[Badiou and Politics] How Global Capitalism Generates Terrorism, Racism, and Xenophobia. And a Way Forward (if We Are Courageous Enough to Engage With It).
“[The middle class], taken as a whole, is porous to racism, to xenophobia, to hatred of the destitute…we have a typically Western dialectical relation between an extreme arrogant self-satisfaction and a constant fear. Whence the definition of the art of democratic government these days: it is the art of making sure that this fear which animates their ideological and electoral base, the middle class, is not directed against them — the governments — but against this or that representative of the destitute masses… foreign workers, their children, refugees, the inhabitants of dark cities, fanatical Muslims. Here is the scapegoat sent out to pasture, by our masters and their media hacks, to feed on the fear of the middle classes…” — Alain Badiou, Our Wound is Not So Recent, pgs. 34, 46–47
Alain Badiou’s engagement with revolutionary politics and current events has never just been in mere supplement to his onto-mathematical philosophical work; rather it has been intimately intertwined with his constant output — “sutured” to his philosophy, to use his terminology — and has continuously informed and reflected his evolving thought.
What I would like to discuss here is a particularly fascinating set of observations about our current global and national situation put forward in some of Badiou’s recent work. In particular, those contained in Our Wound is Not So Recent: Thinking the Paris Killings of 13 November, published in 2016, which transcribes a public seminar given by Badiou just ten days after the terrorist attacks that shook Paris on November 13, 2015. (On a personal note, I was looking forward to seeing Badiou give a series of talks that very week at Tufts University, where I was studying Medicine and Public Health at the time. We were told he had to cancel his appearance, as he was committed to staying in Paris to respond to the terrorist attacks that had just occurred.)
While the national response to these terrorists attacks had the government and media reacting in their predictable and reactionary ways (condemning “Islamic terrorism” and calling for a stronger nationalism), Badiou instead ventures beyond this chatter and sophistry to implement a thoroughly systematic analysis of the global and national conditions that would potentiate such “an unbearable irruption of death”, ultimately linking the rampant spread of global capitalism to the rise of terrorism and the deepening of racism and xenophobia in the West. As we shall see, his assessment broadly demonstrates that:
- Capitalism describes our current global situation
- The result of global capitalism is the creation of a few concentrated pillars of wealth, surrounded by devastated zones from whence this wealth was generated (through colonialism, military intervention, pillaging, coercion, etc.)
- These devastated zones produce a youth entranced by the riches and promises of capitalism, and a desire to be a part of its domination. However, there is decidedly no place for these youth as capitalism becomes increasingly mechanized and devoid of the need for manual labor.
- These alienated youth turn to terrorism to achieve the riches promised to them, and in retaliation to their exclusion by the global capitalist framework.
- The middle class is assured by the state’s agents of capital that such crime and poverty is surely not a result of the failure of capitalism itself to dutifully incorporate those it has devastated — instead it instructs them to direct their fears toward these Others, as caricatured by their race, religion, citizenship status, etc. through use of the media and various state propaganda apparatuses.
- We can only move beyond this situation by building alliances between the middle class, the youth, and refugees, and together experiment with new mass politics that can compel the state or whither the state’s domination.
And although Badiou’s thoughts collected here represent a critical evaluation made prior to the election of Donald Trump in the USA, I will attempt to connect Badiou’s ultimate proposal for a path forward in this book to his more recent suggestions towards a politics of emancipation in the wake of Donald Trump and the rise of other demagogues (Badiou eventually returned to Tufts University a year later to reflect on the election of Donald Trump, which is to be published in his upcoming book Trump — those interested can see the video recording of that talk here).
Before we begin in earnest, two important notes:
First, our aim here will be to highlight Badiou’s analysis of the global capitalist situation, how that situation breeds fear, hate, and terrorism, and how we may move beyond this situation. As such, we will not provide a detailed and thorough account of Our Wound is Not So Recent, but I do urge those interested to read it in its entirety, particularly as it does not require knowledge of Badiou’s vast and intricate philosophical system and jargon.
