Absurdity is the Meaning of Sarkozy
[The Meaning of Sarkozy. By Alain Badiou. Verso, 2008. 117 pages.]
This book provides evidence of the abysmal intellectual standards of much of contemporary Continental philosophy. Long-discredited dogmas of Marxism, accompanied by frequent references to Lenin and Mao as purveyors of wisdom, form the backbone of this deplorable book. Yet the author is no hack. He is one of the most famous current French philosophers, his Being and Event acclaimed by many as a masterpiece.
The book purports to analyze the recent victory of Nicolas Sarkozy in the election for president of France. As befits a distinguished philosopher, though, Badiou sets his account in a broad context: he offers us not only a portrait of a particular election but a view of world history. One premise controls that view: capitalism is evil.
Contemporary capitalism, as we all know, prides itself on its global nature. Globalization is the buzzword on all sides… [But] why am I justified in saying that the unified world of human subjects does not exist? Because the world that is declared to exist and that supposedly has to be imposed on everyone, the world of globalization, is uniquely a world of objects and monetary signs, a world of the free circulation of products and financial flows. It is precisely the world seen by Marx a hundred and fifty years ago: the world of the global market. All that exist in this world are things — objects for sale — and signs — the abstract instruments of sale and purchase, the various forms of money and credit. But it is not true that human subjects freely exist in this world. (pp. 53, 55)
Money transforms people into objects. How does it do so? It leads people to concentrate on such trivial matters as their personal welfare. The pursuit of self-interest constitutes the essence of corruption: true virtue must replace it.
In his radical critique of the democratic regime, Plato noted how, from the standpoint of such a regime, what politics has to regulate is the anarchy of material desires. And as a consequence of this, a democratic government is unsuited to the service of any idea at all… The French revolutionaries, who were republicans and not democrats, termed "corruption" the subjection of governmental power to business matters… "Corruption" in this sense is essentially expressed in Guizot's famous slogan "Enrich yourselves!" (pp. 89–90)
People must spurn so crass a slogan and surrender themselves to the pursuit of virtue. Why? Because Plato, the French revolutionaries, and Marx, not to mention their true successor, Alain Badiou, have told us so. It becomes a matter of some importance, then, to see exactly what the true path of virtue dictates.
That not-altogether-happy task will soon detain us; but before it does so, we need to consider Badiou's one argument against capitalism that merits consideration. He rightly points out that in today's world, people cannot freely move wherever they please:
to start with, they [human subjects] totally lack the basic right to move around and settle where they wish. In their crushing majority, the women and men of the supposed "world," the world of commodities and money, have no access at all to this world. They are rigorously locked out of it, where there are very few commodities for them and no money at all. (p. 55)
Badiou has made a strange complaint. If the market is evil, why is it bad that people lack access to it? If Badiou complains that state-imposed walls lock people in, why not simply call for their removal? But no one can doubt that Badiou does not want greater access for all to the benefits of the market. Quite the contrary, he opposes the market for its emphasis on material welfare. Again, if Badiou complains that people lack access to commodities and money, why does he not extol the spread of capitalism, which provides precisely those things? As Mises again and again pointed out, capitalism is a system of mass production for the masses. But of course our great philosopher cannot be bothered to read Mises.
Badiou has enmeshed himself in contradictions. He obviously deplores poverty in the third world and in the immigrant communities of his own country. But how can people rise out of poverty unless their material welfare concerns them?
Perhaps, though, I have misunderstood Badiou's argument. On this reading, he does not spurn material goods entirely. Rather, capitalism allows a privileged class to pursue unlimited wealth at the expense of exploiting others. Of course Marx long ago said exactly this; but why should we accept it? Badiou offers no argument that Marx's account of capitalism is right. Instead, he just assumes it as given.
