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A World of Bandits: A Philosophical Dialogue by Alain Badiou

Sarah Shin29 March 2011

Alain Badiou joins Tzvetan Todorov and Jean-Luc Nancy, amongst other intellectuals, in the debate over allied intervention in Libya sparked by Bernard-Henri Lévy's key role. 

‘You wouldn't deny,’ my friend the street philosopher said to me the other day, ‘that the underlying principle of everything nowadays is profit—no one with any power in the world challenges that.’

‘Very true,’ I replied. ‘But what are you driving at?’

‘If someone openly says: "I only live for my personal profit, and I'd kill off any former friend if it was a question of keeping or improving my lifestyle," what are they then? ... Come on, make an effort.’

‘A bandit. It's the mind-set of a bandit.’

‘Exactly!’ exclaimed the street philosopher. ‘Our world very clearly is a world of bandits. There are hidden bandits and official bandits, but that's only a minor difference.’

‘Agreed. But what conclusion do you draw from this?’

‘That we're right to speak about what's going on around us in terms of images of banditry,’ said the street philosopher with a cunning look. ‘Godfathers, sidekicks, local bosses, killers ...’

‘That'd be the day’, I replied, very sceptical.

‘Look at what's happening just now. In many countries masses of people have peacefully assembled to speak the truth day and night, to say that those who've been in charge for decades are simply bandits. The problem is that the local bosses whose departure the assembled people are demanding were installed, paid and armed by the most powerful of godfathers, by the higher class of refined bandit: the Americans and their European sidekicks. The countries where people are rising up have a strategic interest for these supreme bandits, and the local bosses were the brutal guardians of this great interest. What are they to do? Against the millions of massed and assembled people, who are unarmed but have found their voice, who know what they want and speak the truth, killers are not enough. The Americans and Europeans are even obliged to keep a low profile. They pay lip-service and approve the popular housecleaning.’

‘But tell me,’ I asked hopefully, ‘how can we start to put an end to this planetary banditry that has taken over our world?’

‘If people manage long enough to keep up the inspiration they have shown, history could change its course. But the civilized godfathers have a trick up their sleeve. You know that amid the desert oil-wells there's this local boss who's been there for forty-two years.’

‘Ah, the colonel! But things are going badly for him too. Some people are demanding his head.’

‘Things started off there just like elsewhere, but they've taken a rather different turn. Armed men have taken charge of events. Instead of immense gatherings that speak the truth, you have little groups going round in four-wheel drives brandishing submachine-guns, led by a former sidekick of this local godfather, and riding pell-mell through the desert to seize townships that no one defends.’

‘And if I understand things right,’ I said, ‘the local mafia boss, the hysterical colonel, has sent his killers after them. But what help is this for the big refined godfathers?’

‘That's the stroke of genius’, exclaimed the street philosopher. ‘The Americans and Europeans have taken charge of dispatching the desert colonel themselves.’

‘But isn't that very dangerous for them!’, I wondered. ‘He's done them such great services. He did the dirtiest deeds that the Europeans needed doing without batting an eyelid. He acted furiously against African workers who tried to get to Europe by crossing his territory. He made himself the ferocious gatekeeper of the nice European house.’

‘With the bandits, there's always some new tack. When their interests are challenged, the big godfathers can be pitiless towards those who served them yesterday. Civilization obliges!’

‘So what are their interests here, when they send their civilized killers after their crude former protégé?’

‘They're considerable. First of all, they've found a way into the political game in those countries where people have been gathering and speaking the truth for the last few weeks. The godfathers were almost afraid of being out of the game, spectators of their own disaster. Secondly, they remind everyone that they've got the power, and no one else. They are the real killers that everyone has to fear. Thirdly, they make out they're acting in the name of law and justice - even of fraternity and liberty, as they're going to kill off this little local bandit who was a valuable client. Doesn't that show great generosity? Fourthly, they hope that with enough bombing they can get back to the good old days when all that mattered was that people accepted the world as it is, with its inegalitarian laws, its meaningless elections, its business deals, its international killers, and profit as the only principle. That would be perfect! Either that, or you're against all the godfathers, all the business deals, for the end of universal banditry, and that's very bad.’

‘Dreadful. But how do you explain then that almost everyone approves the expedition of the Americans and their European henchmen against their ex-associate the desert boss?’

‘It's fear of the masses,’ the street philosopher replied gloomily. ‘In our rich countries, where the dominant oligarchy has the means to buy countless direct or indirect clients, there's a keen desire that the powerful godfather states should settle things under the pretty names of "international community" or "United Nations". You see, "we"—I mean our public, electoral, media "we"—are too corrupt. Our first principle is "my lifestyle first". We are not seriously prepared to see this principle broken by the poor and deprived of the world finally gathering to speak the truth.’

‘So, my friend, is this how you explain why in our countries so many people have suddenly found words of praise for our leaders after bad-mouthing them only yesterday?’

‘Exactly. Even the Thoroughbred Chatterbox [Bernard-Henri Lévy] was wheeled out for the occasion. He was already used with the bombing that broke up Yugoslavia. A bit the worse for wear, but still useful sometimes.’

‘Always a rogue.’

Visit Libération to read the original article in French, published on 28 March 2011. Translated by David Fernbach. 

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