by Alain Badiou
As I write these lines, we are being treated to speeches by Cameron, the British prime minister who is already implicated in several murky affairs, about the riots in impoverished parts of London. Here too the reversion· to the anti-popular idiom of the nineteenth century is striking. Those involved are nothing but gangs, hooligans, thieves, brigands - in short, 'dangerous classes' contrasted, as in the days of Queen Victoria, with a morbid cult of property, defence of material possessions and good citizens (the ones who never rebel against anything). All this is coupled with the announcement of a ruthless, sustained repression, which is blind on principle. On this point we can trust Cameron. Catching up with the quasi-concentration camp use of prison in the United States, and having perfected a ferocious set oflaws under the 'socialist' Blair, the United Kingdom has many more prisoners as a percentage of its population than France, which does not pull any punches when it comes to locking up youth.
To sow terror, TV obligingly runs footage of police squads, hulking brutes kitted out and armed to the teeth, who delightedly smash in doors with battering rams (when it comes to the property of the poor, they don't give a damn), and rush into the flats to remove with spectacular brutality a young man who has doubtless been denounced anonymously, or caught on one of the countless cameras with which Her Majesty's Government has filled the public space, transforming it into a gigantic stage of which the police are the constant voyeurs. At the same time, the courts are handing down staggering sentences pell-mell on bottle-throwers; petty thieves of tins of shoe polish; people who have abused the forces oflaw and order; burners of dustbins; loudmouths; those with a penknife on them; those who insulted the government; people who were running; those who, emulating their neighbours, smashed windows; those who uttered obscenities; people who hung around with their hands in their pockets; those who were doing nothing - highly suspicious; and even people who were not there, and whom justice must ask where they were. As Cameron nobly put it, going one step further than his police, 'It is criminality pure and simple and it has to be confronted and defeated.' For Cameron, who envisages 3,000 people being brought before the courts, and for his police, who have stated that they are hunting 30,000 suspects, tens of thousands of criminals have, bizarrely, suddenly been seen to erupt onto the streets ...
As ever, as in France, what gets forgotten in all this is the real crime, as well as the actual victim: the person (often persons) killed by the police. With utter uniformity, riots by the popular youth in the 'suburbs' (the banlieues - a word which, like faubourgs in the past, refers to the huge working-class and poor areas of our spruce towns and cities, the dark continent of our megalopolises) are provoked by the actions of the police. The spark that 'lights a prairie fire' is always a state murder. Just as uniformly, the government and its police not only categorically refuse to accept the slightest responsibility for the whole affair, but use the riot as a pretext for reinforcing the arsenal of the police and criminal justice system. As a result of this view of things, the banlieues are spaces where one finds juxtaposed a contemptuous lack of interest in such hopeless zones on the part of the public authorities and heavy, violent, repressive incursions. All this on the model of 'native quarters' in colonial cities, black ghettos in the American belle epoque, or Palestinian reservations on the West Bank. Servile intellectuals rush to the aid of the repression, regarding the more or less swarthy youth as an 'Islamist' rabble hostile to 'our values'. What are these celebrated values? We all know. They are called Property, Occident, Laicism. This is the dreadful POL, the dominant ideology in all countries that make themselves out to be civilized.
In the name of POL, 'public opinion' will demand 'zero tolerance' of our fellow citizens in the so-called banlieues. Note, by the way, that while there is 'zero tolerance' for the young black who steals a screwdriver, there is infinite tolerance for the crimes of bankers and government embezzlers which affect the lives of millions. Sophisticated intellectuals, who shed tears at the sight of the millionaire director of the IMF in handcuffs, consider the government 'lax' in the inner cities and think one cannot see enough Arabs and blacks in chains.
