a good definition of the philosophical act. It is not by chance that my old friend-enemy, the remarkable antiphilosopher Jacques Ranciére, created in the 1970s a very important journal, which carried precisely the title Les Révoltes logiques.
But if the true essence of philosophy consists in being an act, we understand better why, in the eyes of Louis Althusser, there exists no real history of philosophy In his own work Althusser proposes that the active function of philosophy consists in introducing a division among opinions. To be more precise, a division among the opinions about scientific knowledge—or, more generally, among theoretical activities. What kind of division? It is ultimately the division between materialism and idealism. As a Marxist, Althusser thought that materialism was the revolutionary framework for theoretical activities and that idealism was the conservative framework. Thus, his final definition was the following: philosophy is like a political struggle in the theoretical field.
But, independently of this Marxist conclusion, we can make two remarks:
- The philosophical act always takes the form of a decision, a separation, a clear distinction. Between knowledge and opinion, between correct and false opinions, between truth and falsity, between Good and Evil, between wisdom and madness, between the affirmative position and the purely critical position, and so on.
- The philosophical act always has a normative dimension. The division is also a hierarchy. In the case of Marxism, the good term is materialism and the bad one, idealism. But, more generally, we see that the division introduced among the concepts or experiences is in fact a way of imposing a new hierarchy, especially for the youth. And, from a negative standpoint, the result is the intellectual overturning of an established order” and an old hierarchy.
So, in philosophy, we have something invariant, something of the order of a compulsion to repeat, or like the eternal return of the same. But this invariance is of the order of the act, and not of knowledge. It is a subjectivity, for which knowing in all its forms is only one means among others.
Philosophy is the act of reorganising all theoretical and practical experiments by proposing a great new normative division, which inverts an established intellectual order and promotes new values beyond the commonly accepted ones. The form all this takes is of a more or less free address to each and everyone, but first and foremost to the youth, because a philosopher knows perfectly well that young people are the ones who must make decisions about their lives and who are most often ready to accept the risks of a logical revolt.
All this explains why philosophy is to some extent always the same thing. Of course, all philosophers think that their work is absolutely new. This is only human. A number of historians of philosophy have introduced absolute breaks. For example, after Descartes, it is evident that metaphysics must take modern science as the paradigm of its rational construction. After Kant, classical metaphysics is declared impossible. Or, after Wittgenstein, it is forbidden to forget that the study of language constitutes the very core of philosophy. We thus have a rationalist turn, a critical turn, a linguistic turn. But, in fact, nothing in philosophy is irreversible. There is no absolute tum. Numerous philosophers today are capable of finding in Plato or Leibniz far more interesting and stimulating points than the points of seemingly comparable intensity found in Heidegger or in Wittgenstein. This is because their matrix is by and large identical to that of Plato or Leibniz. The immanent affinities that exist among philosophers can be explained only by the fact that philosophy is a repetition of its act. Deleuze with Leibniz and Spinoza; Sartre with Descartes and Hegel; Merleau-Ponty with Bergson and Aristotle; myself with Plato and Hegel; Slavoj Zizek with Kant and Schelling. And, possibly, for almost 3,000 years, everyone with everyone else.
But if the philosophical act is formally the same, and the return of the same, we will have to account for the change in historical context. For the act takes place under certain conditions. When a philosopher proposes a new division and a new hierarchy for the experiments of his or her time, it is because a new intellectual creation, a new truth, has just made its appearance. It is in fact because, in his or her eyes, we have to assume the consequences of a new event within the actual conditions of philosophy.
Some examples. Plato proposed a division between the sensible and the intelligible under the conditions of the geometry of Eudoxus and of a post-Pythagorean concept of number and measure. Hegel introduced history and becoming into the absolute Idea, on the account of the striking novelty of the French Revolution. Nietzsche developed a dialectical relation between Greek tragedy and the birth of philosophy in the context of the tumultuous feelings that the discovery of Wagner’s musical drama awoke in him. And Derrida transformed the classical approach of rigid metaphysical oppositions, largely on account of the growing and unavoidable importance, for our experiences, of the feminine dimension.
