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Rethinking Emancipation
Continuum Studies in Continental Philosophy
Series Editor: James Fieser, University of Tennessee at Martin, USA

Continuum Studies in Continental Philosophy is a major monograph series

from Continuum. The series features first-class scholarly research
monographs across the field of Continental philosophy. Each work
makes a major contribution to the field of philosophical research.

Adorno's Concept of Life, Alastair Morgan

Badiou and Derrida, Antonio Calcagno
Badiou, Balibar, Ranci7re, Nicholas Hewlett
Reconstruction and Democracy, Alex Thomson
Deleuze and Guattari's Philosophy of History, Jay Lampert
Deleuze and the Meaning of Life, Claire Colebrook
Deleuze and the Unconscious, Christian Kerslake
Derrida and Disinterest, Sean Gaston
Encountering Derrida, edited by Simon Morgan Wortham and
Allison Weiner
Foucau's Heidegger, Timothy Rayner
Heidegger and the Place of Ethics, Michael Lewis
Heidegger Beyond Deconstruction, Michael Lewis
Heidegger's Contributions to Philosophy, Jason Powell
Husserl's Phenomenology, Kevin Hermberg
The Irony of Heidegger, Andrew Haas
Levinas and Camus, Tal Sessler
Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology, Kirk M. Besmer
The Philosophy of Exaggeration, Alexander Garcia Dttmann
Sartre's Ethics of Engagement, T. Storm Heter
Sartre's Phenomenology, David Reisman
Ricoeur and Lacan, Karl Simms
Who's Afraid of Deleuze and Guattari? Gregg Lambert
Rethinking Emancipation

Nick Hewlett

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Nick Hewlett 2007

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British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

ISBN: HB: 0-8264-9861-2


Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Hewlett, Nick.
Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere : re-thinking emancipation / By Nick Hewlett,
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN-13: 978-0-8264-9861-8 (alk. paper)
ISBN-10:0-8264-9861-2 (alk. paper)
1. Political science-Philosophy. 2. Democracy. 3. Equality. 4. Badiou, Alain. 5. Rancire,Jacques.
6. Balibar, Etienne, 1942- 7. France-Intellectual life-20th century. I. Title.

JA71.H47 2007

Typeset by Aarontype Limited, Easton, Bristol

Printed and bound in Great Britain by Biddies Ltd, King's Lynn, Norfolk
In memory of (Enone Hewlett, 1920-2006
This page intentionally left blank

Acknowledgements ix
Note on Translations x
Abbreviations xi

1 Contexts and Parameters 1

Three characteristics of modern French thought 10
The legacy of Louis Althusser 17
Concluding remarks 22

2 Alain Badiou: Event, Subject and Truth 24

The role of philosophy 28
Truth 33
The event, movement and change 37
Concluding remarks 45

3 The Paradoxes of Alain Badiou's Theory of Politics 47

Politics, the event and truth procedures 49
Against and beyond the postmodern 59
Marxism and historical materialism 62
Democracy 69
Parliamentary politics 72
Badiou's political activism 75
Concluding remarks 81

4 Jacques Rancire: Politics is Equality is Democracy 84

Listening to the unheard 86
Liberal democracy and language 95
Defining the political 100
Democracy and post-democracy 108
Concluding remarks 111
viii Contents

5 Etienne Balibar: Emancipation, Equaliberty and the 116

Dilemmas of Modernity
The political 119
Ambivalence, universality, ideology 127
Political violence 129
Lenin and Gandhi 136
Concluding remarks 139

6 With and Beyond Badiou, Balibar and Rancire 142

References and Bibliography 155

Index 173

I would like to thank Gary Browning, Christopher Flood and two

anonymous readers for commenting on drafts of individual chapters
of this book. Thanks also to participants at conferences and seminars
at the Universities of Fukuoka, Budapest and Leeds, at King's Col-
lege, London, and at University College, London, who commented
on some of the ideas in this book. In particular, I would like to thank
Gregory Elliott for a detailed, sensitive and highly insightful reading
of the manuscript as a whole. Sarah Douglas at Continuum showed
immediate enthusiasm for the project when I first approached her,
and was very helpful and encouraging thereafter. Nick Fawcett did
an excellent job copy-editing the manuscript. The final shape of the
book, including any errors and infelicities, is of course my responsibil-
ity alone.
My appreciation goes to the Arts and Humanities Research Coun-
cil for funding a period of leave in order to bring the project to fruition
and to the British Academy for two travel grants. An earlier version of
Chapter 2 was published in 2004 in Modern and Contemporary France
12 (3) and an earlier version of Chapter 3 was published in 2006 in
Contemporary Political Theory 5 (4).
I would like to thank Bridget Taylor, who has not only given con-
sistently sound advice during the time I was writing this book, but has
also shown huge patience as I went through authorial highs and lows.
My children Emily and Gus have been moving towards adulthood
over the past few years and remain constant sources of happiness.
Lasting happiness and enduring love are qualities I associate strongly
with my mother, (Enone, to whose memory this book is dedicated.
Note on Translations

In the two chapters on Badiou and the chapter on Rancire, I have

translated quotations from the original, French editions of their
works, except where the original is in English, or where I have
indicated otherwise. In the chapter on Balibar, I have quoted from
English translations of his work, except where I have indicated that
the translations are my own. Where I quote from or refer to an
English translation, the date of the original (French) version of the
work is indicated in square brackets.

Full details of the following works are found in the bibliography.

Abbreviations for works by Alain Badiou

AM Abrg de mtapolitique (Seuil, 1998).

B Beckett: L'incrvable dsir (Hachette, 1995).
BF 'Beyond Formalisation' (interview with Peter Hallward in
Angelaki, vol. 8, no. 2, 2003, pp. 111-36).
C1 Circonstances, 1. Kosovo, 11 septembre, Chirac/Le Pen
(Lo Scheer, 2003).
C Conditions (Seuil, 1992).
DO D'un Dsastre obscur. Sur la fin de la vrit d'tat (l'Aube, 1998).
D Gilles Deleuze: 'La clameur de I'tre' (Hachette, 1997).
E L'thique: Essai sur la conscience du mal (Hatier, 1993).
EB 'Entretien de Bruxelles' (in Les Temps Modernes, no. 526,
mail 990, pp. 1-26).
EE L'tre et I'vnement (Seuil, 1988).
IT Infinite Thought: Truth and the Return to Philosophy
(Continuum, 2003).
LM Logiques des mondes. L'tre et l'vnement, 2 (Seuil, 2006).
MP Manifestepour laphilosophie (Seuil, 1989).
PH 'Politics and Philosophy' (interview with Peter Hallward in
Angelaki, vol. 3, no. 3, 1998, pp. 113-33).
PM Petit manuel d'inesthetique (Seuil, 1998).
PP Peut-onpenser lapolitique? (Seuil, 1985).
S Le Stick (Seuil, 2005).
SP Saint-Paul. Lafondation de l'universalisme (Paris, PUF, 1997).
TC Thorie de la Contradiction (Maspro, 1975).
TS Thorie du sujet (Seuil, 1982).
xii Abbreviations

Abbreviations for works by Jacques Rancire

AB Aux bords dupolitique (Osiris, 1992).

AL 'Althusser'. In Simon Critchley and William R. Schroeder
(eds) A Companion to Continental Philosophy (Blackwell, 1998.
pp. 530-36).
CD La Chair des mots. Politiques de l'criture (Galilee, 1998).
CT Chronique des temps consensuels (La Fabrique, 2005).
DW 'Dissenting Words. A Conversation with Jacques Ranciere/
(diacritics, summer 2000).
LA La Leon d'Althusser (Gallimard, 1974).
LH La Haine de la democratic (Seuil, 2005).
LP Jacques Ranciere: Literature, Politics, Aesthetics:
Approaches to Democratic Disagreement.' Interview
with Jacques Ranciere by Solange Guenoun and
James H. Kavanagh (SubStance, no. 92, 2000, pp. 3-24).
M La Msentente (Galilee, 1995).
MI Le Matre ignorant. Cinq Legons sur I'mancipation intellectuelle
(Fayard, 1987).
NH Les Noms de I'Histoire. Essai depoetique du savoir (Seuil, 1992).
PP Le Philosophe et sespauvres (Fayard, 1983).
SP Les scnes dupeuple. Les Rvoltes logiques, 1975-1985
TT 'Ten Theses on Polities', Theory and Event 5:3 (2001).

Abbreviations for works by Etienne Balibar

DC Droit de cit (PUF, 2002).

HW 'Gewalt', in Das Historisch-Kritisches Wbrterbuch des Marxismus,
Das Argument Verlag, Berlin. Available online in French at^article=36
(accessed January 2006).
1C 'The Infinite Contradiction', in Yale French Studies 88, 1995,
pp. 142-64.
LC La Crainte des masses: politique etphilosophie avant et apres Marx
(Galilee, 1997).
LG 'Lnine et Gandhi: une rencontre manque?' Communication
Abbreviations xiii

impriale, guerre sociale , Universit de Paris X Nanterre,

Seance plnire, 2 Octobre-1 novembre 2004;
MCI Masses, Classes, Ideas (Routledge, 1994).
PM The Philosophy of Marx (Verso, 1995).
RNC Race, Nation, Class. Ambiguous Identities (Verso, 1991, with
Immanuel Wallerstein).
SP Spinoza and Politics (Verso, 1998).
SS 'Sub species universitatis'. In Topoi no. 1-2, September 2006,
pp. 3-16. Viewable at: http://ciepfc.rhapsodyk.netarticle.
WP We, the People of Europe? Reflections on Transnational Citizenship
(Princeton University Press, 2004).
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Chapter 1

Contexts and Parameters

Alain Badiou, Etienne Balibar and Jacques Ranciere each work

within the intellectual and political tradition which embraces the
notion of human emancipation. Associated with political struggle,
resistance, and freedom from oppression, the emancipatory paradigm
is inspired by the philosophy of Spinoza, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel and
Marx. It famously found intellectual expression in the Enlightenment
and its landmark political moments include the American Revolution
in the second half of the eighteenth century and the French Revolu-
tion of 1789. In the twentieth century, emancipation was often asso-
ciated with independence from colonial rule, the emancipation of
women from male domination, and the emancipation of the working
classes from capitalist exploitation. By adopting the view that freedom
is closely linked with freedom from oppression, advocates of the eman-
cipatory tradition set themselves apart from liberals, who tend to con-
ceive of freedom as absence from interference.
Such an approach to ideas and politics became less influential in
France from the mid-1970s onwards, having been highly prevalent
for two hundred years. But Badiou, Balibar and Ranciere have each
vigorously resisted the trend towards the various types of liberal
thought that have become so much more current in France, and
each has made a significant contribution to the emancipatory tradi-
tion. Even superficial acquaintance with the work of these writers
thus suggests that those who have rushed to write the obituaries of
France's tendency to produce radical intellectuals may have been
too categorical, too soon. Although I am by no means in full agree-
ment with Badiou, Balibar or Ranciere, I have chosen to examine
their work in part precisely because they each place the collective
and rebellious action of ordinary people at the very heart of their phi-
losophical systems, whilst at the same time engaging with French and
2 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

other thought which has emerged since Sartre was the dominant force
in European philosophy. They should not be seen as forming any kind
of united philosophical school, for disagreements and differences
between them are sometimes considerable, but their common and
steadfast refusal to make concessions to a variety of more mainstream
intellectual and political currents both sets them apart from numerous
other thinkers and suggests treatment within the same book.
Each of these writers has adopted as a major aim to explore notions
of equality, and the relationship between equality and emancipation.
For Badiou, the very idea of politics is intimately related to equality
and his philosophy includes an egalitarian presumption. His philoso-
phical system is organized around the notion of the event, which is
virtually synonymous with a broad concept of revolution, and as far
as politics is concerned the event is often an actual political and social
revolution in a traditional sense. For Balibar, his term 'equaliberty' is
at the heart of his understanding of politics, meaning that there can be
no freedom without equality, and vice versa. The notions of emanci-
pation and transformation are central to his definition of what is poli-
tical. For Ranciere, a discussion of equality is so central to his thought
that in a characteristically provocative way he argues that equality
is a starting point for any definition of politics and not just a distant
goal. Politics is intimately related to uprising and insurgency on the
part of excluded groups and against the unjust status quo; a disruption
of the normal order of things via a bold intervention by those who
have no voice.
In the broadest of terms, the work of these three thinkers is influ-
enced by Marxism, the ground from whence they all sprang in the
early years of their intellectual and political development. However
complex their intellectual discourses might be, and however unex-
pected some of their points of reference, they each still return fre-
quently to a common idea that an intellectual position of any real
significance must relate to an intervention in the material world
in order to change that world in an egalitarian direction. Despite
some highly novel, unorthodox and eclectic philosophical points
of reference, each seeks to interpret the world from a position that
starts with a belief in the need to pursue the logic of defending the
interests of ordinary people. Although none are now likely to describe
Contexts and Parameters 3

themselves as Marxist, none are studiously post-Marxist either, in the

sense that they might want to announce their passage from a stage
where they were strongly influenced by Marx to one where they
definitely are not.
The overarching question which I pose in order to evaluate and
engage with the work of Badiou, Balibar and Ranciere perhaps
reflects my training as a historian and political analyst, rather than
as a philosopher. It is: how can the powers of reflection be put to use
for transforming and egalitarian ends at the beginning of the twenty-
first century? The question of how to make thought relevant and
useful to the organization of human societies is of course one which
permeates all forms of political thought. John Locke, who divides
knowledge and science into three categories, fysike, praktike and semi-
otike, defines praktike as 'the skill of rightly applying our own powers
and actions, for the attainment of things good and useful' (Locke
1989 [1690]: 461) But for each of these writers the more precise
notion of praxis is appropriate. Praxis extends further the idea of
praktike and, in addition to applying the powers of the intellect to the
material world, also includes as a major consideration the influence of
the material world on thought. The result is a dialectical relationship
between theory and practice. This approach is arguably central to
each of Badiou, Balibar and Ranciere's own endeavours and I am
thus to an extent assessing them by their own criteria, judging the suc-
cesses and failures of their projects in terms which they themselves
broadly work to: how useful is their work in terms of both understand-
ing the contemporary world and changing it for the better, and how
has the material world influenced their thought?
Certainly, many pages of this book are devoted to evaluating the
internal logic of their thought, to comparing Badiou, Balibar and
Ranciere with each other and with other philosophers, or with think-
ers in different domains. If one or other is similar to or remote from a
particular intellectual tradition or thinker, or represents a radical
break from a tradition or thinker, this is relevant and important.
By the same token, I seek to trace the intellectual origins and develop-
ment of these three writers. But if I examine their thought qua thought
in this way, I also do so as a means, ultimately, to assessing their
relevance to the material, and broadly speaking political, world with
4 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

a view to examining the possibility of applying their philosophy to

the world around us.
The importance of Badiou, Balibar and Ranciere's work is gradu-
ally being recognized more widely. In addition to their considerable
originality and intellectual breadth, the sheer volume of output on the
part of these thinkers helps explain why each is being taken increas-
ingly seriously. Since the publication in 1988 of Badiou's major work,
L'Etre et I'evenement, he has written more than twenty further books,
together with numerous articles and interviews, ranging from
abstract discussions to pamphlets and newspaper articles on contem-
porary politics, via comments on historical events. His most signifi-
cant philosophical work since his first magnum opus is Logique des
mondes (2006), which is intended as a sequel to and refinement of
some of the major propositions contained in L'Etre et I'evenement and is
indeed subtitled UEtre et I'evenement, 2. Balibar has also published a
great deal, ranging from a close reading of and re-interpretation of
Spinoza, in Spinoza and Politics (1998 [ 1985]) to extended commentary
on European citizenship and racism, for example in We, the People of
Europe? Reflections on Transnational Citizenship (2004 [2001]), via essays
containing innovative definitions of politics itself and of political vio-
lence, in, inter alia, Masses, Classes, Ideas (1994) and Politics and the Other
Scene (2002). Ranciere has likewise been prolific and has published
over thirty books. He began his career with explorations of political
thought and political economy, then spent many years working in
labour and social history, before returning to political thought as
well as writing widely on aesthetics. His most important work of poli-
tical thought to date is La Mesentente (1995) but almost as important
are his brief but extremely rich Ten Theses on Politics (2001).
In particular, the international renown of these writers is increas-
ing. Each has been widely translated, especially (but not only) into
English, as the References and Bibliography section of this book illus-
trates, and the rate of translation into English accelerated greatly in
the first few years of the new century; all this of course has a dynamic
of its own as non-French-speaking readers become interested in and in
some cases politically committed to the works, following the logic of
their enquiry. Indeed, it is probably true that, as with some of the
major proponents of poststructuralism, the reception for the ideas of
Contexts and Parameters 5

these thinkers has been and will continue to be greater in Britain and
the USA than in France itself. Taking the case of Alain Badiou,
although he teaches at the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris and
attracts large audiences to his seminars and lectures, there has been,
to date, only one major conference on his work in France, in 1999, in
whose proceedings many contributors are from outside France
(Ramond 2002). There have by contrast been a number of confer-
ences on Badiou's work in Britain and the USA. Moreover, there are
two general works on Badiou's philosophy in English (Barker 2002
and Hallward 2003) and only one in French (Tarby 2005a), and two
collections of essays on Badiou in English (Hallward 2004 and Riera
2005) where they are absent in French. The same applies to special
issues of journals.
A brief look at the careers of these writers also helps explain why I
have decided to group them together for treatment in this book. Alain
Badiou was born in Rabat, Morocco, in 1937, was a student at the
Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris, and began to work within a
broadly Althusserian framework. He taught philosophy at the Uni-
versity of Paris VIII from 1969 to 1999 and then began teaching at
the Ecole Normale. Greatly influenced by the May 1968 uprising, he
became a leading member of the Union des communistes de France
marxistes-leninistes (UCFML). He has been politically active ever
since, in particular as one of the most prominent activists in Organisa-
tion politique, a 'post-party' grouping launched in 1985 which orga-
nizes around a small number of key issues including housing, illegal
immigrants (sans papiers] and industrial change.
Etienne Balibar was born in Avalon, France, in 1942 and also stu-
died at the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris. He worked at the Uni-
versity of Algiers, Algeria in the mid-1960s and then taught at the
Lycee de Savigny-sur-Orge, in France, then at the University of
Paris I fSorbonne) from 1969 to 1994. He held the Chair in Political
and Moral Philosophy from 1994 to 2002 at the University of Paris X
(Nanterre) and in 2000 took a Chair as Distinguished Professor in Cri-
tical Theory at the University of California, Irvine. He was a contri-
butor, with Louis Althusser, Roger Establet, Pierre Macherey and
Jacques Ranciere, to the original edition of Reading Capital (1965 y ,
writing chapters on the concepts underlying historical materialism.
6 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

