In the uprisings of the Arab world, Alain Badiou discerns echoes of the European revolutions of 1848. In both cases, the object was to overthrow despotic regimes maintained by the great powers—regimes designed to impose the will of financial oligarchies. Both events occurred after what was commonly thought to be the end of a revolutionary epoch: in 1815, the final defeat of Napoleon; and in 1989, the fall of the Soviet Union. But the revolutions of 1848 proclaimed for a century and a half the return of revolutionary thought and action. Likewise, the uprisings underway today herald a worldwide resurgence in the liberating force of the masses—despite the attempts of the ‘international community’ to neutralize its power.
Badiou’s book salutes this reawakening of history, weaving examples from the Arab Spring and elsewhere into a global analysis of the return of emancipatory universalism.
This essay was first published in Ballast. Translated by David Broder.
There are three kinds of conception of the novelistic. There is what we could call the official lineage, which the academy presents as the history of the French novel, proceeding by way of Stendhal and Flaubert. Here, the novel is the narrative, the capturing of the real, in a rapid, narrative and stylised prose. Then there is the current that I would call the tendency of great totalisations: the novel has the objective of capturing the spirit and the uniformity of an era, of constructing a sort of vast universe in which the spirit of the time takes hold, like in an orchestra. I would include Balzac in this totalising current — and it was perhaps him who invented it, with his La Comédie humaine — as well as Zola, perhaps Proust, and Martin du Gard. Then there is a third current, which is rarely recognised as officially making up part of the history of the novel (more than a current in itself, it is a sort of space apart, a freak case). In this current we have a certain number of freak novels: Rousseau’s Julie, or the New Heloise, Chateaubriand’s Mémoires d’outre-tombe and Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. Three literary freaks. We don’t really know how they should be classified. We have the epistolary Julie, or the New Heloise, which is today little studied or read, whereas in the eighteenth century it was an extraordinary best-seller. We have the Mémoires d’outre-tombe, which is a novel only in that we know that Chateaubriand was just recounting what he wanted to (and with many of his wonderful stories, it is doubtful whether they are real). But we can, ultimately, take it as a magnificent historical and personal novel. And we have Les Misérables, which we will concern ourselves with here.
Five years ago the Middle East and North Africa was electrified by unprecedented popular protests that heralded the start of the Arab Spring. Beginning in Tunisia popular movements swept regimes from power in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya and threatened to overthrow ruling elites across the region. Tragically, the Arab Spring has since become mired in counterrevolution and civil war with the extraordinary violence of the war in Syria, the rise of ISIS, the escalating refugee crisis, and the establishment of a new dictatorship in Egypt emblematic of the profound challenges facing the people of the region. As tumultuous events continue to unfold we present Verso's reading list of key titles addressing the developing situation in the Middle East.
In July, in the wake of the ‘No’ vote in Greece’s referendum, the philosopher Alain Badiou expressed his hope that a new sequence was opening up. A few hours after Alexis Tsipras’s resignation, he bemoaned the Greek prime minister and his advisors missing this ‘unique’ political opportunity.
Translated by David Broder
1 We thought that we were right in thinking that the guiding principle of Syriza, winner of the Greek elections, was a vigorous ‘No’ to austerity. As such, we thought that it would categorically refuse all the anti-social, regressive conditions – attacking the most basic principles of the aspiration to equality and a tolerable life for the people – which the various financial authorities and their European cover made the condition of their loans. Many people furthermore rejoiced in the possibility of a new political orientation finally emerging in Europe, one absolutely different from the reactionary consensus in which all states have kept their respective public opinion for thirty years, whether out of consent or by force.