This is why we can finally speak of a creative repetition. There is something invariant, which takes the form of a gesture, a gesture of division. And there is, under the pressure of certain events and their consequences, the need to transform certain aspects of the philosophical gesture. We thus have a form, and we have the variable form of the unique form. This explains why we can clearly recognise philosophy and the philosophers, in spite of their enormous differences and their violent conflicts. Kant said that the history of philosophy was a battlefield. He was absolutely right. But it is also the repetition of the same battle, in the same field. A musical image may be helpful here. The becoming of philosophy has the classical form of the theme and its variations. The repetition provides the theme, and the constant novelty, the variations.
And all this takes place after certain events in politics, in art, in science, in love: events that have given rise to the need for a new variation on the same theme. Thus, there is some truth to Hegel’s statement. It is indeed the case that we philosophers work at night, after the day of the true becoming of a new truth. I am reminded of a splendid poem by Wallace Stevens—whose title, ‘Man Carrying Thing’, resembles that of a painting—in which Stevens writes: ‘We must endure our thoughts all night’. Alas, such is the fate of philosophers and of philosophy. And Stevens continues: ‘until the bright obvious stands motionless in cold.’ Yes, we hope, we believe that one day the ‘bright obvious’ will rise up motionless, in the stellar coldness of its ultimate form. It will be the last stage of philosophy, the absolute Idea, the complete revelation. But this does not come to pass. To the contrary, when something happens during the day of living truths, we have to repeal the philosophical act and create a new variation.
In this way, the future of philosophy, like its past, is a creative repetition. It will forever be the case that we must endure our thoughts for as long as the night lasts.
Among such nocturnal thoughts, none is probably more worrying for us today than those that are tied to the political condition. And the reason for this is simple: politics itself stands by and large in a kind of night of thought. But the philosopher cannot resign himself so as to let this nocturnal position be the result of a night of concrete truths. The philosopher must try to discern far into the distance, towards the horizon, whatever the glowing lights announce. This time the philosopher is rather like the watchman from the beginning of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon. You know this unsurpassed passage:
Now as this bed stricken with night and drenched with dew I keep, I lie awake, without respite, like a watchdog to mark the grand processionals of all the stars of night burdened with winter and again with heat for men. Of these dynasties in their shining blazoned on the air, l have come to know the science of these stars upon their wane and when the rest arise.
The philosopher is the subject of this kind of science; when night falls he is the loyal watchdog of the Outside. But his joy is made of the announcement of dawn. Still Aeschylus: ‘Now let there be again redemption from distress, the flare burning from the blackness in good augury.’
These last weeks, precisely, our country once more has seen proof that there exists a popular disposition to invent at night a few new forms of dawn. Perhaps we possess at least the flames of the possible fire of joy. The philosopher, naturally, lying down on his bed drenched in dew, opens one eye. And he enumerates the lights.
You know that there exist four great ensembles in our population from which, if we limit ourselves to the last two decades, we can expect that they may escape the gloomy discipline of the current state of affairs. We know this, since each of these collectives, in the politically limited but historically assured form of the mass movement, has given proof of a form of existence that is irreducible to the games of the economy and the State.
Let us name the schooled youth who, worried about their future, not so long ago were victorious on the question of the CPE. This is a lively and self-assured movement—a victory that is no doubt equivocal, but a promising subjectivity nonetheless.
Let us name the popular youth, harassed by the police and stigmatised by society, whose riots periodically fire up the masses in the impoverished neighbourhoods or cités, and whose obscure rebellious obstinacy, rising up from times immemorial and governed only by the imperative ‘it is just to revolt’, has at least the merit of making the well-to-do people tremble with fear.
Let us name the mass of ordinary wage labourers, capable of holding steady for days in the midst of winter, under the sole watchword of ‘together, all together’, gathering in immense assemblies and mobilising up to one-third of the total population all the way into certain small towns in the provinces.