If capitalism is bad, what should replace it? Badiou has no doubt. We must adopt the "communist hypothesis":
The communist hypothesis is that a different collective organization is practicable, one that will eliminate the inequality of wealth and even the division of labour; every individual will be a "multi-purpose worker," and in particular people will circulate between manual and intellectual work, as well as between town and country. (p. 98)
How civilization at more than a primitive level could exist without the division of labor Badiou does not deign to tell us.1 And when he says that his collective order is "practicable," there is the little matter of Mises's socialist-calculation argument, which to the contrary shows that a socialist regime is impossible. Again, Badiou has nothing to say.
One must, though, give Badiou credit—if he will pardon the monetary metaphor. He does advance one argument in favor of the communist hypothesis. He cites his great predecessor Jean-Paul Sartre:
Sartre said in an interview, which I paraphrase: if the communist hypothesis is not right, if it is not practicable, well, that means that humanity is not a thing in itself, not very different from ants or termites. What did he mean by that? If competition, the "free market," the sum of little pleasures, and the walls that protect you from the desires of the weak, are the alpha and omega of all collective and private existence, then the human animal is not worth a cent. (p. 101)
There you have the essence of Badiou. He rejects ordinary human beings and their banausic interests and wishes to replace them with something better. What if people do not wish to be transformed? So what! This has never bothered the great revolutionaries:
We are in 1793, with the Revolution under desperate attack. Saint-Just asks, "What do they want who accept neither Terror nor Virtue?" (p. 89)
People, after all, have often supported bad things. Hence, as Marx long ago noted, we need a temporary dictatorship of the proletariat to destroy the old materialistic order. If you disagree, he can again appeal to Sartre, who "uttered the famous sentence that 'every anti-Communist is a swine'" (p. 5). Throughout the book, he calls Sarkozy a rat. One can readily see the high argumentative standard of our eminent philosopher.
I am sure that Badiou would brush all this aside. For him, arguments do not count. Instead, the communist hypothesis must be embraced as a matter of faith. To do this expresses courage:
We have to accept heroically to dissolve the individual into a face-to-face with the point to be held on to… The turn by which the individual de-individualizes is undoubtedly what Plato calls "conversion." (p. 74)
Badiou in Being and Event and other works has dressed up what he preaches here with pretentious references to the Cantorian infinite, not to mention Paul Cohen on "forcing"; but his doctrine reduces to the acte gratuit of André Gide.
Even if Badiou disdains argument, must he not acknowledge the disasters of 20th-century communism? He does condemn Stalin, but Mao's Cultural Revolution still merits defense. Mao had the right idea, but he too narrowly limited his target:
it was necessary, whatever the cost, to steep the party in the mass movement in order to regenerate it, to de-bureaucratize it, and launch it on the transformation of the real world. The Cultural Revolution attempted this test, and rapidly became chaotic and violent, given that the definition of the enemy was uncertain, and that it was directed against the single pillar of society: the Communist Party itself. Mao is not blameless for this… Eventually, for want of support for the most radical experiments in the decentralization of the state … the old order had to be re-established in the worst conditions. (p. 110)
If only Mao had been more radical!
Most of the book comments on politics, but Badiou of course is a man of culture. Here is a sample:
Music of the past should be judged by the standard of today's creations, as nothing better displays the contemporary reactionary desire than to wax ecstatic, like the fans of "baroque," over the works of a seventeenth-century prig rediscovered under a well-deserved coat of dust in the Montpellier library and interpreted with the aid of shrill "original instruments," while the greatest masterpieces of the twentieth century are not played. (p. 46)
Faced with such refined sensibility, it would be churlish to complain that Badiou ascribes Pindar's familiar "become what you are" to Nietzsche (p. 65).
David Gordon covers new books in economics, politics, philosophy, and law for The Mises Review, the quarterly review of literature in the social sciences, published since 1995 by the Mises Institute. He is author of The Essential Rothbard, available in the Mises Store. Comment on the blog.
- 1. See on this Murray Rothbard, Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature, and Other Essays ( Mises Institute, 2000).