Naming Politics

In 1998 Alain Badiou published a short book entitled Of an Obscure Disaster.  On the End of the Truth of the State (Paris: Editions de l’Aube).  The book has been read as a confirmation of Badiou’s communist militancy, but I think it is fair to say it is both less and much more than that.  Its core is certainly not a sponsoring by any means of communism as a state practice nor is it a mere denunciation of the sophistry of the rule of law in capitalo-parliamentarist states, otherwise known as liberal democracies.  It is rather something else, which may probably be captured without abuse in the following five propositions:

  1. “The essence of politics is the emancipation of the collective, or again, the problem of the reign of liberty in infinite situations.  Now the infinity of situations, in which the destiny of collective thought is played out, is not commensurate either with the authority of the rule [of Law] or with the authority of a part, or a Party” (139 in the English edition, which is the second part of Can Politics Be Thought?, Bruno Bosteels transl. and ed., Durham: Duke UP, 2018). 
  • “There is no way of deciding politics in the framework of a preference for the law, which is only a (legitimate) statist preference.  The history of politics, made of decisions of thought and of risky collective engagement, is entirely different . . . from the history of the State” (140).
  • “The end of this monster, State communism, in its fall carries with it and takes the life out of all political subjectivity that would pretend, either under the revolutionary theme or under the theme of law, to solder the statist constraint onto the liberating universality” (140).
  • “The history of politics commences.  It barely commences.  The ruin of any statist presentation of the truth opens this commencement.  Everything remains to be invented . . .  The de-statification of the Truth remains for us a program of thought” (140).
  •  “Politics begins inasmuch as it is the effective thought-practice of the withering away of the State.  The point at which a thought subtracts itself from the State, inscribing this subtraction in being, makes the entire real of a politics.  And a political organization has no other end but that of ‘holding the step that was won’” (140-41).

Pages 139-41 in the English edition are the final pages of the essay, where all five propositions are found.  Those pages are not so much a “program of thought” as the announcement of a program, whose conditions are thought’s self-removal from its sophistical (relativist and skeptical) possibilities as well as from police despotism (embodied by Stalinism as the figure of the suture of philosophy to politics and of politics to philosophy—a definition which is food for thought: all reciprocal suturing of philosophy and politics finally falls under the Stalinist designation, there are many more Stalinist ideologues and police officers than we think out there).   Badiou clearly says, on the one hand, that the name “democracy” has been ruined in advance by its contemporary history, which links it to the Statist rule of Law and to sophistry in general.  And he prefers to preserve the name “communism” insofar as the name is or can be delinked from the monster of State communism, as proposition 3 confirms.   

But he also says this:

“What does “communist” signify in an absolute sense?  What is philosophy able to think under this name (philosophy under the condition of a politics)?  The egalitarian passion, the Idea of justice, the will to break with the compromises of the service of goods, the removal of egotism, the intolerance toward oppression, the wish to put an end to the State; the absolute preeminence of multiple presentation over representation; the tenaciously militant determination . . . the proposition of a singularity without predicate, an infinity without determination or immanent hierarchy, what I call the generic, which is—when the procedure is political—the ontological concept of democracy, or of communism, which is the same thing” (115)

So democracy and communism are the same thing, once delinked from their historical statist sutures.  “Rebellious [political] subjectivity,” he calls it at some other point (116).  The history of politics commences, or commences anew, as a history of rebellious political subjectivity, once historical events, or obscure events, obscure disasters, among which we must count the current state of the economy in or after the Coronavirus pandemic, have made it clear that the “entire real” of a politics begins in State subtraction, which primarily means: in a practice whose end-goal is not and cannot be the storming of the State, the acquisition of State power, any new statalization of life.  Politics begins, Badiou claims in proposition 5 above, in the “withering away of the State.”  And, then, yes, how can we think of it? What does that even mean?

If both “democracy” and “communism” are soiled names, names perhaps terminally contaminated by their statist subsumption, what is wrong with proposing an alternative name, which is also an alternative naming of the enigma of present and future emancipatory politics: posthegemony?  Posthegemony would then be that which philosophy is able to think in the withering away of the State: the name of an emancipation that abjures the acquisition of State power.

In concrete terms this means that a politics that “holds the step that was won” will enact a practice oriented neither toward the upholding and control of a system of rules whose very precondition is the market economy, or capitalism, nor the “privileged relationship to truth” of any particular subset of the social, whether the national(ist) citizen or the proletarian, much less the organic intellectuals and their minions.  Posthegemony does not aim to (putting itself in a position of) the management of the State.  It abjures both the sophistical relationship to the non-truth of the State and the despotic relationship to any “true State.”

Which does not mean it therefore gives up on any conceivable administration of the social.

De-statalizing the truth (of politics) is also de-substantializing it.  The truth of politics as emancipation is desubstantialized posthegemonic truth.  And there, as Badiou says, the history of politics “barely commences.”  And everything must be invented anew. 

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