Let us finally name the newly arrived proletarians from Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, situated as always since the nineteenth century at the strategic centre of genuine politics, with or without legal papers, knowing how to organise, protest, occupy, in the long war of resistance for their rights.
We know that the smallest linkage among these ensembles, anything that may produce their inseparation, will open a new sequence of political invention. The State has no other major task except to prohibit, by all possible means, including violent ones, any connection, even limited, between the popular youth of the ‘cities’ and the students, between the students and the mass of ordinary salaried workers, among the latter and the newly arrived proletarians, and even, despite its apparent naturalness, any connection between the popular youth and the proletarian newcomers, between sons and fathers. Besides, this was the point of the ideology of ‘Touche pas à mon pote’, [’Hands off my mate’] made up of ‘youth-ism’ and contempt for the working condition to which the fathers had been assigned and in which they had been able to show their strength, during a few major strikes in the 1970s and the early 1980s.
The only connection that has been able to last is the one that gathers militant intellectuals and proletarian newcomers. Here there are experiments going on that take the form of a restricted action, offering the resources for a political long march that would owe nothing to the parliamentary and syndicalist sham.
The most recent shimmer of light that the philosopher’s eye can perceive is that attempts are being made to experiment precisely with connections of this kind—connections that the united front of State, unions and party leadership, with the ‘Left’ ahead of the pack, are trying hard to proscribe. Certain composite groups are forming and assigning themselves a set of precise tasks: occupy this or that, create a vengeful banner, breathe life into the trail of syndicalist inertia… So, then, perhaps today, or tomorrow…
Let us in any case greet what is happening, this determination of sorts in doing away with the emblem of state corruption, about which I may at least be credited for having said very early on to what extent it is harmful and of what, in this sense, it is the name.
In light of all this, I come back to reflect anew on the strange connection, which I have experienced at a deeply personal level, between politics and philosophy.
I will begin by noting a striking contradiction. On the one hand, philosophy is clearly and necessarily a democratic activity. I will explain why. On the other hand, the political conceptions of the majority of philosophers, from Plato to myself, including Hegel, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Deleuze, have nothing democratic about them in the usual sense of the word. In other words: philosophers in general do not recognise the unanimously celebrated virtues of the parliamentary State and freedom of opinion.
We thus have a contradiction between the true nature of philosophy, which is certainly a democratic conception of intellectual argument and free thinking, and the explicit conceptions of philosophy in the field of politics, which accept very often the existence of an authoritarian framing for the collective destiny of humanity, and in any case feel no kind of fascination for the type of political regime that today dominates the West.
There is something like a paradoxical relationship between three terms: democracy, politics and philosophy. We must pass from democracy to philosophy. In fact, such is the road followed in the creation of philosophy among the ancient Creeks. The birth of philosophy is evidently dependent on the invention by the Greeks of the first form of democratic power. But we must also pass from philosophy to politics. In fact, politics most certainly has always been one of the principal preoccupations of philosophers throughout the entire history of the becoming of philosophy. But, even as politics constitutes an object of reflection for philosophy, it is in general very difficult to pass from this kind of politics to democracy.
Democracy, one might say, is a necessity at the source of philosophy and a difficulty at its far end.
Our question thus becomes: What is it in politics that is modified by the philosophical act in such a way that democracy begins by being a necessity, only to become something impossible or obscure in the end?
Our answer will be that the difficulty is situated in the relation between the democratic notion of freedom or liberty and the philosophical concept of truth. In short, if there exists something like a political truth, this truth is an obligation for any rational spirit. As a result, freedom is absolutely limited. Conversely, if there exists no limitation of this order, there exists no political truth. But in that case there is no positive relationship between philosophy and politics.
The three terms—politics, democracy and philosophy—are, finally, linked by the question of truth. The obscure knot is in fact determined by the obscurity that is proper to the category of truth. The problem then becomes: What is a democratic conception of truth? What is, in opposition to relativism and scepticism, the democratic universality? What is a political rule that applies to all, but without the constraint of transcendence?
But let us begin at the beginning, with the following two points:
- Why is democracy a condition for the existence of philosophy?
