Riots and the West
Historical riots represent a challenge for the state because, in demanding the departure of those who rule it, they invariably expose it to a brutal, unprepared change, even to the possibility of its complete collapse (that is precisely what happened in Iran, thirty years ago, to the Shah's monarchical regime). At the same time, riots do not possess all the keys - far from it to the nature and extent of the change to which they expose the state. What is going to happen in the state is in no wise prefigured by a riot.
Admittedly, in mass movements with a historical dimension there are always people who sincerely believe the opposite. They think that the popular democratic practices of the movement (of any historical riot, no matter when and where it occurs) form a kind of paradigm for the state to come. Egalitarian assemblies are held; everyone has the right to speak; social, religious, racial, national, sexual and intellectual differences are no longer of any significance. Decisions are always collective. In appearance at least: seasoned militants know how to prepare for an assembly by a prior, closed meeting that will in fact remain secret. But no matter, it is indeed true that decisions will invariably be unanimous, because the strongest, most appropriate proposal emerges from the discussion. And it can then be said that 'legislative' power, which formulates the new directive, not only coincides with 'executive power', which organizes its practical consequences, but also with the whole active people symbolized by the assembly.
Why not extend these features of mass democracy, which are so powerful and inspiring, to the state in its entirety? Quite simply because between the democracy of the riot and the routine, repressive, blind system of state decisions - even, and especially, when they claim to be 'democratic' - there is such a wide gulf that Marx could only imagine overcoming it at the end of a process of the state's withering away. And, to be brought to a successful conclusion, that process required not mass democracy everywhere, but its dialectical opposite: a transitional dictatorship which was compacted and implacable.
Marx was unquestionably right, and I shall return to the rational paradox of an inevitable continuity between the egalitarian democracy established within itself by an historical riot and the popular dictatorship exercised without, in the direction of enemies and suspects, whereby an attempt is made to achieve political fidelity to the riot.
For now it suffices for us to note that a historical riot does not by itself offer any alternative to the power it intends to overthrow. There is a very important difference between 'historical riot' and 'revolution': the second, at least since Lenin, has been regarded as possessing within itself the resources required for an immediate seizure of power.
That is why rioters have always complained about the fact that the new regime, following the riotous overthrow of the previous one, is in the main identical to it. The prototype of such similarity is the construction of a regime dominated by political personnel from the putative 'opposition' to the Empire after the fall of Napoleon III, the lost war and the riots of 4 September 1870. To make it perfectly clear whose side it was on, this 'new' government was to display an especial antipopular ferocity a few months later, by remorselessly massacring thousands of communard workers.
The communist party, such as it was conceived by the Russian Social Democratic Workers' Party and then the Bolsheviks, is a structure which, derived from a rigorous analysis of the Paris Commune by Lenin, declared itself capable of incorporating an alternative to the existing government and founding a new state after the complete destruction of the old Tsarist apparatus.
When the figure of riot becomes a political figure - in other words, when it possesses within itself the political personnel it requires and resort to the state's professional nags becomes unnecessary - we can say that what has arrived is the end if the intervallic period, because a new politics has been able to seize on the rebirth of History symbolized by a historical riot.
To return to the historical riots in the Arab world, especially Egypt and Tunisia, we already know that they are going to continue while becoming divided. Some of the rioters - the youngest, the most determined or the best organized - are going to declare that the transitional governments which have been established with difficulty, and which often conceal the persistence of the most important institutions of the old regime (for example, the army in Egypt), are so remote from the popular movement that they do not want them any more than they did Ben Ali or Mubarak. But for the moment these protests are not generating the idea on whose basis fidelity to the riot can be organized. Hence a vibrant indecision which, from a purely formal standpoint, closely equates the situation in the Arab world with situations already witnessed in the nineteenth century.
Ultimately, we cannot avoid the question: what criteria make it possible to evaluate a riot, to assess the scope of the historical reawakening it incorporates?
From the outset, the Western powers, and the media dependent on them, have had a ready-made answer. According to them, the desire inspiring the riots in the Arab countries is 'freedom' in the sense given this term by Westerners - namely, 'freedom of opinion' in the fixed framework of unbridled capitalism ('free enterprise') and a state based on parliamentary representation ('free elections', which select between various practically indistinguishable managers of the established system).
Basically, our rulers and our dominant media have suggested a simple interpretation of the riots in the Arab world: what is expressed in them is what might be called a desire for the West. A desire to 'enjoy' everything that we, the drowsy, satiated inhabitants of the affluent countries, already 'enjoy' . A desire finally to be included in the 'civilized world' which Westerners, incorrigible descendants of racist colonists, are so certain of representing that they set up international 'courts' to judge anyone who asserts different values (which are indeed sometimes disreputable), or so much as affects to shake off the oppressive tutelage of the 'international community' (admittedly sometimes in purely self-interested fashion). In so doing, Westerners wrapped in the flag of Right forget that their alleged power to state the Good is nothing but the modernized name for imperial interventionism.