In the name of this same POL, when dealing with those weak countries in Africa where we 'have interests', the same public opinion will demand that we exercise our 'right to intervene'. Courageous champions of the values that really count, our governments will flatten under bombs a petty tyrant they once adored, but who has become recalcitrant or superfluous. Obviously, there will be no question of touching those, more powerful and better advised, who possess key resources, are armed to the teeth and, sensing the wind change, have introduced opportune, appropriate 'reforms'. This means: have waved some declarations in favour of POL in the face of sainted Western opinion.
For our values, for POL, always read POLice.
In these processes, where the state puts on its most hideous expression, a no less detestable consensus is forged over a particularly reactive conception that can be summarized thus: the destruction or theft of a few goods in the frenzy of a riot is infinitely more culpable than the police assassination of a young man -the assassination that caused the riot. The government and press hastily assess the damage. And here is the vicious idea spread by all this: the death of the young man - a 'black hooligan', no doubt, or an Arab 'known to the police' - is nothing compared with all these additional costs. Let us grieve not for the death, but for the insurance companies. Against the gangs and thieves, let us stand guard, shoulder to shoulder with the police, in front of our property, which is coveted by a rabble foreign to our values, hostile to POL, because it is impoverished (no Property), derived from Africa (not the Occident), and Islamist (anti -Laicist).
Here, by contrast, it will be asserted that the life of a young man is priceless - all the more so in that he is one of the countless people abandoned by our society. To believe that the intolerable crime is to burn a few cars and rob some shops, whereas to kill a young man is trivial, is typically in keeping with what Marx regarded as the principal alienation of capitalism: the primacy of things over existence,1 of commodities over life and machines over workers, which he encapsulated in the formula: 'Le mort saisit Ie vif'. Of this lethal dimension of capitalism the Camerons and Sarkozys are the zealous cops.
I know full well that the kind of riot triggered by state murders -for example, in 2005 in Paris or 2011 in London -is violent, anarchic and ultimately without enduring truth. I know full well that it destroys and plunders without a concept, just as the Beautiful, according to Kant, 'pleases without a concept' . I shall come back to this point with all the more insistence in that it is precisely my problem: if riots are to signal a reawakening of History, they must indeed accord with an Idea.
For now, however, a philosopher will be permitted to lend an ear to the signal rather than rushing to judgement.
Today, there are riots throughout the world, from workers' and peasants' riots in China to youth riots in England, from the astonishing tenacity of crowds under gunfire in Syria to the massive protests in Iran, from Palestinians demanding the unity of Fatah and Hamas to Chicano sans-papiers in the United States. There are all sorts of riots, often very violent, but sometimes barely hinted at, mobilizing either specific social groups or whole populations. They are prompted by governments' and/or employers' decisions, electoral controversies, the activities of the police or an occupying army, even by simple episodes in people's existence. They immediately take a militant turn or develop in the shadow of a more official protest. They are blindly progressive or blindly reactionary (not every riot is up for grabs ... ). What they all have in common is that they stir up masses of people on the theme that things as they are must be regarded as unacceptable.
We can distinguish between three types of riot, which I shall respectively call immediate riot, latent riot and historical riot. In this chapter I shall deal with the first type. The others will be the subject of the next two chapters.
An immediate riot is unrest among a section of the population, nearly always in the wake of a violent episode of state coercion. Even the famous Tunisian riot, which triggered the series of 'Arab revolutions' in early 2011, was initially an immediate riot (in response to the suicide of a street vendor prevented from selling and struck by a policewoman).
Some of the defining characteristics of such a riot possess a general significance, and consequently an immediate riot is often the initial form of an historical riot.
