interview and portrait by OLIVIER ZAHM
ALAIN BADIOU is the sole remaining pillar of the critical philosophy of the 1970s. For decades Badiou was overshadowed by the likes of Foucault, Deleuze, and Althusser, but today his ideas are being rewarded with the consideration of a new generation of thinkers. His growing philosophical influence can be attributed to his surprising loyalty to both metaphysics and politics. After a long period of metaphysical deconstruction — lasting from Nietzche to Deleuze — Badiou is now reinventing a radically new metaphysical system, one combining Plato and Lacan. But he’s not only the last metaphysician, he’s also the last Maoist of the French intellectual scene, still protesting in the street for the rights of immigrant workers. How is it possible today to be both a Communist and a Platonist — and to garner the enthusiasm of a generation ardently questioning the consensus of our time?
OLIVIER ZAHM — What kind of period are we in today?
ALAIN BADIOU — I think we’re experiencing an intermediate period today, an interval. Now, periods that are intervals are very interesting, because certain things in them have not yet been decided. I’m convinced that, beginning with the French Revolution, there was a great closing off of modernity, one traversing the 19th and the 20th centuries, with many twists and turns in all domains, and that this was a period during which political, scientific, and artistic innovations were considerable. A similar period was the Renaissance in the 16th century, and the preceding period was 5th century Greece. These are periods we don’t see very often. We have arrived at a moment when the question is to know which is the best path to specific exceptions in our own world — which is not very clear. There are postmodern points of view, saying, “That’s great. We can recap all of this, and we can mix it up, and finally we can do it all! Everything is possible!” And there are more nihilist orientations that contradict this, saying, “Nothing is really possible. We’re entirely blocked. All we can do is repeat ourselves.”
OLIVIER ZAHM — Which orientation do you choose?
ALAIN BADIOU — My position is that we must learn to reaffirm something. In other words, we must not settle for the criticisms of others or for negativisms. We need to relearn how to affirm. So, now we are in one of these intermediate periods.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Are we just sort of hanging on, and not rushing toward disaster?
ALAIN BADIOU — No, I don’t think we’ve hit bottom yet. [Laughs] We’re in an unresolved moment. The idea of total disaster would be the conclusive nihilist position: “No future.” And what would be reborn or arise from such a disaster? We can’t really anticipate the answer. Personally, I think that if disaster is still a possibility, not every card has been played. The situation is more contradictory or contentious than it perhaps seems. The hegemony of capitalism is flagrant, but not without vulnerabilities. Everyone says that capitalism is absolutely dominant today, and that with the collapse of the Soviet Union, China is the motor of planetary capitalism. There is indeed objective evidence of that, but the subjective domination of capitalism is significantly less perceptible. To define subjective domination, I’d ask, “What are the new values and visions of the world that the dominant group seeks to impose?” In reality, this dominant group is miserable. And that’s the point: it’s spiritually impoverished. It seeks to guarantee the perpetuation of its machinery, but that alone cannot assure its
survival. It isn’t true. And we must not believe it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Especially since the machine itself is fragile; it can abruptly lose control on financial, economic, and ecological fronts.
ALAIN BADIOU — Exactly, the machine is in a precarious situation, that’s clear. The contrast is especially striking when you compare it to the bourgeoisie of the 19th century. At that time they was a true leaders’ class, in the sense that they offered a series of intellectual, speculative, philosophical, moral, and artistic propositions. They felt they had a planetary mission, one that included some of the more ignominious colonial expeditions. They felt subjectively very powerful. That’s not the case with the leaders of today, whose class is objectively empty. They do hold the reins of the planet, but subjectively they have nothing to say and nothing to offer. This is also why young people feel left behind, uncertain, and disoriented. The only thing leaders offer them is conspicuous consumption.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You can see clearly in the artists of today — the most obvious example being — Damien Hirst — that the only value recognized by young people is money.
ALAIN BADIOU — You’re absolutely right. But money is a value we know was always virtual. The problem with wealth concerns the nature of spending. Clearly the bourgeoisie no longer has the aristocratic sense
of spending — the way the old bourgeoisie used to imitate the nobility, having inherited from them a sense of ostentatious, stylish, and even artistic spending. The current monetary oligarchy spends like pigs. But their disgracefulness hasn’t seduced all of humanity, nor will it, even if for a certain time a lot of people took the bait. It’s an extremely weak and provisory moral, more so than the ones offered when the world was dominated by religions and ironclad class restrictions — or even by sophisticated politeness. What strikes me, though, is that the current bourgeoisie does not impose any rules on itself. All the political scandals of late are about that. They are incapable of imposing rules. They flounder, doing whatever they want, cashing in like bandits, while aspiring to dominate the world. That can’t work for very long.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Will the capitalist machine collapse all by itself because of its lack of a spiritual core?
ALAIN BADIOU — Yes, from its spiritual emptiness — which isn’t the same thing as emptiness of religious spirituality; its more a mental emptiness.
OLIVIER ZAHM — A spiritual void that endangers post-capitalism from within?
ALAIN BADIOU — That is my view. When Marx said, “The dominant ideology is the ideology of the dominant class,” what he meant was that in order for a dominant class to completely dominate, it needs to be able to impose its representation and vision of the world on those it dominates. But this vision of the world cannot be limited to the simple fact of domination itself. In fact, it is an absolute paradox, and is not acceptable! In reality, we need our dominant classes to present examples of civilization, but the contemporary class is not in the least bit civilized. It offers nothing of interest on either moral or artistic fronts.