Balibar was a member of the French Communist Party for twenty

years and was expelled in 1981 after publicly criticizing the party's
attitude towards immigration. Since 1981 he has frequently spoken
out on political issues of the day and has likewise written articles and
books on social and political issues including race, nationalism, social
exclusion and citizenship.
Jacques Ranciere was born in Algiers in 1940 and studied at the
Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris. He taught at the University of
Paris VIII (Vincennes-St Denis) from 1969 to 2000, holding the
Chair of Aesthetics and Politics from 1990 and was a Director of
Programmes at the College Internationale de Philosophic from 1986
to 1992. He was also a contributor to Reading Capital, with a chapter
on the critique of political economy and the differences between
Marx's critique of 1844 and that of 1867, but after May 1968 he
reacted strongly against the Althusserian project. He was a founder
and editor of the labour and social history journal, Revoltes logiques,
from 1975 to 1986, whose approach was developed as a reaction
against Althusser's theory. Ranciere's work spans philosophy, political
theory, historiography, literary theory, film theory and aesthetics. He
has remained politically active, particularly around issues concerning
immigration and social exclusion, but has moved away from his earlier
allegiance to Maoism as well as the Althusserian perspective.
Let us note in passing that even at the most general level the three
writers share a number of characteristics as far as both their profes-
sional careers and their politico-intellectual development are con-
cerned. They are all trained in philosophy, all are graduates of the
Ecole Normale in Paris, and all made careers teaching philosophy in
mainly Parisian higher education. They are all former students of
Althusser and - especially in the case of Badiou and Ranciere - they
were profoundly affected by the events of May 1968. They were all
influenced by Maoism and have remained engaged in left politics to
this day, swimming against the current of so many other former left-
wing activists of their generation, who took one or other of the possible
routes away from activism, as described for example in Hamon and
Rotman's Generation (1987 [1988]). Another characteristic they share
is to have made important contributions beyond the discipline in
which they were all trained, namely philosophy: Badiou to literary
Contexts and Parameters 1

criticism and political history, Balibar to politics and human rights,

and Ranciere to aesthetics and historiography, to mention but the
most obvious divergences.
For all three, their most important work has appeared since 1985,
during a period characterized - particularly in France - by intellec-
tual conservatism and the decline of the influence of thought to the
left of social democracy. Governmental politics in France have often
combined a superficially consensual approach with largely market-
driven economic policy, and there has been widespread disillusion-
ment with mainstream politicians. This climate, I shall argue, has
had an influence on the way in which Badiou, Balibar and Ranciere's
thought has evolved.
The rapid growth of interest in the work of these thinkers in recent
years cannot be attributed solely to its intrinsic merit, considerable
though this may be; their increased reception also reflects a more gen-
eral renewal of interest in left-oriented thought over the past decade or
two, a renewal which has taken place on an international scale.
Mentioning but the most prominent advocates, Michael Hardt and
Antonio Negri dissect the current world order in Empire (2000)
and Multitude (2004), in a manner that suggests an updating and by no
means an outright rejection of Marx's Capital, first published over a
century previously. In these books, which have been discussed well
beyond the confines of the left intelligentsia in America and Britain,
Hardt and Negri argue that the new world order, Empire, is not domi-
nated by one country such as the USA, or even one continent. This is a
postmodern and global form of sovereignty which is deterritorialized
in terms of source, scope and logic. The most important characteristic
of these two books is not the detail of their analysis nor supporting
evidence - which it has to be said is sparse - but their attempt to sug-
gest that such an approach to the analysis of modern capitalism can
help the cause of what Hardt and Negri describe (after Spinoza) as
the 'multitude' in inventing new ways of combating Empire.
Meanwhile, David Harvey combines an interest in the (broadly
Marxist) approach of the French Regulation School to political econ-
omy with an exploration of the culture of the late twentieth century in
The Condition of Postmodernity (1989) and examines the changing rela-
tionship between politics, economics and social structure in both The
8 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

New Imperialism (2003) and A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2005).

Frederic Jameson draws on the economic theory of the Belgian
Marxist Ernest Mandel in order to examine the nature and sig-
nificance of culture in the late twentieth century in Postmodernism,
Or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991) and in both The Cultural
Turn (1998) and A Singular Modernity (2002). Finally Slavoj Zizek
has become well known in particular for his analysis of culture and
ideology, drawing on Marx and Lacan in a way which is, again, expli-
citly anti-capitalist. Each of these writers of widespread international
repute espouses the notion that we are living in a postmodern age,
or one which is different enough from modernity to merit a debate
about redefinition, but equally if not more important is the fact that
each of these writers draws heavily on a fairly traditional Marxist his-
torical materialism.
The international reception that Noam Chomsky has enjoyed and
continues to enjoy for his ferocious and sophisticated critique of US
policy overseas is another example of a small but important change in
the intellectual political climate over the past few years, no doubt
nourished by the growth and increasingly visible movement against
corporate globalization as the neoliberal agenda fails large sections of
society in advanced capitalist countries and by the exasperation felt
by many hundreds of thousands of people in Britain and the United
States in particular, in response to the US and British invasion and
occupation of Iraq in the early years of the twenty-first century.
Moreover, the break-up of the Soviet Union might have removed
the most elaborate experiment in developing a practical alternative
to capitalism, offering the possible conclusion that communism can
only fail. But its passing might also have removed one of the greatest
obstacles to arguing for a socialist alternative, given the profoundly
unjust nature of many aspects of life in the Eastern Bloc, a fact that
was constantly highlighted by Cold War rhetoric. One might also
suggest, as has Stathis Kouvelakis (2001:53), that when capitalism is
very successful it is likely that sooner or later there will be an anti-
capitalism that, at least in the theoretical domain, confronts capital-
ism head-on. More popular versions of what could broadly be
described as works which seek to redress the balance for those who
suffer most from the form which capitalism now takes have been
Contexts and Parameters 9

published by Susan George (1999,2004), Naomi Klein (2001), George

Monbiot (2000),JohnPilger (2002) and Arundhati Roy (2004).
Although the re-emergence of a more general interest in engaged
left thought is probably slower in France than in Britain or the USA,
in addition to the three thinkers explored in the chapters which follow,
there are other French writers who continue to work broadly within
an emancipatory framework and who have by no means abandoned
the left radical framework which has in a more general sense been so
weakened. Any list of such writers might include Jacques Bidet, Luc
Boltanski, Eve Chiapello, Pierre Macherey and Daniel Bensai'd, not
forgetting the economists Gerard Dumenil and Dominique Levy.
Each in their own way is involved in work which takes a highly critical
stance on contemporary society and politics from a left perspective.
Moreover, the late sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, despite coming to poli-
tically engaged intellectual work relatively late and despite remaining
a figure whose work invokes deep controversy within the left as well
as beyond it, argued for many years that any serious approach to
the analysis of modern societies needs to highlight and examine the
existence of a huge section of society that he described as the 'dis-
possessed' (les depossedes) (e.g. Bourdieu 1998). Even the late Jacques
Derrida, often thought to have travelled far from committed intellec-
tual work in his major writings, argues forcefully in Specters of Marx
1994 [1993]) that the time is ripe for a reappraisal of Marx and his-
torical materialism.
If France is still lagging behind somewhat in terms of more gener-
ally accepted left theoretical exploration, since the widespread strikes
of winter 1995 there has been increased activism within the non-
mainstream left. For example, workplace activists formed the trade
union Solidarite, Unite, Democratic (SUD), which strongly empha-
sizes more traditional labour movement democracy. The results of the
presidential elections of 2002 likewise tend to reinforce the view that
France has not entirely abandoned its legendary propensity for revolt,
given that almost 10 per cent of votes cast went to Trotskyist (LCR)
or quasi-Trotskyist (LO) candidates. The hundreds of thousands of
(often young) people on the streets protesting against the National
Front leader Le Pen and his passage to the second round also sug-
gested that taking to the streets in large numbers is not a thing of the
10 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

past. Rank and file response to President Sarkozy's measures is likely

to confirm this. Most importantly, in spring 2006 France saw what
was probably the largest and most sustained popular mobilization
since 1968. Like 1968, the movement began with widespread demon-
strations and occupations by students and it then spread to the work-
ing population. Unlike May 1968, the focus of the protests was crystal
clear: the government's new law - which it had pushed through on a
confidence vote using article 49 paragraph 3 of the constitution - and
which sought to introduce more precarious working contracts for
young people under 26 in order, the government argued, to create
jobs. The labour legislation was disliked by a substantial majority of
the French according to opinion polls, many of whom saw it as the
unwelcome introduction of further neoliberal economic measures
along Anglo-American lines.
I have attempted to indicate various characteristics of the general
climate in which Badiou, Balibar and Ranciere are now working,
some conducive and some less conducive to the positive reception of
their work. But in order to situate these writers in a preliminary fashion
in the modern history of French political thought and to begin to con-
struct the discursive parameters of the book in a more nuanced fashion
I will now look at three aspects of France's modern intellectual history.

Three characteristics of modern French thought

To begin with, I wish to elaborate on the point I made in the opening

lines of this chapter. With a strong tradition of revolutionary caesura
in the realm of political practice, neither liberalism nor social democ-
racy properly took root in France, and both broader political
developments and intellectual life itself were dominated by bodies
of thought which emphasized such notions as emancipation, salva-
tion and total change. The heritage of 1789 was expressed in and
reinforced by the revolutions of 1830, 1848, the Paris Commune of
1871, the strikes and factory occupations of April-May 1936, the
revolutionary impetus borne of resistance to Nazi Occupation 1940-
44, and the uprising of May 1968, to mention but the most obvious
instances of revolt and uprising. This meant that political thought
Contexts and Parameters 11

was predominantly revolutionary or republican on the left, and on the

right nationalist and often with elements of anti-Semitism. As a con-
sequence of this radicalism on both left and right there was only a
weak tradition of liberal political thought.
In the three decades following the Second World War, France was
indeed the land par excellence of Marxist-influenced work in philoso-
phy and other areas of intellectual activity, including history, anthro-
pology, semiology, discourse analysis and literary theory. Taking the
iconic example of Jean-Paul Sartre, notwithstanding his philosophi-
cal complexity he wrote in such a way that the conditions of the mate-
rial world and the urgency of changing that world were constantly
present, and Sartre himself was famously politically active. This is
not the place for a fuller exploration of the intellectual engagement of
the postwar years, which has been adequately described elsewhere.
But suffice it to say that from 1945 to the early 1970s Sartre and later
Althusser were but the best-known proponents of a much larger
Marxist and quasi-Marxist constituent which took for granted the
intimate relationship between theory and practice as expressed by his-
torical materialism, and the Communist Party dominated in terms of
left party politics (e.g. d'Appollonia 1991, Drake 2002, Spaas 2000).
During this postwar heyday of thought inspired by Marx, few
would have predicted that by the early 1980s Paris could be convin-
cingly described by Perry Anderson (1983: 32), in his oft-quoted
phrase, as the 'capital of European intellectual reaction'. By this time
a reaction against left, committed thought was indeed well under-
way. With the zeal of the converted, the ex-Maoist New Philosophers
Bernard-Henri Levy, Andre Glucksmann and Christian Jambert had
a brief heyday and argued that the left had no plausible explanation
for the Gulag. Then in a more sustained and serious way the prolific
but until then largely ignored liberal political philosopher Raymond
Aron enjoyed a belated and before long posthumous promotion to the
position of father of modern French political liberalism, with Alexis de
Tocqueville and Benjamin Constant as rediscovered grandfathers.
In the meantime, quite an array of writers made their careers on the
strength of rewriting the modern history of either French thought or
the lives and times of French intellectuals, in terms which sought to
show how mistaken, irresponsible and ultimately futile were attempts
12 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

by politically committed intellectuals of the left to unite communist-

leaning political activism on the one hand and intellectual activity on
the other. The former Communist Francois Furet published his anti-
Marxist Interpreting the French Revolution (1981 [1979]) and many other
books of revisionist historiography, including Dictionnaire des oeuvres
politiques (ed. 1989,1995) and The Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of Com-
munism in the Twentieth Century (1999 [1995]). Furet and his collabora-
tors succeeded in writing a new, revisionist agenda for the study of
French - and by implication Russian and other revolutionary - his-
tory, arguing that several generations of eminent historians had them-
selves gone very astray and had profoundly misunderstood the nature
of historical change. According to Furet's revised historiography, the
revolution of 1789 was not an uprising that had in the fullness of time
changed the world, signalling the dawn of modernity. Neither was it a
revolution that had swept away injustices and brought progress and
the potential for further progress. On the contrary, the most impor-
tant and revealing characteristic of the French Revolution was that,
like so many other revolutions, it had quickly been followed by terror
and other major injustices and cruelties (Furet 1978, 1988, 1995a,
1995b). One had to conclude, then, that all revolutions- 1789,
1848, 1917 - were bound to bring more harm than good.
In the Anglo-American world to which the new French liberals
looked with respect and for inspiration, Tony Judt and Sunil Khilnani
are among the best-known advocates of the view that Sartre etaL were
seriously wrong; they authored accounts where left intellectuals
inhabited a world described in Judt's book title as 'past imperfect'
and where, by contrast, as he argued in a later book, Leon Blum, Ray-
mond Aron and Albert Camus held - again quoting the title - the
'burden of responsibility' for keeping the liberal candle burning
(Judt 1992, 1998; Khilnani 1993). Mark Lilla has also strived to pro-
mote French liberalism and to investigate what he describes as the
'reckless mind' of twentieth-century European intellectuals whom he
accuses of supporting tyrannical regimes and totalitarian political
ideas. These include Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and the
Hegel scholar Alexandre Kojeve (Lilla 2001).
Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut sought to consign what they choose to
describe as La Pensee 68 - primarily Foucault, Derrida, Bourdieu and
Contexts and Parameters 13

Lacan - to the recycling bin of history, attempting to deal a blow

against structuralism and poststructuralism and any other thought
associated in their eyes with the activist upturn around May 1968
(Ferry and Renaut 1985). All this apparently pioneering franco-
liberal exploration, archaeology and revisionism by intellectual and
socio-political historians, historiographers and political theorists who
were determined to cast the past and therefore the present in a new
and very different light, seemed to some to be in perfect harmony
with the Mitterrand era. After the U-turn of 1982, when the Socialists
in government discovered the virtues of free enterprise and centre-
oriented government, the Communist Party declined rapidly, the
trade unions were less militant than they had been for many years,
and Frangois Furet, Pierre Rosanvallon and Jacques Julliard were
able to declare triumphantly in their popular account of sea changes
in society, politics and public opinion (1988: 11): 'we have fallen
into line'. It is worth noting in passing that even this alleged 'end of
French exceptionalism' was described in the form of grand gestures
on the part of intellectuals keen to champion the - in this case - pro-
pragmatic and 'post-conflictual' cause.
Despite the recent signs of increased left combativity in France, and
internationally, and despite some other scholars pursuing a more
radical left agenda than many, the general intellectual and political
backdrop against which Badiou, Balibar and Ranciere produced
their most important work was one characterized by increasing intel-
lectual conservatism. This, I will argue in the chapters that follow,
had an impact on some aspects of their thought.
The second characteristic of modern French thought I wish to dis-
cuss is the predominance of philosophy over other disciplines in Marx-
ist or quasi-Marxist thought. In Perry Anderson's influential study of
Western Marxism he points out that European Marxist intellectuals
gradually abandoned any serious theoretical exploration of economic
or political structures and concentrated almost to the exclusion of
other areas on philosophy (Anderson 1976:49-74). This was, inciden-
tally, the reverse of Marx's own trajectory, who began his intellectual
career in philosophy and spent the most productive years of his life
exploring political economy. Moreover, the vast majority of these
philosophers worked in universities for a large part of their career,
14 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

including Lukacs, Lefebvre, Goldmann, Korsch, Marcuse, Delia

Volpe, Adorno, Colletti and Althusser. The reasons for this predomi-
nance of professional philosophers in Western Marxism are, Anderson
argues, threefold. Most importantly, the progress of the struggle for
socialism suffered many setbacks from the 1920s onwards, discoura-
ging serious study of material questions and encouraging a preference
for the abstract; the rise of fascism and the outbreak of the Second
World War, the degeneration of the USSR and the onset of the Cold
War might be included amongst such obstacles. Next, the publication
for the first time in 1931 of Marx's Paris Manuscripts of 1844 and their
translation into French in 1933 persuaded many scholars that in order
to understand historical materialism one needed to understand the
philosophical lineage of Marxism, and in particular the relationship
between Marx and Hegel. This reinforced a tendency towards philo-
sophical exploration and prompted multiple returns to intellectual
history before Marx, not only to Hegel but also to Spinoza, Kant
and Rousseau. Finally, the practice of the French and other Commu-
nist Parties, which for many years identified so closely with the Soviet
Union, was often determined by the needs of the increasingly tragic
parody of socialism in the USSR, so intellectuals in search of a truer
Marxist heritage were further attracted to abstraction - ultimately to
ideas measured solely against other ideas - instead of properly taking
on board the rigours and controlling influence of politics in the mate-
rial world. This increasing specialization in the discipline of philoso-
phy, alongside an ever-greater retreat to the confines of the academy,
also helps explain the emergence of an ever more obscure language,
much of it incomprehensible to the mass of ordinary people, as specia-
lists communicated with other specialists, and as Marxist intellectuals
tended to have less and less contact with ordinary working people.
I would agree with Anderson's general thesis, which helps explain
the trajectory of some post-Marxist and non-Marxist European
thought as well as that of Marxism itself. But I would nevertheless sug-
gest that this retreat into the more abstract forms of intellectual
endeavour and withdrawal from the testing grounds of the material
world was not entirely damaging for the history of Western Marxism.
If the perceived needs and at any rate the instructions emanating from
the Eastern bloc were increasingly unlike those that fuelled the 1917
Contexts and Parameters 15