First of all, the spearhead of an immediate riot, particularly the inevitable clashes with the forces of law and order, is youth. Some commentators have regarded the role of 'youth' in the riots in the Arab world as a sociological novelty, and have linked it to the use of Facebook or other vacuities of alleged technical innovation in the postmodern age. But who has ever seen a riot whose front ranks were made up of the elderly? As was evident in China in 1966-67 and France in 1968, but also in 1848 and at the time of the Fronde, during the Taiping Rebellion - and, ultimately, always and everywhere - popular and student youth form the hard core of riots. Their capacity for assembly, mobility and linguistic and tactical invention, like their inadequacies in discipline, strategic tenacity and moderation when required, are constants of mass action. Moreover, drums, fires, inflammatory leaflets, running through the back streets, circulating words, ringing bells - for centuries these have served their purpose in people suddenly assembling somewhere, just as sheep-like electronics does today. In the first instance, a riot is a tumultuous assembly of the young, virtually always in response to a misdemeanour, actual or alleged, by a despotic state. (But riots show us that in a sense the state is always despotic; that is why communism organizes its withering away.)
Next, an immediate riot is located in the territory of those who take part in it. The issue of the localization of riots is, as we shall see, quite fundamental. When a riot is restricted to the site where its participants live (most often the crumbling districts of cities), it stops there, in its immediate form. It is only when it constructs - most often in the city centre - a new site, where it endures and is extended, that it changes into an historical riot. An immediate riot, stagnating in its own social space, is not a powerful subjective trajectory. It rages on itself; it destroys what it is used to. It lets fly at the meagre symbols of the 'wealthy' existence it is in contact with every day - particularly cars, shops and banks. If it can, it destroys the sparse symbols of the state, thus demolishing its very weak presence: virtually abandoned police stations, unglamorous schools, community centres experienced as paternalistic plasters on the running sores of neglect. All this fuels the hostility of POL-style public opinion towards the rioters: 'Look! They're destroying the few things they've got!' Such opinion does not want to know that, when something is one of the few 'benefits' granted you, it becomes the symbol not of its particular function, but of the general scarcity, and that the riot detests it for that reason. Hence the blind destruction and pillaging of the very place the rioters live in, which is a universal characteristic of immediate riots. For our part, we shall say that all this achieves a weak localization, an inability of the riot to displace itself.
That is not to say that an immediate riot stops at one particular site. On the contrary, we observe a phenomenon dubbed contagion: an immediate riot spreads not by displacement, but by imitation. And this imitation occurs in sites that are similar, even largely identical, to the initial focal point. Youth on a housing estate in Saint-Ouen are going to do the same thing as those on an estate in Aulnay-sous-Bois. The popular districts of London are all going to be affected by the collective fever. Everyone remains in situ, but there they do what they have heard it said that others are doing. This process is indeed an extension of the riot, but once again we shall say that it is a limited extension, characteristic of an immediate riot or the immediate stage of a riot. It is only in discovering the means for an extension which cannot be reduced to an imitation that a riot assumes an historical dimension. BaSically, it is when an immediate riot extends to sectors of the population which, by virtue of their status, social composition, sex or age, are remote from its constitutive core that a genuine historical dimension is on the agenda. The entry onto the stage of ordinary women is invariably the first sign of such a generalized extension. An immediate riot, if one stops at its initial dynamic, can only combine weak localizations (at the site of the rioters) with limited extensions (through imitation).
Finally, an immediate riot is always indistinct when it comes to the subjective type it summons and creates. Because this subjectivity is composed solely of rebellion, and dominated by negation and destruction, it does not make it possible dearly to distinguish between what pertains to a partially universalizable intention and what remains confined to a rage with no purpose other than the satisfaction of being able to crystallize and find hateful objects to destroy or consume. As we know, obscurely mixed up with a mass of young people outraged by the death of their 'brother' are countless degrees of collusion with organized crime, which exists wherever poverty, social rejection, the absence of any public concern, and above all the lack of a rooted political organization that is the vector of powerful slogans induce a dislocation of popular unity and a temptation to engage in dubious expedients to circulate money where there is none. Organized crime, big-time or small-time, is a significant form of corruption of popular subjectivity by the dominant ideology of profit. The presence of organized crime in an immediate riot, to a greater or lesser degree depending on the circumstances, is inevitable. It should certainly be recognized by the rioters as a form of complicity with the dominant order: after all, capitalism is merely the social power of an 'honourable' organized crime. But in as much as it is immediate, a riot cannot really purify itself. Hence, in among the destruction of hated symbols, the profitable pillaging, the sheer pleasure in smashing what exists, the joyous whiff of gunpowder and guerrilla warfare against the cops, one cannot really see clearly. The subject of immediate riots is always impure. That is why they are neither political nor even pre-political. In the best of cases - and this is already a good deal - they make do with paving the way for an historical riot; in the worst, they merely indicate that the existing society, which is always a state organization of Capital, does not possess the means altogether to prevent the advent of an historical sign of rebellion in the desolate spaces for which it is responsible.
