History and Historical Mystification: Critical Observations on Badiou’s Politics

by | 29 Jun 2017

Alain Badiou is one of continental philosophy’s most original and creative minds. His politics can be understood as evading both the temptations of analytical political theory and post-modern skepticism through his metaphysics. According to Badiou, the multiplicity of Being guarantees that the old social totality will break down, and a new one will emerge through subjects who show fidelity to the truth of this radical event.  In this way, he seeks to capture what is best in the classical Marxist (materialist) project as read through Althusser and others, while still leaving more room for subjectivity than orthodox Marxism would allow. This is a fine line to walk, and to his credit, Badiou often does so successfully.  In many ways, his work resembles and in some places consciously emulates the equally dialectical work of Hegel.  But in other respects, it remains somewhat deficient (including, appropriately enough, in its treatment of Hegelian type problems).  In this brief article, I will highlight some of the problems with Badiou’s political thought, in particular his treatment of subjectivity and its related approach to history.

I will begin this article with a brief comment about a fairly minor problem, before moving on to the deeper issues underpinning Badiou’s politics.  This minor problem relates to the intersection between ethics and politics in his work.  The problem is that the latter often subsumes the former.  Badiou’s ethics has an inherently political cast to it; there is very little in his work that pertains to proper action in the realm of everyday life.  His focus is almost always on broad institutional questions concerning how the social form should be reorganized to engender a more equal and free society.  There is nothing wrong with this per se, but it is unusual to imply[i] that it exhausts the content of ethics.  For instance, even in a political society of the type envisioned by Badiou there would still be major ethical problems that cannot be easily resolved.  Would it be right for individuals to have two kidneys when they could easily donate one in order to save a life? Should we abandon supporting philosophy and art if it can be positively demonstrated that there are more consequentially useful activities which benefit all?[ii] Should individuals be required to abandon bad habits that form part of the tapestry of our identity and inculcate virtues that are socially useful, and indeed conducive to an egalitarian society?

The reason these more individualized ethical questions pertain to his politics is that they point to a fundamentally Kantian problem[iii] about the relationship between ethical acts and freedom.  Cast in that language, one might call it a tension between freedom and duty, which pertains both at the day to day level and at the level of a politics of fidelity. Badiou often seems to imply that the relationship between the two is that the Event constitutes its own imperatives, and that individuals are then free to accept or reject them as per their wish.  But the tension does not just exist in Evental moments where we are called upon to make drastic decisions. Often there are more day to day issues which arise where we might feel compelled to put aside our individual orientation to act in a manner that seems more ethically robust.  These choices may not be ones we’d wish to make, and may not even be reflective of one’s individuality.  Focusing exclusively on ethics as mostly a politics of fidelity to the Event may seem grander, but it ignores these more challenging tensions that we must deal with.  But they may none the less be ethical. How a society would deal with these tensions is an important question that is largely unanswered in Badiou’s work.  It focuses too much on the conditions for what appears to be a more politically and ethically robust society without providing adequate details.

Badiou’s focus on fidelity and the Event is not just a problem at this level.  It reflects a deeper mystery that lies at the heart of his work.  The most basic problem with Badiou’s politics is deeply related to his ontology: its treatment of history.  Generally speaking Badiou has been quite critical of Hegelian/Marxist type historicism, and the belief that it is possible to develop some formula for the “science of history.” Instead, he calls history a “reservoir of proper names.”  History is a “symbolic fiction” which is represented to most people via the unifying force of a proper name.[iv]   Against this, the truth of an idea, for instance the idea of communism, must be advocated to push the individual against the constraints imposed by the powers that be.  On this point his particular Communist sympathies deviate quite substantially from Althusser’s, except in keeping its most unscientific dimensions. Indeed, much of his account of history echoes the most unusual features of Marxist messianism, but given a distinctive twist.