Second, for Badiou “Politics” is what people do, and not what occurs at the level of the State (that is, what we do, and not what occurs at the government level). Historically speaking, true Politics has always been performed by the masses and communities towards collective aims, while what is commonly referred to as politics represents the routine machinations and mechanics of the State in the service of its own endurance and persistence. So when Badiou speaks of Politics, he is not speaking of the corrupt electoral and pseudo-representative systems of government that are inevitably infected and overrun by financial substructures and personal desires. Politics, and particularly a revolutionary Politics, always lies with the People and does so regardless of race, gender, or nationality. It is a global yearning for emancipation, and thus properly a “politics of emancipation”.
The Structure of the Contemporary World
Badiou begins by schematizing the situation of our contemporary world. Simply put, our world is dominated by the triumph of capitalism, which over the last thirty years has become a global force in terms of its reach and effect on populations. He notes that the “logic” of capitalism has been liberated in two major forms: this uncontrolled global spread and the increased concentration of wealth and profits within the capitalist superpowers.
The latter has been a result of the weakening of states to control or regulate capitalism as it decimates its citizens: banks that are “too big to fail” in the presence of failing consumers, large firms being allowed to avoid paying taxes with profits that are then funneled overseas or sheltered away from workers, the mergers of private companies to increase profit at the (literal) expense of the public good (for example, we see this now increasingly in healthcare as large hospital systems merge in the guise of “reducing cost and increasing efficiency”, when all that has been seen is increased market share, cost, and denials of care reimbursement), etc.
With regard to the former, as capitalism becomes more globalized, it less so requires the state to subsist as it used to in the past— major companies are now “trans-national” with worldwide offices, making them difficult to regulate or rein in. The result is the unbridled spread of capitalism, while states become mere “delegates of capital power” that are unable to control capitalism, but are utterly reliant upon its profits to survive and persist.
The New Imperialism and Economic Concentration
While traditional imperialism was directed by states in order to procure resources through colonization and the direct management of territories — Badiou reminds us of the 1885 Berlin Conference where the major European powers and the United States “sliced up” Africa to delineate the borders of their colonies/trade agreements — the “new” imperialism relies on military interventions that destroy and evacuate territories of interest. No longer do the imperialists have to manage and negotiate with local governments, instead it becomes much easier to overtly pillage these areas and strike deals with local gangs and warlords to facilitate this plundering. A “profitable gangsterism”.
Anarchic “devastated zones” result, where territories are destroyed rather than managed or replaced, and where resources can be taken freely. (We see this, for example, with regards to the West’s recent military interventions and escapades in the Middle East.) The innocent people affected by these actions, having their lands raided and ransacked, become scattered and destitute.
As a consequence of all this, small concentrated areas of wealth develop with large remote zones correspondingly depleted of their wealth and resources. To understand the effects of this, Badiou urges us to keep a few statistics in mind:
- 1% of the global population possess 46% of the available resources
- 10% of the global population possess 86% of the available resources
- 50% of the global population possess nothing
Although he does not directly cite his sources from 2015, this is consistent with the most recent data on the subject:
As Badiou goes on to stress, this creates:
- A planetary oligarchy of 10%
- A 50% “destitute mass”
- A 40% middle class that only possess 14% of the available resources
These monstrous inequalities (again, almost half of the world’s resources are owned by just 1% of the population!) defy any norm of “democracy” or “justice”. And as the weakened state ceases to have control over these differential effects of capitalism upon its population, those adversely affected have little avenue for recourse or recompense in thrall of the invisible hand.
We have already spoken about the oligarchy (those who spread capitalism and control the capital), but what of these destitute and the middle class?
The Destitute Mass
A raw component of capitalism is that in its mindless thirst for profits there are only three types of human that it values to quench: the oligarch, the consumer, and the laborer. Those who are not defined by these classes are of no use to its relentless wheel.