CONTEMPORARY ART — OLIVIER ZAHM — And yet the dominant classes, including the financial world, seem to be fascinated by contemporary art. For them art is the absolute product. This infatuation is more
astonishing because often the works of avant-garde artists contradict or severely criticize the values or representations of their collectors. We find in the collections of the great industrial leaders works that are essentially critically damning to them.
ALAIN BADIOU — But that contradiction works because there is a certain precariousness in it. Contemporary art is not homogenous with its buyers or its clients, who may of course still hang art in their living rooms. A large part of art functions from underneath, corrosively criticizing the dominant universe in which it circulates.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Must true art always break with the dominant ideology or the ideology of domination?
ALAIN BADIOU — Art of any period is appropriated by the wealthy and dominant classes. That’s hardly new. For example, the fact that the bourgeois of the large Italian Renaissance cities were the ones buying works by Tintoretto or Titian did not detract from the fact that true art, meaning art which constitutes its own affirmation, cannot serve the ideology of domination. At least, I don’t think it can.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Then how do we explain the present agreement between contemporary art and the dominant classes, beyond the dominant classes’ capacity to buy and collect priceless works of art and give to them an excessively fetishistic value?
ALAIN BADIOU — For the moment, contemporary art tolerates or accepts this appropriation by people who in reality have nothing to do with it, except to transform the art into the value they are searching for — and
to make people believe that, after all, a painting is much better than cash, because it’s something one can show off. They do that as patrons of the arts, too, with fashion and haute couture and commissioned
architecture. This has always been a function of the dominant classes. I think it’s also all been carved up — that it’s postmodern, and that none of it constitutes a strong affirmation that legitimizes their domination.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, for you the connection between capitalism and contemporary art is superficial?
ALAIN BADIOU — The incorporation of contemporary art seems artificial to me. It’s only pretend, and like all pretense it has only a transitory effect. It isn’t nothing, but it is pretend. I think that one
day soon the flagrant discordance between our vision of the world and the vision of the future that the dominant oligarchy offers — and the fact that it’s strutted around in front of the essentially critical constructions of contemporary art — will fall apart. This contradiction will blow up, and it will blow up the propositions denouncing the state of things inside art itself.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Your vision of art seems so austere, even Mallarmean, veering toward abstraction and subtraction. It seems to go completely against the trend of an art world dominated by a market of financial
flux. In your Manifesto for Affirmationism you defend the power of abstraction against spectacle. And you go further: you say that contemporary art has a duty to not be Western. Should we follow that to the letter and seek out, say, African or Tibetan artists?
ALAIN BADIOU — That’s not what I meant, but it can be that too. When I say it should not be Western, I mean it should not have to serve the system of representation of values and norms that we attribute to Westerners. But what does the word “West” mean? It means the system that organizes and links together the wild capitalist economy and the amplified democratic system. The West is that mix of unbridled liberalism and imposed democracy. It is obviously not a geographical definition, because we include Japan in it. It isn’t so much a question of East and West, either. It’s the canonic West. It’s the West because at the heart of it is the United States, which is at the controls. Therefore, when I say that art must not be Western, I think that it’s necessary for art to attempt to not serve the hegemony of this normative system we call Western, which vastly overflows its strict geopolitical designation. So it seems to me that one of the commandments of art is to not be totally absorbed or incorporated into Western politics. It doesn’t always work this way — look at what’s happening with the artistic movements in China, whose economic market strength is constantly increasing.
OLIVIER ZAHM — A lot of Chinese artists are strongly influenced by the Western world.
ALAIN BADIOU — Exactly, and in reality they represent a Westernization of the historical elements of Chinese art. And this imperative to not be Western is in effect an imperative, which says that art must somehow try to return to its functions of resistance, criticism, and exception, and to include the possibility of saying something about the situation, rather than showing the situation itself. It’s not just to not be bought, because it’s always bought — works of art circulate in the monetary world; that’s hardly new. Whether it’s bought or not doesn’t matter; it can mark internally its distance to that world. The difficult point is that, in order to mark that distance, the simple critical or negative function is not enough.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s not enough now because we know that the avant-garde went through all the forms of negativity, transgression, deconstruction, etcetera.
ALAIN BADIOU — Yes. It saturated them, and today the problem is indeed that that isn’t enough, because you disrupt the representation that you’ll be able to mark that distance. In reality, it’s all been absorbed in the dynamic of Western freedoms — you can do it, just as you can do anything you want. The formal emancipation of the avant-garde is henceforth nihilist because it’s no longer opposed to anything — as we all know, it’s authorized. But still, art should be in opposition to something, meaning that its exception would be that the movement by which we create works of art is not homogenous with the planetary expansion of contemporary capitalism. For that we need a regime of new and local affirmation.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Which would tend toward abstraction, and be opposed to what you call the carnival or the spectacle?
ALAIN BADIOU — Yes, that’s the hypothesis I would propose. I think we must find figures of abstract sublimation — let’s call them that — which aren’t the bric-à-brac of postmodern expenditure, the bric-à-brac of objects, or a sort of ironic mimetic of the market, like so many art installations are. Many of these installations are basically concentrated versions of La Samaritaine (the French version of the Macy’s store — Ed.). I get that. After all, it’s a way of parodying the market, and parody is a form of art. But I do not think these forms of parody, derision, and irony will be enough in the future. I’m for a return to more monumental ambitions, exactly the same thing I look for in philosophy, which I accept as being systematic. I love things that offer a disconcerting monumentality.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How does your passion for Mallarmé tie into what you have been saying? Are there lessons to be learned from Mallarmé?