Revolution, philosophical reflection and the retreat into the academy

were to an extent to serve as a protective shield from the caricature of
communism that the USSR and its satellites increasingly became.
Thus to some extent the growing importance of philosophy helped
protect intellectuals from a more pragmatic adaptation to either
Stalinism or for that matter to outright support for capitalism.
The work of Badiou, Balibar and Ranciere is in each case primarily
philosophical, or at least strongly informed by philosophy. Badiou
staunchly defends philosophy as an intellectual tool of primary impor-
tance, and is concerned with how philosophy is able to both throw
light on and draw inspiration from politics, art, science and love.
Balibar combines an interest in the philosophy of Marxism and its
antecedents with interests in issues regarding rights and other aspects
of politics. Ranciere's interests span aesthetics, film and history, as
well as politics, and his starting point for political theory is philos-
ophical reflection, often incorporating references to classical anti-
quity. Arguably, one of the strengths of this approach is precisely
that, as philosophers, they are more remote from material concerns
than, for example, many political theorists working in academic poli-
tics departments, or practitioners of politics such as trade unionists,
elected representatives of political parties and civil servants. They
are thus less likely to have been swayed by the profound disillusion-
ments of many others of the 1968 generation. If they are, as we
might suggest, now appealing to a new generation of intellectuals and
activists who have been radicalized by anti-racist movements, anti-
corporate globalization movements and ecology movements, their
thought is as much influenced by other thought as by concrete events.
But in this process they have resisted some of the excessive conces-
sions to either Stalinism or liberalism.
On the other hand, the emphasis on the abstract which is found
in Badiou, Ranciere and often in Balibar also has its drawbacks.
My argument is that when tested on or subjected to the rigours of the
material world, important aspects of the theories of each of these
writers areflawed;translating theory into practical relevance - into
intervention in the world as we live it - is made difficult at some
point in each case precisely by insufficient reference to the material
world. The primarily abstract vantage point of philosophy has not
16 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

been tempered and counterbalanced by sufficient attention to other

domains, including the economic and the political.
The third general aspect of French thought since 1945 I wish
to mention is the rise and dominance of structuralism and post-
structuralism. In the broadest of terms, and without even attempting
to distinguish between structuralism and poststructuralism (whose
distinction is anyway made far less in France than in the English-
speaking world), I want to raise the question of whether this intellec-
tual tendency is in the tradition of the emancipatory philosophical
tradition or not. I have already pointed out that amongst the authors
I identify as contributing to a renewal of left thought, Harvey, Jame-
son, Hardt, Negri and Zizek are each either influenced by aspects of
poststructuralism or draw on theory which itself can be described as
structuralist or poststructuralist. Some of those who are thought of
as being at the heart of this, including Deleuze, Derrida, Foucault,
Cixous, Irigaray and Kristeva, have positioned themselves in support
of minority groups and the women's movement, so associated with
progressive politics in the late twentieth and early twenty-first cen-
tury. However, as I have argued elsewhere at greater length (Hewlett
2003:127-35), the rise of structuralism and poststructuralism should
be understood in part in the context of a certain de-politicization of
intellectual life, or at least the decline of the left, in France since the
early 1970s. I will illustrate this view only briefly. As far as descrip-
tions of society are concerned, it is perhaps in Jean Baudrillard's
work that this sort of approach becomes most extreme, where images
are omnipresent and the distinction between the concrete and repre-
sentation no longer exists. But even Foucault, well known for taking
stands in favour of the anti-nuclear and gay movements in the
1960s and 1970s, portrays power as so diffuse that it becomes very
hard to locate at all, and therefore it would seem difficult to resist
(e.g. Foucault 1980). Jean-Frangois Lyotard's argument in The
Postmodern Condition (1984 [1979]) is no doubt the clearest example
of a break with the emancipatory tradition, where the 'grand narra-
tives' of the past, associated strongly with the Enlightenment, are,
according to Lyotard, decreasingly relevant; contemporary reality
has become so diffuse, fragmented and heterogeneous that it is impos-
sible to make generalizations about it, including ones relating to
Contexts and Parameters 17

transformation. Alex Callinicos, in Against Postmodernism (1989), has

argued that far from being a system of thought which was part of the
legacy of May 1968, postmodernism is more accurately described as
part of the failure of 1968. In a more recent book, he argues that '[o]ne
sub-theme of postmodernism is that social critique - which depends
on the possibility of transcendence, since it thematizes the limitations
of existing social relations and therefore if only implicitly adverts to
the necessity of surpassing these relations - is no longer possible'
(Callinicos 2006: 4). This is a debate which will and should continue
and it will be clear that my own position is close to that of Callinicos
and other left critics (e.g. Dews 1987 and Starr 1995). I suspect that a
substantial renewal of activism and the material circumstances which
encourage the left would make much debate within poststructuralism
seem poorly grounded, rather irrelevant and indeed the result of a
relative detachment of intellectuals from political struggles rather
than any sort of reflection of them. For the time being, suffice it to
say that whereas the explicitly praxis-oriented thought of the immedi-
ate postwar period left no doubt as to the link between intellectual
activity and political activism - if one espoused Sartre's thought one
was virtually obliged to at least believe in the necessity for left politi-
cal activism - much posts true turalist thought does not do this.
Although poststructuralism is intrinsically radical in its method, its
political consequences are not necessarily radical by any means.
Badiou, Balibar and Ranciere each, in their own ways, substantially
depart from what has become known as poststructuralism. However,
as we shall see, all three are either influenced by this tradition or
engage with it in one way or another. Badiou engages in a rather
ambivalent fashion with Deleuze, Ranciere is influenced by decon-
struction, and Balibar by Derrida. However, each is certainly more
obviously aware of the contemporary political conjuncture than the
major exponents of poststructuralism.

The legacy of Louis Althusser

Louis Althusser had a formative influence on the writers under

consideration in this book and there is an enduring, if complex
18 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

relationship between their mature work and that of Althusser.

Badiou says of Althusser that his attempt to 'think subjectivity with-
out a subject is admirable', if flawed in many ways (AM 67-76).
Ranciere in particular defined himself against Althusser from the
late 1960s, a reaction which had an important influence on the
course of his own thought. Balibar's work, on the other hand, often
has strong and more positive echoes of Althusser's. These relation-
ships to Althusser will become clearer in the chapters which follow,
and here I confine myself to brief remarks regarding Althusser him-
self. (Readers who are already familiar with Althusser's work may
wish to skip this section.)
In the opening lines of For Marx (1969 [ 1965]: 21) Althusser argues
that for Marxists philosophical enquiry was 'essential if we are to
emerge from the theoretical impasse history has left us in' and Reading
Capital (1970 [1965]) is indeed one of the most serious philosophical
interpretations of Marx's mature work that have been written. It out-
lines a theory of political economy as a structure which is complex and
over-determined and constructs an anti-Hegelian interpretation
which challenges what the authors see as the mistaken, teleological
approach to history which characterized much of postwar Marxism.
At first glance Althusser's project might seem quite un-philosophical,
for he is keen to elaborate what he regards as a truer, scientific Marx-
ism (or more accurately Marxism-Leninism), which proposed a new
version of historical materialism as the science of the history of social
formations. Seeking a return to a more explicitly class-based Marx-
ism, he was writing against, in particular, the interpretations of
Marx pursued by Lukacs, Gramsci and especially Sartre. But science,
politics and philosophy are all inextricably linked:

Philosophy is a certain continuation of politics, in a certain domain

vis-a-vis a certain reality. Philosophy represents politics in the
domain of theory, or to be more precise: with the sciences - and vice
versa, philosophy represents scientificity in politics, with the classes
engaged in the class struggle. (Althusser 1971:64-5)

Put more simply: 'Philosophy is, in the last instance, the class struggle
in theory' (Althusser 1973:11).
Contexts and Parameters 19

Althusser was insistent that there was a substantial and crucial dif-
ference between the young Marx and the mature Marx. He argues
that in Marx's early writings, which were enjoying much positive
attention in the postwar period in France, Marx had not broken philo-
sophically with Hegel, and the thesis contained within the early writ-
ings that Man was alienated and would later achieve self realization
was pure ideology rather than rational analysis. But in Marx's work
starting from The German Ideology (with Engels, 1970 [1932]) and the
Theses on Feuerbach (1968a [ 1888]), there emerged a true science of his-
torical materialism (both these works were written in 1845 and both
remained unpublished for some time). In fact, this 'epistemological
break', as Althusser describes it, was a scientific revolution in the
realm of history just as significant as the development of mathematics
in Greek antiquity and Galileo's pioneering work in scientific physics.
Althusser's theoretical innovations are without a doubt more
nuanced than the way in which they emerged from the heated debates
of the 1960s and 1970s and his posthumous works have on the whole
served to portray a more subtle philosophical and political analysis
than those seen during his lifetime. However, at risk of simplification
for the sake of concision, some of the other main aspects of his reading
of Marx and further elaboration of historical materialism can be sum-
marized as follows.
Again in For Marx, Althusser declares his intention to 'draw a line of
demarcation between Marxist theory and the forms of philosophical
(and political) subjectivism which have compromised it or threatened
it' (Althusser 1969 [1965]: 12). By the time Marx wrote Capital, he
could no longer be regarded as a thinker who emphasized the role of
the subject in history and humanist interpretations of his later works
were highly misleading. In fact, history was a 'process without a sub-
ject or goal' and he argued that '[t]o be dialectical materialist, Marx-
ist philosophy must break with the idealist category of the "Subject"
as origin, Essence and Cause, responsible in its interiority for all the deter-
minations of the external "Object", whose internal "Subject" it is
called' (Althusser 1973: 94). The role of the individual in history,
he argued, is one where s/he embodies the process but is not a subject
of history itself. Althusser pursues this argument by suggesting that
in relation to the capitalist mode of production, individuals are its
20 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

agents, whether capitalist or worker, and whether in support of or

against capitalism. This certainly does not mean the individual is
unable to think or act politically; far from it. But it does mean that
different types of individuality are peculiar to different modes of pro-
duction and this is not general individuality. The specific form these
individuals take is greatly inflenced by ideology.
It is precisely in his exploration of the nature and role of ideology
that Althusser made the most enduring contribution, at least from
the standpoint of the beginning of the twenty-first century, and this is
the aspect of his work that has perhaps had the most enduring influ-
ence on Badiou, Balibar and Ranciere. In his powerful and highly
lucid essay entitled 'Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.
Notes towards an Investigation' (in Althusser 2001 [1971]: 85-126),
Althusser begins by arguing that in order to be sustainable, capitalist
societies must enable the reproduction of labour power, including the
'reproduction of its subjection to the ruling ideology or of the "prac-
tice" of that ideology' (89). In other words, in order to be compliant,
labour must believe in the system they are playing a crucial role in
propping up, via a complex mix of, for example, religious, ethical,
legal and political ideologies. Certainly, the capitalist ideological
edifice is determined (in two famous phrases) 'in the last instance'
by the economic base, as Marx argued on many occasions, but the
superstructure is nevertheless 'relatively autonomous' from the base.
In this scheme of things, the capitalist state plays a crucial role in
helping perpetuate an ideology that is conducive to the interests of
capitalism via Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs), which include
schools, the family, the mass media, and 'the cultural ISA?, which
includes literature, the arts and sports (96). The traditional Marxist-
Leninist view of the role of the capitalist state as one of repression and
ultimately violence, in particular on the part of the army, the police,
the courts and prisons, is not wrong. But it needs to be supplemented
with a theory of ideology. Whereas the Repressive State Apparatuses
(the army, the police, and so on [RSAs]) function primarily 'by
violence', ISAs function first and foremost 'by ideology', although
there is often an element of ideology supporting RSAs and an ele-
ment of repression supporting ISAs (97-8). Add to this Althusser's
adoption of elements of Lacan's psychoanalytic theory in a section
Contexts and Parameters 21

of his essay entitled 'Ideology is a "Representation" of the Imaginary

Relationship of Individuals to their Real Conditions of Existence'
and the Althusserian legacy regarding theories of ideology becomes
clearer still.
It is perhaps the clarity of Althusser's argument, combined with the
rapid growth of what has come to be known as 'popular culture', that
has meant this particular aspect of his thought has enjoyed such influ-
ence over the past few decades, especially in the field of Cultural Stu-
dies in British and North American universities. In this domain,
Althusser's theory of ideology has been so influential in one form or
another that it is often taken for granted without any acknowledge-
ment of its origins.
Althusser's polemic against what he regarded as historicist and tel-
eological versions of Marxism was influenced in part by Claude Levi-
Strauss' structuralist anthropology, and possibly to a greater extent
by Spinoza. On the whole, and despite the exaggeration of his posi-
tions to which his critics were prone (especially Thompson 1978), it
is probably fair to label Althusser's thought 'structural Marxism'.
Just as importantly, however, it is necessary to emphasize that his
positions should be seen in the context of his long-term membership
of, but marginal political position within, the PCF. Althusser joined
the Party in 1948 and from 1956, the year of the Twentieth Congress
of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, international commun-
ism was in crisis; it became increasingly clear that the Soviet Union
itself had not only compromised many of the principles and goals
upon which it was founded, but had achieved the particular social
and governmental order which existed in the country by means of
the most terrible repression. In the European Communist Parties,
domestic politics as well as international outlook had become ever
more preoccupied with the particular needs of the Soviet Union
rather than considerations regarding the progress of communism on
a world scale, a development which would lead European Communist
Parties to the systematic compromise with social-democratic govern-
ment. Althusser's declared aim was to find once again a revolutionary
form of Marxism in both theory and practice, which included sympa-
thy with Maoism, and he argued for example that the Cultural Revo-
lution was implicitly a left critique of Stalinism. In 1978 Althusser
22 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

confirmed his dissidence within the PCF with the publication of his
essay 'What Must Change in the Party', which denounced the weak-
ness of democracy and the entrenched bureaucracy within the Party.
(Elliott 2006).
The above remarks on some key aspects of Althusser's thought are
intended to help understand over the course of this book the ways in
which Badiou, Balibar and Ranciere's thought has developed, both in
terms of the influence of Althusser and reaction against him. For the
time being, suffice it to say that Badiou, Balibar and Ranciere all
share characteristics which relate them directly to Althusser. Most
obviously, they each take an approach which is informed by a back-
ground in philosophy. Next, they each have strong views on the
nature of the human subject, which become an integral part of their
systems of thought. They are also each intensely political, to the
extent that they are part of the tradition of praxis, as discussed towards
the beginning of this chapter, and, like Althusser, view thought,
including philosophy, as an activity with profoundly practical ends.
Finally, they each remain influenced by Marxism - and arguably
Althusserian Marxism - on what are sometimes important points.

Concluding remarks

I have attempted in this introductory chapter to suggest some of the

intellectual and political contexts and parameters which help under-
stand the nature and development of the thought of Badiou, Balibar
and Ranciere. This is in keeping with both my and their view that in
order to understand thought, and in order to judge its relevance
(which is arguably part of the same process), some discussion is neces-
sary of the material and ideological-intellectual conditions of its pro-
duction. I will return to many of the themes discussed in this
introductory chapter as we proceed through the book, and will once
again address some of the questions raised in this chapter in the book's
The structure of this book is straightforward, but a few words of
explanation might nevertheless be useful. Badiou's thought is the
most elaborate and complex, so Chapter 2 introduces his thought to
Contexts and Parameters 23

readers who have little familiarity with him, together with some dis-
cussion of what I regard as overall problems, relating in particular to
Badiou's ontology and his failure properly to explain movement and
change. Chapter 3 explores Badiou's theory of politics in more depth
and covers a wider range of areas of his political thought. I then turn
in Chapter 4 to an examination of Ranciere's theory of politics, adopt-
ing this sequence mainly because of the direct comparability between
some important aspects of Badiou's and Ranciere's thought. This
sequence also allows the two thinkers with the more totalizing view
of the world and of philosophy to be examined side by side. In Chap-
ter 5 I examine what I regard as the key aspects of Balibar's thought,
arguing that it is important to understand his political positions since
the early 1980s in order to understand his thought. Both Badiou and
Ranciere ultimately position themselves at a considerable distance
from the lived reality of politics and this weakens their ability to
forge a wholly relevant theory of politics. Balibar, on the other hand,
despite profound insights in some areas, ultimately fails to reconcile a
body of theory strongly influenced by Marxism with a more terre-a-
terre orientation towards the real world of liberal democratic politics
which is in some respects highly conciliatory.
Chapter 2
Alain Badiou: Event, Subject and Truth

There is little doubt that Alain Badiou is among the most powerful
thinkers of our time and his thought is only beginning to receive the
attention it deserves. His project is profoundly innovative, radical and
contemporary, yet he is at the same time committed to some of the
central concerns of classical philosophy. He defines philosophy in
such a way that it is intimately connected with and dependent upon
issues of our time, but argues that the Platonic concerns of truth and
being are the sine qua non of philosophical enquiry. His influences are
varied and include Plato, Lacan, Sartre, Althusser, Mallarme and
Rousseau, but in the key area of the political he is clearly just as influ-
enced by his own activism on behalf of exploited groups. Badiou is in
strong and forthright disagreement with the central figures of post-
structuralist thought such as Lyotard and Derrida and more generally
with proponents of the linguistic turn and notions of the Other. But
whilst he condemns the 'sophistry' of poststructuralism he is no more
part of either the analytic or hermeneutic folds, also criticizing con-
temporary philosophers such as John Rawls who are persuaded by
the central importance to thought of human rights and individual lib-
erties. His relationship with Marx is more difficult to categorize, and
despite - or perhaps because of - the extraordinarily broad scope of
his theoretical references, he has not yet undertaken a systematic
engagement with Marxism. Above all, Badiou seeks to explore
momentous change in the form of what he describes as evenements,
and the consequences of these events, which are both of universal rele-
vance and defined in a highly subject-oriented way. Such events only
take place in the realms of science, art, emancipatory politics and
love, and human beings can only fully become subjects when acting
in a way which is faithful to an event. Badiou's thought is political to
the core, in that it explores the commitment, orfidelite, of a subject or
Alain Badiou: Event, Subject and Truth 25

subjects to an event which might become part of a transformative pro-

cess, but it stretches far beyond politics as well.
Badiou's thought is highly original to the extent that it is not
strongly influenced by one particular school of thought to the near
exclusion of others; it breaks out of previously existing moulds, pursu-
ing a line of enquiry which often resorts to first principles and does not
conform strictly to any particular lineage. He insists that in order to
have an understanding of philosophy we need to have some grasp of
the history and current state of its own 'conditions', which are also
science, art, emancipatory politics and love. He staunchly defends
the autonomy of philosophy, arguing that many modern philosophers
have wrongly abandoned metaphysics, and that in order to compre-
hend virtually anything we need to develop an understanding of the
nature of truth. He defends philosophy from, for example: party poli-
tical concerns, popular culture and other sorts of trivialization (or
superficial manifestations) of contemporary reality (MP). It should
also be said at the outset that, by contrast with much Western philo-
sophy of the late twentieth century, Badiou takes ontology, or the
science of being, very seriously. For him, ontology is mathematical
and in order to understand the special nature of the event and why
it is literally extraordinary, we must have recourse to set theory, as
elaborated by Georg Cantor. Only by taking this route can we under-
stand why the event is so central to an understanding of the world and
how it relates to subject, truth and being.
Thus, Badiou's complex Weltanschauung draws on a wide range of
philosophical and other traditions and puts together elements which
have not been matched in the same way before, with the inevitable
corollary that there is to an extent a new language. Indeed, it would
be difficult to overstate the breadth and ambition of his philosophical
project which, whatever conclusions one might wish to draw regard-
ing its usefulness, is certainly groundbreaking. As Peter Hallward
(2003: xxiii) puts it, 'Badiou's work is today almost literally unread-
able according to the prevailing codes - both political and philoso-
phical - of the Anglo-American academy.'
Badiou's intellectual and political trajectory can be summarized as
follows. He was one of the founder members of the Parti socialiste
unifie (PSU) in 1958, whose creation was largely a response to the
26 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

active or tacit collusion by large parts of the French left with the gov-
ernment's war against Algerian nationalists in the struggle for
national liberation. He was part of the Lacano-Althusserian Cahiers
pour ranalyse group in the 1960s and was profoundly influenced by
the student and workers' revolt in May 1968, an uprising which has
had a key influence on his thought and to which he frequently refers.
In 1968 he co-founded the Maoist splinter organization, the Union
des communistes de France marxistes-leninistes (UCFML) and con-
tinued to act and write as an orthodox Maoist during the 1970s, up to
and including his Theorie du sujet, published in 1982. In 1988 Badiou
published UEtre et Vevenement, which can be seen in part as a major
rebuttal of the postmodern idea that philosophy itself no longer had
anything to say in terms of universal values, and had become a mere
reflection of developments in other spheres. This work effectively
established Badiou's philosophy as being independent from other
major modern schools (although there were clear and acknowledged
influences of a number of other thinkers) and it is here that he elabo-
rates at length his argument that mathematics, and in particular set
theory, offers the most useful model for understanding the nature of
being. Badiou has been politically active in defence of oppressed
groups since 1968 and since 1985 has been a leading member of the
small, 'post-party' political organization, simply called Organisation
politique, which intervenes directly in a variety of campaigns around
issues such as housing, immigration and rights at work and pub-
lishes a regular bulletin, entitled La Distance politique. In addition to
his numerous philosophical works he has published novels, plays
and the libretto of an opera. In this chapter I examine what can be
described as Badiou's mature work, that is his philosophy from
UEtre et Vevenement onwards, a period which is generally thought of
as post-Maoist, although traces of Maoism are still found in the
later Badiou.
Badiou is reasonably well known in France, at least within aca-
demic and intellectual circles concerned with left philosophy or
politics; he has taught philosophy at the Ecole Normale Superieure
since 1999 and before that taught at the University of Paris VIII
for thirty years. Neither in France nor elsewhere, however, has
Badiou received anything like the attention enjoyed by intellectuals
Alain Badiou: Event, Subject and Truth 27

associated with postmodernism, in particular Derrida and Lyotard.