Therefore, from the perspective of global capitalism, the destitute mass (who are neither consumer or laborer, and definitely not among the oligarchs) count for nothing — they do not exist within the capitalist framework. In turn, this wandering mass (again, largely created by the devastating spread of capitalism through the new imperialism, as well as those inheritors of the old imperialism) are left out of the dominating socioeconomic structure:
“In the world today there are little over two billion people of whom we can say that they are counted for nothing… they are counted for nothing by capital, meaning that from the structural development of the world, they are nothing, and that therefore, strictly speaking, they should not exist. They should not be there… they are neither consumers nor a labor force… From the point of view of the general logic of the world, of imperious and self-satisfied capitalist globalization, they are as if non-existent.” [Our Wound is Not So Recent, pgs. 36–37]
“But wait!”, your upright civilized capitalists may exclaim. “All these poor people need to do is to pick themselves up, get a job or start a business in the market, and participate in the wondrous economic opportunities Capital has made available to them! And has not capitalism already rescued so many of these wretched from their poverty?”. Well, you may retort, is this not exactly what the various refugees, migrant workers, and immigrants are attempting to do by making their way to the industrialized countries? Are they not trying to reach those markets created directly from the devastation of their lands? Did not the very march of global capitalism put them into their poverty in the first place?
More to the point, what has happened as capitalism has spread over the globe, has become more mechanized, and has outsourced many of its activities is that not all possible laborers subjected to its effects can actually be employed. This is a structural defect of global capitalism that forms the core of Badiou’s analysis: for all its promises of riches to those who labor, capitalism is inherently unable to fulfill this promise to an adequate extent. Not all possible workers can be gainfully employed under the capitalist structure, and they thereby become a shunned excess of the structure’s unremitting march.
Badiou links a large part of this deficiency to the dynamics between the number of laborers and the average working hours, but his gist is that maximal profits are drained from a minimal number of workers who labor for a maximum number of hours. This leaves many without the possibility of work, and those who cannot find a place within the dominant framework are deemed non-existent and expendable (those familiar with Badiou’s logic of appearing and his mathematical ontology will recognize that these people are an “inexistent” of the Capitalist world, and comprise an empty set “not counted” by the situation of Capitalism, thereby generating a site of future revolutionary potential.)
Desire for the West, Nihilism, and Fascism
Two “subjectivities” (or psychological affects) have the potential to ensnare members of the destitute mass in light of capitalism’s devastating effects.
As these masses, through capitalism’s spread, become constantly exposed to the spectacle of the West’s luxury and comforts (e.g. those wide-eyed children enjoying their sugary drinks and fast food, the elite carousing with models and fast cars, mansions upon mansions upon mansions, etc.) as broadcasted by the mass media, they begin to see the Western way of life as dominant and non-negotiable. This engenders a desire to possess and share in what capitalism has represented to them, captivating them in their most vulnerable moments.
For some, this creates a “desire for the West” — a subjectivity through which one wishes to adopt the behavior and habits of the West, if but to simulate what they see on the incessant billboards and screens. Entranced by the base pleasures being represented to them, many attempt to migrate to these pillars of wealth (the Western cities, the metropolises) in search for work that does not, and cannot, structurally exist.
For others, a deep nihilism characterizes their subjectivity — bitter frustration and envy towards those overlords who have forced them out of the world and who now arrogantly impose displays of their lifestyle and riches across their conquered lands. A desire for revenge and destruction against the West takes hold, commonly couched in the terms of reactive mythologies and customs. This is how such vitriol expresses itself through local traditions and finds its voice in regressive religious exclamations. As such, this is how we mistake the treachery of capitalism for the ideologically easier target of religious fanaticism:
“Religion can perfectly well act as the identitarian sauce for all of this, precisely in so far as it is a suitably anti-Western referent. But as we have seen, in the final analysis, the origin of these [terrorists] doesn’t matter much, their spiritual origin, their religious origin, and so on, as they say. What counts is the choice they have made about their frustration. And they will rally to this mixture of corruption and sacrificial and criminal heroism because of the subjectivity that is theirs, not because of their Islamic conviction… Islamization is terminal rather than inaugural. Let’s say that it’s fascization that Islamizes, not Islam that fascizies.” [Our Wound is Not So Recent, pgs. 55–56]
The tipping point occurs when grave systemic crises in capitalism are exposed, and particularly when a subset of this mass comes up against the structural limit of capitalism’s inability to fulfill its promises of labor. In desperation, nihilism becomes captured by what Badiou terms the “contemporary fascism”: wanton destruction and killing of those who symbolize the West.