ALAIN BADIOU — I think there are two Mallarmés — there’s the one who was drawn to negativity, criticism, subtraction, and even death; and there’s the fading-away side of Mallarmé. The poem creating its own
nothingness, its own finality. That was very interesting. I really liked it. The other Mallarmé is about the appearance of the idea. At the end of his poem, Coup de dé [Throw of the dice], nothing has taken place,
except perhaps at the altitude of a constellation. That’s the other Mallarmé. He was able to create a scintillating object, out of the void, which embodied the future. I think that at the time of the avant-garde, that first Mallarmé, the savant of the void, if I may call him that — the negative one — was the most important. I think that now we must also lean on the second Mallarmé, the one who did not despair that his work with the negative would actually bring about an affirmation of a new kind.
POLITICS — OLIVIER ZAHM — Let’s talk about political affirmation. At the beginning of this interview we said that you are one of the few philosophers today who offers — in all cases, hypothetical or real — the
politics of emancipation and the possibility of a fight against an extreme disillusionment. You’re the leader of a frontal attack on democracy. You are very bitter about the democratic system, as it exists today. You say some pretty harsh things, such as “the democracy of comedy.” Can you speak about that?
ALAIN BADIOU — I think Western democracy is a façade regime, a propaganda produced by the dominant oligarchy, which it uses for its own domination. If the dominant class can only pride itself on its lucrative results in the market, it will not attract many people. Yet it prides itself on a democratic façade, which it pits against tyranny and despotism. It admits its own injustices, but proclaims that, at the same time, it offers essential freedoms.
OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s certainly something. Isn’t democracy a lesser evil?
ALAIN BADIOU — Yes, except that when you look closely at what is done with these essential freedoms, you see that they’re coded freedoms. The democratic system gives the illusion of political freedom to people,
whereas in reality this political liberty consists only of it being allowed to designate the political representatives of the capitalist oligarchy in power.
OLIVIER ZAHM — By “coded,” do you mean monitored or manipulated?
ALAIN BADIOU — Let’s call them flexibly predetermined. That’s the great advantage of the democratic system. It’s not vertical control or coding that must constantly be reiterated. It’s more a horizontal coding, which is quite flexible, in which the system of possibilities, deep down, is really an extremely coded system of possibilities. I accuse Western democracy of being a fraud, of not being a democratic reality. It’s a pre-coded democracy, one in which everyone knows that the fundamental orientations that govern our existence will not ever be modified, because the opposition and the majority fundamentally agree that they will not revolutionize society. In other words, we give a little more to these guys, a little less to these other guys, or the other way around, and we’ll keep tinkering with it. But that’s an unessential freedom. It’s a secondary one, obsessed with the smallest
details. And they are constantly conning people, promising them at each election changes that of course will never happen. So I accuse the system of being hypocritical, meaning that all it claims to defend — freedom, pluralism, and the promise that all options are possible — is in fact only virtual.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What proof do you have of the collusion between the current democracy and capitalism?
ALAIN BADIOU — Let’s begin with an empirical statement: I do not think that this political system exists elsewhere other than in developed capitalist societies. It does not seem to be compatible with any other society’s system. Therefore, there are good reasons to think that it’s the most appropriate political system for developed capitalism. This is why everyone’s waiting for the moment when China becomes democratic.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So democracy is an instrument of domination — and even of conquest — for capitalism.
ALAIN BADIOU — That’s what Bush said when he declared that the goal of the invasion of Iraq was to create a new democracy. When everyone saw that he lied about the existence of weapons of mass destruction he had
to find another reason for the invasion: to spread Western democracy in Iraq. It’s the same thing in Afghanistan today. We’re at war there to impose democracy. It won’t happen, in either case. But that’s an entirely different problem.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is democracy an instrument that serves capitalism? Is it a form of voluntary servitude? ALAIN BADIOU — The truth about the democratic system is that it’s a flexible system, appropriate for creating a political subjectivity, which will not contradict the domination of capital. And it works also on maintaining, renewing, and expanding the group of leaders, which, as we know, are not at all the People. The People have absolutely no rights when great decisions concerning them are made. They don’t consult thePeople when there’s a giant bank crisis, when the State must give billions to the banks. We deal with the situation as we always have. The recent crisis was revelatory: we saw that the State is the support, the guarantor of the dominant oligarchy.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Are you anti-democratic?
ALAIN BADIOU — When you are categorized as being anti-democratic, you are immediately identified as being a fascist, or something like that. It’s the propaganda kicking in. If, however, we enter a level in which
democracy is a kind of political movement incompatible with the oligarchic power, especially the financial and economic oligarchy, well, then I’m totally ready to defend that democratic ideal. But the present form of the regime is a fraud; it usurps the name, the word. We are living under a strict oligarchic, autocratic regime. If you look at the circle of people who are the dominant politicians, the leaders of the large companies, the leading lights of the national and international media, you see that it’s such a small group. This small group decides everything, with the help of a few military and engineering elite.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But this elite is so tight, compared to the masses, who are now aware of the corruption. How do you explain why this is still going on?
ALAIN BADIOU — The situation will continue as long as no one comes up with an idea for a different situation. It is a negative continuity, in the absence of all revolutionary representation. There again, obviously these are the dividends from the collapse of the USSR and of Communism. It’s the result of a determined, furious propaganda that says that any other political hypothesis is impossible, criminal, or terrorist. Most people think that. Everyone tells himself that we’re living in a corrupt and detestable society, but that there isn’t any other way, that this is the least awful of situations. The present system only holds on negatively, due to the incredible weakness of that which I, as a provocateur, call the Communist idea, an idea based on necessity and the possibility of something different — a policy of equality and emancipation. Something else is possible. At its nucleus is the idea that societal domination by this kind of oligarchy is not an absolute necessity.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is there today a form of contestation or opposition other than violence? We have the feeling that there’s an absence of representation, of political apparatuses, and a lack of leaders or charismatic individuals who could convincingly bring us an alternative discourse. Young people choose the destructive path of rioting in the suburbs, or of joining the Black Blocs in the large international conferences. What can you offer them instead?