Any mass movement is obviously an urgent demand for liberation. With respect to regimes as despotic, corrupt and in thrall to imperial beck and call as those of Ben Ali and Mubarak, such a demand is wholly legitimate. That this desire as such is a desire for the West is infinitely more debatable.
It must be remembered that the West as a power has not hitherto shown any evidence that it was in the least concerned with organizing freedom in the places it intervenes in, often with arms. What counts for our 'civilized' men is: 'Are you with us or against us?' This gives the phrase 'with us' the meaning of a slavish inclusion in the planetary market economy, organized in the relevant countries by corrupt personnel, in close collaboration with a counterrevolutionary police force and army, trained, equipped and commanded by officers, secret agents and racketeers who are just like back home. 'Friendly countries' such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Nigeria, Mexico and many others are just as despotic and corrupt as Ben Ali's Tunisia or Mubarak's Egypt, if not much more so. But we scarcely hear those who emerged on the occasion of the events in Tunisia or Egypt as ardent defenders of all riots in favour of freedom pronouncing on that subject. One senses that our states prefer the firm calm ensured by friendly despots to the uncertainty of riots. But once a riot is open to being interpreted as a desire for the West, and even better ends up being such, our politicians and media will accord it a warm reception.
However, such an outcome is not guaranteed. The very fact that, via the handy megaphone of BernardHenri Levy, the French and British have ended up purely and simply inventing rag-tag and bob tail 'rebels' in Libya -of whom the only real effective ones have declared themselves to be ex-al-Qaeda (what a paradox!), but all of whom for the moment are under their heel (Libya is the only place in the world where people have the absurd idea of shouting 'Long live Sarkozy!') - arming them, leading them and guaranteeing them the supporting fire of their air forces, demonstrates the extent to which our governments ultimately fear the expression in genuine rebellions of anything other than an inordinate love of imperial civilizations. That people should be referring, after five months of action by French and British planes with American logistical support, their attack helicopters, and their officers and agents on the ground, to a moving 'rebel victory' is frankly ridiculous.
But this is the kind of victory (Alain Juppe stating, in a telling admission, 'We did the job') that Westerners adore. For when genuine popular rebellions are involved, they cannot help thinking that perhaps, after all, they are dealing with people who do not wish to shout themselves hoarse in support of Cameron, Sarkozy or Obama. Maybe - as their anxiety mounts all these episodes contain an Idea, as yet unformulated, which is highly displeasing to them. A conception of democracy completely opposed to their own, perhaps. In this state of uncertainty, they conclude, let us get our machine guns ready and confirm that they are in working order.
In these conditions we must attempt to define more precisely what a popular movement reducible to a 'desire for the West' is or might be; and what the current riots, should they rise above this lethal temptation, could be.
Let us try, then. A riot subject to a desire for the West takes the immediate form of an anti -despotic riot, whose negative, popular power is indeed that of the crowd, but whose affirmative power has no other norm than those vaunted by the West. A popular movement corresponding to this definition has every chance of ending in very modest constitutional reforms and elections firmly controlled by the 'international community'. From these, to the general surprise of supporters of the riot, there will emerge victorious either some well-known hired guns of Western interests, or a version of those 'moderate Islamists' from whom our rulers are gradually learning that there is nothing to fear. I propose to say that at the end of such a process we will have witnessed a phenomenon of Western inclusion.
Among us the dominant interpretation of what is happening is that this phenomenon is the natural, legitimate outcome of the riots in the Arab world under the rubric of 'victory of democracy' .
Moreover, this explains why, by contrast, riots are brutally repressed and execrated when they occur at home. If a 'good riot' demands inclusion in the West, why on earth rise up where this inclusion is well established, in our robust civilized democracy? From time to time the flea-ridden, the Arabs, the blacks, the Orientals and other workers from hell may, without exaggeration, demand to be 'like us' - all the more so because it will not happen tomorrow, and in the meantime the good old colonial plunder that fuels our serenity will continue in various forms. At home, on the other hand, they only have the right to work and vote in silence. If not, look out! Cameron and his little London gulag for inner-city youth, Sarkozy and his anti-rabble Karchers, are guarding the walls of civilization.
If it is true, as Marx foresaw, that the space of realization of emancipatory ideas is global (something, incidentally, that was not really true of twentieth century revolutions), then a phenomenon of Western inclusion cannot be regarded as genuine change. What would be a genuine change would be an exit from the West, a 'de-Westernization', and it would take the form of an exclusion. A daydream, you will say. But it could be that it is right there, in front of our eyes. And in any event this is what we must dream, because this dream makes it possible, without reneging on everything we have stood for or sinking into the 'no future' of nihilism, to go through the painful years of an intervallic period.
ALAIN BADIOU/THE REBIRTH OF HISTORY/ Times Of Riots and Uprisings
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