True Communism Is the Foreignness of Tomorrow: Alain Badiou talks in Athens
In late January the philosopher Alain Badiou was in Athens, where he gave three talks. The theme of the first of these was Plato, the second was on Lacan, while the third – the text of which appears below – was the most ‘political’. Each of the three talks had a packed-out audience. For this third talk, indeed, even the amphitheatre of the Law School did not suffice to contain the great number of attendees, with many of the large crowd of young people present filling out the stairs and floor. It took place on 25 January, and was jointly organised by the psychoanalysis review Alithia, the municipal elections movement Open City, and the SYRIZA youth organisation ‘Left Union’. It was supported by the Nikos Poulantzas Institute.
The principle that there is a single world does not contradict the infinite play of identities and differences
I would like to thank, and to salute, all our Greek friends, and beyond that all those who are today struggling against the terrible situation inflicted on the Greek people by the financial oligarchy that today holds power in Europe, in service of globalised capitalism.
The infamous Troika, which in reality runs the Greek government today, is not only the representative of Europe. Because Europe today is but a transmission belt for globalised capitalism. What are the Greek people told, in order to justify their oppression and devastation? That you have to take your place in the world as it really is. You have to take account of the realities of the contemporary world. You have to resign yourselves to obeying the laws of the market economy and global competition.
In order to resist this propaganda, it is necessary to start out from one very simple proposition. Today, there is no real world constituted by the men and women who live on this planet.
Why do I say that there is no world of men and women? Because the world that does exist, the world of globalisation, is only a world of commodities and financial exchange. It is exactly what Marx predicted a hundred and fifty years ago: the world of the world market. In this world, there are only things – sellable objects – and signs – the abstract instruments of buying and selling, the different forms of money and credit. Yet it is not true that in this world human subjects exist freely. And, for starters, they absolutely do not have the basic right to move around and settle down where they want. For the crushing majority of men and women in the so-called world, the world of commodities and money, have not the slightest access to this world. They are harshly walled off from it, existing outside of it, where there are very few commodities and no money at all. And I mean ‘walled off’ very concretely. Everywhere in the world, walls are being built. The wall that is intended to separate the Palestinians from the Israelis; the wall on the Mexican-US border; the electrified barrier between Africa and Spain; the mayor of one Italian town suggested building a wall between the centre and the suburbs! Always more walls, imprisoning the poor in their own homes. There are those in Europe who think we ought to build a wall between unlucky Greece and well-off Northern Europe. The pretend world of globalisation is a world of walls and imprisonment.
Almost twenty years ago, the Berlin Wall fell. This symbolised the unity of the world after fifty years of separation. During these fifty years there were two worlds, the socialist world and the capitalist world. Or as some said, the totalitarian world and the democratic world. So, then, the fall of the Berlin Wall was the triumph of a single world, the world of democracy. Yet now we see that the wall merely shifted. It had stood between the totalitarian East and democratic West, but today stands between the rich capitalist North and the devastated, poor South. This is also the case even within Europe. In times past – also within individual countries, including the Northern ones – the contradiction used to oppose a powerful, organised working class to the ruling bourgeoisie that controlled the state. Today, we everywhere see only the ruling bourgeoisie that controls the state. Today, we everywhere see the rich beneficiaries of global trade and the enormous mass of the excluded, and between the two there are all sorts of walls and barriers; they no longer go to the same schools, they do not get the same healthcare, they cannot move around in the same way, they do not live in the same parts of the city…
‘Excluded’ is the right name for all those who are not in the real world, who are outside it, behind the wall and the barbed wire. Or here, in Greece, behind the wall of prejudice and behind Europe’s gendarmes.
Thirty years ago there was an ideological wall, a political iron curtain. Today there is a wall that separates the jouissance of the rich from the desire of the poor.
Everything works as if sharp separations have to be drawn among living bodies according to their provenance and resources, in order for the single world of monetary signs and objects to exist. Today, I repeat, there is no world. That is, because the cost of the unified world of capital is the brutal, violent division of human existence into two regions separated by walls, police dogs, bureaucratic controls, naval patrols, barbed wire and deportations.
Why is it that so-called immigration has become a fundamentally important political question across the entire world? Because all the human beings who come, trying to live and work in different countries, are the proof that the democratic unity of the world is entirely false.