ALAIN BADIOU — I think that in politics, in art — in everything — we’re in an intermediary period, and that the mental, ideological, and representative horizons are in a state of extreme weakness. In times like this the impasses of the situation blow up in a symptomatic fashion, in the form of violence. It’s nothing new. But this kind of anarchic violence must be treated as if it were a symptom of the situation. It’s a variation of contemporary nihilism, in which no one promises anything, no one offers anything that makes any sense to us — and so we destroy it all. It becomes “No Future,” and kids start setting cars on fire.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Isn’t it the responsibility of the intellectual world to engage this nihilistic impasse?
ALAIN BADIOU — Since the ’80s a phenomenon has been rising in France: the constitution of an intelligentsia in the oligarchy. It’s a new thing, because during the period between 1945 and the 1970s, the
intelligentsia was mostly dissenting, although in different groups with different positions. But for the last 20 years the intelligentsia has been mostly a vassal, one that’s dependent and occupies a strong media position. And this servitude exacerbates the situation for young people — for the dominated. It exacerbates things because it gets rid of everything that could be a horizon of representation and support and emancipation. It advocates a closing off from the world as it is now. So it’s not surprising that when these young people without horizons attempt to get out, to move, that they can become rather brutal. So the duty of the intellectuals who wish to maintain the tradition of dissent,criticism, and affirmation — which in France comes to us via our 18t century ancestors, Voltaire and Rousseau — is to revive the idea of an alternative.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is there a political discourse that young people may in fact be hearing? There’s not much of a theoretical gap between your often-difficult philosophy and the views of kids in the suburbs, and of those whom you call the “proletarians.”
ALAIN BADIOU — Not at all — because a discourse must always begin at a certain level of generality; then little by little it constructs its mediations. When Marx wrote Das Kapital and The Poverty of Philosophy he was not saying that the worker — who in all likelihood didn’t even know how to read — would understand it. We aren’t bothering with stuff like that. We need first to be sure that the structure is theoretically clear and declarative. Then you can talk about mediations. Dealing with those mediations is fundamental. Mao, my old master, said, “When righteous ideas take hold of the masses they become a spiritual atomic bomb.” I like the “spiritual atomic bomb” bit. Intellectuals must know how to speak to people. I’m an old militant. I worked a lot in African shelters, and with the factory workers. You mustn’t think I’m only a theoretical thinker. I have more links and relationships with the working class than most of my colleagues. I’ve been there. But I know that we still must begin at the highest levels of intellectuality. I see also that those who try to evade this necessity of starting at the top don’t offer anything to those at the bottom.
MAO ZEDONG — OLIVIER ZAHM — Speaking of Mao, how can you explain your fidelity to him, in the face of the crimes and exactions of Chinese Communism?
ALAIN BADIOU — Mao was the first one inside the group that dominated the revolutionary movement since 1917 to realize that what they had built — meaning the State Party — had become oppressive, and probably
restorative and bourgeois. We must not forget that he said, “You ask me where the bourgeois of today are. I will tell you — they’re in theCommunist Party.” That was Mao.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Wasn’t that the basis for the Cultural Revolution?
ALAIN BADIOU — Yes, and he said that before it started. He’d been conscious of it for some time. Launching the Cultural Revolution was an attempt at a nearly desperate truth: trying to see how to get out of the disastrous situation of having built a despotic State, one that was widely terrorist, but without having a real Communist movement. Mao said, “Without a Communist movement there is no Communism.” The State was not fulfilling that function.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Was the State rotting inside its own Communist dictatorship?
ALAIN BADIOU — It was rotting inside a system of privilege, bureaucracy, inertia, and control. During the period of the popular war in the conquest of power we knew what the movement was. It was, after
all, Mao who organized those millions of peasants — about whom no one had worried until then — and who gained power with them. Little by little, the State became a sort of fixed apparatus in which the oligarchic temptations to take advantage of things were widespread. He wanted to re-launch the movement, sought available forces to do so, and he found the student movement, simply because at that time it was mobilized all over the world. It happened in China just as it did here in France. Students set May ’68 in motion. So he found the students and sent them into battle and then he got hold of a group of workers. It was like May ’68: students and some of the workers. You have to realize that it was as if one part of the State went to war with another part of the State.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So Mao remained a revolutionary to the end, even within his own State.
ALAIN BADIOU — Exactly, and that’s why it’s absurd to identify him with Stalin, whom he criticized severely in several texts, on this same point. Stalin was the man who decided that the only available instrument
to get things done was the State itself. And Stalin used the State for terrorist and criminal ends. For a long time it was, in part, the same for Mao, because Mao was indeed influenced by the Communists of the time, by the Soviet State. But that was not his fundamental position. From the beginning his position was different. He had a lot of problems with the Comintern and the Russian envoys in China because his principle
had always been for the movement. He always thought that without the movement of the masses, whom he called the only true heroes of universal history, there would be no Communist movement. For him the Party was
only a temporary crystallization of the forces and resources of the movement. And if at any given moment the Party was working against the movement it was the Party that should be blamed. And this resulted in a
disastrous anarchy. I’m not saying he succeeded; if he had we would have heard about it. We would have had another phrase, another model. The Cultural Revolution failed. That’s indisputable. And it was ostly, as are all revolutionary endeavors that fail. The Paris Commune was costly. The Cultural Revolution failed, but Mao was the last figure who had attempted to deal with the terrible dialectic between power and the movement.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Between the State as an instrument of Revolution and the essence of Revolution?