- Why is philosophy so often ill-suited for a democratic vision of politics?
Philosophy has two fundamental characteristics. On the one hand, it is a discourse independent of the place occupied by the one who speaks. If you prefer: philosophy is the discourse of neither king nor priest, of neither prophet nor god. There is no guarantee for the philosophical discourse on the side of transcendence, power or sacred function. Philosophy assumes that the search for truth is open to all. The philosopher can be anyone. What the philosopher says is validated (or not) not by the speaker’s position, but solely by the spoken content. Or, more technically, the philosophical evaluation is not concerned with the subjective enunciation, but solely with the objectively enunciated. Philosophy is a discourse whose legitimacy stems only from itself.
Therein lies a clearly democratic feature. Philosophy is completely indifferent to the social, cultural or religious position of the one who speaks or thinks. It accepts that it can come from anyone. And philosophy is exposed to approval or critique, without any prior selection of those who approve or object. It consents to be for anyone whatsoever.
We can thus conclude that it belongs to the essence of philosophy to be democratic. But we ought not to forget that philosophy, which consents to be totally universal in its origin as well as in its address, could not consent to be democratic in the same sense as far as its objectives, or its destination, are concerned. Anyone can be a philosopher, or the interlocutor of a philosopher. But it is not true that any opinion is worth as much as any other opinion. The axiom of the equality of intelligences is far from constituting an axiom of the equality of opinions. Since the beginning of philosophy, we must follow Plato in distinguishing, first, between correct and mistaken opinions, and, secondly, between opinion and truth. To the extent that the ultimate aim of philosophy is thoroughly to clarify the distinction between truth and opinion, evidently there can be no genuine philosophical interpretation of the great democratic principle of the freedom of opinion. Philosophy opposes the unity and universality of truth to the plurality and relativity of opinions.
There is another factor that limits the democratic tendency of philosophy. Philosophy is certainly exposed to critical judgement. But this exposure implies the acceptance of a common rule for discussion. We must recognise the validity of the arguments. And finally we must accept the existence of a universal logic as the formal condition of the axiom of the equality of intelligences. Metaphorically speaking, this is the ‘mathematical’ dimension of philosophy: there exists a freedom of address, but there is also the need for a strict rule for discussion.
Exactly like mathematics, philosophy is valid from all and for all, and knows no specific language. But there is a strict rule that applies to the consequences.
Thus, when philosophy examines politics it cannot do so according to a line of pure liberty or freedom, much less according to the principle of the freedom of opinion; it treats of the question of what a political truth can be. Or again: it treats of the question of what politics is when it obeys the following two principles:
- Compatibility with the philosophical principle of the equality of intelligences.
- Compatibility with the philosophical principle of the subordination of the variety of opinions to the universality of truth.
We can say simply that equality and universality are the characteristics of a valid politics in the field of philosophy. The classical name for this is justice. Justice means examining any situation from the point of view of an egalitarian norm vindicated as universal.
One will note that, in the idea of justice, equality is far more important than liberty, and universality far more important than particularity, identity or individuality. This is because there is a problem with the current definition of democracy as representative of individual liberties.
Richard Rorty has declared: ‘Democracy is more important than philosophy.’ With this political principle, Rorty in fact prepares the dissolution of philosophy into cultural relativism. But Plato, at the start of philosophy, says the exact opposite: philosophy is far more important than democracy. And if justice is the philosophical name of politics as truth of the collective, then justice is more important than freedom.
The great critique of democratic politics that we find in Plato is slightly ambiguous. On the one hand, it is certainly an aristocratic personal opinion. But, on the other hand, it presents a genuine problem—that of a kind of contradiction, which can become antagonistic, between justice and liberty.
To acquire some insight into this, we can read the deliberations among the French revolutionaries between 1792 and 1794. The daunting notion of ‘terror’ intervenes exactly at the point where the universality that is supposed to be at work behind the political truth enters into a violent conflict with the particularity of interests. Subjectively, the great revolutionaries of the period translate this conflict by saying that where virtue fails, terror is inevitable. But what is virtue? It is the political will, or what Saint-Just calls ‘public consciousness’, which unflinchingly puts equality above purely individual liberty, and the universality of principles above the interests of particulars.