If it were true, we would have to welcome these foreigners as people from the same world as ourselves. We would have to love them like you would someone on a journey who comes to a halt just outside your house. But that is not at all the case. The great mass of us think that these people come from another world. This is the problem. They are the living proof that our developed, democratic world is not the single world of men and women. There exist among us men and women who are considered to have come from another world. There are even people in Europe, like the Greeks, who the French or German government see as coming from another world. Money is the same everywhere, the dollar and the euro are the same thing everywhere; we happily accept the dollars or euros which these foreigners from another world have in their pockets. But in terms of their person, provenance, and way of life, they are not from our world. We place controls on them, we do not allow them to stay. We send a troika to watch over them. We anxiously ask ourselves how many of them there are in our midst, how many of these people have come from another world. A horrible question, if you think about it. A question that inevitably prepares the terrain for their persecution, banning and mass expulsion. A question that fuels the criminal side of government policies.
So we can say this: If the unity of the world is the unity of monetary objects and signs, then for living bodies there is no such unity. There are zones, walls, desperate journeys, hatred, and deaths. There is good Germany and bad Greece.
That is the reason why the central political question today is the world, the question of the existence of the world.
The single world, against the false world of the global market: that is what the great communist Marx wanted, and it is to him that we must refer back. He energetically argued that the world is what is common to all humanity. He said that the principal actor in emancipation is the proletarian. Yes, he said: the proletarian has no fatherland other than the entire world of human beings. And for this to be realised, it would be necessary to finish with the world of the global market, the world of commodities and of money. The world of capital and property-owners. For there to be a world common to all, it would be necessary to finish with the financial dictatorship of private property.
Today, some people – no doubt, full of good intentions – think that we could arrive at this powerful vision of Marx’s by expanding democracy. That is, by extending the good form of the world, namely what exists in the Western democracies and Japan, to the whole world. Greece, then, ought to be properly globalised, to be at peace with its banks and fully submissive to them. The problem is that this democracy doesn’t exist everywhere.
In my view, this is an absurd take on things. The absolute material basis of the democratic Western world is private property. Its law is that one percent of people own 46% of the world’s wealth and that ten percent own 86% of the world’s wealth. And fifty percent of the world’s population – yes, that’s fifty percent – in reality own nothing at all. How can a world be made, with such raging inequalities? In the Western democracies, freedom is first and foremost the unlimited freedom of property, the appropriation of everything that has value. And then comes the freedom of circulation of monetary objects and signs. The fatal consequence of this conception of freedom is the separation of living bodies by and for the dogged, pitiless defence of the privileges of wealth.
Moreover, we know perfectly well what concrete form this ‘expansion’ of democracy takes. It is, simply enough, war. The wars in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somali and Libya, not to mention the dozens of French military interventions in Africa. But it is also the silent, insidious war against entire peoples – like the Greeks - by the world and European system.
The fact that it would be necessary to wage long wars in order to organise so-called free elections in a given country, ought to make us reflect not only on war but also on elections. What conception of the world is today linked to electoral democracy? As well as everything else, this democracy imposes the law of numbers. Just as it is through numbers that the world unified by commodities imposes the law of money. It may well be that the military imposition of the law of electoral numbers in Baghdad as in Tripoli, Belgrade, Bamako, Kabul or Bangui leads us to our problem: if the world is the world of objects and signs, it is a world where everything is counted. And those who do not count, or only a little, have our laws of counting imposed on them by war.
Which proves that the world thus conceived does not exist in reality, or else only exists artificially, through violence.
I believe that we must turn this problem on its head. We must affirm the existence of the world, from the outset, as an axiom and a principle. We must say this very simple phrase: ‘There is a world of living women and men’. This sentence is not an objective conclusion. We know that under the law of money, there is no single world of women and men. There is the wall separating the rich from the poor, the governors of Europe from the people of Greece. This phrase, ‘there is a world’, is performative. We decide that it exists for us. And that we will remain faithful to this phrase. The task at hand is to draw the very serious and difficult consequences flowing from this very simple sentence. Just as Marx, when he created the first international organisation of the working class, drew the difficult consequences of his statement that the workers have no fatherland. The proletarians are from all countries. The proletarians are international.