ALAIN BADIOU — Exactly. Thanks to Marx we know that the true essence of Revolution and emancipation works against the State, toward the decline of the separate, monolithic character of the State. So we can say that Mao did try to fight against the separate character of the State.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Okay, but just to reassure me — you reject the crimes and other exactions of Mao and Communism, right?
ALAIN BADIOU — Obviously.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I have to ask this because for certain individuals in certain Parisian salons it isn’t so clear.
ALAIN BADIOU — I reject the crimes and exactions of Communism with extreme virulence, not only as crimes and exactions, but also because they proved to be entirely useless and they discredited the Communist
idea. I have so many more reasons to condemn these crimes than all the people in the salons you mentioned. [Laughs] But it’s like that
well-known and overused expression “throwing the baby out with the bath water.” From a propaganda point of view, to consolidate the power of the present oligarchy, people say, “Listen, don’t even think about Communism. If you do, you’ll end up with Stalinism.” That’s crude and untrue: history doesn’t repeat itself and we won’t end up with Stalinism. We decide what to do so as not to have a Stalin or a Mao, people so hated by everyone. When I speak of Mao, who was a critic of Stalin, I speak of Mao’s failures. I criticize both Mao and Stalin. Those people in the salons who hate Stalin are not the victims of Stalinism. In reality, they’re happy that Stalin massacred all those people. It helps them to maintain their power. Stalin’s worst crime is to be brought up as the definitive repellent for Communism.
OLIVIER ZAHM — In order to present a possible political alternative for today you invoke the idea of Communism. But what things of historical Communism would you reject, and what things would you keep?ALAIN BADIOU — First, I would keep the idea that Communism presupposes the construction of large-scale worker organizations. I don’t think that can be done under the military model of the Leninist party. The belief in an active, powerful worker class seems to me to be a necessary idea. You can’t entrust it all to small divergent groups. The second point is that we need to examine closely the private appropriation of important funds for production. To these two things I would add a third, one which has remained problematic from the beginning to the end of the real history of Communism: the movement, which little by little is putting an end to the
separate State, and is instead proposing a kind of associative auto-organization of production. These great ideas of Communism, which were tried out and experimented with, were crushed by the massiveness of
the State. But I think they are the only ideas with which one may gauge the contemporary oligarchic system.
OLIVIER ZAHM — During the recent financial crisis, shouldn’t we have nationalized the banks, or at least gotten rid of the stock market?
ALAIN BADIOU — I think we should have nationalized the banks. Public debate ranged from, “Should we give a lot of money to the banks?” to “Should we regulate them or not?” That was as far as it went. Of course,
in terms of regulation we’ve done almost nothing and will do nothing, or almost nothing. That’s for sure, because it’s the essence of the current system: banks have great latitude and we will not be able to control them. Let’s also remember that the nationalization of banks is a process, one that already existed in France under De Gaulle. It’s neither a chimera nor an improbable idea. In any case, it was out of the question; they nationalized things only when forced to, such as when the companies were failing and there was nothing else they could do except to have the State buy them. They always said they would return the companies back to the private
sector as soon as possible, and that they would eventually get their money back. It was obvious that this financial crisis was a grandiose occasion to make the largest banks into collective property.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you manage a collective property on the scale of international capitalism?
ALAIN BADIOU — There’s a legend that says that once a company has been nationalized it no longer works. It begins running a deficit. That is false propaganda. Everyone knows that when EDF, the French electricity utility, was nationalized it became a perfectly healthy enterprise. It was admired by the entire business world. But the recent disappointment from centralized economies happened quite recently, when they began to feel major world pressure. East Germany was a two-fold artificial construction, run by the Communist police, set in place by its Russian occupier. In the early ’70s East Germany was the seventh largest economy in the world. It wasn’t a very big country, so we should examine what happened there quite empirically. As soon as the parameters of contemporary competitiveness were set in place, when it was announced that large public companies were not viable, the country was dismantled, inappropriately and prematurely subjecting its market to a highly competitive environment. In reality, nationalized, collective, and cooperative enterprises can perform at a high level if the environment in which they evolve and prosper is adapted.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You often use that old Marxist term proletarian. Who are they today?
ALAIN BADIOU — Proletarians represent a much larger category than just the factory working class, which was the core group. For me the proletarians are all the people who have nothing — or practically nothing — for survival other than themselves: extremely poor third-world peasants to barely-making-it students, with many others in the middle. They are the people who have neither an interest nor an adhesion to the rules of the current dominant oligarchy. That’s a lot of people, of which a substantial percentage is alienated from the system for various reasons, as has always been the case. Of course, in the “Old Regime” many peasants were in favor of the King.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Does your definition of proletarian relate essentially to the different levels of life, poverty, and marginalization?
ALAIN BADIOU — Yes. It’s economic but also subjective. They go together indissolubly. Unlike Stalin, who was extremely economical in his definition of things, Mao Zedong said, “A proletarian is a friend of the revolution.” I agree. The friends of the revolution, including intellectuals, are a part of the proletariat. So the word proletarian brings together people who are not in favor of, or comfortable with, the dominant oligarchic
order. They have no love for, or interest in maintaining, that order. Obviously those who are directly and materially oppressed find it easier to think they would like to change the situation.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is “proletarian” an international category?
