In 2008 the French philosopher Alain Badiou published a short book analysing the victory of Nicolas Sarkozy in the country’s presidential elections the previous year. The book proved to be an unexpected hit and confirmed that Badiou has a rare talent among philosophers for making accessible political interventions in wider society.
Now he’s back with a follow-up that examines the extraordinary events of last year across the globe. The Rebirth of History surveys the Arab revolutions, the riots in England last August, the Spanish indignados movement and much more. Badiou sees a common theme connecting all of them – a long overdue return of the masses onto the stage of history, and the stirrings of a global revolt against a criminal and murderous ruling class.
Badiou also attributes a philosophical significance to these uprisings. He’s talking about History with a capital H – not history as a series of happenings, each predictably leading to the next, but history as a massive break in the causal order: History that involves huge numbers of people previously deemed politically irrelevant, and one that opens up hitherto unthought possibilities for human liberation. These revolutionary breaks are what Badiou calls “events” – and 2011 was full of them.
The book starts in a somewhat unusual place, analysing the youth riots in London and other English cities that followed the police slaying of Mark Duggan in Tottenham. In a refreshing contrast to the vast majority of liberal commentary, Badiou reads the riots as a political revolt by young people against a violent and racist police force.
Affirming the political content of the riots in this manner is a bold and welcome move, but Badiou doesn’t stop there. He sets out a theoretical framework for understanding riots involving three broad categories: “immediate riots”, “latent riots” and “historical riots”. The August uprising is an example of an immediate riot: one that breaks out with extraordinary intensity, but ultimately is unable to move beyond its specific time and place, and rapidly peters out. Badiou has a detailed grasp of the tactics such uprisings involve and the dynamic by which they spread. He applauds the rioters for taking on the power of the state. But immediate riots fail to cross over into wider popular uprisings that draw in new layers of the public.
Latent riots are the next step up. These involve large numbers of people from different backgrounds (students, workers, the unemployed and retired) in disruptive mass actions such as strikes, demonstrations and blockades. They usually have limited aims, such as blocking a particular neoliberal “reform”, and stop short of their full potential. Badiou’s analysis is weaker here, a reflection of his Maoist politics that tends to blur the specificity of the working class by dissolving it into a wider notion of “the people”. It’s not clear what is gained by understanding striking as just one particular form of rioting.
But it’s the historical riot that really interests Badiou. And his key example is the Egyptian Revolution. In contrast to the immediate riots, the gatherings in Cairo’s Tahrir Square did not peter out even when faced with brutal repression. Instead they grew, drawing in wider layers of people and casting aside previously rigid social distinctions between men and women, religious and secular, Muslim and Christian. In contrast to latent riots, the movement has not stopped at limited demands such as the removal of Mubarak and parliamentary elections. It moves on to question and challenge the nature of capitalist society. In doing so it opens up the possibilities for revolutionary change that resonate across not just the Arab region, but the whole world.
Badiou has a boundless empathy for the popular uprisings he writes about, and an eye for details that generalise to yield wider political lessons. There are occasional gaps and weaknesses in his ideas, not least around questions of the working class and the revolutionary party. While he accepts the crucial role of workers in challenging capitalism, and of organisation in conducting mass politics, he is hazy about what class or party might mean today. But these are minor caveats compared to his strengths. Badiou is on the side of the masses against capital and the state. He treats their actions with the respect and seriousness they deserve. And above all he displays what Antonio Gramsci called “optimism of the will”. He is not afraid to recognise popular revolution when he sees it – and does not flinch from declaring his solidarity with such uprisings or proclaiming the possibilities they contain.
The Rebirth of History is published by Verso, £12.99
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