The very richness, originality and volume of Badiou's work and the
fact that one can take little for granted in terms of philosophical pre-
cedent is, paradoxically, one of the reasons he is relatively little known
in Britain and the USA. The English translation of his major work to
date, UEtre et Vevenement, was published in 2005, more than fifteen
years after its original publication in France, and other, shorter
works have appeared in English translation recently. There is begin-
ning to be a serious interest in and engagement with his work, parti-
cularly perhaps on the part of a younger generation of scholars
who are interested in looking outside both the traditional Marxist
framework and poststructuralism, but are unwilling to accept the
Anglo-American-influenced liberal alternative; they are, I would
argue, convinced neither by the social implications nor the ethics-
free logic of neoliberal economics, nor by the defensive individual-
ism of political liberalism. They are keen to explore the legacy of
May 1968 but do not feel obliged to take a position wholly in favour
of orthodox Marxism and are drawn still less to the political cyni-
cism that has become associated with poststructuralism. In short, the
growing interest in Badiou is not only post-Soviet Union but also post-
Cold War, and is informed by struggles against corporate globaliza-
tion. Badiou stands in partial opposition to the combative melancholy
of the 1980s and the early 1990s, without resorting to a philosophy
which largely responds to political developments; his thought is
carefully built on solid foundations and is therefore enduring. Perhaps
as the star of poststructuralism begins to wane, intellectuals and acti-
vists alike are once again becoming interested in bodies of thought
which encourage approaches which offer radical alternatives to the
status quo, although Badiou stresses that he has no clear vision of
an alternative future now it seems that communism is not a viable
alternative. However we choose to interpret Badiou's rising popular-
ity in the English-speaking world, we can be sure that his second
magnum opus, Logiques des mondes, published in 2006, will take rela-
tively little time to find its way into an English-language edition.
In the discussion below I take a particular interest in the political
aspects (broadly defined) of Badiou's work. But just as importantly I
offer a summary - with much inevitable simplification - of his
28 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

thought, without which the political aspects would remain unclear

for readers with little familiarity with Badiou's work. I then move
on to a brief critique of general aspects of the philosopy, in order
to prepare the ground for a more thorough critique of the political
aspects of Badiou's work in Chapter 3. Because of the totalizing nature
of his thought, it would make little sense to critically examine the
explicitly political aspects without giving reasonable attention to
the overall project. I begin by looking at Badiou's conception of the
nature of philosophy itself, followed by an examination of his notions
of truth and the event, before identifying what I believe are prob-
lems with his system.

The role of philosophy

Taken as a whole, Badiou's thought can be described as having two

major and closely related objectives. It is first an elaborate assertion
of the idea that the way to understand the world and to achieve self-
realization is to intervene in it. Second, it is a robust critique of the
various value systems and schools of thought which over the past
quarter-century in particular have sought to minimize the potential
for large-scale change in favour of, at best, limited and partial pro-
gress. He argues that philosophy must 'propose a principle of inter-
ruption', rise above its current position of semi-subordination to the
world as it is and regain a necessary distance. Badiou's own contribu-
tion, then, is no less than to 'interrupt' both contemporary philosophy
and the world as it currently exists, and to 'rediscover a foundational
style, a decided style, a style in the school of a Descartes, for example'
(IT 48-50). Philosophy should be 'open to the irreducible singularity
of what happens, a philosophy that can be fed and nourished by the
surprise of the unexpected. Such a philosophy would then be a philo-
sophy of the event' (IT 56).
An appropriate starting point for a more detailed discussion of
Badiou's work (and a place at which Badiou himself has chosen to
begin an exposition of it) is a series of comments on the climate in
which philosophy is operating today, which I will summarize briefly
(IT 39-57). In order to thrive, he argues, philosophy must encompass
Alain Badiou: Event, Subject and Truth 29

four dimensions, namely revolt, logic, universality and risk, each of

which is currently under such severe pressure that 'the very existence
of philosophy is at stake'. Revolt is under pressure because today's life
in the West does not make room for thought as revolt, both because
the West declares itself already free - by contrast, advocates of the
West argue, with the enslavement of the rest of the world - and
because everything is expressed in the form of commerce; the need
for revolt is apparently obsolete because commercial 'freedom' has
been achieved. As far as logic is concerned, life in the West 'is sub-
mitted to the profoundly illogical regime of communications', which
consists of the transmission of disconnected and incoherent state-
ments, images and impressions so that 'mass communication presents
the world to us as a spectacle devoid of memory'. There is little room
for the pursuit of logic in such circumstances.
Flying in the face of many contemporary philsophical trends,
and setting himself apart from a broad range of theorists, including
Levinas and Rawls, for example, Badiou asserts the importance of
universality. This is part of what puts him in a quite different category
from many contemporary cultural theorists and analysts who depend
on such notions as the Other and difference, notions and approaches
which have influenced both the intellectual and political arenas, espe-
cially campaigns in defence of minority rights. Examination of the
universal is in hostile territory in the contemporary world because
this world is so fragmented and specialized, especially as regards tech-
nology, production and skills. One result of this fragmentation and
specialization is precisely that it is hard for people to see what might
be universal, or 'valid for all thinking'. Finally, because people pay so
much attention to calculating what will make them more secure in
various ways, the important dimension of risk cannot develop; our
desire for the known and the safe precludes decisions which involve
elements of the unpredictable or the unknown.
Philosophy finds itself in hostile territory today, then, and its gen-
eral task is to meet the challenge posed to it by the rule of merchan-
dise, communication, technical specialization and a perceived need
for security.
All three major schools in contemporary philosophy, Badiou
argues, contribute in their different ways to the impoverishment and
30 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

increasing impotence of philosophy. First, the hermeneutic tradition,

whose best-known proponents are Heidegger and Gadamer, is mainly
concerned with interpretation. Next, analytic philosophy, inspired
by logical positivism and the later Wittgenstein, in particular seeks
through the use of logic and grammar to analyse language and to
separate meaningful from non-meaningful utterances. Finally, the
postmodern orientation, borrowing from the other two, seeks to
deconstruct and show we no longer have any use for the generally
agreed aspects of modernity: in particular the concepts of the histori-
cal subject, progress, revolution, humanity and the ideal of science.
Postmodern philosophy attempts to deconstruct the notion of totality,
asserting instead that what characterizes postmodernity is the mul-
tiple, plurality and heterogeneity. Most famously, perhaps, Jean-
Fran^ois Lyotard announces the 'end of metanarratives', including
those of revolution, the proletariat and progress, thus denying philo-
sophy any ability to totalize. More generally: 'Language games,
deconstruction, weak thought, ruin of Reason, promotion of the frag-
mentary, bitty discourse: all this argues in favour of a line of argu-
ment which is sophistry, and leads philosophy up a blind alley' (C 76)
Badiou argues that these three orientations - hermeneutic, analytic
and postmodern have two, on the whole undesirable, characteris-
tics in common (IT 45-47). First, they each treat metaphysics as
a thing of the past. 'In a certain sense, these three orientations main-
tain that philosophy is itself situated within the end of philosophy, or
that philosophy is announcing a certain end of itself.' Despite their
profound differences in many respects, both Heidegger and Carnap
believe that the history of metaphysics is now closed and so does
Lyotard, for example, in announcing the end of metanarratives,
and in particular the end of the subject and of history. Another way of
putting this is that philosophy is no longer a search for truth, but a
search for the plurality of meanings. The other point that these orien-
tations have in common is that they each put language centre-stage,
which again implies that a contemporary quest for meaning replaces a
classical (and more valid) quest for truth.
These two characteristics - the declaration of the end of metaphy-
sics and an emphasis on the importance of language - 'represent a
real danger for thinking and for philosophy in particular', because
Alain Badiou: Event, Subject and Truth 31

they do not allow philosophy to explore properly the realms of revolt,

logic, universality and risk, as discussed above. If the notion of truth is
abandoned, and analysts simply explore the plurality of meaning,
philosophy will become a simple object of circulation like any other.
If philosophy primarily comments on language, it accepts the frag-
mented and incoherent nature of communication and does nothing
to promote any type of universality; if it does not move away from
this framework philosophy will be ever more an exercise in the
description of language games.
In the initial essay of Conditions, entitled 'Le (re) tour de la philoso-
phic elle-meme7 ('The (re) turn of philosophy itself), Badiou goes a
little deeper into the argument that philosophy has lost its way.
Many of today's thinkers believe that philosophy's history is coming
to an end and the result is that philosophy is either grafted on to other
areas of activity - such as art, poetry, science, political action or psy-
choanalysis - or philosophy is presented as being nothing but an
account of its own history, a museum piece. So contemporary philoso-
phy 'combines the destruction of its past and the empty expectation of
its future' (C 58). Philosophy must now break with historicism, with
the 'geneological imperative', and it must express itself without refer-
ence to its own history. There should be an autonomous legitimation
of philosophy, such as Descartes or Spinoza practised.
The modern sophists, according to Badiou, who present themselves
as philosophers but are in fact a threat to philosophy, are those who,
following Wittgenstein, believe that:

thought finds itself before the following choice: either the effects of
discourse, language games, or silent indication, pure 'showing' of
what is subtracted from the grip of language. Those for whom the
fundamental opposition is not between truth and error or wander-
ing [errance], but between word [parole] and silence, between what
can be said and what is impossible to say. Or between pronounce-
ments which have meaning and those which do not. (C 62)

Whilst it would be hard to exaggerate Badiou's ambitions on behalf

of philosophy, at the same time the vitality of philosophy is directly
dependent on developments in the other domains, and only moves
32 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

forward as a result of developments which are outside of its immediate

sphere of activity:
The fact that philosophy does not itself produce truth is directly
linked to regimes of truth which are precisely the conditions of it
... philosophy is conditioned by truths. I would therefore say: there
must be truths in order for there to be philosophy because philoso-
phy must examine and think the regime of compossibility of the
truth events which condition it. (EB 9)
By 'compossibility' (compossibilite] Badiou means 'possibility in
Badiou argues that events that have taken place in the realms of
science, art, thought about love and politics allow for a much-needed
renewal of philosophy (MP 59). As far as science is concerned, the
event is the pioneering work of mathematicians who include in parti-
cular Cantor and Paul Cohen, work which establishes the theory of
the multiple. In the realm of love, the writings of Jacques Lacan
have altered this particular condition of philosophy. As far as politics
is concerned, the event is found in the historical sequence which runs
roughly from 1965 to 1980. This comprises May 1968 (a crucial
moment for Badiou both personally and in terms of the way he under-
stands politics), the Cultural Revolution in China, the Iranian Revo-
lution against the Shah in 1980 and the workers' uprising in Poland a
little later (MP 65). By contrast with the situation when Stalinist
Marxism prevailed, 'philosophy is again possible precisely because it
does not have to legislate on history or politics, but simply think the
contemporary re-opening of the possibility of politics, from the basis of
obscure events' (MP 66). Finally, in the realm of art, Badiou singles
out poetry in particular, because '[t]he poem is without mediation'
and 'has nothing to communicate. It is only a saying, a declaration
that draws its authority only from itself (in Hallward 2003: 197)
and is therefore of universal relevance. More specifically, the event is
the poetry of Paul Celan (MP 66). Badiou also singles out Beckett as
especially significant in the realm of prose writing (B). These are the
events which, in each of the generic procedures, should condition con-
temporary philosophy and the challenge is precisely to remodel philo-
sophical enquiry in terms that are faithful to these events (MP 69).
Alain Badiou: Event, Subject and Truth 33

I would like to pause for a moment to comment on Badiou's over-

view of the definition and practice of philosophy. One may well wish
to agree with Badiou in suggesting that the three dominant schools of
philosophy reflect the current state of the material world to such
extent that they militate against the distance philosophy needs for a
proper engagement with transformative processes in the world at
large. In other words these schools are each in their own way philoso-
phies of the status quo. One might also want to welcome Badiou's
insistence that it is the material world that conditions the develop-
ment of philosophy, not the reverse. We might applaud his frontal
attack on the slippery scepticism of much postmodern philosophy
and its reluctance to take sides. But I would at this stage simply ques-
tion the choice of the four generic procedures, which are also the con-
ditions of philosophy. Badiou tells us that these are the only areas in
which we are able to become subjects, but, short of mentioning that
philosophical preoccupation with these areas goes back a long way,
he does not explain why these and only these are the only four relevant
realms, the only realms in which individuals can become subjects. The
precise reasons for this are not clear.
Moreover, given the lingering influence of Marx on Badiou's work
and given an enduring concern to relate philosophy directly to the
material world, it is odd that the economy plays no part in the core
structure of his scheme of things. There seems to be no residual influ-
ence of Marx's political economy on the philosophical infrastructure,
however much Badiou might condemn and combat the social effects
of today's all-pervasive, virtually unfettered drive for profits. He does
of course wish to avoid the pitfalls of exaggerated economic determin-
ism, but allowing the economy no central place in the philosophical
scheme of things does seem to weaken his case, all else being equal.


I want to explore further this blend of ambition and modesty on

behalf of philosophy by looking at Badiou's conception of truth, the
aspect of his system where this blend is perhaps best expressed:
'the only question that philosophy is concerned with is that of truth,
34 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

not because it produces any, but because it offers a way of accessing

the unity of a moment of truths, a conceptual site where the generic
procedures are reflected as being compossible' (MP 18). Certainly,
according to Badiou the notion of truth is under attack in contempor-
ary philosophy (EB 10) and 'the idea of the End of philosophy is also
the idea of the end of the category of Truth' (C 75).
It will be clear that Badiou's conception of truth is very far from
a positivist one; he is emphatic that knowledge does not in itself
constitute truth (e.g. MP 18). Neither is it Stalinist-Marxist, nor is it
postmodern, as postmodernism sets out to promote multiplicity and
non-universality of truth. We might add that it is not Foucauldian
either, as Foucault sought to explore the relationship between power
and truth in a framework where in any society there are many sorts of
power relations and institutional arrangements which are associ-
ated with multiple 'discourses of truth' (Foucault 1980:92-108). For
Foucault the category of truth is often in a position of subordination
to power and has negative connotations, whereas for Badiou it is
both positive in nature and universal in its significance; by contrast
with Foucault's conception of truth, Badiou's cannot possibly be con-
fused with ideology.
Truth in this schema is certainly universal, in keeping with classical
metaphysics and central to Plato's concerns, by whom Badiou is influ-
enced in this respect. On the other hand, for Badiou truth only occurs
in particular circumstances where there are three indissociable com-
ponents of one process: an event, a subject of the event and fidelity to
the event on the part of the subject. A truth emerges thanks to the
subject or subjects who declare fidelity to an event and it is only in
doing this that they become subjects. Truth, then, is not waiting out
there in the world to be revealed by learning, or by any other process
for that matter, but is created by individuals, either singly or in
groups, regardless of whether philosophy or any other branch of intel-
lectual activity is taking any notice. The coincidence of truth and the
event (itself exceptional and rare [MP 17]) is perhaps the most con-
troversial element of this approach, which Badiou expresses as fol-
lows: '[A]ny truth has its origin in an event ... Let us say that it is
futile to imagine that one can invent anything (and all truths are
inventions) if nothing happens, if "nothing takes place but the
Alain Badiou: Event, Subject and Truth 35

place" ' (PM 24). Put slightly differently: 'Something must happen,
in order for there to be something new. Even in our personal lives,
there must be an encounter, there must be something which cannot
be calculated, predicted or managed, there must be a break based
only on chance .. .'(PH 124).
Bearing in mind that truth can only occur in the domains of politics,
love, art and science, perhaps the most straightforward example we
can give is indeed in the realm of love between two individuals. Two
people meet by chance and fall in love, they commit to each other on
the basis of this encounter (the event) and remain faithful to it. These
individuals may not be able to understand fully their mutual attrac-
tion and commitment or be able to explain it to others. They might
not have been able to predict such a development given what they
knew of themselves and each other before it happened. The faithful-
ness to the event of their coming together might last for the rest of their
lives, or far less long. But having met each other and fallen in love, the
individuals embark upon a process of truth and self-realization as sub-
jects in the only way possible, that is in fidelity to an event.
It is not possible to prove (in an empirical, positivist sense) that an
event has taken place, as the truth process associated with the event
only exists through the active commitment of those who declare its
existence and importance. It even eludes definition. Truth is thus pri-
marily a matter of conviction, intervention and action, a process
which allows us in the only way possible to enjoy self-realization as
subjects. It occurs rarely and each manifestation of it is unique, but
its significance is universal. Badiou's distance from positivism and
empiricism is emphasized by frequent assertions that truth contrasts
starkly with knowledge, which is 'what transmits, what repeats'
(IT 61, EE 269, C 201). In the normal course of things, if'nothing
happens', there can be knowledge and there can be facts, but truth
cannot occur (MP 16-17). Drawing inspiration from Lacan (C 201),
he describes the relationship between knowledge and truth thus:

[A] truth is always that which makes a hole in knowledge.