ALAIN BADIOU — Absolutely. It’s fundamental that we understand that there is only one world, and that it’s on a world scale that these emancipating initiatives will be deployed. Of course, they will take place somewhere specific, but they will be reflected and accepted on an international scale.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What happened with the recent crisis in Greece could have been a tipping point for the rest of Europe.
ALAIN BADIOU — Yes, but only if the generic idea of a different alternative had been more widespread and better articulated, and if the media and other organizational protocols had been more extensive. In the present situation there are few chances that it will spread.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re not very optimistic.
ALAIN BADIOU — The situation is not good. As is any intermediary situation, it’s just the beginning of a subjective reconstruction.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I wonder if it’s the hope of revolution that you cherish — the taking of power, a change of government, a brutal reorientation of politics. It seems to me that you foster the somewhat
utopian idea of the capitalist system collapsing, of the whole State apparatus collapsing into itself. Can we seriously imagine that a new apparatus, a revolutionary State, could auto-destruct inside its own expansion processes?
ALAIN BADIOU — Yes, but you create a problem for me here. Could we do better than the Cultural Revolution?
OLIVIER ZAHM — For that, we would need to imagine what could be called an “artistic revolution.”
ALAIN BADIOU — Yes, exactly. I think it’s a problem that needs to be dealt with at a new level of invention. But there is great difficulty. It’s not about saying that there will never be another form of social organization. Marx proposed substituting for the State something he called a regime of associations. “Association” is a little vague, but what he meant was that there would be local associations closely correlated with others in an organizational system for society. Individual atomization is capitalism, which doesn’t like intermediate bodies; it likes having the power of the State on one side and the individual consumers on the other.
OLIVIER ZAHM — With dispersion and solitude.
ALAIN BADIOU — But we could fill the interval — the intermediate period — with associations. That’s why Mao was so different from Stalin. From the beginning, Mao was fascinated by the idea of having the instances of popular power distinct from the Party, not belonging to the Party. He did when he was working on a smaller scale, in the underground. There were assemblies with specific powers. He saw that a dialectic was needed between the State and something else. And it is in this area that we must look — and we need to do it now.
OLIVIER ZAHM — When we hear Socialist Party speeches promoting associations and “caring” on the local scale — a good neighbor policy, helping hands, social networking associations — I wonder if this perspective has not already been overused, and even tarnished. Is there not a risk of diminishing political ambition or revolutionary radicalism in an over-managed society?
ALAIN BADIOU — All political ideas are separated into Right and Left. You learn that as soon as you get involved in politics. As soon as you have a new idea, someone comes up with a Rightist version of the same idea, and another with a Leftist version. They’re split.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Like cells.
ALAIN BADIOU — The idea of association, and the idea of endowing powers that are not the powers of the State, by managing situations locally, is something everyone talks about, not just the Socialists.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What’s lame about the Socialists these days is that all they talk about is their “associative” vision.
ALAIN BADIOU — That’s what I was going to say, but there is a Leftist version of this idea which says that if you are willing to construct a new State power, you must also organize people so that they will take charge of their own affairs. For example, the fundamental Leninist idea of creating a Party which would have military capacities and an ironclad discipline was an ultra-revolutionary idea for him, because the Party could be victorious in an insurrection, even though during the 19th century all the workers’ insurrections were shot down in flames because they were not organized. It’s a beautiful idea. Under Stalin, that idea became a reactive and terrorist idea, one that was used to destroy all opposition and to control the people. I’m fully aware that when you discuss the dialectical nature of all invention, and especially when you propose something that is as yet unclear, you’ll have many different, even opposing, versions of that idea. You cannot ask a political idea to be its own guarantor. It must be proven with what is invented, cobbled together, and constructed. And I do see your objection. It is possible to create from this associative vision a version in which the oligarchy will prosper on its own, still hold the reins of society, and at the same time amuse people with suburban gardens and sports clubs.
OLIVIER ZAHM — To end our talk about politics, should we hope for a kind of auto-destruction of the machine, something like what happened in Argentina or Greece?
ALAIN BADIOU — Only on the condition that we have sufficient forces and proletarians of the kind I spoke of before, ones who are inventing a degree of organization sufficient to control the situation.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Ones who have enough control to make something out of it?
ALAIN BADIOU — Yes. Otherwise there will be an even worse collapse, which could lead to riots or wars. Let’s not forget that war is always the last resort for capitalism, when it’s really on the rocks — with military people presenting themselves as credible saviors. We’ll only survive the general stampede if we’ve arrived at a point at which another hypothesis is possible.
OLIVIER ZAHM — In Argentina people came up with a new kind of barter.
ALAIN BADIOU — Yes, I know. I followed the events in Argentina quite closely. They did try bartering. And there were attempts to set up automated takeovers of companies that had shut down or had left. A lot of interesting things happened. The solution wasn’t so horrible. The administrative regime wasn’t great, but it wasn’t a radical political invention either.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Philosophy is discussed everywhere today — in the media, in magazines — and it’s frequently brought up in ethical debates. But for you it all seems to be nothing more than moral sermonizing. Is the philosopher of today necessarily anti-humanist?
ALAIN BADIOU — This is something we get from the ’60s, which is where I come from. In the ’60s a kind of agreement was made — just after Sartre — declaring that philosophy was fundamentally anti-humanist, and
that it could not sustain the figure of Man, as inherited from academic philosophy, metaphysics, or traditional morality. Foucault spoke most clearly about this, copying Nietzsche’s idea about the Death of God, declaring that it would be necessary to pronounce the Death of Man. That’s how I was raised, believing that the category of Man is an uncertain one, that it is necessary to deconstruct it or abandon it. But to respond precisely to your question, I think all creative contemporary philosophy will distance itself from classical humanism. In my view, all attempts to return to a traditional humanism are, in reality, a reactionary enterprise in the strictest sense of the term; in other words, it’s reactive. That’s the first point. The second point, again in my view, is that doesn’t mean that all forms of humanism must be obliterated or rendered impossible, since that depends on the
changes applied to that category of the subject.
