In one of the web’s most popular philosophy comics we find Karl Marx attempting to hold up a job as a greeter in a departmental store. But rather than simply doing his job by greeting people, Marx erupts into diatribes against the state of bourgeois society and global capitalism until he is expectedly fired. In the end, when Friedrich Engels asks him why he was fired, all he can say is that perhaps he was “greeting people too well.”
It might seem juvenile to equate a philosophy webcomic with a book by Alain Badiou, one of France’s most important living philosophers. However, when one reads the latter’s new book, Greece and the Re-invention of Politics, it is apparent that the basic point of the two is the same: one must not only do one’s duty (as Kant had said) but that one must do it too well. This eruption of the ‘too well’ into the humdrum banality of duty is itself the event which marks the rupture of the existing situation by its excluded part.
This was Badiou’s exciting new idea which, in his 1984 book Being and Event, he derived from the axioms of Zermelo-Fraenkel (ZFC) set theory. An Event (for example a communist revolution) is not a simple historical progression but the appearance of something which from the standpoint of the existing situation cannot be definitively said to belong to it; only by identifying it as an ‘event’ can it be definitively said to be the excluded part, that which does not belong to the situation.
For example, the 1789 French Revolution could be said to be the outcome of famine, peasant unrest and so on, by which it is inserted into the linear scale of history. But it is only by naming it as an event which does not belong to the existing situation that it becomes the French Revolution – the symbol and beacon for militant revolutionaries everywhere.
What appears is thus profoundly new, yet also terribly old. It is in a similar sense that the travails of modern Greece, under crushing national debt (Greece has currently been bailed out by the European Union, meaning that it now has scheduled debt payments till 2059), holds for Badiou the promise of something new, an event, amongst the people who can boast of being the most ancient European civilisation.
Badiou’s new book is not a systematic work like his earlier ones such as Being and Event, Theory of the Subject or The Logic of Worlds; rather, it is a collection of eight articles and public lectures written or addressed from 2010 to 2016 – the years which saw the Greek crisis threaten the integrity of the Eurozone itself.
From 2010 onwards, the threat that Greece might default on its national debt led to the EU and the International Monetary Fund providing it with 240 billion Euros, which led to the imposition of austerity measures. This, in turn, led to the election of a far-left political party, Syriza, under the leadership of Alexis Tsipras. Tsipras held a referendum in July 2015, where the Greek voters said no to the austerity measures. Ten days later, however, the parliament under his leadership passed the measures.
Badiou’s lectures and articles collected in this book do not attempt a detailed history of this great economic and political misadventure, but rather seek to find an orientation from them. For him, the current disorientation prevalent in France (and the world at large) is a result of the attempt to “render the previous (by which he means the French Revolution before the execution of Robespierre) sequence unreadable.” This means to deprive it of its political understanding and its principle of orientation, by which its very impasses (the Terror, mass executions and so on) could be overcome.
Badiou succinctly distills the Communist hypothesis into three axioms: the egalitarian idea; the conviction that the state must wither away; and that “the organisation of labour does not imply the division of labour” (to which we can add our own Ambedkarite supplement that it does not also imply the division of labourers). These are not programmes in the older Marxist sense but, as Badiou calls them, “maxims for orientation.”
Badiou further discusses new imperial practices which are no longer of the colonial type but rather involve ‘zoning’, which is “the creation of territories lacking any organised authority” and “imperialism of disorganisation rather than colonisation.” This zoning is no longer just a practice restricted to countries like Libya, Iraq, Somalia and others, but it is a policy that will soon be enforced in Greece, Spain and Portugal – and perhaps in all countries – to crush popular revolts against capital’s predation. The goal of such a process is to create “such troubled and anarchic conditions that people will lack any means of organising their opposing vision.”
Badiou also differentiates between the various senses of the term ‘people’ in politics. For the fascists, it is equivalent to people-race; for the parliamentary democrats it is the same as people-middle class. The two positive senses of the term ‘people’ are for Badiou the constitution of a people denied by colonialism or imperialism, and the ‘people’ as those excluded by the state from its supposedly legitimate people – like the workers in the 19th century, or provocatively, proletarian immigrants today.
The construction of walls today is, according to Badiou, a means of creating a false world of separate nations, a lie whose sole aim is to obliterate the truth that there is only one single world of living humans. For Badiou, the fact that these refugees and immigrants are unable to assimilate and integrate is not a problem; instead, it is an opportunity to create a new form of internationalism. It is this ‘nomadic proletariat’ who can offer us the politics of the future – which, for Badiou, is always under the aegis of the communist hypothesis.
While some may accuse Badiou’s axiomatic attachment to the communist hypothesis as a sign of his utopian inclination, one must remember that the decision on what is possible and impossible must not be left to one’s opponents. What matters is thus the magic of the unforeseeable and the improbable encounter, or as Marx (in the comic cited above) says to his manager when asked why he is not simply doing his job: “Improvising: the thing you told me to do was kind of boring.”
Perhaps Badiou’s major complaint against Syriza and Tsipras is that, in the end, they chose not to improvise, and took the boring option in a crisis that could have been so much more than a mere missed opportunity. It is thus apt that the original French title of this book was Un Parcours Grec, or ‘a Greek Course’ – a course that might have truly missed making history but yet has offered us what Badiou calls an “open-air political lesson” through its very failure.
Huzaifa Omair Siddiqi is a PhD candidate at the Centre for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.