This means that all is played out in the thought of the duo
truth/knowledge. This amounts, in fact, to thought about the rela-
tion - which is actually a non-relation - between, on the one hand
36 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

post-evental fidelity, and on the other hand a fixed state of knowl-

edge ... The key to the problem is the way in which a procedure of
fidelity traverses existing knowledge, starting at this supernumery
point which is the name of the event5 (EE 361, italics in original)

So subjective is this conception of truth that it is not possible to

say exactly where a truth begins. An individual or individuals have
to make a 'wager' on the happening and a truth begins with an
'axiom of truth', and a 'groundless decision' regarding the question
of whether the happening is in fact an event or not (IT 62). The
role of philosophy is to be a tool by which to access truths as they
occur in the world at large. Badiou describes the relationship between
philosophy and truths in the realms of science, politics, art and love as
one of 'saisie', meaning 'capture, taking, and also seizing, astonish-
ment'; philosophy seizes these truths and philosophers are seized by
them (C 68).
One of Badiou's most enthusiastic and effective illustrations of
his philosophy is found in his Saint Paul. Lafondation de I'universalisme.
In this short book he argues that the road to Damascus experience of
the apostle Saint Paul, when he comes to believe in the resurrection
of Christ and in its universal significance, is an excellent example of an
individual becoming a subject through a life-changing faithfulness to
and belief in an event (in this case the resurrection): 'at the heart of
Christianity there is this event, situated and exemplary, which is the
death of the son of God on the cross ... All the parameters of the
doctrine of the event are found in Christianity' (EE 235). Badiou's
interest in Saint Paul and his insistence that all the elements of the
philosophy of the event are contained in Christianity have led Slavoj
Zizek to suggest that the barely hidden logic of his philosophy is a
religious one (Zizek 1999: 127-70; also Bensaid 2001: 143-71). Zizek
also points out that religion is not one of the truth procedures, but is
nevertheless the site for Badiou's most developed example of an event.
This criticism would seem rather inappropriate, as the religious
comparison is only one example among many, and Badiou makes it
clear that the example of Saint Paul and Christianity is particularly
powerful because of the subsequent success of the Christian religion
which is so crucially based on the universal significance of the event
Alain Badiou: Event, Subject and Truth 37

of the resurrection generated by people acting in fidelity to it. If there

is an unexplained leap between the non-material and the material I
would suggest that it is between Badiou's ontology and the material
world, a point to which I return below.
Another, more worldly example of a process of event-subject-truth
is found in relation to the May 1968 uprising, where those involved in
May and who subsequently remained faithful to it were also embark-
ing on a process of truth which has universal significance. Badiou is in
profound opposition to the postmodern, anti-Platonic standpoint that
we can no longer construct views about political action on timeless or
universal truths of any kind, that the world can only be explained
or changed in far smaller chunks and far less radically than was once
thought possible. According to the ultimately highly conservative
postmodern line of argument, a project which has such 'metanarra-
tives' as a key reference point is bound to lead to totalitarianism of
some kind, as happened on both left- and right-wing versions of such
ideologies in the twentieth century. The theoretical consequence of
this argument is that relativity abounds, the political implications
are that change must be minimal and driven by a clinging to the
safety of what is, as any grander schemes are both methodologically
unsound and profoundly dangerous. Badiou's philosophy is in part a
bold, elaborate and elegant rebuttal of this view, and an expression of
the counter-view that a substantially better world inspired by radi-
cally novel events in various domains is possible, and depends for its
realization on the energy and commitment of forward-looking people.

The event, movement and change

From the point of view of emancipatory politics, the general idea of

the event is inspiring because it suggests that the unexpected can
happen, that change is possible, even that tout estpossible. On a perso-
nal, intuitive level the notion of the event is perhaps one of the most
appealing aspects of Badiou's system, partly because it addresses and
integrates as a central part of an explanatory framework the sheer
wonder we might feel if we commit to something momentous: roman-
tic love, an exciting political development, a work of art, philosophy
38 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

or literature, a baby ... One can sometimes be at a loss to explain a

happening in terms that others will understand; one is lost for words.
'It will therefore always be doubtful that an event has taken place,
except for the one who intervenes, who decides on its belonging to
the situation' (EE 229). Highlighting the importance of subjective
commitment to an event, perhaps with the elements of doubt, risk,
surprise and inability to explain properly one's commitment, and
making it central to a theory of transformative processes is appealing
for this and other reasons. But in my view this sort of feeling probably
cannot be made part of the way we develop theories of transforma-
tion, and more generally the notion of the event is the most proble-
matic aspect of Badiou's thought.
Taking the example of the French Revolution, for Badiou this event
and all others must be seen as a happening which owed a large part to
chance and contingency. The circumstances of French society at the
end of the eighteenth century can be described using the knowledge
we have of it. We can understand the nature of land ownership, distri-
bution of wealth, relations between classes, institutional arrange-
ments for ruling the country, foreign relations, and so on, and we can
examine the intellectual debates of the time. But no amount of knowl-
edge of the circumstances of the ancien regime, according to Badiou, will
allow us properly to understand or explain the event of 1789 and what
followed (e.g. EE 201, EB 9). Rather, the revolution must be seen as a
supplement to the 'situation' (a concept whose usage is informed by
Wittgenstein) in which it occurred and as an event whose truth was
created by the commitment of men and women to the event, not
only while it was taking place but also in its aftermath. Not only was
the French Revolution far more than the sum of its causal parts, but it
cannot be properly explained through scrutiny of these parts. Badiou
makes the same point about the May 1968 uprising, when the partici-
pants were:

seized by what was happening to them, as if by something extraor-

dinary, something properly incalculable ... well beyond what any
one person might have thought possible - that's what I call an
eventmental dimension. None of the little processes that led to the
event was equal to what actually took place ... I simply think that
Alain Badiou: Event, Subject and Truth 39

none of the calculations internal to the situation can account for its
interruption, and cannot, in particular, elucidate this kind of break
in scale that happens at a certain moment, such that the actors
themselves are seized by something of which they no longer know
if they are its actors or its vehicle [supports], or what carries it
away... (PHI 24)

The strong element of surprise in the emergence of the event, and

our inability to explain it in retrospect in terms of what already
existed, is - although a familiar feeling to historians of May 1968
in particular - perhaps the most difficult aspect of the event to
accept. (An event is 'purely chance, uninferable from the situation'
[EE 215].) The event moves away from the repetition of the situa-
tion and in Saint Paul Badiou stresses that 'it is the essence of the event
not to be preceded by any sign, and to surprise us by its grace, however
vigilant we may be .. ."The day of the Lord will come like a thief in
the night" [Paul]' (SP 119). Put in more abstract terms, which he
describes as 'the rock of my entire edifice', Badiou comments that
'[i]f there is an event, its belonging to the situation of its site is undecidable
from the point of view of the situation itself (EE 202, italics in original).
I will now raise some further questions regarding the nature of the
event. First, it is not clear how significant an event needs to be to qua-
lify as an event. The examples Badiou gives tend, apart from in the
domain of love, to be generally agreed as being momentous (at least
in retrospect): the resurrection of Christ, the French Revolution of
1789, May 1968, paradigm shifts in music, art, mathematics and so
on. Badiou might reply that whether or not an occurrence becomes
an event depends upon the response of individuals who might become
faithful to it, but he also suggests, as we have seen, that an event is rare
and exceptional. This raises the question of whether someone who fre-
quently and fleetingly falls in love, for example, in what others might
consider to be a superficial way, is responding to (or rather creating) a
genuine event and is therefore more (or more frequently) a subject
than someone who does not do this. Can one practice fidelity and
therefore become a subject in relation to a 'trivial' event? An event
must be of universal significance, but what exactly does this mean
when it is defined so subjectively? Also, do the French enjoy more
40 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

'subjecthood' than the English because they are faithful to more revo-
lutions than the British, say, who have arguably arrived at a compar-
able socio-economic and political place without so many instances of
sudden, momentous change?
Next, it is still not clear to me why fidelity (generating subjecthood
and truth) must always be to an event, rather than to a state of affairs.
Is not love something that can emerge gradually, without an obvious
starting point, rather than as a coup defoudre? (Badiou is emphatic that
love is not just sex, incidentally.) Is not an expression of fidelity to the
1917 revolution as much shorthand for a commitment to a much
broader process, a particular view of the world and set of emancipa-
tory aspirations, which need not be expressed in terms of fidelity to an
event at all, but can be put in terms of, say, fidelty to the aspirations
and processes of socialism or communism, however they might be
defined? Could we not in fact one day be faithful, in theory at least,
to a (far more egalitarian and socially just) status quo, rather than to
a dramatic point of change? Why must fidelity necessarily be to a per-
haps disputed and/or somewhat arbitrarily defined point of departure
for what might become the status quo?
Some of Badiou's responses to these questions would no doubt
emphasize the mathematical nature of his ontology, which again he
derives in part from Lacan and which is a major focus ofL'Etre et Veve-
nement. He is in search of the highest possible level of purity, which is as
removed as possible from the material, and for him this level of
abstraction is achieved by multiplicity as articulated by set theory.
Philosophy has excluded maths for too long, he argues, in part
because of its profound preoccupation with language, and must now
become re-involved with maths, not as a philosophy of mathematics
but as philosophy which depends on and is conditioned by maths,
which is accountable only to itself - it is axiomatic and does not inter-
pret or represent - and is thus sovereign in an absolute sense. In par-
ticular, Badiou's ontology is based on set theory as elaborated by
Georg Cantor, who radically redefined the relationship between the
finite and the infinite, and the relationship between the parts and
the whole. Being in these terms is pure multiplicity, and in set theory
multiplicity is multiples of multiples and nothing more. We can
describe Badiou's concept of the 'situation' as being the same as a set,
Alain Badiou: Event, Subject and Truth 41

that is 'presented multiplicity' ('toute multiplicite presentee' [EE

32]). The event, by stark contrast, does not belong to any existing set
and belongs only to itself. It is a 'breakdown of the count' (PH 129).
In Logiques des mondes Badiou uses the mathematics of category theory
to explain the nature of appearance (LM 419-47). I can accept that
all of this makes sense in terms of pure mathematics - which is why
Badiou believes maths is ontologically valid, because maths represents
nothing but itself - and that set theory is used here as a paradigm. But
there does not seem to be any convincing bridge from his mathemati-
cal ontology to the emergence and operation of events (and subjects)
in the various material realms in which they take place. In other
words there seems to be little evidence that set theory actually works
as a paradigm for significant developments in the material world.
Badiou asserts that set theory works, but fails ultimately to show
how; maths remains on one plane and eventmental developments on
another, parallel and apparently disconnected one. A subtractive
account of change might work in set theory, but is not convincing in
the real world, or at least not as the dominant explanation of general
change. Instead, we need an account of change which explores con-
stant movement and explains radical change as springing from - as
well as adding to - this process of constant movement. Badiou's
system is better at exploring the additional element in the form of
event but fails to explain adequately the event's genesis because of an
un-dynamic view of the status quo.
I would argue therefore that Badiou's explanatory framework is in
fact rather a static one which is not able to explain transformation at
all. According to him, in the realm of the real the situation constantly
repeats, and into this repetition bursts the event, which we cannot
properly explain in terms of the nature of the situation. Put slightly
differently, knowledge is wholly disconnected from truth. Certainly,
Badiou's account of the genesis of the event emphasizes the impor-
tance of subjective commitment, of getting involved, but Badiou is so
hostile to the idea that we might be able to understand the world with
the help of empirical evidence that the nature of 'what is' (facts,
knowledge, the situation) seems to be taken out of the equation of
change altogether. In his eagerness to assert the importance of post-
eventmental, subjective intervention and the poverty of empiricism,
42 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

he throws out any proper explanation of the emergence of the event in

terms of the nature of the situation. The logic of this would seem to be
that we should not attempt to understand the world properly but
should wait until events happen and then act in fidelity to them. Cer-
tainly, Badiou insists that we should not in fact wait for the event, and
that there are plenty of events in the past we can remain faithful to:
'If everything depends on an event, should one wait? Certainly not.
Many events, even very distant ones, still require that one acts in fide-
lity towards them ...' (SP 119). But the logic of his philosophy does
indeed seem to be that we are playing a waiting, reactive game.
There seems almost to be an inverted teleology taking place here:
instead of 'final cause' explanations, or history leading inexorably
towards one certain outcome, we seem on the contrary to be required
to wait for the (inevitable) event which will push us forwards as long
as we are faithful to it and work in favour of its consequences.
I would like for a moment to compare Badiou with two great the-
ories of change, namely those of Darwin and Marx. Darwin's theory
of evolution through natural selection cannot be transferred directly
to human societies, but it is exemplary in its ability to explain meta-
morphosis. It takes as its premise the idea that both the world of ani-
mals and plants on the one hand and their environment on the other
are in a constant state of flux. Darwin goes on to make three general-
izations in order to explain his theory. First, individual members of a
species differ to an extent from one another. Second, these differences
between members of a species are to some degree hereditary. Third,
animals and plants multiply at a rate which is faster than the environ-
ment can cope with, which means many must die at an early stage
(Darwin 1968 [1859]: 71-129). Putting these three generalizations
together, Darwin puts forward the following model of change:

If during the long course of ages and under varying conditions of

life, organic beings vary at all in the several parts of their organisa-
tion ... if there be, owing to the high geometrical powers of increase
of each species ... a severe struggle for life; then ... I think it would
be a most extraordinary fact if no variation of life ever had occurred
useful to each being's own welfare ... But if variations useful to any
organic being do occur, assuredly individuals thus characterised
Alain Badiou: Event, Subject and Truth 43

will have the best chance of being preserved in the struggle for life;
and from the strong principle of inheritance they will tend to pro-
duce offspring similarly characterised. This principle of preserva-
tion, I have called, for the sake of brevity, Natural Selection.
(Darwin 1968 [1859]: 169-70)

I evoke Darwin's theory of evolution not because it is transferrable

as a general theory of change to human societies, as I have said. But it
does provide an excellent example - perhaps the example - of how
organisms in a constant state of flux can, precisely because of this cea-
seless mobility, both evolve slowly and undergo substantial change.
(What is missing in Darwin's account - a lacuna he fully acknowl-
edges - is the process by which characteristics are inherited and by
which organisms are eventually generated which are incompatible
with other individuals with common ancestors; the answer to this
was later provided by the science of genetics.) The seed of a particular
change, whilst not predictable in any precise sense, and not inevitable
in its detail, is entirely contained in the logic of what is already in
existence (the 'situation' in Badiouian terms). Darwinism explains
change in terms which fully integrate an interpretation of the condi-
tions of'what was' into 'what is now'.
Marx, meanwhile, uses a theory of political economy to inform an
explanation of historical movement and change, involving most cen-
trally a contradiction between forces of production and relations of
production. The forces of production comprise all components of the
means of production and labour power, including such diverse ele-
ments as machinery, the labour process and education of the working
class. The relations of production, meanwhile, are the way in which
the productive forces are owned (from an economic point of view), a
system of ownership investigated by Marx most fully, of course, under
capitalism, where the bourgeoisie owns the means of production and
the proletariat only its ability to work, or labour power. For Marx, the
productive forces in particular are constantly changing and tend to
become decreasingly compatible with the relations of production of a
given time, which means social relations become more unstable. This
is the core of his approach to the political economy of historical
change, which he famously expresses thus:
44 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

In the social production of their life, men enter into definite rela-
tions that are indispensible and independent of their will, relations
of production which correspond to a definite stage of development
of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations
of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real
foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and
to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The
mode of production of material life conditions the social, political
and intellectual life process in general ... At a certain stage in
their development, the material productive forces of society come
in conflict with the existing relations of production, or - what
is just a legal expression for the same thing - with the property
relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From
forms of development of the productive forces these relations
turn into fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution. (Marx
1968b [1859]: 181-2)

For both Darwin and Marx the theories of the status quo (to the
extent that there can be a status quo where there is constant move-
ment) incorporate a theory of change within them. For both writers,
the 'event' for Darwin adaptation and for Marx social revolu-
tion - takes place as a result of aspects of the 'situation' explained in
large part by their more general theories of this ever-changing status
quo. For Badiou it is the other way round; something happens which
cannot properly be explained by reference to the already-existing
circumstances - 'the idea of massive change whose origin is a state of
totality is imaginary' (EE 197) - and becomes an event of significant
proportions because someone or some people commit themselves to
what has happened. (Thus for Badiou an event cannot possibly be
a natural event because there are no subjects in nature [EE 194].)
In the case of Marx, the subject is certainly important to the extent
that without agents of revolution there can be no revolution, but
revolution in France for Marx, for example, was absolutely explic-
able with reference to, in particular, the socio-economic contradi-
tions under the ancien regime, in conjunction with an understanding
of, for example, political developments. Badiou might in both cases
respond by saying that the subject is absent from the cores of both
Alain Badiou: Event, Subject and Truth 45

these theories of change. In the case of Darwin's theory regarding bio-

logical change, this is of course the case and is not directly applicable
to social change. As far as Marx is concerned, I would interpret his
theory as allowing a substantial role for agency whilst insisting on
definite tendencies in the development of human societies. Even
more famously, Marx suggests that people make their own history,
but within given circumstances.
In Logiques des mondes Badiou responds to criticism for having no
theory of change beyond the event, no explanation of what happens
in the normal, 'non-evental' order of things. He devotes many pages
to developing a more general explanation of change and takes us
through the idea that there can be 'weak singularities' which are
important instances of change which are less significant than 'strong
singularities', also called events. What he calls 'materialist dialectics'
la dialectique materialiste] is clearly intended to respond to those who
alleged his theory was, paradoxically, rather static and to those
who accuse him of ignoring dialectics and not placing enough empha-
sis on the material; the proximity of the term materialist dialectics
to Marx's dialectical materialism is entirely intentional, as is the dis-
tancing transposition of the words. But there is still, apparently, no
fully explained connection between the emergence of smaller changes
and the emergence of the event, not, at least, in terms of the overall
theory of the emergence of the subject through fidelity to the event.