ALAIN BADIOU / THE REBIRTH OF HISTORY (Times Of Riots and Uprisings)
Leave a Reply.
Achim Szepanski - BAUDRILLARD: WHEN HUMAN RIGHTS AND DEMOCRACY BEGAN TO CIRCULATE LIKE OIL AND CAPITAL
Speculating Freedom: Addiction, Control and Rescriptive Subjectivity in the Work of William S. Burroughs
Joshua Carswell - EVALUATING DELEUZE’S “THE IMAGE OF THOUGHT” (1968) AS A PRECURSOR OF HYPERSTITION // PART 1
Joshua Carswell - Evaluating Deleuze’s “The Image of Thought” (1968) as a Precursor of Hyperstition // Part 2
Jose Rosales - ON THE END OF HISTORY & THE DEATH OF DESIRE (NOTES ON TIME AND NEGATIVITY IN BATAILLE’S ‘LETTRE Á X.’)
Jose Rosales - BERGSONIAN SCIENCE-FICTION: KODWO ESHUN, GILLES DELEUZE, & THINKING THE REALITY OF TIME
GILLES DELEUZE - Capitalism, flows, the decoding of flows, capitalism and schizophrenia, psychoanalysis, Spinoza.
Obsolete Capitalism - THE STRONG OF THE FUTURE. NIETZSCHE’S ACCELERATIONIST FRAGMENT IN DELEUZE AND GUATTARI’S ANTI-OEDIPUS
Obsolete Capitalism - Acceleration, Revolution and Money in Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-OEdipus (Part 1)
Obsolete Capitalism - Acceleration, Revolution and Money in Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-OEdipus (Part 2)
Obsolete Capitalism: Acceleration, Revolution and Money in Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-OEdipus (Part 3)
Obsolete Capitalism - Acceleration, Revolution and Money in Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-OEdipus (Part 4)
Obsolete Capitalism: Acceleration, Revolution and Money in Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-OEdipus (Part 5)
Stephen Zepke - “THIS WORLD OF WILD PRODUCTION AND EXPLOSIVE DESIRE” – THE UNCONSCIOUS AND THE FUTURE IN FELIX GUATTARI
Steven Craig Hickman - David Roden and the Posthuman Dilemma: Anti-Essentialism and the Question of Humanity
Steven Craig Hickman - The Intelligence of Capital: The Collapse of Politics in Contemporary Society
Steven Craig Hickman - The Carnival of Globalisation: Hyperstition, Surveillance, and the Empire of Reason
Steven Craig Hickman - Shaviro On The Neoliberal Strategy: Transgression and Accelerationist Aesthetics
Steven Craig Hickman - Hyperstition: Technorevisionism – Influencing, Modifying and Updating Reality
Terence Blake - CONCEPTS OUT OF THE SHADOWS: Notes on Deleuze and Guattari’s “What is Philosophy?” (2)
Terence Blake - GUATTARI’S LINES OF FLIGHT (2): transversal vs transferential approaches to the reading contract
Himanshu Damle - Games and Virtual Environments: Playing in the Dark. Could These be Havens for Criminal Networks?
Himanshu Damle - Hegelian Marxism of Lukács: Philosophy as Systematization of Ideology and Politics as Manipulation of Ideology.