It is no mistake that many of these terrorists are young and impressionable men— their lives do not count within the Capitalist world, so why should others’? They have no prospects. They have no place in society. These youth see themselves on the margins of the future, unable to access that which they have been made to desire from the West: money, goods, women (recall the degree to which the Capitalist media fetishizes and makes objects of women, whose only existence is that of being a prize to be “won” or “possessed” by the victors), etc. If they cannot be allowed to earn these rewards, then they will take it. They will be the heroes of their own story, like so many of the strong men that the West advertises to them as the ideal visage. As Badiou elaborates:
“What interests me here is what this fascizing subjectivity offers to the young… These youths consider themselves as being without prospects, without any place in society they could occupy… These youths therefore see themselves as being on the margins of the salaried class, of consumption, and of the future. So what fascizations offers to them (what is stupidly called ‘radicalization’, when it is pure and simple regression) is a mixture of sacrificial and criminal heroism and ‘Western’ satisfactions. On the one hand the youth will become something like a mafioso, and proud of it, capable of sacrificial and criminal herosism: kill the Westerners… indulge in spectacular cruelty… on the other, touches of the ‘good life’, various satisfactions [money, women, cars]… So it’s a mixture of deadly heroic propositions and, at the same time, Western corruption by products. And this is a consistent mixture that has always, fundamentally, been characteristic of fascist gangs.” [Our Wound is Not So Recent, pgs. 54–55]
Therefore, a repressed desire for the West, combined with these frustrations over capitalism’s inability to make a place for those it has displaced in its unabating spread, allow for an eruption of blind violence against capitalism’s very idols. This contemporary fascism tethers to the global capitalism that birthed it as its bastard child.
(My suspicion is that this framework not only applies on a global level, but to a local one as well. The same subjectivities are borne out when we look at urban gang violence and the perverse glorification of “the hustle” and “the game” amongst many of our disenfranchised youth; a mindset reinforced by their sold-out idols and fat record executives — for what else can one do but comply when the incessant droning imperative is to “get that paper”? And don’t forget the “bitches”. Playa.)
The Middle Class
What of the middle class? Their affect is one of what Badiou terms “the Western subjectivity”: as possessors of only 14% of the available resources, and as alluded to in the opening quotation, their subjectivity is characterized by being constantly caught between the self-satisfaction of their comfortable existence and the risk of losing it all.
As we have seen, the economic stressors that the middle class face are explicitly due to the costly conflicts pursued by Capital in its efforts to establish and defend its profit zones (e.g. think of how much funding goes towards our mighty military-industrial complex and their actions, versus the funding towards projects benefiting the public good), in combination with the strategic weakening of the state that allows oligarchs to concentrate and shield profits gained directly from the middle class’s labor and consumption.
The state has a vested interest in diverting attention away from these deleterious effects of capitalism upon the middle class and its own weaknesses in being able to do anything about it, and the state becomes expert in using the tragedies of terrorism and the like to artfully redirect concern away from themselves and their treacherous institutions. Instead, public anger is strategically aimed towards the “foreign invaders” who have clearly come to seize everything the middle class have worked so hard for. The media chorus is all too familiar: “the poor, the migrants, the refugees… they are but criminal and indolent people who only seek to steal your jobs and deplete our welfare and resources. They are not ‘us’ ”.
This strategic redirection of fear towards the foreigners does not leave the state’s own impoverished unscathed, as it becomes an opportune time to cast blame for society’s economic failures on them as well. For every effort put into marking out those attempting to cross into their land, an equal effort is made by the state to single out the poor and destitute within the nation itself, and especially those whose families were forcibly wretched from their home countries generations prior for labor and then immediately thrown aside once those industries crumbled. The net effect is an ossification of the middle class against all these Others not counted by the capitalist state, while this same middle class in encouraged to give their full support to the state.
