Last week I looked at the ideas of Antonio Negri, who argues that there is a “multitude” continuously pushing against the power of capital.
By contrast, the French philosopher Alain Badiou sees radical change as something that is exceptional, occurring through an “event” that disturbs the dominant order of things.
Badiou has moved away from Marxism, yet his ideas remain concerned with questions of revolutionary transformation.
He has also been one of the few intellectuals in France to take a consistent anti-racist position, opposing the ban on the Muslim headscarf in French schools for example.
A central theme of Badiou’s work is the way in which dominant sets of ideas, values and interpretations “order” every situation.
This involves a ranking which gives prominence to some things while obscuring or hiding others.
So, in the dominant ideology of US capitalism things like private property, consumer choice and happy nuclear families count for a lot.
The exploitation of workers, state repression, and institutionalised racism and sexism do not.
Badiou is interested in how those elements of a situation that are inconsistent with the way it is presented can forge themselves into a new “truth” that overturns the dominant order.
The “event” occurs when the inconsistent elements of a situation become intensely apparent.
For Badiou this is not just restricted to political revolutions and upheavals, it can also relate to artistic creations or scientific discoveries.
A person or group of people, known as a subject, needs to remain faithful to the “inconsistent truth” through dedication and discipline for it to continue.
Some see this idea as originating in Badiou’s commitment to Maoist ideas in the 1970s.
At that time he believed that the revolutionary event would occur through the commitment of a revolutionary vanguard that would act on behalf of the inconsistent element of capitalist society – the working class.
Badiou’s revolutionary beliefs were dimmed by the defeats suffered by the working class and the left in the 1980s. He came to express his theory in a less overtly Maoist manner, most notably in the book Being and Event.
Here Badiou tried to think of the nature of being in its most basic form. He argued that although the nature of being is multiple, it is presented as a unified and cohesive “one”.
But this presentation could always be undermined by elements that embody the multiple nature of being.
The main problem with this highly abstract theory is that it tells us little about how a revolutionary subject might establish itself.
Badiou describes a subject’s dedication to an event but doesn’t give much explanation about its real content. He reduces the subject to notions of discipline, dedication and “intrinsic strength”.
This leaves little room for assessing the objective strengths and capacities of different subjects.
Take for example the riots of French youth over racism and unemployment.
There was a huge level of anger on the streets, yet real questions remained about how to take the struggle forward.
How should people respond when faced with the force of the state? What alliances could be formed between young people, trade unions and radical left parties?
Badiou’s theory doesn’t help us answer these kinds of questions.
Moreover, he has at times retreated into ultra-left ideas – seeing trade unions as inherently conservative and attacking left parties for participating in elections.
The flip side of this is to see the state as something undesirable but inevitable, which Badiou now seems to believe.
All this does not mean that abstract thinking is bad in itself.
Badiou’s approach could be contrasted with that of Karl Marx in his work Capital.
Here Marx showed it is possible to move from an abstract understanding of the “laws of motion” of capitalism to a successively more concrete one, in order to hasten its overthrow.
As he showed when looking at objects such as money, abstraction is an essential part of any scientific investigation.
Marx revealed the exploitative social relations behind money by first thinking of it in its abstract form.
By contrast, for all the specific insights he offers, Badiou fails to break out of a purely abstract system of thought. This renders his account of radical change ultimately deficient.