OLIVIER ZAHM — If by the term “Humanism” we also mean the Rights of Man, then your philosophical opposition to these notions — something that seems to be an unassailable and established consensus, especially
in France — is an attack against the renunciation of a more radical political way of thinking.
ALAIN BADIOU — Yes, certainly. The area of human rights — the way they developed and, I think, peaked in the ’80s and ’90s — is a recent development. I also think that this development is more ideological than
philosophical, and it has in fact helped people to abandon all revolutionary perspectives in order to establish a consensus, such that in the end it’s more important to take care of victims than to think about them before the fact. The word human in the concept of Human Rights is in reality about the victim, about identifying the man and the victim in order to establish an essentially moral consensus.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But isn’t politics speaking for or taking the side of the victim?
ALAIN BADIOU — It makes sense to speak of pity for victims, but that in itself is within the category of morality, not of politics. It’s in the moral arena that we have tried to insert political combat. That was typical of the ’80s: attempting to replace that which we call revolutionary subjectivity, which was largely dominant in the ’60s, with subjectivity, which is in fact moral. And it’s moral to the point where what we think of as philosophy today is merely a moral caution — which is extremely prevalent.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, when you speak of “demoralizing” philosophy, you somewhat ambiguously mean that, like Socrates, you’re willing to take the risk of “corrupting” youth.
ALAIN BADIOU — Yes, exactly. That’s an excellent definition of philosophy’s task — corrupting youth has always amused me. What do we mean by “corrupt”? In the case of Socrates, to corrupt means to force young people to question the consensus of their time, instead of being shaped by the constant consensual molds of their time. Human rights — what does that mean? And totalitarianism? And democracy? All these key buzzwords of our era must be questioned fully. That’s what philosophy does. The more these ideas are positioned and seen as being undisputed, irrefutable, and consensual, the more they must be questioned. The philosopher is the corrupter of those who think that youth must be “well brought up.” What does that mean exactly? “Well brought up” in this case means “according to the dominant idea.” Young people who go straight to school instead of setting cars on fire because they’re rebelling in the suburbs — that’s what being “well brought up” is called.
TRUTH — OLIVIER ZAHM — Can the consensus be broken using one of your key words, like “Truth,” say?
ALAIN BADIOU — Yes.
OLIVIER ZAHM — For my generation, and for people younger than I am, Truth is a concept that has pretty much been…
ALAIN BADIOU — Abandoned?
OLIVIER ZAHM — It means nothing now.
ALAIN BADIOU — Yes, we no longer use it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It seems to me that everything today is up for discussion, that everything is relative and manipulated, and that the word truth no longer carries any weight.
ALAIN BADIOU — But the fact that everything is up for discussion is not, in my view, a contradiction of the idea of Truth. I think it’s the other way around! Truth is that which resists all discussion. Besides,
who argued and discussed more than Socrates or Plato? They never stopped discussing. And they did it because they were convinced that only Truth could end their discussions — Truth, not consensus. So when you’re
reduced to saying, “Yes, I don’t know how I can go further with this point,” that’s when you’ve arrived at the moment of Truth. Without a moment of Truth, the fact is that one could argue endlessly about
something, driving it toward skepticism, and I think contemporary skepticism is actually nihilistic skepticism.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Meaning a skepticism that adds nothing, one that is only negative?
ALAIN BADIOU — It’s neither critical nor rationalistic; it’s nihilist, meaning everything equals everything else. Which is the maxim of public opinion, that all opinions are correct. People say, “It’s just my opinion.” Voilà! You have your opinion and someone else thinks something else. People call this free speech, which is a right no one dares to abrogate. But that would mean, first, that there is no truth, which definitively puts an end to the discussion and only increases the diversity of opinions. Second, that we live in a time when nothing is worth more than anything else. Meaning that we are living in a time when values have been devalued, but not in the way described by Nietzsche, which is a transvaluation, a reappraisal of values. This devaluation of values is what has caused the prevailing contemporary nihilism in young people today.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you see this nihilism in your students?
ALAIN BADIOU — What strikes me about contemporary youth is that the best minds — those who have the greatest critical will or the strongest thinking personalities — have been forced into nihilism, because it’s
either that or the consensus and the adapting to the way society is. Those who have a spark of rebellion, but who can’t handle the Truth category, go through a nihilist phase, as if they’d been carrying around this poison for a long time. By meeting me and reading my books, they encounter the possibility of a non-nihilist way of thought.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But is the word truth sufficiently stimulating?
ALAIN BADIOU — The concept of Truth has been devalued for quite some time, and left like a dead dog in the gutter. But truth is just a word, after all. We can replace it with other words.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But in order to take the idea of Truth seriously, or to think that Truth is still possible, it’s necessary to articulate a metaphysical construction. You haven’t given up on that metaphysical ambition?
ALAIN BADIOU — In my view, in the contemporary world if you wish to offer a convincing category of truth, you can only do it via a serious re-construction. Restoring it or re-founding it will not happen simply by repeating the word truth like a parrot. It’s necessary to construct it and re-construct it. That’s what I call metaphysical: the patient, methodical reconstruction of the conditions of a category — in this case Truth. And there are many other concepts annexed to it: situation, being, the real, opinion, dialectic, whatever you need. In order to end contemporary nihilism, you need to introduce another strong category, which must be constructed. Currently it does not exist; it still has to be invented.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is there no other way to escape our current nihilism, other than with the invention of a new metaphysical system?