Once again, racial, religious, and cultural qualifiers are used to fuel the dominant anti-Other rhetoric, but this tactic is all secondary to state’s primarily economic motives. The suggestion here, and a belief Badiou has long held, is that one is not principally subjugated or discriminated against with regard to their race or documentation status, but foremost in how they are situated within the capitalist framework in regards to their capacity for production and profit (hence, for example, the difference in punishment severity for “white collar” crimes when compared to, say, drug trafficking — the former may disproportionately affect white people, while the latter black and brown people, but this discrimination is primarily in light of the relative productive capacity of each group and not race per se; employed rich vs. unemployed poor, respectively). Racial and cultural tensions are therefore aggravated by the mass media and the state to divert attention away from the state’s capitalist partnerships and machinations.
The state ultimately disciplines and mobilizes the middle class against those it deems unsavory, with assurances of “security” and “protection” so long as the middle class can be counted on for their vote come election time. This allows the democratic-capitalist state to persist, despite its obvious deficiencies (cross-reference how eagerly public opinion was sold over to war in Iraq under the most brittle of pretenses, but bolstered by the promises of security and defense). In this way, the true threats to the middle class’s wealth and prosperity remain hidden, while the public’s fears, anxieties, and anger are redirected towards those who cannot be used as fuel for the capitalist machine.
What is to Be Done?
Is there a way for us to rise above this mire and move forward together?
What is clear is that we need an ideology and social system that would offer a powerful alternative to global capitalism and its unrelenting domination of our world. Badiou has dedicated his long career to explicating this problem and the possibilities for its solution across many works and publications. While his closing remarks here in Our Wound is Not So Recent only touches lightly upon that body of work, they outline the fundamental features of his approach.
What is assured is that a solution will not come from the top down — whether that be from a ruthless dictator or from the ivory tower of the acadamy. The firm belief from Badiou’s stripe of intellectuals has always been that it is the People (the workers, the poor, the outcast) who trigger and enact the great revolutions and movements of social change; not the will of single “strong men” or the metaphysics of obscure professors. When the former effectively mobilize under a common cause, they have the potential to bend the arc of history towards a justice born from their righteous mass, while the latter only bring about disaster and demise. All we can do (as philosophers, artists, scientists, etc.) is formalize and theorize the revolution, supplying principles and guidance to the masses. For Badiou, this crystallizes in his philosophy as a mathematically formalized resistance that may be deployed in praxis.
Solutions will also decidedly not come from parliamentary government “reforms” or through the typical electoral mechanisms of choosing “representatives”, infested and infected as these systems are by private interests, redistricting, lobbyists, PACs, etc. The idea that our governmental systems can be changed for the better by using and engaging with the very mechanisms that have deranged those systems and that have allowed for their manipulation by the powerful and the oligarchs is pure lunacy. And as the present system is incapable of proposing true novelty, we must create something outside that system on our own terrirtory. Another way to exert pressure on the state must be thought.
“Mass democracy” (as opposed to the impotent democracy we currently practice) is how Badiou signifies a possible intervention. We can work together to compel the state to follow the popular movement via mass action — the emblem of which is the historical riot. Badiou’s “Theory of Riots” is further explicated in his The Rebirth of History: Times of Riots and Uprisings (2012). I had summarized the major points of this theory in an earlier version of this blog (here), and I hope to return to that work within this blog once we have covered the proper mathematico-philosophical apparatuses that underlie the theory. But the basic idea is that the “mass” consists of people allying with one another across races, genders, classes, occupations, etc. as a “multiplicity of voices” truly representative of the public, who are then able to generate a mass democratic movement with the ability to produce powerful political hypotheses that can be tested point-by-point in vita reali.