Concluding remarks

I will firstly summarize some important aspects of Badiou's philoso-

phy. He sets out to challenge the fundamental assumptions of a
number of established schools of thought and individual thinkers
and, by asserting a blend of universalism, intervention of the subject
and an argument in favour of the importance of the event, offers a
radical, praxis-driven alternative to much contemporary Western
thought. In particular, Badiou takes postmodern philosophy to task,
arguing that its declaration of the end of metanarratives, its relati-
vism, its marginalizing of the role of philosophy itself and by implica-
tion certain forms of political activism are all leading philosophy into
46 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

a blind alley from which it must now remove itself. But he has little
time either for any of the schools of philosophy which espouse forms
of liberalism. I have suggested that Badiou succeeds in exposing
much contemporary philosophy - postmodern and otherwise - as
essentially a series of areas of intellectual activity which are unwilling
or unable to engage with the material world in a way that offers a
manner of thinking about changing the material world in anything
more than the most modest and unthreatening ways. I have also sug-
gested that his assertion of the importance of intervention in order to
achieve understanding which in turn leads to further intervention is a
persuasive line of argument.
I have also suggested, however, that the theory of the event, at the
very heart of Badiou's scheme of things, is problematic for a number of
reasons. Among these are, first, that Badiou is not able to explain the
genesis of the event from the status quo from which it springs. Second,
I fail to see why we cannot act in fidelity to the status quo, or a process,
or a series of aspirations, for example, rather than to an event. Third,
and perhaps most importantly, sophisticated though Badiou's mathe-
matical ontology may be, he does not seem to show convincingly that
set theory explains the world as it actually is, and more importantly
how the world changes. I have suggested that in order to understand
radical transformations - events - we need to have a theory of the
status quo which describes an already-existing state of flux, whereas
Badiou's status quo is rather static.
I hope to have prepared the ground for a more detailed examina-
tion of Badiou's political thought in the next chapter.
Chapter 3

The Paradoxes of Alain Badiou's

Theory of Politics

Despite a strong conviction about the usefulness of philosophy qua phi-

losophy and despite scepticism with regard to much of what today
passes as political philosophy, the work of Alain Badiou is in impor-
tant ways profoundly political. We have seen that, drawing on classi-
cal philosophy, he explores at great length the question of truth,
which according to him can only come about via the commitment -
or fidelity - of a subject or subjects to an event which has taken place in
one of the crucial realms of science, art, love or emancipatory politics.
Indeed the realm of politics occupies a special place among the four
realms where truth procedures can take place, as truth activity in this
domain is necessarily collective - therefore universal - in its practice
as well as universal in its orientation, as are all truth procedures (AM
155-6). Moreover, Badiou's core philosophy, involving the interplay
of event, subject and truth, is in certain respects reminiscent of Marx
and other revolutionary writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centu-
ries, in that substantial change takes place where something seems at
one stage to be of little importance and then in a process of revolution
comes to matter a great deal; subjects act in ways which promote the
importance of the event and ways which run counter to the logic and
the spirit of the status quo. Using the language of historical change
through struggle, then, the role of the activist or activists is crucial to
the process of radical transformation and in particular to the creation
of a new status quo built on new bases; in more Badiouian, philosophi-
cal terms, a subject's or subjects' fidelity to an event generates truth,
which transforms the situation along egalitarian lines (whether it be
in the domain of science, art, love or politics) for ever. Thirdly,
Badiou's thought is profoundly political because it is influenced by
many years of his own political activism, discussed in Chapter 2.
48 Badiouy Balibar, Ranciere

In this chapter I concentrate on Badiou's theory of politics, which

in many ways contrasts greatly with the dominant intellectual trends
in contemporary France. He is in fundamental disagreement with and
systematically opposes intellectuals who have discovered or rediscov-
ered Kant, Tocqueville and Rawls in order to lend authority to a
defence of liberalism and the status quo and attacks on left politics.
Indeed, he defends in uncompromising fashion the legacy and the
spirit of combativity of May 1968, without any hint of the apology,
mocking or irony that has permeated much discussion of the events
of that year, both within France and beyond. He also strongly defends
the validity of the notion of universalism and criticizes those who, in
embracing the linguistic turn and promoting the importance of the
Other, also often promote a cynicism towards left militancy. Badiou
not only insists that a true event has universal significance and
includes in his totalizing system of thought phenomena as diverse as
the 1789 French Revolution, Cantor's set theory, Mallarme's poetry
and Lacan's writings on psychoanalysis, perhaps making his theory
the ultimate metanarrative and the antithesis of any postmodern
approach to contemporary thought. He also argues that a true event
in any of the four realms is also necessarily egalitarian: 'the generic is
egalitarian, and all subjects are ultimately defined by the egalitarian*
(EE 447). He is tireless in his condemnation of neoliberal economics
and the injustices which are so integral to it, frequently speaking out
on national and international politics and social issues.
In what follows I examine Badiou's thought from a point of view
which seeks ultimately to come to conclusions regarding the transfor-
mational potential of a theory which attempts both to explain and to
help change the material world via an ambitious new philosophical
system. There is a claim in other words both of philosophy's useful-
ness to the material world and of top-to-bottom coherence. My gen-
eral argument is that whilst there is a lot to recommend individual
aspects of Badiou's thought, in particular his emphasis on political
commitment and the importance of the human subject, there is a
lack of coherence between two major influences on his writings:
the Platonic and idealist on the one hand and the materialist and acti-
vist on the other. In keeping with this disjunction between the differ-
ent aspects of his thought, it is perhaps his reflections on the less
The Paradoxes of Alain Badiou's Theory of Politics 49

philosophical areas - democracy, parliamentary politics, elections

and trade unions - that are the most problematic.
I begin with a more detailed examination of Badiou's notion of pol-
itics as truth procedure. I then move on to consider his relationship
with historical materialism and Marxism, followed by an examina-
tion of his notion of democracy. I then explore his approach to some
of the more conventional preoccupations of empirical social scientists,
especially parliamentary politics. Finally, I address the question of
Badiou's political activism and suggest ways in which his conception
of activism relates to his thought. Despite Badiou flying in the face of
the conservatism of much contemporary French thought, his philoso-
phy also bears the scars of the difficulty of maintaining a position on
the left with contemporary relevance in what has been for many years
a hostile climate.

Politics, the event and truth procedures

As we have seen, Badiou's belief in the usefulness of philosophy and

the need to defend it against frontal attacks, marginalization or gra-
dual erosion can hardly be overstated. However, he is highly sceptical
about the idea of political philosophy because philosophy is condi-
tioned by politics (and by developments in the realms of love, art and
science) and so-called political philosophy cannot rise above politics
in order to understand it in the way contemporary liberal analysts
would have us believe. What passes as political philosophy tends,
then, not to question the status quo, but simply to reflect 'public
opinion', and entirely to miss the point that the only way in which
politics and thought can be linked is through examining the agita-
tional nature of politics. Conventional political philosophy is there to
encourage the watching of things political from the sidelines and is
only tenuously related to activist participation in politics. Hannah
Arendt, for example, explores this form of political philosophy, put-
ting discussion rather than action at the heart of her thought, thus
promoting parliamentary debate as the essence of politics. For
Badiou, by contrast, politics is primarily decision and intervention
(AM 19-26). Badiou advocates what he calls 'metapolitics', which is
50 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

representation in thought of actual political acts, and for him this is

the valid way of exploring politics in the intellectual domain. This
is not and should not be confused with subsuming philosophy as a
whole to politics, where philosophy becomes simply a way of thinking
politics, which is quite wrong according to Badiou. He admits regret-
fully that he did at one time indulge in this practice himself, in a clear
reference to his orthodox Maoist phase (MP 57).
For Badiou true politics is something quite specific, short-lived and
momentous, which often involves a revolution or revolt of a collective,
egalitarian and emancipatory nature, an irruption of positive politi-
cal energy which may well take the form of an uprising or at least some
sort of revolt against the established order (EB 19). '[P]olitical truth
always begins in trial and trouble ... in rupture and disorder' (AM
114) and '[pjolitical thinking always ruptures with the dominant
state of things' (IT 82). It is not only both rare and momentous, but
also, often ephemeral: 'What I call politics is something that can be
discerned only in a few, brief sequences, often quickly overturned,
crushed or diluted by the return of business as usual' (BF 121).

The possibility of the impossible is the basis of politics. It is mas-

sively opposed to everything we are taught today, which is that pol-
itics is the management of the necessary. Politics begins with the
same gesture by which Rousseau reveals the basis of inequality:
leave all facts to one side. (PP 78)

In short, true politics takes the form of an event. It seems to come from
nowhere, depends for its existence on the militant activity of people
who become subjects in the process of acting in fidelity towards the
event, and has universal significance.
Following his long-term activist and theorist friend Sylvain
Lazarus, Badiou identifies four historical 'modes' as far as politics is
concerned: the revolutionary mode, from 1792 to 1794 in France and
represented on an individual level by Robespierre and Saint Just; the
classist mode, from the publication of Marx and Engels' Communist
Manifesto in 1848 to the Paris Commune in 1871; the Bolshevik
mode, identified in particular with Lenin, running from the publica-
tion of Lenin's What is to be Done? in 1902 to 1917; and finally the
The Paradoxes of Alain Badiou's Theory of Politics 51

dialectical mode, associated with Mao Zedong, which stretches from

the publication of Why is it that Red Political Power can Exist in China?
in 1928 to the end of the 1950s (AM 49; Lazarus 1996: 88-95). Each
mode contains proper political events and for example the revolution
of 1789 - and even more so the period between 1792 and 1794 -
constitutes a political event, true politics, as do many other revolu-
tions or revolts which are emancipatory and egalitarian in nature.
Included among these is the May 1968 uprising, which is a classic
example when activists were 'seized by what was happening to them,
as by something extraordinary, something properly incalculable'
(PH 125), and May 1968 is a revolt which 'transformed from top to
bottom the content and forms of ideological struggle and theoretical
investigation' (TC 8).
When Badiou describes the political event as collective, he does not
simply mean that there are many people involved who share the same
goals; the term collective is a political and not a mathematical one.
The political event is necessarily collective precisely because it is poli-
tical and therefore has universal significance, by contrast with events
within the three other truth procedures: the mathematician needs
only one other person to agree with the validity of a mathematical
breakthrough; love only needs two people to act in fidelity to the
event of their falling in love; the artist needs no-one besides him-
self or herself (as a minimum) to act in fidelity to an artistic event
(AM 155-6). The political truth procedure, then, occupies a special
place among truth procedures because it is the 'only truth procedure
which is generic, not only in its result, but also in the local composition
of its subject' (AM 156).
In some respects the political event is appealing and convinc-
ing as an explanatory device, precisely because it tries to incorporate
more enigmatic and inexplicable developments into the grander
scheme of explaining change, making the political event much more
than the sum of its parts. After years of political argument and divi-
sion, a watershed political happening can unite former opponents,
make previous differences seem irrelevant, and inspire activists and
former non-activists alike to pursue the logic of the event. The fact
that for Badiou the event cannot be predicted adds to this inspira-
tional quality.
52 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

Badiou's system is thus very much a philosophy of praxis and as

such flies in the face of much contemporary political thought, in
particular political liberalism. His entire philosophical edifice rests
upon the idea that transformations take place via the commitment of
individuals and groups to a particular happening and that they some-
times maintain this commitment through thick and thin, often in the
face of criticism, derision, marginalization and sometimes punish-
ment. Through their commitment to a particular cause, or in the
jargon 'fidelity to the event', individuals and groups can change
the domain into which they are putting their energies for ever, creat-
ing the possibility and legitimacy of something that had previously
been impossible and illegitimate. Badiou not only encourages us
to believe in the legitimacy of loyalty to a revolutionary break -
of uprising worked through to a thoroughly new state of affairs, of
believing in the lasting potential of an amorous 'coup de foudre',
of committing to a radical new paradigm in art or to scientific break-
through - he puts it at the very heart of his thought. Activism and
commitment are thus key elements of Badiou's system, not just desir-
able, practical add-ons if time permits beyond intellectual pursuits;
this is not the liberal model where the philosopher with a social con-
science is impartial intellectual during the day and activist intellec-
tual at night, working around one or two worthy causes. On the
contrary, in the tradition of Sartre and Althusser, Badiou's philosophy
is a philosophy that invites an understanding of the world via the
taking of sides and defending a highly controversial view to the hilt;
it is an elaborate exploration of practical partiality. In order to under-
stand, one simply must intervene, both as activist and intellectual.
Perhaps the most striking difference between Badiou's philosophy
and that of many other French theorists of the late twentieth century
is his treatment of the human subject. For Badiou the subject plays a
crucial role in the process of major change, because major change
takes place when and only when there is an event, a subject acting in
fidelity to an event and a truth process, all of which emerge as part and
only as part of the three-way process: event-subject-truth. Subject-
hood, then, does not exist in relation to something as general as 'his-
tory', or 'thought', for example; one is not a subject simply by virtue of
being part of a general historical process (and being a subject is thus
The Paradoxes of Alain Badiou's Theory of Politics 53

very different from most notions of agency) or because one is a think-

ing being. Subjecthood comes only with being part of the truth process
involved in acting in fidelity towards a new art form, a person with
whom the subject has fallen in love, scientific innovation or a momen-
tous political happening. The subject, then, is as central as the event
itself to Badiou's philosophical system (and is indeed always found
alongside the event), and is by definition, to put it simply, committed
to a cause of some description; this is the subject as activist, although
not necessarily political activist. Subjecthood is exceptional and
extraordinary and certainly not the rule, or part of the normal way
of things. The subject is certainly not any and every individual, an
ordinary human being, any more than a truth is an empirically verifi-
able representation of what is, what exists. However, any individual
can become a subject in the process of committing to a particular
cause as part of a truth procedure, where subjects, truths and events
create each other.
Badiou's strong emphasis on the role of the subject thus very much
sets him apart from structuralist and much poststructuralist thought
which has been so prevalent in France since it largely eclipsed Sartre
in the early 1960s, and Badiou indeed conceives of disputes within
French philosophy in the late twentieth century primarily as conflict
over the nature and importance of the human subject (Badiou 2005b}.
In his own work he brings the subject back to the very centre of the
stage, as we have seen, and in a respectful but critical essay on Althus-
ser, Badiou accuses his sometime mentor of failing to develop any
theory of the subject because Althusser deals only with processes,
removing the subject entirely from his philosophy of Marxism and
instead ascribing the subject with a role only in relation to the capital-
ist state; the Althusserian subject can only, according to Badiou, be a
bourgeois subject (MP 68). For Badiou the subject is quite the oppo-
site; individuals and groups of individuals become subjects when they
are, in the broadest of senses, revolutionaries, when they commit to an
extraordinary event and defend it to the hilt, altering the status quo
substantially and for ever.
To put it slightly differently, by contrast with deconstructionist
philosophers (and arguably Althusser as well), Badiou is greatly pre-
occupied with a form of agency, but agency - in the form of radical
54 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

action on the part of someone (or some people) who becomes a sub-
ject - is for him not part of the normal course of things. Instead, it
comes about as part of a chance encounter with an event towards
which individuals decide to act with fidelity and which radically
changes the situation in which they exist.
One problem with Badiou's conception of the subject is that, even if
one accepts subjecthood emerging amongst individuals who commit
to an event, the subject is only partially a subject in that s/he reacts to
events which Badiou tells us simply happen; the subject plays no part
in causing the event. Badiou is thus still quite a long way from Sartre's
interpretation of the subject where each individual is at liberty to
shape their own destiny and bear the consequences of this course of
action, and indeed in some senses compared with Sartre, Badiou
comes closer to Althusser's notion of history as 'process without a sub-
ject', precisely because for Badiou subjecthood is so uncompromis-
ingly retrospective. A thorough theory of the subject lying between
Sartre's arguably excessively free individual and Badiou's after-the-
event activist is, it would seem, still to be written, influenced more clo-
sely perhaps by Marx's notion of human beings creating their own
history but within particular circumstances.
As with the event in relation to the subject in the other domains
where truth procedures take place, there is in Badiou's reflections on
the political event a peculiar mix of the highly passive and highly
active on the part of the subject of the event, whose own perspective
is the only one which is of real note:

A political process is a chance fidelity, militant and only partially

shared, to a singular event, which is legitimised only by itself. The
universality of the political truth which results from this process
is itself only recognisable, like any truth, retrospectively, in the
form of knowledge ... the point from which a political process can
be thought, from where its truth can be recognised, is the actors'
and not the spectators' ... It is via Saint-Just and Robespierre
that one enters the singular truth of the French Revolution, from
where you can gain knowledge of it, and not via Kant or Francois
Furet. (AM 33)
The Paradoxes of Alain Badiou's Theory of Politics 55