This debate is by no means outdated. What, indeed, is our situation today—I mean, the situation of the people who are comfortable enough to call themselves ‘Westerners’? The price to be paid for our cherished liberty, here in the Western world, is that of a monstrous inequality, first within our own countries but then, above all, abroad. From a philosophical point of view, there exists no justice whatsoever in the contemporary world. From this point of view, we are entirely without virtue in the sense given to this word by our great ancestors the Jacobins. But we also flatter ourselves for not being terrorists either. Now, again, Saint-Just also asked: ‘What do the people want who want neither virtue nor terror?’ And his answer to this question was: they want corruption. There is indeed a desire for us to wallow in corruption without looking any further. Here, what I call ‘corruption’ refers not so much to the shameful trafficking, the exchanges between banditry and ‘decent society’, the embezzlements of all kinds, for which we know that the capitalist economy serves as the support. By ‘corruption’ l mean, above all, the mental corruption which leads to a world that, while being so evidently devoid of any principle, presents itself as, and is assumed by the majority of those who benefit from it to be, the best of all possible worlds. This reaches the point where, in the name of this corrupt world, people tolerate the waging of wars against those who would revolt against such disgusting self-satisfaction—and, within our borders, our persecution of those who are badly ‘integrated’, all those who, having arrived from elsewhere, do not unconditionally profess the self-proclaimed superiority of capitalo-parliamentarianism.
Brought up in a world whose thinking is corrupt, and in which injustice is a principle both secret and supremely sacred, rising up against this corruption with all the means available, philosophers should not be surprised to sec that they have to live in a paradoxical situation. Democracy is a condition for philosophy, but philosophy has no direct relation to justice. Justice rather presents itself, at the farthest remove from the democratic and corrupt delights of individual liberty, as the contingent alliance between virtue and terror. Now, justice is the philosophical name of truth in the domain of politics. Thus, the knot of the three terms—philosophy, democracy and politics—remains an obscure one.
I will now make a classical detour through mathematics. Mathematics is probably the best paradigm of justice that one can find, as Plato was able to show very early on. In mathematics we have first of all a kind of primitive liberty, which is the liberty of the choice of axioms. But after that, we have a total determination, based on the rules of logic. We must therefore accept all the consequences of our first choice. And this acceptance does not amount to a form of liberty; it is a constraint, a necessity: finding the correct proof is a very hard intellectual labour. In the end, all this strictly forms a universal equality in a precise sense: a proof is a proof for anyone whatsoever, without exception, who accepts the primitive choice and the logical rules. Thus, we obtain the notions of choice, consequences, equality and universality.
What we have here is in fact the paradigm of classical revolutionary politics, whose goal is justice. One must begin by accepting a fundamental choice. In the historical sequence which goes from the great Jacobins of 1792, executed in throngs in 1794 after the 9th Thermidor, to the last storms of the Cultural Revolution in China and the ‘leftism’ everywhere else in the world—that is, the end of the 1970s—the choice is between what the Chinese revolutionaries call the two ‘roads’ or the two ‘classes’: the revolutionary road or the conservative road; the working class or the bourgeoisie; private life or collective action. Then, one must accept the consequences of one’s choice—namely, the organisation, the harsh struggles, the sacrifices: this is no freedom of opinion and lifestyles, but discipline and prolonged work to find the strategic means for victory. And the result is not a democratic State in the usual sense of the term, but the dictatorship of the proletariat, aiming to annihilate the resistance of the enemy. At the same time, all this is presented as being entirely universal, because the objective is not the power of a particular class or group, but the end of all classes and all inequalities, and, in the final instance, the end of the State as such.