One very simple, first consequence concerns the people of foreign origin who live among us: those who are called immigrants. In my country, that means Moroccans, Malians, Chinese people and many others. Here, too, amidst the general poverty, there are also people who have come from elsewhere, for instance Albanians. If there is a single world of living women and men, then they are from the same world as us. This black African worker I see in a restaurant kitchen, or the Moroccan I see digging a hole in the road, or the veiled woman I see looking after the kids in a nursery; all of them are from the same world as me. That is the capital point. It is there, and nowhere else, that we can overturn the dominant idea of the unification of the world by way of objects, signs and elections – an idea that leads to war and persecution. The unity of the world is the unity of living, active bodies in the here and now. And I absolutely must pass the real test of this unity: that these people who are here – different from me in their language, clothes, religion, food, and education – do exist in the same world, and quite simply exist like I do. Because they exist like me, I can discuss with them, and then, just like anyone else, have our agreements and disagreements. But on the absolute condition that they exist exactly as I do, meaning, in the same world.
One could here object that cultures are different to each other. But how? Are they from the same world as me or not? The partisan of identity politics will say: no, no! Our world is not that of just whatever person! Our world is the ensemble of all those for whom our values truly count. For example, those who are democrats, respect women, support human rights, speak French, do this or that, eat the same meat, those who drink wine and munch on sausages. Or, then: only those who speak Greek, are Orthodox Christians, and eat feta and olives. Yes, these people live in the same world. But those who have a different culture, the little LePen-ist or Golden Dawn-er tells us, are not truly from our world. They are not democrats, they oppress women, they wear barbaric clothes… How can anyone who doesn’t drink wine or eat pork be from the same world as me?
Or, indeed: they are dirty, they are Muslims, they are even poorer than us. If they want to enter our world they have to learn our values; they must share our values. They will have to pass an exam in our values: in France the tests might be a glass of wine, a slice of ham and a secular catechism. Or in Greece, to kneel before the priest and recite all the mythical history of the Greek people in the modern Greek language.
The word for all this is ‘integration’; he or she who comes from elsewhere has to integrate into our world. For the world of the worker coming from Africa to be the same as the world belonging to us others, masters of this world, he – the African worker – must become the same as us. He has to love and practise the same values. A president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, said that ‘If foreigners want to stay in France, then they have to love France, and if not, they must leave it’. I said to myself: I’ll have to leave, then, because I do not at all love Nicolas Sarkozy’s France. I do not at all share the values of integration. I am not integrated into this integration. I am hostile to integration into a little closed-off world, be it French or Greek, because what makes the people strong is to say that there is one world, and that in this world there are proletarians who have to travel, sometimes very far, in order to survive. The proletariat of our single world is a nomadic proletariat, and our only political opportunity is to be with it, wherever it goes.
In reality, if you pose conditions on the African labourer or Albanian worker being of the same world as you, then you have already abandoned and ruined the principle ‘there is a single world of living women and men’. You tell me: but a country has its laws. Of course. But a law is absolutely not the same thing as a condition. A law goes equally for everyone. It does not set a condition for belonging to the world. It is simply a temporary rule which exists in some particular region of the world. And no one is asked to love the law – only to obey it.
The single world of living women and men could well have laws. It could not have conditions for entering it or existing within it. There can be no obligation to be like other people in order to live there. Still less to be like a minority of these others, for example to be like a civilised white petit-bourgeois or a Greek nationalist brute. If there is a single world, then all those who live within it exist like me, but they are not like me: they are different. The single world is precisely the place where the infinity of differences exists. The world is the same became the people living in this world are different.
If, on the contrary, we demand that those who live in the world be the same, then it is the world that is closed off and itself becomes different to some other world. Which inevitably leads to separations, walls, controls, hatred, deaths, fascism and finally, war.
So, people will ask: is there nothing to regulate these infinite differences? No identity that enters into a dialectic with these differences? A single world, fair enough, but does this really mean that to be French, or a Moroccan living in France, or a Breton, or a Muslim in a country with Christian traditions, or an Albanian in Greece, counts for nothing in the face of the imposing unity of the world of the living?
It is a good question. Of course, the infinity of differences is also the infinity of identities. Let us examine a little how these distinct identities can persist even when we have affirmed the existence of a single world for all human beings.
