What Is Communism Anyway? 1: States and Affairs, Research Time, 23/02/2014

Badiou is a fascinating philosopher, but my own work may
not even really need too many of his ideas.
I’ve thrown enough digs at Alain Badiou over the last few months that I should finally dive in more detail into some of his work. As I mentioned on Friday, my friend B sent me an article of his, “The Idea of Communism,” and it’s given me an excellent set of ideas to react to. I still have fundamental disagreements with Badiou’s approach to politics and philosophy, and even though I very much respect that perspective, I’m not actually sure to what degree his work will be useful for the Utopias project. There’s one inescapable element of his thinking that I find remarkably disturbing, his conception of the subject as a collective. This will spread over multiple posts.

“The Idea of Communism” contained two sprightly concepts, each created from merging two ideas that are typically kept separate. One such concept is his term, “State,” always capitalized, to refer both to the institutions of territorial government typically given this term, and simultaneously the situation of one’s current life. In other words, he unites the State with the state of affairs. If you think this sounds fishy, it is, because we experience these phenomena very differently. Of course, most original philosophical concepts sound fishy when they’re first developed, until you can work with them and figure out what they can do. This is the true test of a philosophical concept: what and how it lets you think. If you believe an idea wasn’t worth thinking because it isn’t immediately transparent in the terms you’re most accustomed to, then you’re a bad philosopher.*

* And also a social conservative, but that’s immaterial to this meditation. Maybe.

But there are some further problems with blurring this distinction between institutions of governance and one’s general worldly situation. Badiou, because he’s writing specifically about politics in this essay, is working through how to oppose the injustices of capitalist systems. In particular, he discusses how to overthrow our state institutions of governance. 

The problem is that the enormous capital flows that constitute our modern financial systems are bigger than most states. So overthrowing a state might not cut it in terms of making a substantial dent in the system where it really matters: not the governance institutions that are tied essentially to a defined territory, but the flows of money, credit, capital, and material which constitute a moment that can crush many states. Yes, a state can raise an army, contract mercenaries, run weapons factories, and even control nuclear arsenals. But state actions, even those of the most powerful, have lately been about reacting to developments in these world-sized waves.**

** The People’s Republic of China so far may be the only state whose single actions have had a serious active effect on this process, when they injected billions of dollars worth of credit into their investment markets and construction projects. It is seriously enough to almost double the size of Wuhan. If this credit extension collapses, shit could get seriously serious, even compared to what’s happened already.

Far from withering, Marxist governments
tend too often to over-solidify themselves
in state power. Eventually, they need a new
revolution for one more shot at the
institutional justice the first one failed to
So a focus on states as the primary political and economic units of our time is one problem with Badiou’s concept of the State. However, it also lets us inject some greater profundity in what is, to me, one of the most abused and idiotically parroted ideas in the Karl Marx corpus: the idea that, under communism, the state would ‘wither away.’ When we talk exclusively about a communist party taking over a governance institution, the state doesn’t wither away through the direct social connections of collectivization. It more often results in the slow strangling of a country through bureaucracy. 

It’s an unfortunate side-effect of one of my most hated legacies of the 19th century, the equation of the state with the public. After the last century of failure, a genuinely revolutionary attitude wouldn’t trust the institutions of the state to bring about social change through top-down edicts. At least I don’t.

But Badiou actually has a decent account of how this conceptual union of state institution and state of affairs means for the event of withering. What the social revolution, in Badiou’s perspective, brings about is literally the end of injustice. The state institutions are themselves conceived as the state of affairs. He doesn’t conceive communism as a party in warfare and electoral politics, but as a movement advocating for justice. His conception of the just is bound in communistic principles, but the state of affairs that changes is the whole world we live in.

This leads me to what I think is the greatest benefit of Badiou’s concept of the State. All too often, we think of our government and its bureaucracy as more stable than the mountains. We take its basic functions for granted. At least in the West, they’ve persisted for so long that their nature feels immutable. But we conceive of our worldly situations as fluid, open to change, and always fluctuating to some degree anyway. By blurring the boundary between our worldly situations and our governance institutions, conceiving of those institutions as one element of a wider situation, we can open our thinking to imagine more radical changes to governance. We can see the capacity for change in what we too easily take to be immutable.

About the method of that mutation, Badiou and I still have some very angry words to say to each other.

No comments:

Post a Comment