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Alain Badiou “The Rebirth of History”

Badiou, Alain 2012. The Rebirth of History. London; New York: Verso.


[…] the  rebirth of History must  also be a  rebirth of the Idea. The sole Idea capable of challenging the corrupt, lifeless version of ‘democracy’ , which has become the banner of the legionaries of Capital, as well  as the racial and national prophecies of a petty fascism given its  opportunity locally by the crisis,  is  the  idea  of Communism,  revisited  and nourished by what the spirited diversity of these riots, however fragile, teaches us. (6)

Capitalism Today

Marxism: […] the  organized knowledge of the political means required to undo  existing society and the finally realize an egalitarian, rational figure  of collective organization for which the name is ‘communism’. (8-9)

Immediate Riot

To  believe that the intolerable crime is to burn  a few cars and rob some shops, whereas to kill a young man is trivial, is typically in keeping with what Marx regarded as the  principal alienation of capitalism:  the  primacy of things over existence,1 of commodities over life and machines over workers, which he encapsulated in the formula: ‘Le mort saisit Ie vif’. (20)

[…] if riots are indeed to signal a reawakening of History, they must indeed accord with an Idea. (21)

An immediate  riot  is  unrest  among  a  section  of the population, nearly always in the wake of a violent episode  of state  coercion.  Even  the  famous Tunisian riot, which triggered the series of ‘Arab revolutions’ in early 2011, was initially an immediate riot (in response to the suicide of a street vendor prevented from selling and struck by a policewoman). Some  of  the  defining  characteristics  of  such  a riot possess a general  significance,  and  consequently an  immediate  riot  is  often  the  initial  form  of  an historical riot. (22)

In the first instance,  a riot is  a  tumultuous  assembly  of the young, virtually always in response to a misdemeanour, actual or alleged, by a despotic state. (But riots show us that in a sense the state is always despotic; that is why communism organizes its withering away.) (23)

N ext,  an immediate riot is located in the  territory of those who take part in it. The  issue of the  localization  of riots is,  as we  shall  see, quite  fundamental. […] An immediate riot, stagnating in its own social space, is not a powerful  subjective trajectory.  It rages  on itself;  it destroys  what  it is  used to. (23)

For our part, we  shall  say that all this achieves a weak localization , an inability of the riot to displace itself. That is not to say that an immediate riot stops at one particular  site. On the contrary,  we  observe  a  phenomenon dubbed contagion:  an  immediate riot  spreads not by displacement,  but  by imitation . (24)

Finally, an immediate riot is always indistinct when it comes to the subjective type it summons and creates. Because this  subjectivity is composed solely of rebellion, and dominated by  negation  and  destruction,  it does not make it possible dearly to distinguish between what pertains  to  a  partially  universalizable  intention and what remains confined to a rage with no purpose other than the  satisfaction of being able to crystallize and find hateful objects to destroy or consume. (25)

The  subject  of immediate  riots  is  always impure. That is why they are neither political nor even pre-political. In the best of cases – and this is already a good deal – they make do with paving the way for an historical riot; in the worst, they merely indicate that the existing society, which is always a state organization of Capital,  does not possess the  means altogether to prevent the advent of an historical sign of rebellion in the desolate spaces for which it is responsible. (26)

Historical Riot

[…] a simple definition  of an historical riot: it is the result of the transformation of an immediate riot, more  nihilistic than political,  into  a pre-political riot. (33)

1) A  transition  from  limited  localization  (assemblies’ attacks and destructive acts on the very site of the rebels) to the construction of an enduring central  site,  where  the  rioters install themselves in  an  essentially  peaceful  fashion,  asserting  that they  will  stay  put  until  they receive  satisfaction. (33)

2) For that to happen there must be a transition from extension  by  imitation  to  qualitative  extension. This means that all the components of the people are  progressively  unified on the  site  thus  constructed […] And  a  multiplicity  of voices,  absent  or  virtually absent  from  the  clamour  of an  immediate  riot, asserts  itself;  placards  describe  and  demand; banners  incite  the  crowd. […] At  this  point  the  threshold  of historical riot  is  crossed:  established  localization,  possible longue duree, intensity of compact presence, multi-faceted  crowd counting as the  whole people. (34-35)

3) It was also necessary to make a transition from the nihilistic din of riotous attacks to the invention of a single slogan that envelops all the disparate voices: ‘Mubarak, clear off!’ Thus is created the possibility of a victory, since what is immediately at stake in the  riot  has been  decided. (35)

From  everything we have witnessed over the last few months let us remember the following: a riot becomes historical when its localization ceases to be limited, but grounds  in the  occupied  space  the  promise of a new, long-term  temporality;  when  its  composition  stops being uniform, but gradually outlines a unified representation in mosaic form of all the people; when, finally, the negative growling of pure rebellion is succeeded by the  assertion  of a  shared  demand,  whose  satisfaction confers an initial meaning on the word ‘victory’ . (35)