Thus before the event the subject-to-be does not yet exist as a subject,
to the extent that he or she, or more accurately in the case of politics
they, only create the event (and themselves as subjects) after it has
taken place. Once the event has happened the subject becomes crucial
to the event's (retrospective) existence and significance: 'It will
always remain doubtful that an event has taken place, except for the
one who intervenes' (EE 229). For a committed view of politics, and
one which is arguably highly influenced by the notion of praxis, it is
rather odd that the role of the activist is so retrospective in relation to
the event and a matter of faith, rather than being one of planning a
course of (perhaps revolutionary) action and changing the world.
For example, the Bolsheviks surely did not wait for the 1917 revolu-
tion before behaving in a revolutionary manner and becoming agents
of change, and one does not necessarily fall into a teleological trap if
one believes otherwise. Even the May 1968 uprising in France, which
is famous for not having been predicted, is surely explicable only if one
takes into account such factors as: prolonged struggles against coloni-
alism in the 1950s and 1960s; both the strength of the PCF and its par-
tial discrediting during this same period, thus generating many
activists to the left of the PCF; the immediate international context
of the anti-Vietnam war movement; years of resistance to de Gaulle's
authoritarian regime; and finally, decades of work on the part of
the PCF itself and sympathetic trade union organizations such as the
CGT, which (albeit somewhat belatedly) contributed to building
the general strike in May-June 1968, and helped to give the uprising
the historic, eventmental significance which Badiou identifies. This is
not to deny that when the trade unions negotiated with the employers
at the end of May and beginning of June in the Crenelle negotiations,
this had the effect of taking the wind out of the sails of the workers'
protests. Moreover, the Crenelle negotiations certainly resulted in
changes which were meagre compared to the strength of the May
movement (see Capdevielle and Mouriaux 1988).
In short, history suggests that the role of activists resisting aspects of
the status quo was crucial in terms of preparing the ground for and
sustaining the momentum of May 1968, which is not to say by any
means that the uprising was inevitable. If, on the other hand, events,
56 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

including political events, are mysterious, completely unpredictable

and random, then why organize, if only to make a marginal differ-
ence, to make very small changes which can be eroded and in particu-
lar can be adapted to suit the needs of capitalism? There is a danger
that in Badiou's scheme of things political activism remains entirely
defensive and local, highly limited in its impact, and in relation to
the overall course of history, ironically rather minimal. This is one
of the costs of Badiou making subjecthood retrospective and indissoci-
ably and solely linked with an event in the past. Badiou might respond
that one must grasp the mathematical nature of his ontology, but as I
argued in Chapter 2, his mathematical ontology does not convin-
cingly translate into the world of material politics.
A discussion of the more political aspects of Badiou's thought also
raises an important question regarding the truth procedures,
namely: can they really all be described in broadly the same way,
within the same general explanatory framework? A revolution such
as 1789 or 1917 banishes (or at least plays a decisive part in banishing)
a whole social, political, economic and ideological system and helps
replace it with another, thanks to the commitment of many revolu-
tionaries and countless other people through subsequent generations.
Arguably the 1789 revolution played a key role in France's and to an
extent much of Europe's passage to modernity, with all the economic,
social, political and cultural ramifications that this notion implies.
By the same token, 1917 arguably revolutionized economic, social,
political and cultural aspects of modernity, whatever one might
think of the development of these aspects in the USSR and the rest of
the Eastern Bloc in the longer term. Can these revolutions and their
vast social, economic, political and cultural consequences really be
explained largely in the same terms as two individuals falling in love
and deciding to commit to each other in the long term, perhaps to live
together and have children? Moreover, do social and political revolu-
tions proceed with the same logic as scientific or artistic ones? Is the
relationship between events in different domains (for example politics
and art) sometimes more important than Badiou suggests by explain-
ing events' importance in terms of retrospective fidelity within the
(political or artistic) domain? What is the relationship for example
between the 1917 revolution and Russian Constructivism? To pose it
The Paradoxes of Alain Badiou's Theory of Politics 57

in terms which Badiou might not acknowledge as being valid: can

cause, effect and logic of history apply in similar ways across the four
domains and if not, can these notions (cause, effect and logic of
history) really be relegated in the way Badiou's system suggests?
My own, very brief, answer would be that Badiou's portrayal of the
subject coming out of the blue, his almost exclusive concentration
on the event to explain the way in which movement takes place and on
the exclusively retrospective relationship between subject and event,
contributes to an unconvincing or at best partial description of the
process of change, in politics and in other domains as well. Certainly,
what Badiou describes as events are vital, but they cannot be under-
stood without recourse to a thorough examination of what goes before
them - the context of their genesis -just as much as what follows
them. This in turn helps understand the relationship between events.
Returning to broader definitions of politics, Badiou's notion of how
not to define politics is just as enlightening. According to Badiou, the
study of politics is not a way of understanding the general nature of
power in society and the way in which individuals and groups struggle
for that power in organized or less organized ways. Still less is it the
way in which the contemporary state relates to civil society, and it is
certainly not an examination of the operation of government. Indeed,
the governmental 'management of the affairs of the state' has nothing
to do with politics and is instead an attempt to neutralize politics and
create an artificial and harmful consensus (EB 19). In fact, anything
to do with established political practices which are closely associated
with the status quo (including not only parliamentary politics but also
trade unions, for example) cannot be counted as true politics in the
sense that he understands it. I return to these sorts of question below.
My response to Badiou's theory of politics as described so far can be
summarized as follows. Certainly, the academic examination of poli-
tics in its various forms is often dominated by empiricism and descrip-
tion to such an extent that, taken as a general approach rather than
as individual studies, it has virtually no distance from the present
order of things and is therefore unquestioning of the status quo;
on the contrary, it has a tendency to reinforce and legitimize the
status quo. However, Badiou's conception of politics goes so far in the
opposite direction that in a sense it is almost as powerless to enable
58 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

and explain change as the approach of conventional empirical politi-

cal science. If true politics only begins with the rare and the extraor-
dinary, with an event whose genesis is impossible to explain properly
or to predict even partially, it also leaves the political analyst in a
passive, rather ineffectual position. The idea of having to engage in
order to understand is perfectly acceptable. But for Badiou engage-
ment - fidelity - apparently only allows one to understand properly
a particular event, and not the world more generally. In fact, truth
resulting from achieving subjecthood in fidelity to an event is argu-
ably not understanding at all, but something far more subjective,
akin perhaps to quasi-inexplicable belief, or faith; consistent with this
approach, Badiou is emphatic that truth is not the same as knowledge
I would suggest that if, on the contrary, we conceive of politics as
the interplay of various forms of power, some more progressive and
egalitarian, others more reactionary and elitist, then it becomes possi-
ble to understand political developments in an ongoing, more organic
way. For Gramsci, for example, politics in a capitalist society must be
understood as competing entities attempting to achieve hegemony,
which the bourgeois class is on the whole most successful in doing.
By extension, progressive politics are in part about attempting to
establish a counter-hegemony. This is an ongoing process, which in
normal, non-revolutionary times is a constant 'war of position',
rather than a sudden and revolutionary 'war of manoeuvre'. When a
serious challenge to the status quo takes place in the form of an upris-
ing, it is in part the work by activists during the period of war of posi-
tion that allows the passage to war of manoeuvre. For Badiou, on the
contrary, politics is only politics when it is egalitarian and emancipa-
tory and takes the form of a sudden rupture with the status quo;
slow, ongoing struggles to convince others in the ideological realm, or
to make small material gains apparently do not count as politics.
Certainly, this approach which puts emphasis on the big break is
positive, optimistic and provocative, a broadside attack on both
liberal and revisionist trends currently so prevalent in France, which
of course seek greatly to play down the importance of revolt and
revolution. But it also largely avoids many political issues, includ-
ing the questions of what the state does when it rules, the nature
The Paradoxes of Alain Badiou's Theory of Politics 59

of exploitation, the relationship between the capitalist mode of pro-

duction and liberal democracy, why revolutions happen when they
do, and so on. If we do not take a more holistic view of politics
then our analysis is bound to be left wanting and be less useful in
terms of explaining how to counter the status quo as necessary and
move onwards.
Badiou as political activist takes far more notice of the different
instances of political power than his theory might suggest, as I show
later in this chapter.

Against and beyond the postmodern

Given Badiou's hostility towards postmodern philosophy and decon-

struction, it is perhaps surprising to find that his attitude towards
Gilles Deleuze is not one of unmitigated condemnation but one of
ambivalence. In his orthodox Maoist days, Badiou was indeed vitrio-
lic in his denunciation of Deleuze, dismissing him as a loathsome
counter-revolutionary. But in Gilles Deleuze: La clameur de I3etre, pub-
lished in 1997, Badiou not only engages with him seriously but
almost attempts to rescue Deleuze from postmodern philosophy alto-
gether, suggesting that Deleuze is far more influenced by Plato and
the classical tradition than most readers (including Deleuze himself)
would wish to allow (D 42). Although Badiou does present Deleuze's
philosophy as being the opposite of his own in many ways, instead of
exploring the ambiguities and multiple interpretations for which
Deleuze is well known, Badiou argues that Deleuze's work is in fact
characterized by univocity and that one of its most important aspects
is a philosophy of the One (e.g. D 94).
An insightful and ongoing engagement with Badiou has come from
Slavoj Zizek, who praises Badiou's notion of a singular truth with uni-
versal relevance in relation to a particular event, which contrasts
starkly with the postmodernist notion of multiple truths and the end
of universal and eternal narratives. Moreover, Badiou's event con-
fronts the postmodern notion of politics where 'nothing really hap-
pens' and asserts, on the contrary, that political events are real,
crucial and determine the shape of things to come for many years.
60 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

Zizek points out that this approach also confronts head-on the histor-
ian Francois Furet's revisionist approach to the French Revolution,
where Furet attempts to remove the evental-revolutionary signifi-
cance of 1789 and instead presents it as a series of individual historical
facts (Zizek 1999: 131-2, 135-6). But Zizek goes on to question
Badiou's elaboration of the place of the subject in his system, arguing
that the subject plays a far more ideological role than Badiou is pre-
pared to admit, and that Badiou's Truth-Event is in fact close to
Althusser's notion of ideological interpellation. Zizek also argues con-
vincingly that Badiou's most compelling example of the event and the
emergence of subjects via fidelity to the event is the Christian religion
as explored in his book on Saint Paul, and that this religious event
does not fit within the four generic procedures, namely love, art,
science and politics. There is, then, an unacknowledged ideological
and religious logic at the heart of Badiou's thought (141). (See also
Daniel Bensai'd's chapter, 'Alain Badiou et le miracle de Pevenement',
in Bensaid 2001: 143-70.)
I have argued above that in the broader context of much French
philosophy of the final third of the twentieth century, Badiou is nota-
ble in particular for his assertion of the importance of the role of the
subject. We should no doubt add that Badiou is in this context also
notable for the emphasis he places on the notion of equality and on
the political more generally. In light of this it is worth anticipating
somewhat the next chapter and pausing to compare Badiou's work
with that of Jacques Ranciere, who has a substantial amount in
common with Badiou, and who might also be deemed to be exploring
philosophy beyond the postmodern. (See especially Ranciere 1992,
1995, 2001 and Robson 2005a.) Ranciere's conception of politics
relies on a notion of the gap between the established order on the one
hand and on the other hand political interventions on the part of mar-
ginalized individuals or groups who disrupt the injustice of the status
quo. By intervening in this way the excluded assert their right to be
understood in a way that the discourse of received wisdom does not
allow; the rebels' statements cannot be understood by the ruling
order (or 'police' as Ranciere describes it) and the conditions of com-
prehension are created in the process of rebellion and its aftermath,
through the rebels seizing the opportunity to assert themselves and,
The Paradoxes of Alain Badiou's Theory of Politics 61

in linguistic terms, to assert the comprehensibility of their utterances.

In this sense Ranciere's theory is a theory of the subject similar
to some extent to Badiou's, in that subjects must believe in their
actions and statements and make them true by creating the revolutio-
nizing criteria by which they are judged. (Before this their statements
are, according to Ranciere, meaningless utterances.) In Ranciere,
however, it seems there is far more premeditation on the part of the
subject than in Badiou, so people are implicitly at least subjects
before the event as well as after. Rather like Badiou, Ranciere empha-
sizes the subject so much that the circumstances of the occurrence of
the event are somewhat overlooked.
As Badiou himself suggests, some aspects of Ranciere's work are
borrowed from his own (AM 129-38), an influence which Ranciere
(1995: 32) acknowledges to a certain extent. First, Ranciere's notion
of police appears to draw on Badiou's 'state of the situation', which is
pure multiplicity, or metastructure. Second, Ranciere, like Badiou,
believes that politics comes about when individuals and/or groups
act (in Badiou's language) in fidelity towards an event, in effect creat-
ing this event by naming it. It is only when this process of creation of
subjecthood takes place that political activity also takes place. Third,
both agree that politics comes about when there is an assertion of
equality and Badiou reminds us that, like Ranciere, he believes that
declarations can be an important manifestation of the political.
Finally, they both agree that politics is in part a process whereby the
invisible elements of a situation become visible, so that from a situa-
tion where the most important characteristics of the political event are
not recognized, the actions of individuals - and only these actions -
assert the legitimacy and indeed the existence of the event. Summing
up their similarities, or more precisely his influence on Ranciere,
Badiou points out (AM 134-5) that for Ranciere politics 'is not the
exercise of power' and that politics is 'a specific rupture in the logic of
the arkKe\ that politics is rare and subjective and that politics is 'the
action of supplementary subjects who act in such a way that they are
surplus to any counting of parts of a society'.
Badiou suggests however that Ranciere is not only anti-Platonist
but also anti-philosophical, particularly in his Le philosophe et ses
pauvres (1983), where Ranciere accuses Plato, Marx and Bourdieu of
62 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

inventing a proletariat with particular characteristics in order to

suit their own philosophical needs. Ranciere allegedly misses the point
that any political process is an organized process and that whereas he
tends to pit fictitious masses against a nameless state (Etatinomme], the
reality is one of a few isolated activists up against a highly dominant
parliamentary state. The key political figure for Badiou, then, is the
political activist, whereas for Ranciere, Badiou claims, the activist is
totally absent (AM 137 j .

Marxism and historical materialism

Badiou has not systematically explored his relationship with Marxism

since he distanced himself from orthodox Maoism in the early 1980s.
He was, as we have seen, very much formed in the Marxist mould and
still retains a combativeness on behalf of oppressed groups as an inte-
gral part of both his philosophy and his political practice, with a sort of
revolution in the form of the event at the heart of his political thought.
So a phrase such as 'the essence of the political is the emancipation of
the collective' (DO 54), which is anathema to so much liberal political
theory, is entirely typical of Badiou's approach. Moreover, in a gen-
eral sense he is still keen to invoke and to praise the thought of indivi-
duals whose practice was revolutionary, and among the political
thinkers singled out for special praise are Robespierre, Saint-Just,
Lenin, Che Guevara and Mao (IT 79). Marx too is praised in a gen-
eral way, and Badiou asserts for example that the Communist Manifesto
is 'the great political text of the nineteenth century' (BF 123).
However, despite Badiou's praise and admiration for revolution-
aries and despite the fact that he integrates the notions of engagement,
emancipation and revolution into the very core of his thought, there is
a profound ambivalence on his part with regard to Marx and to his-
torical materialism. Certainly, he asserts that his own philosophy is
profoundly materialist and that '[f]rom the point of view of what
composes us, there is nothing except matter. Even a procedure of
truth is never anything other than the seizing of materiality.' But he
quickly qualifies this, commenting that '[h]aving said that, I do think
that, by grace, this particular [human] animal is sometimes seized by
The Paradoxes of Alain Badiou's Theory of Politics 63

something that thought cannot manage to reduce strictly to the

thought of animality as such' (PH 127-8, 129). Grace, or 'laicized
grace', is a concept Badiou explores in Saint Paul, using the term to
describe the leap of faith required by a subject in order to act in fidelity
to an event, flying in the face of the logic or the rules of the circum-
stances, or 'situation', in which the event arises (e.g. SP 80-1). More-
over, '[fundamentally, and this is why I always declare myself a
Platonist, Platonism says that there is something other than bodies
and language. There are truths ...' (BF 129, also LM 9). This is the
Badiou who believes in the power of mathematics because it is able to
unite thought and being, which are one and the same (EE 49). This
could hardly be further from Marx's conception of the relationship
between the material world and thought, which Engels (1968
[1883]: 429) describes as follows:

... Marx discovered the law of development of human history: the

simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that
mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing,
before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.; that there-
fore the production of the immediate means of subsistence and con-
sequently the degree of economic development attained by a given
people or during a given epoch forms the foundation upon which
the state institutions, the legal conceptions, art, and even ideas on
religion, of the people concerned have been evolved ...

There are various other key aspects of Marx's thought that are
absent or only found in very weak forms in Badiou's work. Most
obviously, we have seen how Badiou almost entirely rules out any
role for the economy and when referring to the economy, perhaps tell-
ingly, appears happy not to contest what Marx says (commenting
that 'global trends have essentially confirmed some of Marx's funda-
mental intuitions' [PH 117]), but simply to endorse it without how-
ever integrating it into his own work. For Marx, of course, however
much one might wish to interpret his thought as 'non-reductionist',
an understanding of the emergence and development of the capitalist
economy is key to understanding the emergence of the bourgeoisie as
the dominant exploiting class, the emergence of the proletariat as a
64 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

revolutionary class, the potential for socialist revolution and com-

munism, and the concept of alienated labour, to mention only some
of the most obvious consequences. But such an understanding is also
important in any attempt to understand less clearly political domains,
including intellectual history, culture, personal relations and the
family. So important was the economy to Marx, of course, that he
spent much of his mature intellectual life in the pursuit of an under-
standing of the capitalist economy. If anything, Badiou seems to have
done the opposite to Marx in this respect and the central place of the
economy has been replaced by the event, which arguably has for
Badiou become the motor of history, but in a retrospective way,
where things change with the emergence of truth as a subtraction
from history, as opposed to being a logical outcome of, for example,
the growing contradiction between forces of production and relations
of production at the heart of the historical process, as Marx (1968b
[1859]: 181-2) argues. By the same token, the notion of class also
plays no role in Badiou's overall explanation of the scheme of things,
at least in his work since and including UEtre et Vevenement (1988); he
indulges in little or no social or socio-economic analysis in his later
theoretical work. This stands in stark contrast with, and arguably in
contradiction to, Badiou's and his activist comrades' insistence on the
importance of directly supporting proletarian struggles in the work-
place, which I discuss below.
It seems in fact that Badiou is in search of a complete alternative to
the historical and dialectical method of Marx, of a theory which
breaks with the idea of any logic of history, but where engagement
with the circumstances of the time is nevertheless crucial to any pro-
cess of profound change and any understanding of this process, which
for Badiou is arguably one and the same thing. Badiou comments that
he is keen to 'refute the vulgar Marxist concept of the logic of history
and the idea that radical and sudden change could have as its origin a
"state of totality" ' (EE 196-7). Rather, radical transformation origi-
nates at one point, in an eventmental site (EE 197).
One of Marx's key overall contributions is indeed to explain the
nature of historical change, which involves an exploration of the dia-
lectical relationship between various aspects of society, and the place
of social revolutions within the context of this dialectical relationship.
The Paradoxes of Alain Badiou's Theory of Politics 65

