Waiting for Politics to Begin Again (1)

I think it’s fair to say that I’m actually not the only one waiting for an event.

                                                                                                —Alain Badiou


1. A Dialogue on Reform and Revolution

Alain Badiou made the remark above near the end of a conversation that took place a few years ago between him and Marcel Gauchet, another contemporary French philosopher. The transcript of the discussion, edited by moderators Martin Duru and Matin Legros, was first published in French in 2014, then in an English translation by Susan Spitzer two years later, under the title What Is To Be Done? A Dialogue on Communism, Capitalism, and the Future of Democracy (Polity Press, 2016). The subtitle of the book indicates what the dialogue was about—that is, what the “doing” at issue in the main title is supposed to address: What is to be done about what?

Gauchet is a proponent of political reform. He argues that what is to be done today is to reform “liberal” or “parliamentary”—that is, “electoral”—democracy. According to him, what needs to be done about “communism, capitalism, and the future of democracy” is that the latter needs to be reformed so that it is able to “regain control over a financialized capitalism that imposes its logic and hegemony all over the world,” to borrow the way Duru and Legros, in their introduction, put the underlying problem as they see it.

In contrast, Badiou calls for revolution. He sees no possibility that mere reforms within liberal, parliamentary, electoral democracy will ever be able to address the underlying problems raised by such capitalism. To address them, he argues, requires an overthrow of the entire capitalist system—a system with which liberal democracy itself is inextricably linked, by his analysis.

Presumably without recognizing it, in formulating the underlying problem under discussion the very way they do—namely, as a matter of democracy “regaining control” over contemporary capitalism—moderators Duru and Legros already slant things in Gauchet’s direction. That way of putting the issue makes a number of unacknowledged assumptions, assumptions that are, in fact, called into question by the very debate between Gauchet and Badiou.

For one thing, to speak with Duru and Legros of democracy regaining such control presupposes that it once had it in the first place. It presupposes that democracy used to exercise such control over capitalism, then somehow lost it, so that the problem now is to get that control back. That, however, is precisely one of the notions that Badiou contests, in the strongest terms. He denies that what we think of as democracy—which is to say the system of representative, electoral politics that is practiced currently in the United States, Great Britain, Germany, or France, for example—can ever be separated from capitalism in the first place. By his analysis, the recognition that the two go inseparably together is crucial for trying to figure out what is to be done politically today.

For another thing, Duru’s and Legros’s way of asking the question presupposes that controlling capitalism is the desirable goal. Accordingly, to realize that goal would be to take whatever actions were necessary to bring capitalism under control. Such actions would in effect keep the capitalist river itself flowing, but would just seek to channel its flow in the right direction, keeping the river within its proper bounds so that it doesn’t overflow and flood everything.

Once again, however, that very idea is already contrary to something that is central to what Badiou is saying, which is that capitalism needs to be overthrown, not just “controlled.” By his analysis, the river needs to be cut off and dried up, not just channeled, no matter how carefully. 

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To be continued.