What  is  an  intervallic  period?  It is  what  comes cifter  a  period  in  which the revolutionary  conception of political action has been  sufficiently  clarified that, notwithstanding the ferocious internal struggles punctuating its development, it is explicitly presented as an alternative  to the  dominant world,  and  on this basis has secured massive,  disciplined support.  In an intervallic  period,  by  contrast,  the  revolutionary  idea  of the  preceding  period,  which  naturally  encountered formidable obstacles – relentless enemies without and a provisional  inability to resolve  important problems within –  is dormant. It has not yet been taken up by a new sequence in its development. An open,  shared and  universally  practicable  figure  of emancipation  is wanting. The historical time is defined, at least for all those unamenable to  selling  out to  domination,  by  a sort of uncertain interval of the Idea. (38-39)

During  these  intervallic  periods,  however,  discontent, rebellion and the conviction that the world should not be as it is, that capitalo-parliamentarianism is in no wise ‘natural’ , but utterly sinister – all this exists. At the same time, it cannot fmd its political form, in the first  instance because it cannot draw strength from the sharing of an Idea . The force of rebellions, even when they assume an  historical  significance,  remains  essentially  negative (,let them  go’, ‘Ben Ali  out’ ,  ‘Mubarak clear  off’). It does not deploy a slogan in the affirmativeelement of the Idea. That is why collective mass action can only take the form of a riot, at best directed towards its historical form, which is also called a ‘mass movement’ . (40)

[…] the riot is the guardian of the history of emancipation in intervallic periods. (41)

However brilliant and memorable the historical riots in the Arab world, they  finally  come  up  against  universal  problems  of politics  that  remained  unresolved  in  the  previous period. At the  centre  of these is to be found the problem of politics par  excellence – namely,  organization. (42)

Riots and the West

What is going to happen in the state is in no wise prefigured by a riot. (44)

For now it suffices for us to note that a historical riot does not by itself offer any alternative  to  the power it  intends  to  overthrow.  There  is  a  very  important difference  between  ‘historical  riot’  and  ‘revolution’: the second, at least since Lenin, has been regarded as possessing within itself the resources required for an immediate seizure of power. (46)

When  the  figure  of riot becomes a political figure – in other words,  when it possesses within itself the political personnel it requires and resort to the state’s professional nags becomes unnecessary – we  can say that what has arrived is the end if the intervallic period, because a new politics has been able to seize on the rebirth if History symbolized by a historical riot. (47)

Basically,  our  rulers and  our dominant media have suggested  a  simple  interpretation  of the  riots  in  the Arab world: what is  expressed in them is what might be called a desire for the West. (48)

What would  be  a  genuine  change would be  an  exit from  the West, a ‘de-Westernization’, and it would take the form of an exclusion . (52)

Riot, Event, Truth

Let us call these people, who are present in the world but  absent  from  its  meaning  and  decisions  about  its future, the inexistent of the world. We shall then say that a change if world is real when an inexistent of the world starts to exist in this same world with maximum intensity. […] This subjective fact is endowed with an extraordinary power.  The inexistent  has arisen. That  is  why  we  refer  to  uprising:  people  were  lying down,  submissive; they are getting up, picking themselves up, rising up. This rising is the rising of existence itself: the poor have not become rich; people who were unarmed are  not now armed,  and  so  forth. Basically, nothing has changed. What has occurred is restitution of the  existence  of the  inexistent,  conditional  upon what I call an event. In the knowledge that, unlike the restitution of the inexistent, the  event itself is  invariably elusive. (56)

Definition  of  the  event  as  what  makes  possible  the restitution  if the inexistent […] (56)

For however big a demonstration is, it is always a tiny minority. Its power consists in an intensification of subjective energy (people know they are needed night and day; enthusiasm and passion are everywhere), and in the localization of its presence (people rally in sites that have become impregnable – squares, universities, boulevards, factories, and so on). (58)

This proves that  such  a  scenario – historical riots which  open up new possibilities – contains  an  element of prescriptive universality. The complex of localization, which constitutes a symbol for the whole world, and intensification, which creates new subjects, entails massive adherence, to which anyone who  is an exception is immediately suspect – suspected of being hand-in-glove with the old despots. (59)

It is then much more appropriate to speak of popular dictatorship than democracy. […] By ‘popular dictatorship’ we mean  an  authority  that  is legitimate precisely  because  its truth derives from  the fact that it legitimizes itself.  No one is the delegate of anybody else (as in a representative authority); for what they  say to become what  everyone says, nobody needs propaganda or police  (as  in a dictatorial state), for what they say is what is true in the situation ; there are only the people who are there; and those who are there, and who are obviously a minority, possess  an  accepted  authority  to  proclaim  that  the historical destiny  of the  country  (including  the  overwhelming majority comprising the people who are not there) is  them.  ‘Mass  democracy’  imposes  on  everything outside it the dictatorship of its decisions as if they were those of a general will. (59-60)

