Blog post

Alain Badiou: 'Before the Election'

Sarah Shin20 April 2012

'Before the Election', from The Meaning of Sarkozy by Alain Badiou: originally written in the context of the 2007 French election, it remains vital reading ahead of the first round of the 2012 election this Sunday, 22 April.

We are now in the midst of an election campaign to appoint the president. How can I avoid speaking of it? A tricky one that . . . Philosophy may resist the content of opinions, but that does not mean it can ignore their existence, especially when this becomes literally frenetic, as it has done in recent weeks.

I discussed voting in Circonstances 1, with regard to the presidential election of 2002. I emphasized on that occasion that little credence should be placed in such an irrational procedure, and analysed in terms of this concrete example the disastrous consequences of that parliamentary fetishism which in our society fills the place of 'democracy'. The role of collective affects could not, I said, be underestimated in this kind of circumstance, organized from one end to the other by the state, and relayed by its series of apparatuses - precisely those that Louis Althusser aptly named 'ideological state apparatuses': parties, of course, but also the civil service, trade unions, media of all kinds. These latter institutions, notably of course television, but more subtly the written press, are quite spectacular powers of unreason and ignorance. Their particular function is to spread the dominant affects. They played a good part in the 'Le Pen psychosis' of 2002, which, after the old Pétainist - a knackered old horse from a ruined stable - had passed the first round, threw masses of terrified young lycéens and right-minded intellectuals into the arms of Chirac, who, no longer himself in his heyday as far as political vigour was concerned, did not expect so much. With the cavalcade headed by Sarkozy, and the Socialist Party choosing as candidate a hazy bourgeoise whose thinking, if it exists, is somewhat concealed, we reap the fatal consequence of this madness five years down the road.

This time round, the collective emotion that propels a kind of twitchy accountant into the limelight, mayor of a town where hereditary wealth is concentrated, and moreover visibly uncultured, could be called, as it was at the time of the French Revolution, la grande peur.

The elections to which the state summons us are in fact dominated by the contradictory entanglement of two kinds of fear.

There is first of all the fear I shall call essential, which marks the subjective situation of dominant and privileged people who sense that their privileges are conditional and under threat and that their domination is perhaps only provisional and already shaky. In France, a middle-sized power for which one cannot foresee any glorious future—unless it invents a politics that would reverse the country's insignificance and make it an emancipatory reference point for the planet—the negative affect is particularly violent and wretched. It translates into fear of foreigners, of workers, of the people, of youngsters from the banlieues, Muslims, black Africans...This fear, conservative and gloomy, creates the desire for a master who will protect you, even if only while oppressing and impoverishing you all the more. We are familiar today with the features of this master: Sarko, a jittery cop who sets the whole place on fire, and for whom media coups, friendly financiers and backstage graft make up the whole secret of politics. With this very miniature Napoleon, and faced with the internal perils made real by fear, the state ends up taking the one-sided form that Genet previously gave it in his play The Balcony, that of the police chief whose dream costume is a gigantic rubber penis. It is no paradox, then, if Sarkozy, a minuscule character in direct communication with the lowest form of opinion polls, hoisted himself up to the profound thought that paedophilia is a genetic defect, and he himself a born heterosexual. What better symbol of the unconscious fears whose mustiness is conveyed by the political spectacle than this paedophilia, which as we have seen for years, culminating with the Outreau trial, symbolizes, in our genuinely pornographic society, the buried desires that are not allowed to exist? And what worthier master to put an end to this accursed and abstract paedophilia, and at the same stroke to deal with all these foreigners and foreign ways, than a reinforced-concrete heterosexual? Celebrity politics is not my cup of tea, but I would place some hope here in the candidate's strange wife, this Cécilia who may actually throw some unexpected light on her husband's genetic claims.

Opposed to this primitive fear, in electoral terms, is not, as it should be, a clear assertion that is different in principle from the variations on the policing theme. It is on the contrary another fear: the fear that the first fear provokes, by conjuring up a type of master, the jumpy cop, with whom the Socialist petty bourgeois is unfamiliar and doesn't like. This is a second fear, a derivative fear, the content of which we have to say, is indiscernible beyond the affect involved. At the level of their broad mass support, neither side, not the UMP rank-and-file nor the Socialist activists, have the least positive vision to counter the massive effect of unleashed capitalism. Neither asserts, against the external and internal division globalized capitalism provokes, that there is only one world. In particular, no alliance with the persecuted, with the inhabitants of the 'other' world, is proposed by the Socialist Party. It simply envisages harvesting the dubious benefits of the fear of fear. For both electoral camps, indeed, the world does not exist. On such questions as Palestine, Iran, Afghanistan (where French troops are engaged), Lebanon (likewise), Africa (swarming with French military personnel), there is a total consensus, and no one envisages opening the least public discussion on these questions of war and peace. Nor is there any serious questioning of the villainous laws voted day after day against undocumented workers, youngsters from the poor districts and the incurably ill. Since fear is set against fear, the implication is that the only questions that really move people are of this kind: Should we be more afraid of the Tamil street-sweeper or of the cop harassing him? Or is global warming more or less of a peril than the arrival of Malian cooks? This is the way of the electoral circus.

