The historical riots of recent times -those that indicate the possibility of a new situation in the history of politics, without for now being in a position to realize that possibility -are obviously the multifaceted uprisings in a number of Arab countries. I shall base myself on these uprisings in the next chapter to define precisely what an historical riot is: a riot which is neither (below it) an immediate riot, nor (beyond it) the large-scale advent of a new politics.
What is to be said about our 'Western' countries?
We shall call 'Western' the countries which proudly call themselves by that name: countries historically situated at the leading edge of capitalist development, with a vigorous imperial and bellicose tradition behind them, still equipped with an economic and financial strike force that allows them to purchase corrupt governments the world over, and with a military strike force which enables them to intimidate all potential enemies of their domination. Let us add that these countries are extremely satisfied with their state system, which they call 'democracy' - a system that is in fact particularly attuned to the peaceful coexistence of the various fractions of the governing oligarchy, which, in agreement on the basics (market economy, parliamentary regime, vigilant hostility towards anything dissimilar from them and whose generic name is 'communism'), are nevertheless separated by various nuances.
The Western countries have experienced immediate riots, and without a doubt will experience them on a much vaster scale than anything we have seen for ten years. They have not experienced an historical riot for around forty years. My view is that an era has opened, if not of their possibility, then at least of the possibility of their possibility. By this I mean an evental rupture creating the possibility of the unforeseen historical unfolding of some immediate riot.
What leads me to advance this ( optimistic) hypothesis is what I call the existence in our countries, which are affluent albeit in crisis, and content although funerary, of a subjectivity of latent riot.
I shall start with an example.
Among the countless anti-popular crimes of the Sarkozy government, which in all likelihood is the most reactionary government France has had since Petain, there is, as everyone knows, a pension reform clamorously demanded by 'the markets' of which Sarkozy is the compliant commensal. Basically, it involves working much longer for much less. The 'counter' to this measure, taken in hand by the trade unions, was at once massive and very weak. People marched in their millions, but the union leaderships Visibly started out defeated. Their real objective was limited to the need to control the masses and avoid 'things getting out of control', so as to patiently await better times with the election of a 'left' apparatchik as president.
However, it has been noted that inside this movement, as defeated from within by its leaders as the French army was in 1940 by its own generals, who far preferred Hitler to the Communists, several symptoms implicitly tended towards riot. First of all, the repeated chant of 'Sarkozy resign', which is typical of historical riots (we shall see why), frequently went up despite the 'apolitica1' instructions of the ruling bureaucracies. Secondly, people registered the obvious dissent in the processions of several big union battalions, which were much more aggressive than their bosses, and which wanted more now. We should doubtless include in this the surprising decision of the petrol refinery workers' union, which for several days mounted a blockade of petrol deliveries - an action of a very real brutality with potentially large-scale consequences (the police soon intervened). Without a doubt these phenomena primed something that always occurs at a time of riot: a division in apparatuses, whatever they may be, under the subjective pressure of the slogans through which collective action tends to unify the people. Finally, and especially, the invention of new forms of action of a virtually riotous character, even though it was not extended, prepared the future. In particular, we might cite the practice of 'proxy' strikes or 'free' strikes: a specific factory or establishment goes on strike even though its wage-earners declare themselves to be at work. This involves an external popular detachment, mainly composed of people not obliged to work (retired people, students, holidaymakers, unemployed people, and so on), occupying the site and blocking production, with the agreement of the relevant wage-earners obviously. Thus the strike situation is absolutely real even though the wage-earners are not legally on strike and can get paid. This procedure makes it possible to extend a strike with an occupation - an extension which especially today, when life is very difficult for the working poor and unions are much too weak to support strike funds, remains impossible beyond a few days in most instances.
This kind of action is quasi-riotous for several reasons. Firstly, it scorns the habitual reactionary opinion according to which the affairs of a site are those of its wage-earners and them alone. Secondly, it unwaveringly challenges the no less reactionary judgement that it is immoral to go on strike while declaring oneself not to be on strike. Thirdly, it absolutely links 'strike' and 'occupation', habitually separated by at least one rung in the ladder of the violence of action. It thereby creates a shared localization, and not merely a limited localization, as would be the case if only the wage-earners participated in the occupation. Fourthly, it has to be prepared for the inevitable arrival of the police, which puts on the agenda the classic debate in riots between peaceful abandonment of the site or staying put and resisting. Finally, and above all, it effects in action a link between several social strata that are generally separated, thus creating on the spot a new subjective type beyond the fragmentation reproduced by both the state and its union appendages. The clearest evidence for this is that sizeable actions of this kind for example, the occupation of certain airports or the stoppage of sewage plants - have been prepared and decided by committees with various names, but whose major feature is that they mix students, youth, wageearners (whether unionized or not), retired people, intellectuals, and so on. Thus a significant dimension of the most significant riots was generated locally, and with a view to immediate actions: the creation of a new type of popular unity, heedless of state stratifications and resulting from seemingly disparate subjective trajectories.
In favour of the riotous latency of these actions, it can also be argued that the principal media, servants of 'democratic wisdom' - in other words, POL ideology - have studiously avoided regarding them as the sole real novelty in the situation, the sole future promise of a movement as loose as it is vast, and have referred to them as little as possible.
We can say that, over and above its penumbra of defeatism, the 'mobilization' (tiresome word) against the Sarkozy law on pensions contained a latent riotous subjectivity. A single spark, a spectacular incident, a violent escalation, even an ill-understood trade union slogan, would have been enough for the so-called 'mobilization' to take a much more resolute turn, to escape locally and forcefully from the capitaloparliamentarian consensus and construct, at least for a time, some impregnable popular sites.
Thus, even in our anxiety-ridden countries, tempted by the most extreme reaction, the latency of riot attests to the fact that circumstances can extract from our apathy an unforeseeable life beyond our lethal 'democracies'
ALAIN BADIOU /THE REBIRTH OF HISTORY/Times Of Riots and Uprising
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