[…] it is only during historical riots, which are minoritarian but localized, unified and intense, that it makes any sense to refer to an expression of the general will. (60)

Event and Political Organization

This localized rallying in a square, on avenues or in factories, this quantitative contraction or compaction – all this acts as reality, because what informs it is a super­existence, intensive and subjectivized, of pre-political truth,  or the  violent restitution of an inexistent,  correlated, in the  form  of  an  historical  riot,  with  a ‘disengagement’ from symbols of the state. It emerges from nothing; it has the dictatorial power of a creation ex  nihilo . (62)

As a reopening of history, the event is heralded by three signs, all of them immanent in massive popular demonstrations:  intensification,  contraction  and localization. (63)

An  organization  lies  at  the  intersection  between an Idea and an event.  However, this intersection only exists as process, whose immediate subject is the political militant. (63)

Appropriate for the military conquest of power, the communist parties proved incapable of performing  on  a  large  scale  what,  ultimately,  is  the sole  task  of a  state  in the  process of withering away: creatively  resolving  contradictions  within  the  people, without  following,  when  it  comes  to  the  least  difficulty, the terrorist model of resolving contradictions with the enemy. (65-66)

‘Organization is the same process as the event’ , I base myself on the mediation of a formalization. But in Lacan too – and I take this profound view from him – formalization refers  to  a mediation between desire and law whose name is: the Subject. A political organization is the Subject of a discipline of the event,  an  order in the service of disorder,  the constant  guardianship  of an  exception.  It is  a mediation  between  the  world  and  changing  the  world;  it is,  in  a  sense,  the  worldly  element  of changing  the world, because organization deals with the subjective question:  ‘How  are we to be faithful to changing the world within the world itself?’ This becomes: How are we to weave in the world the political truth whose historical condition of possibility was the event, without it being able to be the  realization of this  possibility? (66-67)

1) We can also say that the concept of being is extensive (everyone presents themselves in the equality of being a human living thing),  whereas the category of existence is an intensive predicate (existence is hierarchically ordered). An historical riot creates a moment when an increase in equal-being, which is always of the order of the event, makes it  possible  to judge  the judgement made about one’s intensity of existence. (67)

2) Basically, what counts in any genuine creation,  whatever its domain,  is not so much what exists  as  what  in-exists.  It  is  necessary  to  learn from the inexistent, for that is where the existential injuries done to  these beings,  and hence the resource of equal-being against these injuries, are manifested. (68)

3) An  event is  signalled by the  fact that  an  inexistent is going to attain genuine existence, an intense existence, relative to a world. (68)

4) If we consider political action, the initial forms of a  change  of world  or rebirth of History – those visible in the event, but whose future is not as yet determined – are  as follows:  intensification ,  since the mainspring of things is the distribution of different  intensities  of  existence;  contraction  – the situation  contracts  in  a  sort of representation  of itself, a metonymy of the overall situation; and localization – the necessity of constructing symbolically significant sites where people’s capacity to dictate their own destiny is visible. (68)

5) […] it is necessary for the  being of the  inexistent  to  appear  as  existent  – something  that  initiates  a  transformation  in  the  rules of visibility themselves. Localization is the idea of asserting  in  the  world  the  visibility  of universal justice in the form of the restitution of the inexistent. And to do this requires not so much showing your muscles, or even that you are several thousand (even million) strong, as demonstrating that you have become the symbolic master of the site. (69)

6) A  pre-political  event,  an  historical  riot,  occurs when  an  intensive  super-existence,  articulated with an extensive contraction, defines a site where the  entire  situation  is refracted  in  a  universally addressed  visibility. (69)

7) What I call the question of organization , or the discipline if the event, is the possibility of an efficacious fragmentation of the Idea into actions, proclamations and inventions attesting to  a fidelity  to  the event. (69)

8) The  process  I  call  ‘organization’  is  therefore  an attempt  to  preserve  the  characteristics  of  the event  (intensification,  contraction  and  localization), when the event as such no longer possesses its initial potency. In this sense organization is, in the subjective latency where the Idea holds itself, the transformation of evental power into temporality. It is the invention if a  time whose particular characteristics  are  taken from  the  event, a time that in a sense unfolds its beginning. This time can then be regarded as outside time, in the sense that organization is not amenable to being inscribed in the order of time dictated by the previous world. We have here what might be called the outside-time of the Subject, as Subject of the exception. (70)

State and Politics: Identity and Genericity

The inordinate  importance  of opinion polls for the state derives exclusively from the fact that, as the science of average statistics, opinion polls make the virtual French person exist numerically. Commenting on a poll indicating that 51 per cent of those questioned prefer to vote for Franc;:ois Hollande than Martine Aubry as Socialist Party presidential  candidate,  propaganda  will have  no hesitation in making statements  of the  kind:  ‘The  French think that Hollande is a better candidate than Aubry.’ Thus,  our  non-existent  F  ends  up  thinking,  deciding and choosing. F wants Hollande; F supports the French attack on Libya; F thinks that pension reform is inevitable; F prefers Camembert to Roquefort; and so on.