ALAIN BADIOU — Not only do I assume the metaphysics, I also assume the system that will develop it — because any construction is necessarily systematic. In addition, the strength and the singularity of what I’m proposing is due to its systematic aspect, even if I’m constantly being reproached for it. You can’t have everything. You can’t have the values of the systematic as well as the chills of nihilism. You have to choose. [Laughs]
OLIVIER ZAHM — Therefore, you don’t hesitate to present yourself as being in Plato’s direct lineage. You say that you’re a sophisticated Platonist crossed with a material Platonist. This seems a little contradictory.
ALAIN BADIOU — Well, vulgar Platonism, as opposed to my “sophisticated” Platonism, says that Plato created a metaphysic of two opposing worlds, the sensitive and the intelligible, the underworld and the world above, the world of things and the world of ideas.
OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s what they taught us.
ALAIN BADIOU — I think it’s also a fallacious Plato. It’s a neo-Platonic construction which was developed very soon after Plato’s death and which is entirely false, but I don’t want to get into the technicalities. Plato offered a certain number of archetypal images through this unique question: “What does it mean to think something?” But the “something” in question is not an idea — it’s just something. What makes the truth of something? For him it is also the question of knowing how it is true that this thing is a table, or how it is true that such and such is correct. It’s both things at the same time. It’s neither more intelligible nor more sensible. It’s in the connection between, and in the unity of, these two things. With this unity — in very specific circumstances, as we live in a specific world with specific things — Plato helps us take from this specific world a certain number of universal truths. The question is Platonist, as it relates to Plato. So I would say that I am a materialist Platonist because I think that the doctrine of the idea is the doctrine of the process of knowing the things of this world, as there is only one world, and not the doctrine of the something that would be part of another world.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Now you have this wonderful sentence which synthesizes your materialism, you say, “There are only bodies and languages, except that there are truths.” And that “the truths unite worlds” which may seem divergent or disparate. Can you explain this, it is such poetic statement.
ALAIN BADIOU — Absolutely — it’s a poetic statement that the system tries to explain. I try to explain my own poems, but philosophy has always used dense expository phrases that sum up thoughts and the systems around them. I remain a classical philosopher.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, does Truth escape the materialism of bodies and languages?
ALAIN BADIOU — No. I’m saying that that which is true is also composed of bodies and language, because otherwise we would need two different worlds, and we only have one. Simply put, Truth is an exceptional combination of bodies and languages. Meaning that it does not follow the general rule, which is that there are bodies, languages, objects, trees, tables, all recognized and understood — or a mathematical theorem, a magnificent painting, an all-consuming lover’s passion, or a revolution on the barricades. The thing I love most in life is the Truth that you see clearly when the situation is exceptional. Meaning that Truth brings together bodies and languages in a new way. It isn’t simply the repetition of the laws of the world. It’s an exception to them.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is this new? Is it going to stick around?
ALAIN BADIOU — It plans to rally, to develop, and to have consequences, and it plans to gather a certain strength proper to the situation in the world — one that we will recognize as Truth not only in this world, but in others. It’s in this sense that Truth can unite worlds that have moved apart in time and space. It is universal and also recognizable as an exception. Quite simply, it’s a question Marx would ask: “Why do we admire this great Greek statue, even though our world is completely different from the Greek world?” We don’t speak the same language. We don’t have the same technology or the same gods. We don’t love each other the way they did. We don’t do anything the way they did. And yet a tragedy by Sophocles or a great statue can speak to us deeply. And we incorporate them into our culture and into our way of being.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Does performing Sophocles in Parisian theatres today offer proof that there are universal truths?
ALAIN BADIOU — If you think about it, that in and of itself is effectively an enigma, because if you’re completely relativist, you should say that Sophocles’ plays are only comprehensible within the Greek context in which they were written. That’s all I will say. But in what sense can I call Sophocles’ plays truth? On one hand I admit that they were conceived, written, and staged in Ancient Greece. But on the other hand, there is something in the plays that not only conforms to that Greek world, but which we can also incorporate into the contemporary world. Things can move from one world to the other, and that possibility is called a truth.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is a philosopher a specialist of exceptions, then?
ALAIN BADIOU — Absolutely, but the theory he makes of those exceptions should simultaneously cover a theory of repetition, because in order to think of the exception, you must first think of what is not exceptional, what is common — the laws of things, opinions, and other predominant ideas.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But when truths pass from one world to another they don’t necessarily mean the same thing.
ALAIN BADIOU — Exactly, because the exception does not manifest itself in the same way in different worlds. The exception will be comprehensible from one world to another, but that does not mean that worlds produce exceptions in the exact same way. I’ll try to show you in a theoretical way that there must be rather severe conditions for important and significant exceptions to arise in any world. I also should say that there may be periods, which I call atonic, in which the capacity for creation is limited, and even hindered. If you take art history, since that’s one of your strengths, there have been periods of extraordinary creative prodigality, and others in which there are crises, periods that are more atonic, less universal — meaning that we remember them less than other periods — even if there are no periods entirely devoid of art. How do we explain this? It can be explained by the fact that the exception is always linked to why it is an exception. There are worlds that are favorable to exceptions and others that are not. And it’s this exact point that interests the philosopher.
LOVE — OLIVIER ZAHM — Okay, let’s talk about your concept of love, in terms of invention and re-invention. You say that love is i
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