Such a mass is legitimized by the diversity of its actors and actresses, is divested of self-interest in favor of the common interest (it obtains a “disinterested-interest”), and acts in opposition to the state but at a distance from it. It is a mass that does not wish for violence, but is always prepared for it. It is a mass with true political power in its reflection of the People.
What Badiou focuses on in Our Wound is Not So Recent are some concrete alliances in forming a mass. His proposal is that the middle class must embrace the destitute (this “nomad proletariat”), recognize their shared struggle, and work together to create a world that includes everyone and curbs the vicissitudes of capitalism. It has been our inability to do so thus far, coupled with the degree to which capitalism has promoted public separations in spaces where there should be solidarity, that has contributed to the growth of terrorism, xenophobia, and racism:
“If, in our turn, we count for nothing, or even as enemies, people who live here but who, for capital, count as nothing. If we are incapable of speaking with and acting with these people — especially with them — so as to create an opening in the situation, a new political path… It is a kind of internal torsion in which the West comes under attack from a part of its own impotence — its impotence when it comes to creating a habitable subjective space for all the youth of the world… What we are suffering from is the absence, on the global scale, of a politics that would be detached entirely from the interiority of capitalism. It is the absence on the global scale of this politics that causes a young fascist to appear, to be created.” [Our Wound is Not So Recent, pgs. 72–73]
What must be created, for Badiou, is a “fourth” subjectivity (aside from those of the West, desire for the West, and nihilism) that can go beyond the domination of capitalism and fascism. New politics can only come from creative experimentation with social relations and being-together, and this can only occur through new partnerships across our imposed separations:
“The whole problem lies in [the middle class and intellectuals] connecting themselves with this nomad proletariat, going to see them, talking to them. No new thinking in politics will be born except through unexpected, improbable alliances, egalitarian trajectories and encounters… Capitalism is a machine for disorienting subjects, if they do not resign themselves to simply inhabiting the vacuous duality consumer/employee… We will create a fourth typical subjective figure, one that seeks to go beyond the domination of globalized capitalism without falling into nihilism, that murderous avatar of desire for the West. That is what is essential. And in order for this to take place peculiar alliances must be forged; we must think on another scale. Intellectuals and different segments of youth, must become organically linked by experiments first local, and then wider… What matters is that youths of every provenance, and intellectuals, make a gesture, carve out a path, make a step towards the nomad proletariat.” [Our Wound is Not So Recent, italics mine, pgs. 73–75]
What is most important to recognize is that Badiou does not propose some all-encompassing system or agenda for politics (as many “strong men” of the past have done), but instead schematizes the space for the possibility of ordinary people to decide their own political destiny as a collective and against their oppressors.
Finally, in his recent lectures following the election of Donald Trump, Badiou incorporates these ideas into four principles that may lead us to an alternate social system to capitalism; principles that “construct the possibility of a new strategic direction for humanity” and form a vector towards suppressing inequalities:
- Collectivism vs. private property: It is not necessary that private property be the key to social organization and development. We can share wealth and resources, instead of letting them be monstrously concentrated amoungst a few gangsters.
- Polymorphous workers vs. specialization: It is not necessary that we differentiate intellectual work and manual work. We can come together as workers of all different types and not be prejudiced against each other in our type of labor.
- Concrete universalism vs. crude identities: It is not necessary that we be separated by national, racial, gendered, and religious differences. We are all infinitely different from one another, and can instead be defined by our collective creations.
- Free association vs. the state: It is not necessary that the state exist in the form of separated “representative” powers. People can discuss amoungst themselves, in venues of their choosing, and decide what is important to their lives and how to proceed.
As Badiou notes, these do not form a concrete program, but are merely principles by which we may judge political programs and hypotheses for their direction and virtue. I’m sure that Badiou will elaborate on this loose protocol for political judgement in his future work, but for now it serves as a tantalizing idea requiring further development. For now, it suffices to recognize that we must tear down the borders between us, invite others in, and deliberate on how we can all prosper, together.
The source of all this calamity is right in front of us. We have known it intimately since birth, and it will pull us to our death. It is no surprise that finding a way above it all, and moving forward together, starts by reaching out…