In this conception, democracy is in fact the name of two completely different things. It is first of all, as Lenin said, the name of a form of the State—the democratic State with its elections, its representatives, its constitutional government and so on. And secondly it is a form of mass action: a popular or active democracy, with large meetings, marches, riots, insurrections and so on. In the first sense, democracy bears no direct relation whatsoever to revolutionary politics or to justice. In the second sense, democracy is neither a norm nor an objective; it is simply a means of promoting an active popular presence in the political field. Democracy is not the political truth itself, but one of the means for finding the political truth.
And yet, philosophy is also democratic, as we saw; it is the condition for a new apprenticeship, a new status of discourse—a status which has no sacred place, no sacred book, which has neither king nor priest, neither prophet nor god as the guarantee of its legitimacy.
We can thus propose a new hypothesis in order for us to grasp this obscure knot in its entirety. From the point of view of philosophy, democracy is neither a norm nor a law nor an objective. Democracy is only one of the possible means of popular emancipation, exactly in the way the mathematical constraints are also a condition of philosophy.
This is why we cannot pass in any self-evident way from philosophy to democracy, and yet democracy is a condition of philosophy. This surely means that the word ‘democracy’ can take on two different meanings, both at the source and at the endpoint of philosophy. At the source, as formal condition, it designates in fact the submission of all validations of statements to a free protocol of argumentation, independent of the position of the person who speaks and open to be discussed by anyone whatsoever. At the endpoint, as real democratic movement, it designates one of the means of popular emancipatory politics.
I propose to call ‘communism’, philosophically speaking, the subjective existence of the unity of these two meanings, the formal and the real. That is to say, it is the hypothesis of a place of thought where the formal condition of philosophy would itself be sustained by the real condition of the existence of a democratic politics wholly different from the actual democratic State. That is, again, the hypothesis of a place where the rule of submission to a free protocol of argumentation, open to be debated by anyone, would have as its source the real existence of emancipatory politics. ‘Communism’ would be the subjective state in which the liberatory projection of collective action would be somehow indiscernible from the protocols of thinking that philosophy requires in order to exist.
Of course, you will recognise in this a Platonic desire, though expanded from the aristocracy of the guardians to the popular collective in its entirety. This wish could be expressed as follows: wherever a human collective is working in the direction of equality, the conditions are met for everyone to be a philosopher. This is clearly why, in the nineteenth century, there were so many worker-philosophers, whose existence and will have been so eloquently described by Rancière. It is also why, during the Cultural Revolution in China, one saw the appearance in the factories of workers’ circles of dialectical philosophy. We may also quote Bertolt Brecht, for whom the theatre was a possible place, though also an ephemeral one, for emancipation, and who thought of creating a Society of Friends of the Dialectic.
The key to understanding the obscure knot between politics, democracy and philosophy thus lies in the fact that the independence of politics creates the place in which the democratic condition of philosophy undergoes a metamorphosis. In this sense, all emancipatory politics contains for philosophy, whether visible or invisible, the watchword that brings about the actuality of universality—namely: if all are together, then all are communists! And if all are communists, then all are philosophers!
As you know, Plato’s fundamental intuition on this point went no farther than to confide the leadership of things to an aristocracy of philosophers who would live an egalitarian, sober, virtuous, communist life. Borrowing a metaphor from Einstein, this is what we could call a restricted communism. The point is to pass in philosophy to a generalised communism. Our city-polis, if this name is still appropriate for the political place constituted by the thought-practice of contemporary politics, will ignore the social differentiation which to Plato seemed inevitable—just as our democratic contemporaries, in the name of ‘realism’ and terrorised by the idea of Terror, consider it inevitable for there to be property, inheritance, extreme concentration of wealth, division of labour, financial banditry, neocolonial wars, persecution of the poor, and corruption. And, as a result, this city-polis will also ignore the distinction, as far as the universality of philosophy is concerned, between the source and the address. Coming from all as well as the destiny of all: that will define the existence of philosophy insofar as, under the condition of politics, it will be democratic, in the communist sense of the term, both at the source and at the endpoint of its actual existence.
——Alain Badiou, Bruno Bosteels (trans.), ‘The Enigmatic Relationship between Philosophy and Politics’, Philosophy for Militants, Verso 2012, pp. 1-39
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