Badiou laid out his reaction to the co-ordinated Paris terror attacks of November 13th in a seminar delivered in Aubervilliers ten days after the events. Since then, his thoughts have been transcribed and published in a little book entitled Notre mal vient de plus loin (approximate translation: ‘Our Troubles Have Deeper Roots’) (Fayard, 2016). What I will attempt to do in what follows is to give a brief summary of his analysis before offering my own brief comment. Badiou begins by explaining what he thinks are the three main risks generated by the events and the sense of trauma and the affective response that followed them. The first is that the State will seize on the events as a pretext for taking unacceptable and ultimately counter-productive repressive measures. The second, directly linked to the overwhelmingly affective nature of the response, is a strengthening of identitarian impulses and an unthinking mobilization of national signifiers (‘French’, ‘France’) as if these words had some self-evident meaning and as if justice could somehow be thought within a national or identitarian (rather than a universal) frame. The third danger, closely linked to the other two, is to play into to the perpetrators’ hands through an ill-directed, vengeful and emotion-driven response. The initial way to ward off these dangers is to think, not least because the defeat of thought is always a victory for irrational and criminal behaviours. What should we think? Standing back from the overwhelming immediacy of the event in all its horror, we first need to consider the longer-term context in which it arises.
Badiou’s predictable starting point is the triumph of globalized capitalism, or what he call, ‘the liberation of liberalism,’ and the way in which it generates a spatial extension of capital to territories like China and a dramatic concentration of wealth. In this context, any nostalgia for the reformist programme of the immediate post-1945 years is politically unrealistic. Today, states have become, to a large extent, local managers of this global structure, unless, that is, it makes more sense to hollow them out completely (as failed states) to open up a semi-anarchic access to resources and raw materials. The effect on the populations concerned is drastic. 10% of the global population now controls 86% of the resources while 50% of the population owns nothing. In between lies what Badiou sees as a global, predominantly western, middle class which represents 40% of the population and shares 14% of planetary resources. It is this latter group which is called upon to defend ‘our values’ (the civilized sharing of 14% of the resources between 40% of the population), despite the way in which it itself is threatened with economic precariousness.
This broader context is associated with three types of subjectivity according to Badiou: a Western subjectivity; a subjectivity that desires a Western way of life; and a nihilist subjectivity. The first subjectivity is associated with a high-level of self-satisfaction on the one hand and a fear of joining the 50% with nothing on the other. The art of democratic government nowadays is to channel this latter fear. The other two subjectivities are constantly exposed to media images of the prosperity and wealth of the global (essentially Western) middle classes and of the oligarchic elite. The first response, the ‘desire for the West’, is to seek to imitate the behaviours and consumption patterns of the wealthier but without having the necessary resources to do so. The second, and linked, nihilist response is a violent desire for revenge and destruction. The nihilist or fascist response has at its heart a repressed but intimate desire for the Western lifestyle. To this degree, rather than somehow coming from outside global capitalism, it is in fact an immanent reaction to it. So, where does radical Islam come in? As Badiou sees it, the core of the subjectivity lies in its fascism: the religion comes later. As he puts it, ‘it is the fascism that Islamizes and not Islam which renders fascist.’ The nihilist dimension is also directed against the self: the killers’ own lives count for nothing in their own eyes. Nor do other people’s. Their actions are, of course, barbaric. The problem arises when we frame the West’s own behaviour as a war of Civilisation against barbarians. Here Badiou turns to drone warfare, Iraq and Palestine to make his point, noting that in the case of the first named, for example, there are estimated to be nine innocent victims (family members etc.) for each enemy target. Badiou comments, ‘in the case of the barbarity of the civilised, the mass murder is technological, hidden and self-satisfied.’
So, what is the way forward? The first thing to do, as Badiou sees it, is to address the issues as international ones and to avoid any retreat into a national or nationalist framing. We must also refuse to be imprisoned by the immanent contradiction between frustrated, fascist criminality, on the one hand, and the global development of capitalism with its reliance on its mass support, the middle class, on the other. What we really suffer from is the lack of a radical politics that would be truly external to capitalism. Ultimately, the deeper roots of our troubles, go deeper than immigration, Islam, a devastated Middle East or a pillaged Africa. They instead lie in the historical failure of communism. So, where are we now and where might some new radical politics emerge? Badiou notes the existence of local resistances. He notes too the presence of what he calls a nomadic proletariat originating from the most devastated global zones. He also notes that there are intellectuals and some sectors of the middle class, including of the Western middle class, who are drawn to new forms of radicalism. Finally, there are young people who are reluctant to occupy any of the three linked subjective positions mentioned above. And it is in the meeting of these different groups in the pursuit of some new strategic oppositional project that hope must lie. Some such hope represents the only way to defeat contemporary fascism.
Where does this take us? Firstly, Badiou is surely right that it is absolutely imperative to take stock and think rather than lining up behind any knee-jerk authoritarian response or any ultimately unproductive (no matter how heartfelt) emotional one. He is also surely right that anyone on the left has to move outside and beyond the sterile, destructive and sometimes murderous opposition between globalising capitalism, on the one hand, and identitarian, nationalist, or fundamentalist reactions on the latter. Where his argument lacks detail is in any real sense of the shape a leftist oppositional project might take and how a viable coalition of forces might be lined up behind it. But that is not necessarily a criticism of his book. The book provides tools to think with. It is up to its readers to put them to work as they see fit.
Some further comments on Badiou’s argument as developed by Slavoj Žižek can be found here.
Martin O’Shaughnessy, Nottingham Trent University