The subjective index of this omnipresent affective negativity is the cleavage of the electoral subject. Everything in fact leads us to expect a massive vote, to the point that even their own friends seek to intimidate those who, like me, have the firm intention not to take part in this crooked summons from the state. The vote thus operates almost like a form of superego. The polls, however, indicate massive indecision right up to the last minute. In other words, this probably massive vote, which people even experience as compulsory, carries no conviction beyond the affects involved. One may well believe that to decide between fear, and fear of fear, is a delicate undertaking.

Let us assume that politics is what I think it is, which can be summed up in the following definition: organized collective action, following certain principles, and aiming to develop in reality the consequences of a new possibility repressed by the dominant state of affairs. Then we have to conclude that the vote to which we are summoned is an essentially apolitical practice. It is subject in fact to the nonprinciple of affect. Hence the cleavage between a formal imperative and an unconquerable hesitancy about any possible affirmative convictions. It is good to vote, to give form to my fears, but it is hard to believe that what I vote for is right. What is lacking in the vote is nothing less than the real.

Concerning the real, it will be said that the second fear, which we can call opposition, is still further removed from this than the original fear, which we can call reaction. For people react, if in a terrorized, incriminating or even criminal fashion, to some effective situation. Whereas the opposition simply fears the amplitude of this reaction, and is thus one notch further from anything that effectively exists.

These elections are a confused crystallization of the fact that the negativity of the Left, or of opposition, has the notable weakness of being in a confused sharing of the real along with what it opposes. For the real by which this Left sustains itself, at a great distance, is simply that which creates the original fear, that fear whose dreaded effects are the whole content of the opposition.

Too devoid of the real, or sharing in the reality of its supposed adversary, the second or Socialist fear can only fix its sights on the vague, the uncertain, a haziness of language with no mooring in the world. This is Ségolène Royal. She is the imaginary propensity in which the lack of anything real is articulated, the second fear as empty exaltation. She is nothingness as the subjective pole of the fears organized by the election ritual.

I shall propose a theorem: every chain of fears leads to nothingness, and voting is the operation of this. If this is not a political operation, as I maintain, what is its nature? Well, voting is a state operation. And it is only by assuming that politics and the state are identical that voting can be conceived as a political procedure.

I spoke just now of the electoral cleavage: voting is on a mass scale and experienced as an imperative, whereas political or ideological conviction is floating or even nonexistent.

This cleavage is interesting and positive to the extent that it unconsciously signifies the distance between politics and state. In the case that we are concerned with here, for want of any genuine politics, there is an incorporation of fear into the state, as the substratum of its own independence.

Fear serves to validate the state. The electoral operation incorporates fear, and the fear of fear, into the state, with the result that a mass subjective element comes to validate the state. We can say that, after this election, the winner - very likely Sarkozy - will have become the legitimate head of state by feathering his nest with fear. He will then have his hands free, because once the state has been occupied by fear, it can freely create fear.

The final dialectic is that of fear and terror. A state legitimized by fear is virtually fit to become terroristic.

Is there a contemporary terrorism, a democratic terror? This is quite rampant at the present time. Democratic forms are being found for a state terror at the level of contemporary technology: radar, photos, Internet controls, systematic bugging of all telephones, mapping of people's movements... The perspective of the state that we face is one of virtual terror, its key mechanism being surveillance, and increasingly also informing. 

Should we speak, like our Deleuzian friends, of a 'society of control' essentially different from a 'society of sovereignty'? I do not think so. Control will change into pure and simple state terrorism as soon as circumstances turn at all serious. Already, suspects are sent to be tortured by less considerate 'friends'. We shall end up doing this at home. Fear never has any other future than terror, in the most ordinarily established sense.