From this, it should be clear how and why Badiou believes that traditional Marxist accounts of history are problematic.   In particular, he singles these accounts out for relying on a totalizing Hegelian logic, according to which the singular “meaning” of history appears in due course.[v]  As indicated in the section above, he wishes to replace this Hegelianism with his own ontological framework where Being is not the movement of an immanent dialectic oriented towards a singular end.  While his account of history is dialectical, it is distinct from the Marxist model in being open ended and ontologically incomplete.  As we have seen, rather than move towards a singular end, the truth or untruth of a social system manifest through and Event that demands fidelity at the site of its appearance. The event occurs because the multiplicity of Being manifests itself inevitably; no master or ideologically can close off its possibility, even if they apply overwhelming power to prevent it.  In these situations the truth becomes subjectivized in the form of an Idea, in particular the idea of emancipation through the establishment of a new egalitarian order and the destruction of the old hierarchy.

The Event has a quasi-religious significance for Badiou, a point echoed by the language of fidelity and faith he deploys to describe both our subjective orientation towards them and the site of their manifestation. While God will never intervene to devastate those who blaspheme against his word, the truth of the Event will overcome the hypocrisy of a given hierarchy and sweep away the modern Pharisee’s who support it.  To provide just one example, consider the rhetoric in Badiou’s description of the Worker’s Commune of 1871, which he takes as a paradigmatic Event:

“…If the inexistent aspect of a site must ultimately capture, in the order of appearing, a maximal intensity, it is only to the extend that this intensity henceforth takes the place of what has disappeared; its maximality is the subsisting mark, in the world, of the even itself. The ‘eternal’ existence of an inexistent consists in the trace of statement, in the world, of the evanescent event. The proclamations of the Commune, the first worker power in universal history, comprise a historic existent whose absoluteness manifests the coming to pass in the world of a wholly new ordering of its appearing, a mutation of its logic. The existence of an inexistent aspect is that by which, in the domain of appearing, the subversion of worldly appearing by subjacent being is played out. It is the logical marking of a paradox of being, an ontological chimera.”[vi]

This paragraph is saturated with quasi-Hegelian rhetoric, and often seems to delight in its embrace of paradox and contradiction. This strikes me as rather bizarre. It is one thing to bite occasional paradoxical bullet, but in his account of history Badiou often seems open to consuming an oncoming arsenal.  Indeed, this paragraph alone begs for Marxist satire of the type so ably deployed in the master’s Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.[vii]  Badiou’s love of mystification and grandiosity is a bit of a weakness when he moves from the inevitably high-minded realm of ontology into discussing the harder edged realities of real history. It obfuscates from what we take to be the more crucial issues at hand.

While Badiou’s interpretation of history does have the virtue of avoiding pseudo-Hegelian monologism, he does not avoid the most crucial problem of ontological totalization.  This is a key problem. Badiou believes that human history operates according to the logic of fundamental ontology, with the multiplicity of Being resulting in the destabilization of all human hierarchies etc.  This may be the case, but Badiou never establishes why or how this is so in a theoretically robust way.  When one carefully examines his extensive oeuvre, one sees that his arguments about history are mainly assertions whose tenability flows from accepting the underpinning framework.  Put another way, Badiou simply assumes that human history operates according to the same laws of fundamental ontology; albeit with some conversions and adaptations to account for the existence of human subjects and to lead to conclusions about the stability of political regimes that are consonant with his own sympathies.  This is a highly suspicious gesture, and not at all adequate to support the radical conclusions Badiou proposes as self-evident.  Seen in this light, Badiou’s theory of history and politics seems more like an extension of its author’s preferences rather than a deeply considered framework which can be useful to those looking to realize social change.

To demonstrate by contrast, consider Marx’s own account of dialectical materialism.  It to can be accused of mysticism and obfuscation, particularly with regard to its more positive dimensions. These criticisms have long been understood and accepted even by many Marxist thinkers. But, with these exceptions, no one would accuse Marx of being unduly prone to simply asserting the truth of his theory of history from certain ontological presumptions.  Indeed, as Althusser himself points out, the key transition in Marx’s thought is from his more speculative “young” phase to the more mature “scientific” phase of his adulthood.[viii] In this era, far from relying on the self-evident nature of dialectical materialism, Marx grounded his analysis in substantial empirical facts and an abundance of helpful analogies with the most relevant science of his day.[ix] He was clearly keen to show how dialectical materialism wasn’t just a philosophical ground; it was a framework for analysis that could be assessed against other salient facts and issues.[x]  This is part of what gives the Marxist approach its longevity and power, not to mention is appeal to thinkers as different as G.A Cohen and Slavoj Zizek.[xi]  By contrast, Badiou does not even feel it is necessary to describe how his mathematical ontology links up with the claims of contemporary physics.[xii]  This is a problem at the metaphysical level; when applied to a subject matter even more remote like human history it becomes a tremendous gap.