But first: what is an identity? The simplest definition is that an identity is the set of traits and properties by which an individual or group recognise ‘themselves’. But what is their ‘themselves’? It is constituted by all the properties characteristic of identity that remain unchanged. So we could say that an identity is a set of unvarying traits and properties. For example, homosexual identity is constituted by all that which concerns the invariance of the possible object of desire; an artist’s identity is what we can recognise as unchanging in her style; the identity of a foreign community within a given country is constituted by that in which it recognises its own belonging: language, rituals, clothing, convictions, eating habits, etc.
Thus defined by invariance, identity relates to difference in two ways.
Identity is that which is different from everything else (static identity).
Identity is that which does not become different (dynamic identity).
In the background, we have the great philosophical dynamic of the Self and of the Other.
Taking the hypothesis that we all live in the same world, we can affirm the right to be the same, to maintain and develop one’s identity. If the Malian labourer or the Albanian street-sweeper exists like me, he can also say that he has the right, just like me, to maintain and organise the invariant properties which are his own, from his religion to his mother tongue, entertainment, way of life, etc.
He affirms his identity in refusing that which integration would impose upon him: meaning, the pure and simple dissolution of his identity in favour of another. Since if he thinks like I do, that he lives in the same world as me, he has no reason to consider this other identity a priori better than his own.
That said, this affirmation of identity has two rather different aspects, within the dialectic of the Self and the Other.
The first aspect is the desire that I will become my future self within the bounds of sameness. A little like what Nietzsche said in his famous maxim: ‘Become what you are’. This means the immanent development of identity within a new situation. The Malian labourer or Albanian street-sweeper will not at all abandon what makes up his individual, family or collective identity. But he will little by little appropriate, in a creative matter, everything to be found in the corner of the world where he ends up. He will thus invent what he is: a Malian worker in the Paris suburbs, or an Albanian street-sweeper – or even an Albanian beggar – in some district of Athens. He will create himself through a subjective movement, from the Malian peasant to the worker settling down in Paris, or from the unfortunate Albanian mountain-dweller to the Athens street-sweeper or beggar. With no internal fracture, but through an expansion of his identity.
The other way of affirming one’s identity is negative. It consists of doggedly insisting that I am not the Other. And it is always indispensable when our governments – all reactionaries and the accomplices of fascism, on this point – demand an authoritarian, persecutory integration. The Malian labourer, then, forcefully asserts that his traditions and customs are not those of the European petit-bourgeois. The identitarian traits expressed in his religion and clothing might even be reinforced. He opposes himself to the Western world, whose supposed superiority he does not accept. And how can he be reproached for this, if we think, rightly enough, that the idea of one world being superior is absurd, since there is just one world?
Finally, within identity there are two distinct meanings of difference. An affirmative one: the Self maintains itself through its own power to differentiate. It is a creation. A negative usage: the Self defends itself against its corruption by the Other. It wants to preserve its purity. It is a purification.
Every identity is the dialectical play of a movement of creation and a movement of purification.
We see well enough, then, the relation between identities and the great principle that ‘There is just one world’.
The general idea is a simple one: given the principle of the unity of the world of the living, identities everywhere make creation prevail over purification.
Why is the politics of walls, persecutions, controls and expulsions a disaster? Why does it create a very dangerous mood tending toward fascism? Because, of course, it in fact creates two worlds, which implies denying the very existence of humanity and leads to endless wars.
But moreover, it corrupts our societies internally as well. Because the Moroccans, Malians, Romanians, Albanians and all the others will in any case come in great numbers. However, persecution reinforces among their ranks not the process of creation, but rather the process of purification. In the face of Sarkozy and Blair, Hollande and Valls, Venizelos and all the others who want immediate integration by means of expulsion and persecution, we have young Islamists ready to martyr themselves for the purity of their faith. And if the Front National or Golden Dawn organise attacks or pogroms, then it will little by little transform our societies into purely repressive, police-state regimes. That prepares the terrain for fascism, which is nothing other than capitalist politics enslaved to some inflated national fantasy by way of police repression. That is why we must support at any price everything that makes creative identity win out over purifying identity, albeit in the knowledge that the latter can never disappear completely. The only means of doing so is to assert from the outset that there is just one world. And that the consequences flowing from this axiom must be political actions that open up the creative aspect of identities: such that I can very precisely discuss with a Moroccan worker or a mother from Mali, as with an unemployed Albanian, what we can do together to assert that we all exist in the same world, whatever our partially distinct identities.
