Saturday, July 10, 2010

Badiou's The Communist Hypothesis: A Review, Part II

Badiou feels that our material and political existence have been completely colonized by the State: 
Through all these systems, all these apparatuses  . . . we can see how the state organizes and maintains, often by force, the distinction between what is possible and what isn't.
In view of a reality where "'democratic' politics means nothing more than an eager willingness to service the needs of the banks," Badiou is dedicated to vindicate the need to have one's life guided by some great and powerful idea. For him, this idea is, of course, communism. In The Communist Hypothesis, Badiou offers a very interesting (albeit an excessively broad, in my view) definition of communism:
An egalitarian society which, acting under its own impetus, rings down walls and barriers; a polyvalent society, with variable trajectories, both at work and in our lives.
This idea sounds very attractive but is so vague as to be capable of being applied to pretty much anything.

Badiou's struggle to redeem communism is valiant but, ultimately, weak and unconvincing. He fails to address any of the real criticisms that are addressed to communist-inspired regimes with anything other than cantankerous grumbling. I agree with Badiou wholeheartedly that we cannot and should not expect capitalism to resolve its internal contradictions. He is undoubtedly right when he points out that capitalism has come a full circle and reached its predatory roots:
The world of global and arrogant capitalism in which we live is taking us back to the 1840s and the birth of capitalism. Its imperative, as formulated by Guizot, was: "Get rich!" We can translate that as "Live without an idea!" We have to say that we cannot live without an idea. . . Living without an idea is intolerable.
 I agree with every word Badiou says here. What makes no sense, however, is his suggestion that we follow capitalism back into the vicious circle of the struggle between capitalism and communism. We all know how that struggle ends. We also know that it claims too many victims on its way. What we need is not to replay this old and fruitless battle. We need a NEW great idea. Both capitalism and communism have systemic flaws that cannot be repaired. I wish that the great minds of our times stopped trying to fix either of these two inherently non-viable systems and started looking for something completely new.

I don't think that either Badiou or Zizek will be able to do that. Both philosophers are too mired in their Cold War era experiences and the attendant mentality. They are - and I'm afraid will always remain - prisoners of the communism vs capitalism binary. They fail to see that no political or economic system can be as oppressive as a binary mentality. There is, in fact, no system of oppression known to the world that has not based itself on some sort of a binary (or a collection of binaries.)

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Maybe they are lost in Cold War politics as you say, but I think the subtext of both of their work is "Marxism-Leninism was an astronomical catastrophe, but we need to find new means of resistance to capitalism." Zizek defines communism as a belief in the public commons. Badiou strips it of all notions of property and state and defines it in three axioms: egalitarianism, distance from the state, and finally getting rid of specialization. These seem forward thinking enough that they're not tied to any usurpation of state by party politics. The problem is when they name themselves Marxist, that's the connotation they have to receive. And yes, Badiou is much more forgiving of Stalin and Mao, but he does consider Stalin a totalizing traitor and Mao a noble failure, so he's not completely crazy. I just don't see better options is what I'm saying.

hutnyk said...

We need a new Big Idea? Dunno if you noticed how 'the [self declared] last Maoist in France', in arguing against taking money from the State ('we must take our distance from the state'), now seems to line up with UK PM David Cameron's Big Society?