I shall make a digression here. Philosophers know better than others, when they really do their work, that the world of men and women, individuals and societies, is always less novel than the inhabitants of this world imagine. And technology, which is presented as the ultimate meaning and novelty of our future, whether glorious or catastrophic, almost always remains in the service of the most antique procedures. From this point of view, the convinced 'modern' who sees progress everywhere that capitalism deploys its machinery, and the semi-religious ecologist who clings, against productive artifice, to the fantasy of a benign nature, share an identical stupidity.

To return to our fears. What is the reason for this fearful tension that promises us an excruciating series of turns of the screw on the part of the state? It is that the truth of the situation is war. Bush, whose words it would be prudent to take literally rather than mock, envisioned 'very long war' against terrorism. And, indeed, the West is increasingly engaged on a number of fronts. The mere preservation of the existing order is warfare, as this order is pathological. The gigantic disparity, the duality of rich and poor worlds, is maintained by force. War is the global perspective of democracy. Our governments try to make people believe that war is elsewhere, and that war is waged for their protection. But this war has no fixed location, it cannot be readily contained in space. The West wants to prevent the appearance, anywhere, of what it really fears: a pole of power heterogeneous to its domination, a 'rogue state' as Bush puts it, which would have the means to measure up to the triumphant 'democracies' of today, without in any way sharing their vision of the world, and would not be prepared to sit down with them to share the delights of the world market and electoral numbers. The West will not prevail, it can only delay this event by increasingly savage external war and internal terrorism. For there are rogues at home, too, alas! Those whom a Socialist minister called 'little savages', and whom Sarkozy treats as 'scum' [racaille]. A future alliance between rogue states abroad and rogues at home - that's really something to fear! We have here the possible political profile for the creation of a grande peur.

The key point is that there is a dialectic of fear and war. We make war abroad, our governments say, to protect ourselves from war at home. We go and hunt out terrorists in Afghanistan or Chechnya who would otherwise arrive en masse in our own countries and organize here the 'scum' and the 'little savages'. And, in this way, they create fully formed, among the people of the privileged countries, the fear of war, internal and external, since war is at the same time there (far away) and not there (in our midst), in a problematic liaison of the local and the global.

What must be borne in mind is that this question has a particular history in France. The typical name of this alliance between war and fear, in our country, is 'Pétainism'. The mass idea of Pétainism, what made for its momentary but very widespread success between 1940 and 1944, was that, after the trials of the 'phoney war', Pétain would protect the French people from the most disastrous effects of the world war - permit them to remain at a distance. The fear generated in 1914-18 created the fear necessary for Pétainism in 1940. It was Pétain who said that we should be more afraid of war than of defeat. It is better to live, or at least survive, than to make trouble. The French overwhelmingly accepted the relative tranquillity that came with the acceptance of defeat.

And we should not hide the fact that this Pétainism was partly successful: the French came through the war very quietly compared with the Russians or even the British. This is a point I shall return to later. Let us simply say here that the analogous 'Pétainism' of today consists in maintaining that the French simply have to accept the laws of the world - the Yankee model, servility towards the powerful, the domination of the rich, hard work by the poor, the surveillance of everyone, systematic suspicion of foreigners living here, contempt for people who do not live like we do - and then all will be well. Sarkozy's programme, like that of Pétain himself, is work, family and country. Work: if you want to earn a few bob, do as much overtime as you like. Family: abolition of inheritance tax, perpetuation of hereditary wealth.

Country: although the only thing that distinguishes it today is this wretched fear, France is tremendous, we should be proud of being French. In any case, 'the French' (Sarkozy?) are certainly superior to 'the Africans' (who?).

Unfortunately, these maxims are scarcely any different from the sentimental preaching of Ségolène Royal.

Beyond the electoral ups and downs, the imperative need is to do everything possible to prevent an analogous Pétainism becoming the general logic of the situation. With Sarkozy, but also with his rival, there is the possibility of a neo-Pétainism on a mass scale. Pétainism, rather than fascism, which is an affirmative force. Pétainism presents the subjective abominations of fascism (fear, informing, contempt for others) without its vital spirit. To eliminate this peril, we have to do as much as we can to develop the alliance of the fearless.

Mao said of war: 'We do not like war. But we are not afraid of it.' Courage is certainly the number-one virtue today. The courage to withdraw both from the original fear and from the fear of fear. Mao also said: 'Reject your illusions and prepare for struggle.' What is the most pervasive illusion today? It is the illusion cultivated by the Left in general, and Ségolène Royal in particular: that we can trust fear (i.e. the fear of fear) to avoid the reactive effects of fear, the fidgety cop as the man in charge. But no! That way we'll get both fear and the cop as well!

