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“The Party of No”, Badiou’s Universalism, and Wikileaks

December 11, 2010 1 comment

Okay, I admit that this is a bizarre juxtaposition, but bear with me. I have spent the last few days reading James D. Ingram’s review of two of Badiou’s books Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil and his Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism. I think I understand where Badiou goes off the rails in his philosophy. However,  I think the way he goes off the rails produces a new understanding of the revolutionary implications of the Republican strategy of playing the Party of No, as well as an understanding of the implications of the amazing spontaneous outpouring of support for Wikileaks.

This, of course, all depends on whether Ingram himself gets Badiou right, and I assume he does. Philosophy is not my strong point — I find it tedious — but, I do often find philosophers open my eyes to other ways of looking at social processes, which is helpful.

Universalism, says Ingram, has suffered in recent years because it has been co-opted by the empire and converted into a fig leaf for imperial action. Given this co-option, how do we distinguish between an authentic universalism and a universalism that merely serves as a smokescreen for imperialist adventures?

For me, the question comes down to this: how do we distinguish between association and globalization?

According to Ingram, Badiou asserts we are trapped between two inauthentic forms of universalism: one, the declaration of human rights, which reduces the human being to its lowest common denominator of a vulnerable miserable creature who must be protected from harm — the unemployed persons presented in the recent AFL-CIO commercial on YouTube (); the other is the phony universalism of multiculturalism, which must always fail since, for example, we can accept certain differences (homosexuality) but not others (pedophilia). Moreover, Badiou asserts these two strands of universalism share a common assumption that Evil logically and practically precedes Good.

At this point Badiou goes off the rail completely. Rather than rejecting all forms of universalism as inherently flawed, he tries to resurrect it in the form of a universal truth:

Badiou insists that we can and should aim higher. To this end he proposes an alternative, activist ethics he calls an ‘ethic of truths.’ Rather than merely protect life, interests, or identities, for Badiou the challenge of ethics and politics is to invent new forms of commonality and equality. Such projects transcend what is and seek to transform it. This is an ethical matter because it requires another, affirmative vision of the human: only by attaching ourselves to such a project can we rise above the miserable, self-interested creatures of human rights or the cramped, defensive identities of multiculturalism and become fully human – thinking, acting, creating, cooperating beings.

As Ingram puts it, “The concern, in short, is that universalism will remain the creature of those in a position to say what it is.” Badiou tries to evade this difficulty by dividing the world between what is — the things that “can be named, counted, and managed” — and events to punch through this world and reveal other possibilities — he gives the examples of the French Revolution, the Paris Commune and the Russian Revolution — when we can catch a glimpse that the world as it exists is not the only possibility. These openings are truths, “something between a principle and an epiphany”,

Truths are both world-disclosing and practical: they cast the world in a new light and demand that we do something. Following an ethics of truth means seeking to elaborate the truth of an event. Since events arise from particular circumstances, however, “[t]here is no ethics in general. There are only … ethics of processes by which we treat the possibilities of situations”. Truths are subjective, existing only insofar as I decide to be oriented by an event. Yet they transcend the individual: only through my “disinterested interest” in a truth do I transcend mere self-interest and become an active subject – an ‘Immortal,’ in Badiou’s language, the agent of a truth greater than myself.

Not every truth is a Universal Truth: the apparent truth of Nazi Germany turned out to be Auschwitz, the routinized truth of industrial unionism turned out to be the GM bailout; the disastrous truth of the Russian Revolution turned out to be a Universal Poverty.

…for Badiou ethics is not about preventing Evil, but realizing Good. Evil is not “the violence that the human animal employs to persevere in its being, to pursue its interests,” which for Badiou, as for most of western philosophy, is “beneath Good and Evil”. Rather, Evil is “a (possible) effect of the Good itself”; it is Good gone awry.

According to Ingram, Badiou admits the universality of a truth can not be determined in advance since, by definition, it is a complete break with the world as it exists — nothing that exists can be compared to it, nor can it be measured in terms of what exists. The universality of a truth only unfolds over time. For Badiou truth is a process, which Ingram outlines this way:

First, that every truth has a particular origin but nevertheless transcends its particularity: “although the event depends on its site in its being, it must be independent of it in its truth effects”. A truth can transcend its origins because it is ‘singular,’ not subsumable under existing categories: “every truth erupts as singular, its singularity is immediately universalizable”. Second, “every truth procedure breaks with the axiomatic principle that governs the situation”. A truth breaks through the existing order, however, not simply by opposing it – a truth “must never enter into competition with established opinions” – but by opening up a new alternative. By reconfiguring the situation, it supersedes old limits and oppositions, bringing about a “transformation of the relations between the possible and the impossible”. Third, a truth must be generally communicable; it exists only by being declared. “Thought becomes universal only by addressing itself to all others, and it effectuates itself as power through this address”. Since it is incommensurable to what exists, however, it can only do this by addressing individuals in a new way. Paul’s universalism, then, can be understood as a process of universalization through invention, of creating commonality among singularities by addressing them, one at a time, in a new way.

Reading these words, perhaps, permits us to understand the profoundly revolutionary implications of the Party of Wall Street‘s Obama-era strategy of playing the Party of “No!” — the word “No!” in this context is an innovative renunciation of existing politics, and, of politics itself, which, in Washington, cannot be anything but the politics of compromise and “going along to get along”. By refusing any overture from the Democratic Party’s (The Party of Washington) supramajority, the Republicans were able to bring out all the contradictions within the Democrat Party itself — converting Obama’s massive victory into helplessness and frustration. By playing the Party of “No!”, the Republicans were not required to offer any program to address the crisis, yet, it was this very refusal to address the crisis — to be an impediment to its resolution by Washington — that crippled Washington itself. It amounted to the statement: “We have no solution to Washington’s problems, because Washington is beyond fixing.

In the end, The Party of NO! was, in the case of the GOP, an untruth — a tactical ploy — precisely because they merely were saying “No!” to the Democrat majority and proved this untruth by coming to their own compromise with Obama. However, in relation to Washington in general, it might just become a revolutionary force sweeping away all existing relations.

This then is the solution to the problem posed by Badiou’s critique of existing forms of universalism. We do not need another universal truth to replace the universal competition of the world market — which is The Universal Truth created by capital — but a universal negation of all wanna-be existing truths.

Here, we might understand the recent attempt by Washington to suppress Wikileaks’ release of state department documents. While the documents themselves are a powerful exposure of US diplomacy, the attempt to suppress those document triggered an almost unanimous opposition among activists all over the world. Did anyone notice that when Washington went after Wikileaks, not one of Wikileaks’ supporters worried about ideology? Everyone immediately knew the real enemy. The attack on Wikileaks was something everyone could immediately understand and grasp in non-ideological terms — it did not need a filter. Everyone knew at once that here — right here — was the act of an intolerably oppressive state. No one consulted oracles or mystics, dug out quotes, or studied charts — it was a supremely negative moment, a moment when activists around the world said “this will not happen”

It was the exact opposite of Badiou’s Universal Truth — it was a Universal No!

Turning this absolute negation of existing politics into an active antipolitics that moves billions is the task of our time.

Categories: General Comment
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