Everywhere, we must organise the political existence of a single world. We will meet other, and we will be able to discuss as equals our different ways of being in the same world. But at the outset, before anything else, we will all together demand the abolition of persecutory laws, laws that set up walls and organise raids and deportations. Laws that hand foreigners over to the police. We will assert forcefully, as in a battle, that the presence in our countries of hundreds of thousands of people who have come from abroad is not at all a question of identity and integration.
Central, here, are proletarians, who ultimately teach us through their active, nomadic lives that in politics – in communist politics – it is necessary to take the single world of living human beings as one’s point of reference, and not the false world of separate nations. To see all this, it is enough to understand the simple idea that they are here and exist like us. It is enough to note their existence and give it regular status, considered as a normal life, a life that is allowed to exist like any other. Essentially, it is enough to do what anyone would naturally do with regard to their friends.
In this collective journey, we will exchange our identities, without anyone having to renounce who they are, or integrating anyone into what someone else is. Foreigners will teach us how, after their long journey, they view the very bad politics of our country and how they will participate in changing it; and we will teach the foreigners how we have long tried to change it, this politics, and the essential role we see them as having in the future of this struggle. New ideas will emerge from this process, in unpredictable ways. And also new forms of organisation, where the difference between foreigners and the native-born will be entirely subordinated to our common vision: there is a single world where we all exist equally, and in this world our identities can have an amicable exchange since we share in common political action.
We can thus recapitulate our line of thinking in four points:
- The ‘world’ of untrammelled capitalism and the rich democracies is a false world. Recognising the unity only of monetary products and signs, it rejects the majority of humanity, pushed out into another, devalued ‘world’, from which it separates itself through walls and warfare. In this sense, there is today no world. There are but walls, drownings, hatred, wars, pillaged and abandoned areas, areas that are protected from everything else, others left in total poverty, and the criminal ideologies that prosper on the back of all this chaos.
- Thus to assert that ‘there is a single world’ is a principle for action, a political imperative. This principle also entails the equality of existence in each and every part of this single world.
- The principle that there is a single world does not contradict the infinite play of identities and differences. It entails only that identities subordinate their negative dimension (their opposition to the Other) to their affirmative dimension (the development of the Self).
- As concerns the existence of millions of foreigners in our countries, we have three objectives: to oppose persecutory integration; to block the road to reactive purification; and to develop creative identities. The concrete articulation of these three objectives defines that which is most important in politics today.
And on this intimate link between politics and the question of foreigners, which is today absolutely central, we can look to an astonishing text by Plato, with which I would like to conclude. It is at the end of book 9 of his Republic. Socrates’s young interlocutors say: ‘What you tell us about politics is all well and good, but it is impossible. You cannot put it into practice’. And Socrates replies: ‘Yes, in the city where we are born it is perhaps impossible. But perhaps it will be possible in another city’. As if every true politics presupposed expatriation, exile, foreignness. Let us remember this when we go amicably to do politics with foreign students and workers, young people in the suburbs and the poor of all backgrounds and beliefs: Socrates was right, the fact that they are foreign, or that their culture is different, is not an obstacle. On the contrary! It is an opportunity, the possibility of creating new forms of internationalism right here and now. And remember what Marx said: the most fundamental characteristic of the communist, is to be an internationalist. Because the realisation of a true politics in any one part of this single world we now proclaim absolutely needs – to be even possible – those who come from somewhere else in this same world.
A French Socialist Prime minister said at the beginning of the 1980s that ‘immigrants are a problem’. We must turn this on its head: ‘immigrants are an opportunity!’ The mass of foreign workers and their children bear witness - in our old, tired countries – to the youth of the world, its extent, its infinite variety. It is with them that the politics of the future will be created. Without them, we will remain stuck in nihilist consumerism and police order. We will allow ourselves to be dominated by little LePen-ists and their cops.
Foreigners must at least teach us to become foreigners to ourselves, to project ourselves outside of ourselves and no longer remain captive in this long, white Western history which is now coming to an end, and from which there is nothing more to expect but sterility and war. As against waiting for this nihilist and securitarian catastrophe, we salute the true communism, which is the novelty, and thus the foreignness, of tomorrow.
Translated by David Broder
The original version of the talk was published by Chronos.