But the most important thing, once the existence of F  in  accordance  with  artificial predicates  is  ensured, and thus once the actual identity of the French person is  guaranteed,  is  that  the  state  and  those who obey it  possess  a  means  of assessing  what  is  normal and what is not. (74)

The  fictional  F,  measure  of normality  and  matrix of suspicion,  or its  stand-in  in any  state  structure,  is always identitarian. It must be understood that it represents the most primitive, most fundamental product of  state  oppression. (76)

I shall call these names, which are applied to collectivities of suspects, separating names. […] So  let  us  say  it:  by  ‘justice’  today  is  also,  or  even primarily,  to  be  understood  the  eradication  of separating  words. We  must affirm the  generic, universal  and never identitarian character of any political truth. This involves dispelling, through the real consequences of a choice of truth, the fiction of the identitarian object, the ‘average’  state  object,  F  and the like.  In a power­ful  confrontation  with  state  oppression,  this  point validates a  politics intent on remaining faithful  to  an historical riot. When  an  emancipatory  event  is  in  fact  rooted  in an historical riot, we  straightaway  observe the disappearance  of,  or  at  least  a  considerable  reduction  in, separating names. (77)

I shall therefore say that organization, and hence politics, exists when the power if the generic is preserved outside the movement, outside the riot. This means that an organization acts in such a way that, in the name of the generic, it succeeds  in demolishing  the  power  of the  identitarian  fiction  over  some  particular  point  in  people’s existence. (78)

In  the  absence  of the  outside-time incorporated by  the  organization,  a  statist  return  of identitarian  fictions  is  inevitable. What  is  therefore needed is an organized politics, which will take responsibility for guarding genericity. (79)

At all events, we can propose a definition of a political truth : a political truth is the organized product of an event – an historical riot – which preserves intensification, contraction and localization to the extent that it can replace an identitarian object and separating names with a real presentation of generic power such as its significance has been disclosed to us by the event. (81)

Doctrinal Summary

A political truth is a series of consequences, organized on the condition of an Idea, a massive popular event, in which intensification, contraction and localization replace an identitarian object, and the separating names bound up with it, with a real presentation of the generic power of the multitude. (85)

A truth is something that exists in its active process, which manifests itself,  as truth,  in  different circumstances marked by this process. Truths are not prior to political processes; there  is no question of confirming or applying them. Truths are reality itself, as a process of production of political novelties, political sequences, political revolutions, and so forth. (87)

Intensification :  During  a  massive  popular  uprising,  a general subjective intensification, a violent passion for the True occurs, which Kant had already identified at the time  of the French Revolution under the name of enthusiasm .

Contraction : The historical situation contracts around an active, thinking minority whose provenance is multifaceted. It produces  a  sort of presentation  of itself, which  is  simultaneously  pure,  complete  and  very limited, a sample of the generic being of a people.

Localization: Let us simply recall this: in times of historical riot the masses create sites of unity and presence.  In  such  a  site  the  massive  event  is  exhibited, exists, in a universal address. A political event occurring everywhere is something that does not exist. The site is the thing whereby the Idea, still fluid, encounters popular genericity. A  non-localized  Idea is impotent; a  site  without  an Idea is  merely an immediate riot, a nihilistic spurt. (90-92)

Finally,  it will  be  said  of all  these people,  who  are nameless for the state, that they represent the whole of humanity, for what drives them in their intense localized rallying possesses a universal significance. And that is something everyone realizes. Why? Because they have constructed a site where, the fictive identitarian object being inoperative, even abolished, it is no longer identity that counts, but non-identity: the universal value of the Idea, its generic virtue – that is, what concerns, what enthuses, humanity in general. The enthusiasm created by  an  historical  riot  is  precisely  bound  up  with this passion for the universal with which one can – must -credit seemingly the most ordinary people. (93-94)

A massive popular event creates a de-statification of the issue of what is possible. (94)

Already  on the  original  site,  in  the  great  rallies  of an  historical riot,  there  occurs  what might  be  called a subjective de-localization if the site. What is said in the new site always claims that its value extends beyond it, in the direction of universality. (95)

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