This gap is not an idle problem, especially for a thinker like Badiou.  The analytical political theorists and the democratic materialists whom he criticizes could get away with a project where the link between their metaphysics and their political commitments were tenuous. This is because no part of their project is intended to rely so heavily on the others; Rawls’ project can be saved from its Kantian underpinnings much like little of Derrida’s work on language falters if one rejects his work on ethics.  However, Badiou wants to have it every way; to give an ontological account of reality that links seamlessly to an negative account of history which in turn births certain political commitments.  Such huge ambitions would require that clear links be established every step of the way.  For instance, it is not clear on his account why the operations of human history should seamlessly follow the same logic as Being qua Being.  As has well been noted, human societies and histories operate according to patterns which cannot necessarily be explained by appeal to some deeper set of ontological laws.  Indeed, the same is true even in the workings of biological entities.  Badiou attempts to account for this through his transcendental logic and account of subjectivity.  But this is never entirely convincing since the ontology is always determinative in the last instance.  This raises an epistemic question and an ontological question.  Firstly, why should we take the laws of fundamental ontology to explain what goes on at different levels of reality?  Isn’t it possible that different epistemic frameworks might be required?[xiii] And secondly, it is not clear why fundamental ontology should exhaust all ontological inquiries. Here, Badiou’s Platonism seems a little old fashioned. Indeed, is it possible that Badiou’s monological interest in Being qua Being might distract from an even more radical possibility; that time itself changes the operation of ontological laws, and that history in the broadest (physical) sense is therefore more decisive than fundamental ontology?[xiv]

I raise these questions not to suggest that they knock down Badiou’s politics decisively. Again, I am largely sympathetic to much of his project. But with regard to his politics, the more useful aspects of his thought strike me as his critical comments on both political philosophy and the skepticism of democratic materialism.  His own positive contributions seem highly speculative, and don’t really follow from one another. At best they are highly conjectural, at worse they seem to fall back into the kind of mysticism that Marx’s own project was supposed to rescue us from.

More importantly, its privileging on fundamental ontology ignores the possibility that changes at a higher level, perhaps spurred by forward thinking human action, might be more epistemically and ontologically important for human history.  This includes the possibility that human action and constructive planning might be more crucial for the transformation of social hierarchies than waiting for the inevitable dramas of Being to save us.  Indeed, I hold that “men make their own history,”[xv] and while they might do so under certain contexts, it is better to put our faith in well conceived strategy and palatable egalitarian principles than in the possibility of a transformative event to come.  The latter seems too mystical, too monological, and too enamoured with ontology and divorced from humanity.

This is where Badiou’s approach to politics becomes overly assertive, and not sufficiently grounded.  Trying to derive a specific political program from ontology, as has commonly been the case in Continental thought, is a somewhat suspicious activity.  Most notably, it ignores many meta-ethical problems concerning how to make the move from discussing Being-qua-Being, to discussing ethics, and indeed political ethics, as a set of reason giving imperatives for undertaking certain actions.[xvi]  What I mean by this is that there seems to be something in the structure of ethical thought which gives the imperatives of ethics a quasi-independence from the world around them. One might call this an iteration of the old is/ought problem.  The natural world as it exists, as Being qua Being, can be dissected using the tools of philosophy and metaphysics. But it is not clear in what sense it provides a set of reason giving imperatives for actions which human beings should take.  Badiou seems to think that it does, since the structure of Being begets the Event.  But as mentioned before, this strikes me as rather mysterious. Why should human beings feel compelled to accept this structure as exhaustively conducive of ethics? Why should they not feel more involved in the constitution and consideration of ethics on a day to day basis. And indeed, to bring it back to the problem highlighted at the beginning of this section, what about more everyday problems which are not captured by the rather grand metaphysical account?