Rejecting illusions always means reorientation. It means affirming that an orientation of thought and existence can be asserted beyond affects. Voting in general, and in particular the vote proposed to us today, is a state mechanism that presents disorientation itself as a choice. It's a different interpretation of the cleavage that I spoke of above: disoriented minds, who don't know what saint or what Pétain to appeal to, are convinced all the same of the great importance of voting. So they go and vote for one or other of the indistinguishable candidates. They are in fact completely disoriented, as is shown when they change their mind next time round, just to see. And yet the state and the unanimous voice of the press, in their commentaries on the vote, present this evident disorientation as a choice, thus disclaiming any responsibility. The government, which would not be very different if it were chosen by lottery, declares that it has been mandated by the choice of the citizens and can act in the name of this choice. Voting thus produces a singular illusion, which passes this disorientation through the fallacious filter of a choice.

'The French have decided...' says the right-minded press. They have not decided anything at all, and moreover, this collective - 'the French' - lacks any existence. Why on earth should 51 per cent of French people be 'the French'? Is it not a constant of history that 'the French' has often meant a small minority, as for example at the key moment of the German occupation, when it meant the very small minority represented by the resistance, and for at least two years hardly anyone at all? The rest were broadly Pétainist, which meant, in the conditions of the time, that they were in no way 'French', but fearful servants of Nazi Germany. This is a very characteristic French trait: when the question of the country's existence is really at stake, what constitutes France, against a dense reactionary and fearful background, is a minority that is active and admirable, but numerically very weak. Our country has only existed and will only exist, in whatever form it takes, by the acts of those who have not accepted the abasements that the logic of the survival of privileges, or just 'realistic' conformity with the laws of the world, universally require. These are the people who have chosen, and they certainly did not do so by voting.

'Reject our illusions' means categorically denying that voting is the operation of a genuine choice. It means identifying it as an organized disorientation, which gives the state personnel a free hand. The whole problem then is to affirmatively reject this illusion, and to find elsewhere the principle of an orientation of thought and existence. To arrive at this, to identify the illusion as an illusion and reject it - which means, among other things, not expecting anything from the vote - we must, to recapitulate our analysis, bring together five terms:

1. The reality of a world: the situation, and what we should call it. Today I would say that it is war, both external (military interventions) and internal (war against the people, the poor and/or those of foreign origin, under cover of the 'antiterrorist struggle'), that is the reality of the contemporary world.

2. The suitable maxim for a general orientation in this situation. The principle that, bearing on an existence as does any true principle, separates itself from domination and opens the field of the possible, is simply: there is only one world. We shall demonstrate this later on.

3. The structure of the illusion and its future. The illusion is not to see that it is the state that constructs the fallacious appearance of a political choice on the basis of the malleable material formed by public disorientation. Voting is just the operation of this appearance, which today only configures affects of fear. In short, voting is the fictitious figure of a choice, imposed on an essential disorientation.

4. Orientation. The place for this is at a remove from the state, thus outside of voting. Its role is to construct something unprecedented in the real. It consists in incorporating oneself into a certain truth process, in particular alongside the direct political organization of those who, even here, are kept outside of the (false) single world, relegated to the 'other' world. At the heart of this exiled world proletariat are the workers of foreign origin. And at the heart of this heart, those without papers.

5. Becoming-subject is the result of incorporation conceived as orientation. Human individuals, trained as animals who only know their immediate interests in the market place, make themselves one component among others in the body of truth, and by doing so go beyond themselves as a subject. Since we are in a landscape of war, and our specific local illusion is Pétainism (i.e. to remain sheltered from global earthquakes, whatever the price to pay: Jews handed over to be massacred, Africans handed over to the police, children chased out of school...), then to say 'there is only one world' means emerging from our shelter to make this maxim effective. 

How can we recognize those who overcome their supposed 'free individuality', i.e. who overcome the stereotype in which they are dissolved (and what could be more monotonous, more uniform, than the 'free' individuals of commodity society, the civilized petty bourgeois repeating their laughable obsessions like well-fed parrots?) and attain the local steadfastness of a trans-individual truth? Their becoming-subject is attested, for example, in the conviction that to hold a meeting able to reach a conclusion and establish a duration sheltered from the schedules of the state, with four African workers from a hostel, a student, a Chinese textile worker, a postman, two housewives and a few stragglers from a housing estate, is infinitely more important, in an infinity itself incommensurable, than to drop the name of an indiscernible politician into the state counting-box.

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