There is no space in this article to deal with these issues more extensively.  I raise them not because Badiouean answers cannot be given, but because I feel that they haven’t been.  This poses a significant problem to his account of politics.  To put it very simply, it is not clear why the structure of Being should also provide some structure to the nature of ethical and political thought. It seems clear that there must be some relation in the ultimate sense, since Being is the ultimate condition for the emergence of any ethics and politics at all. But the nature of this relationship may not be as straightforward as a simple through line from Being, to Event, to fidelity, to freedom and equality.  For Badiou’s system to be successful, he or one of his disciples should be more attentive to fine details and less focused on broad theorizing.

[i] I do not believe that Badiou ever makes the claim that his account entirely exhausts the content of ethics implied by his position, but he often writes as if it does.

[ii] These are observation made by Peter Singer. See Peter Singer. The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically. (New Haven, CN. Yale University Press, 2015)

[iii] Here I follow Wood. See Allen W, Wood. Kant’s Ethical Thought. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)

[iv] See Alain Badiou. The Communist Hypothesis, trans. David Macey and Steve Corcoran. (London, UK. Verso Press, 2009), 189.

[v] This point echoes why he felt the need to replace Hegel’s logic with his own.  See Badiou, Logics of Worlds

[vi] See Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis, 167-168.

[vii] See Karl Marx. “Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.” In Early Writings, trans. (London, UK. Penguin Books, 1992)

[viii] See Louis Althusser. For Marx, trans, Ben Brewster. (London, UK. Verso Press, 2006)

[ix] See Karl Marx. Capital: Volume I, trans. Ben Fowkes. (London, UK. Penguin Press, 1990).  Our more technical reading of the Marxist tradition is inspired by Fine and Saad-Filho.  See Ben Fine and Alfredo Saad-Filho. Marx’s Capital: Fifth Edition. (London, UK. Pluto Press, 2006)

[x] On this methodological point, see Karl Marx. Grundrisse: Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy, trans. Martin Nicolaus. (Middlesex, UK. Pelican Books, 1973), 100-108.

[xi] See G.A Cohen. Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence. (Princeton, NJ. Princeton University Press, 2001) and Slavoj Zizek. Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism. (London, UK. Verso, Press. 2012)

[xii]Take his account of an object, as a collection of multiple elements indexed under a name.  All the atomic elements of appearing referred to by this multiple are real in their manifestation in the world as objects.  See Badiou, Logics of Worlds, 220-221.  It is astounding that nowhere does he discuss the problems with this model posed by quantum mechanics, for example the issue of non-localizability.

[xiii] Badiou has long disdained epistemological issues, often to his detriment. For instance, it has lead to an almost total lack of engagement with analytical thinkers involved in the same issues he is concerned with.  To give just one example, Saul Kripke has long dealt with many of the same issues of contingency and necessity as Badiou, but also takes epistemology as seriously as metaphysics.  See Saul Kripke. Naming and Necessity. (Malden, MA. Blackwell Publishing, 1981).  For Badiou’s dismissive comments on epistemological issues see Alain Badiou with Gilles Haeri.  In Praise of Mathematics, trans. Susan Spitzer. (Cambridge, UK. Polity Press, 2016), 13-14.

[xiv] This fascinating possibility has been raised recently by Roberto Unger and Lee Smolin. Interestingly, there are considerable parallels between at least Unger and Smolin. Both are left wing thinkers of great ambition who frequently delve into more basic philosophical problems.  See Roberto Mangabeira Unger and Lee Smolin. The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time. (Cambridge, UK. Cambridge University Press, 2015)

[xv] See Karl Marx. The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, trans. (New York, NY. International Publishers, 2008)

[xvi] This problem is related to, but distinct from, the issue raised at the beginning of this section about the tension between freedom and ethics.


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