Marx thus carefully explains how events (especially revolutions

happen within the circumstances of the particular period. Badiou, on
the other hand, argues precisely that an event cannot be explained
fully from 'within' the situation surrounding it; indeed if it can
it is not an event at all (this is part of the definition of the event).
Badiou, then, appears particularly static (or at least stop-go) com-
pared with Marx, precisely because of the key place of the event
in his philosophy. (See Bosteels 2004 for a contrary view.) Badiou
himself has commented that he needs a more detailed theory of
change, adding that 'I distinguish between four types of change: mod-
ifications (which are consistent with the existing transcendental
regime), weak singularities (or novelties with no existential conse-
quences), strong singularities (which imply an important existential
change but whose consequences remain measurable) and, finally,
events (strong singularities whose consequences are virtually infinite)?
(BF 132; also see Badiou 2004 ['Afterword ...]: 236). It is not yet
clear how these new categories regarding change relate to Badiou's
general theory.
Badiou's notion of subtraction, which he defines as 'that which,
from within the previous sequence itself, as early as the start of the
twentieth century, presents itself as a possible alternative path that
differs from the dominant one' (BF 115), is very different from dialec-
tics and does not work on the assumption that there is constant move-
ment. This contrasts with what he describes as an antagonistic
(Marxist) approach to politics, which he believes is no longer useful.
Badiou seems, then, to have abandoned almost all of Marx's base-
superstructure model. In order to understand history, including poli-
tical history, one does not turn to and examine changes in modes of
production and relations of production. When discussing the 1789
revolution, for example, Badiou is emphatic that we can know a
great deal about the circumstances prevailing in France before the
revolution took place and still not be able to explain it properly
(PH 124), and the same could be said of the Paris Commune of 1871.
Badiou's treatment of art is also revealing in this respect, because
artistic change is explained in terms of what went before it in the
realm of art, where events, subjects, fidelity and truth operate
within the realm of art rather than within a broader context, where
66 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

according to Marx the development of the economy ultimately has a

determining influence on other domains, including the artistic one.
Badiou's account contrasts, then, with the fairly orthodox - but no
less inspired for that - Marxist versions of artistic and cultural
change put forward by Marcel Berman in All that is Solid Melts in Air
(1983) and by David Harvey in The Condition of Postmodernity (1989),
where the modernizing and 'postmodernizing' economic base brings
with it radically new forms of art and culture which are fascinating
in themselves, but whose proper understanding must include an
understanding of the socio-economic circumstances of their emer-
gence. To put it slightly differently, the relationship between (or
rather apparent absence of relationship between) events in different
domains in Badiou's scheme of things is quite different from the rela-
tionship between events in different domains in a more orthodox
Marxist framework; for example for Berman the relationship between
the emergence of modern art and the rise of the city, or for Harvey the
emergence of postmodern architecture and the development of post-
Fordism in the economic domain.
For Badiou, by contrast, there is no such organic connection
between developments in the different domains. He is emphatic that
he is 'not a historicist, in that I don't think events are linked in a global
system. That would deny their essentially random character, which
I absolutely maintain' (Being by Numbers 1994: 118, in Hallward
There are certainly lingering influences of Maoism in Badiou's later
work. As Jason Barker reminds us, in Mao's theory of knowledge
intellectuals are guided by the masses instead of the more classically
Leninist, vanguardist conception of the role of intellectuals. For
Mao, the masses are far more spontaneously inclined to be revolution-
ary than intellectuals (Barker 2002: 32; also see Bosteels 2005). As we
shall see below, this is very much in keeping with Badiou's approach
to political activism, which emphasizes the need to work locally and
on particular issues rather than in a national vanguard organization
with a view to countering the power of established structures; as we
have seen, he is not attempting to create what Gramsci might have
described as a national or international 'counter-hegemony' by work-
ing within existing or by setting up new national or international
The Paradoxes of Alain Badiou3 s Theory of Politics 67

trade unions to counter the power of capital. One might for example
expect an activist left intellectual to work with a trade union like
SUD, which was formed in 1989 and attempts to rediscover the tradi-
tional radicalism of French trade unionism, declaring in its charter
that a transformation of society is necessary and that this will involve
a 'profound break with the logic of capitalism' (in Blakey 2001). SUD
is also at pains to be innovative and open to influences which are not
part of the traditional core of trade union preoccupations, such as
those of the homeless and illegal immigrants. But Badiou is insistent
that it is wrong to attempt to take on one's adversaries on their own
territory, including in the context of trade unions. By the same token,
the antiglobal movements, whose supporters have demonstrated at
international meetings of global capital in Genoa and elsewhere, 'ded-
icate themselves to a systematic and economist identification of the
adversary, which is already utterly misguided' (BF 120).
Badiou also emphasizes the importance of the concept of 'two
counted as one' in any attempt to understand political processes, in a
way that is also strongly influenced by Maoism (e.g. PP 106). His
notion of the two is highly complex and varied, but taking the case of
the event, when an event takes place the situation is divided into two
because the subjects of the event act in fidelity to certain aspects of the
situation which relate to the event and not to those which do not relate
to the event. Once the event has taken place, there is no relationship
between these two groups of aspects (or these two sets of elements)
(EE 229; C 290; S 89-102). Again, the theory of the two reinforces
the perception of Badiou as a discontinuous philosopher, rather than
one who can explain history in continuous or evolutionary terms.
Rather than approaching Badiou as a Marxist thinker, then, it is
more helpful to see his thought as being influenced in a general way
by the emancipatory spirit of Marx, without what might be described
as Marx's scientific method. In spite of Badiou's elaborate mathema-
tical discussions, his thought does not share what Marx and Engels
described as a scientific approach to socialism, which dissects the
mechanisms of capitalist society and in light of this dissection explains
the transformational potential these mechanisms offer. Writing in the
early 1980s, Badiou suggests that Marxism is far less able than it once
was to help understand the nature of reality. 'We are thus brought
68 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

back to the figure of the beginning ... We proceed from the "there is"
of a break, and ... we are putting forward, like Marx in the Manifesto,
inaugural political hypotheses. More particularly, we are (re)formu-
lating the hypothesis of a politics determined by non-domination ...
We must re-write the Manifesto' (PP 59-60). He goes on to say that the
'previous Marxism - of the completed cycle of Marxisation - serves
as a whole body of thought as a "Hegelian-type" reference: both
necessary and not prescribing anything particular. Marxism has
become in relation to itself its own Hegelianism' (PP 61). Marx is
thus a source for 'the beginning of a different way of thinking polities'
but the destruction of Marxism-Leninism at the same time highlights
the necessity for, as well as creating the possibility of, 'an entirely new
practice of polities' (PP 63-4).
With only a little exaggeration, one might suggest that in relation
to Marx, Badiou's work represents a reinvertion of the dialectic,
putting Hegel's dialectic on its head again. Badiou certainly shares
with Hegel a belief in the generative power of abstract and absolute
universals, which for Hegel takes the form of Geist and which for
Badiou takes the form of the logic of mathematics. In both cases the
material world is a sort of local manifestation of the abstract and the
spiritual (or the mathematical) rather than the other way round.
In fact Badiou goes far in this direction and defines a subject as a more
concrete manifestation of the abstract, as 'any local configuration
of a generic procedure where a truth is sustained' (EE 429), a 'finite
instance of a truth' (EE 447).
To conclude this brief discussion of Badiou's relationship with
Marx, it is worth quoting Marx's discussion of Hegel, by way of high-
lighting Badiou's very different position:

My dialectic method is not only different from the Hegelian, but is

its direct opposite. To Hegel, the life-process of the human brain.
i.e., the process of thinking, which, under the name of'the Idea',
he even transforms into an independent subject, is the demiurgos
of the real world, and the real world is only the external, phenom-
enal form of'the Idea'. With me, on the contrary, the ideal is noth-
ing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and
translated into forms of thought. (Marx 1954 [1873]: 29)
The Paradoxes of Alain Badiou3 s Theory of Politics 69


Badiou has a profound ambivalence towards the notion of democracy.

On the one hand, he comes close to equating democracy with com-
munism, almost in the way Lenin did, or at least with an ongoing,
anti-establishment, anti-capitalist struggle; communism is 'the pas-
sion for equality5, 'intolerance towards oppression, the desire for the
end of the State' and the ontological concept of democracy and com-
munism are 'one and the same' (DO 13-14). For Badiou democracy
in this sense has manifested itself in rare instances, for example in the
Soviets during and after the Russian Revolution and in the liberated
zones in Mao's China, but it is highly praised. More recently and
closer to home, he suggests that the groupings of sans papiers from
immigrant hostels and from Organisation politique are democratic
(AM 167). But Badiou's positive view of democracy is restricted to a
very small number of actual political phenomena, and beyond these
the positive approach often becomes a mainly subjective way of order-
ing his view of the event, rather than a way of describing an ongoing
and potentially widespread form of political organization, which is, it
would appear, impossible now that communism is a thing of the past;
it seems democracy is now barely possible in a material sense, and
exists only as an abstract notion with little relation to political acti-
vism on a day-to-day basis.
Indeed, Badiou at his most polemical and vigorous asserts that
democracy in an organizational sense is nothing other than parlia-
mentary, liberal democracy, in France and elsewhere, and is some-
thing to be combated, condemned and boycotted. Commenting on
his lectures on thinking the present philosophically, he remarks that
one of the two main ideas by which he is guided is 'that, in order to
think the contemporary world in any fundamental way, it's necessary
to take as your point of departure not the critique of capitalism but the
critique of democracy ... no one is ready to criticize democracy. This
is a real taboo, a genuine consensual fetish. Everywhere in the world,
democracy is the true subjective principle - the rallying point - of
liberal capitalism' (BF 127). At times Badiou is apparently not
simply talking about liberal democracy as promoted by defenders of
contemporary capitalism, and he goes a long way towards a critique
70 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

any notion of democracy, in part because he believes that any repre-

sentation of political opinion is impossible. Invoking Rousseau, he
argues that politics comes about as a result of a (non-historically-
based) event, in the form of a social contract. Politics is the same as
equality, which is in turn the main point of reference of the general
will (EE 380-2). Now, as 'a procedure with fidelity to the contract-
event, politics can neither be delegated not represented. It is to be
found entirely in the "collective being" of its militant-citizens' and
'Rousseau's genius was to define politics abstractly as a generic proce-
dure' (EE 383, 389). Here Badiou is once again expressing the idea
that politics is intimately bound up with the notions of event and
truth, where it is perhaps less important to share one's ideas with
large numbers of people (let alone a majority), or try to convince
them that you are correct, than to be right in an abstract sense.
What supports the procedure is solely the zeal of citizen-militants,
whose fidelity engenders an infinite truth which no constitutional or
organizational form can express adequately' (EE 389).
In one sense revolutionaries through the ages have been in this posi-
tion, which lies at the heart of Badiou's account of transformation;
radical change takes place via fidelity on the part of an often small
number of people to an event (although arguably they have often
been faithful to an event which has not yet happened). Most revolu-
tionaries have in the longer term, however, sought as a priority to win
over the majority to their point of view. Badiou insists that the ques-
tion of number is not important (PP 68), but it is hard to see how any
sort of deeper socialist system of organization and government could
be realized (or 'correct' positions achieved) without having won over
large numbers of people to the idea of transformation. Indeed large
numbers of people would need to be convinced of the need for active
participation by large numbers of people; the idea of democracy
(including the numerical idea of majority participation and deci-
sion making) becomes very important in the transformational pro-
cess. So attitude towards and critical support for the more democratic
aspects of liberal democracy are also important; in addition to uni-
versal suffrage, freedom of expression, equality before the law, and
other established aspects of liberal democracy, a discussion which,
for example, extends the notion of rule by the people to the economy,
The Paradoxes of Alain Badiou's Theory of Politics 11

including economic equality, is surely a more fruitful way forward

than to appeal for a boycotting of elections and other trappings of
liberal democracy, as does Badiou. Holding a 'correct' political posi-
tion in extreme isolation seems to have stronger moral than political
Badiou mentions that as part of his approach to democracy he has
incorporated 'a careful re-reading of Plato's critique of democracy'
(BF 127). Plato is of course well known for his condemnation of
democracy in the Republic, based on direct knowledge of Athenian
democracy, and he argues that such an approach to political organi-
zation promotes an unhealthy egalitarianism, whereas a more elitist
form of political organization works far better. By contrast, Rousseau.
Marx, Engels and Lenin (all of whom Badiou admires) all condemn
partial, representative democracy but insist on the importance of
a more direct form of democracy. Lenin (1969 [1917]: 237) goes as
far as arguing that 'in capitalist society we have a democracy that is
curtailed, wretched, false, a democracy only for the rich, for the min-
ority ... Communism alone is capable of providing really complete
Badiou's approach to democracy is closely connected with his views
on contemporary parliamentary politics in France, in which substan-
tial change has taken place since the early to mid-1980s. The Socialist
Party, which has moved towards the centre-right, has formed many
governments and has been the pioneer of centre-oriented policies
which differ far less from those of the mainstream right than was the
case before about 1983. The Communist Party, meanwhile, has gone
into rapid decline, partly as a result of participating in coalition gov-
ernments with the Socialists which implemented austerity measures in
the early 1980s. On the right, the Gaullist party has become far less
distinctive than it was during de Gaulle's lifetime or the decade fol-
lowing his death (the 1970s) and has, for example, embraced neo-
liberal economic policy and adapted a less grandiose foreign policy,
falling far more into line with the rest of the right. In short, main-
stream parliamentary politics in France has become more consensual,
with far less difference between the various mainstream parties than
there once was (Hewlett 1998: 60-91). (The important exception to
this general rule is of course the rise of the National Front.)
72 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

For Badiou, this 'democratico-nihilist consensus' (BF 128) which

very much works against a more just form of politics, draws its legiti-
macy from the word democracy. In mainstream discourse, then, to
evoke democracy is to evoke a form of politics which above all pro-
motes the reign of capital, with all the injustices this implies. Badiou
chooses not to enter into a more detailed debate regarding the nature
of democracy as it could be experienced; he could, for example,
address the question of whether there might be an alternative, more
properly democratic and socialist version of democracy than the
very superficial democracy practised by many systems of national
government in the West (Hewlett 2003:1-27). On the whole ignoring
the concrete practice of politics in his discussions of democracy has the
effect of making Badiou seem anti-democratic rather than being in
favour of a deeper form of democracy. Rather than reappropriate
the term to its full political potential and insist in a more traditionally
socialist way that it is powerful, revolutionary and transformative,
Badiou, on the contrary, chooses almost to embrace the idea that in
practical terms liberal parliamentary democracy is the only possible
widespread version of democracy, and that democracy is therefore to
be condemned.

Parliamentary politics

In light of the above discussion it will come as no surprise that Badiou

is often particularly critical about other people's commentary on par-
liamentary politics. Much of what passes as political analysis, he
argues, is simple and unhelpful quantification and, he adds, '[pjolitics
will only become thinkable once it is delivered from the tyranny of
number, number of voters as well as number of demonstrators or stri-
kers'(PP 68).
He is reacting in part to a tremendous preoccupation with all
aspects of elections amongst political scientists and journalists, parti-
cularly in France. There is also at times almost obsessive attention
given to opinion polls regarding political parties, policy and voting
intentions, closely followed by seemingly endless poring over the
actual election results. The ubiquity of quantification can take on
The Paradoxes of Alain Badiou3 s Theory of Politics 13

such a dynamic of its own that studies sometimes have little or nothing
to say, for example, about what election results can tell us about poli-
tics more generally, in these studies' eagerness to quantify to the nth
degree. This is not to deny the usefulness of some empirical and quan-
titative studies and some commentary on election results can be very
useful in that it throws light on politics in a deeper sense. To take one
example, Collette Ysmal (2004) provides a fascinating, detailed ana-
lysis of the French elections of 2002 which also has a lot to say about
French politics and society more generally. But the general effect of
widespread quantification is indeed to detract from debates regarding
how parliamentary politics might be made more democratic, for
example, or what the alternatives might be. However, Badiou does
seem to miss the point that although elections in liberal democracy
are a very poor substitute for profounder democracy, they do never-
theless have a real relationship with a deeper democracy. They are
a form of politics which is to an extent influenced by a deeper and
more valid notion of democracy than Badiou would give credit for,
which means that - without neglecting other spheres of political
activity and activism - this is an arena with which progressive thin-
kers ought also to engage and at times intervene in. Badiou appears to
believe that once one is tainted with participation in such a process
one is bound to capitulate to the mainstream view of everything.
This view of partial participation in more mainstream political activ-
ity such as the elections or trade union work reflects in part a view that
radical, innovative movements such as feminism and green politics
can and have been adapted, de-radicalized and adopted, ultimately,
to suit the needs of capital. In the language of activists of the decades
following May 1968, during which time this type of development was
common (and arguably has been perhaps even more so since the
beginning of the 1980s), this is recuperation.
Badiou discusses developments in parliamentary politics at some
length in an article entitled 'On the Presidential Election of April-
May 2002' (C1 13-43), commenting that 'the election result certainly
seemed to me to be important, because politically - and I have been
saying this for many years - this country is very ill' (Cl 15). In the
presidential elections of that year, the National Front leader Jean-
Marie Le Pen went through to the second round in a run-off with the
74 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

Gaullist (and eventual victor) Jacques Chirac, after winning 16.9 per
cent of the vote in the first round. Badiou argues that popular reac-
tions to the relative success of Le Pen in the first round - huge protest
demonstrations, meetings, mass distribution of leaflets, and so on -
were yet another way of showing that elections serve mainly to rein-
force the politics of moderate consensus which is so characteristic of
France today (Cl 18-19). Elections do not reflect free expression, he
argues, and in the same way the right would have demonstrated mas-
sively if a Trotskyist candidate had gone through to the second round,
reminiscent of right-wing backlash demonstrations on 30 May 1968
and in 1982 in defence of private schools and against moves to bring
them more in line with state schools. 'The only reasonable conclusion
one can draw is that nothing ever happens with regard to decisive
transformations in the politics of a country if one relies on elections,
because the principle of homogeneity hangs over them ... making
sure that things continue as before* (Cl 20, italics in original). Badiou
argues that instead of simply protesting against Le Pen, demonstra-
tors should have denounced elections and he reminds us of the slogan
from May 1968: 'elections, trahison' (C1 22). Reminiscent of the anar-
chist slogan, 'whoever you vote for the government will get in', this
comment also echoes other instances when Badiou insists that for him
the guiding principles in this domain are 'don't stand for election, don't
vote, don't expect anything from any political party' (PH 115). For
him there is no real difference between Le Pen and recent French gov-
ernments which have persecuted sanspapiers (Cl 25). He argues that
the word democracy 'crystallises consensual subjectivity' (Cl 28)
and that the huge number of abstentions recorded in the elections of
2002 show that 'democracy is becoming a minority interest' (C 33).
One might ask if a dwindling vote is not what Badiou is advocating,
given that 'voting is the only known political procedure of which
immobilism is the more or less inevitable consequence' (Cl 34).
Badiou goes further than one might expect in this direction, arguing
that 'voting is by principle a contradiction of principles, and of any
idea of protest or emancipation' (Cl 35). He again asks why number
is so dominant when scientific and artistic innovation has always
taken place against the flow of dominant opinion, and reminds us of
the minority nature of Resistance, anti-colonial activists, and so on.
The Paradoxes of Alain Badiou's Theory of Politics 75

As I commented above, this point about minority views and innova-

tion is indisputable, but the medium- to long-term goal of any aspir-
ing democratic politics is surely to convince a majority that one's (for
the time being minority) views are correct, as indeed happened in the
cases of both the Resistance and the anti-colonial movements of
the 1950s in France, amongst many others. Discussing the 2002 elec-
tions, then, Badiou appears either as an authoritarian voice or as an
analyst who is in a rather ultra-left realm of abstraction when he
reminds us that Hitler was elected and that Petain was approved as
head of state by an elected parliament, that Rousseau is against repre-
sentative democracy ('the [general] will cannot be represented'), that
Rousseau according to Badiou correctly allows a 'symbolic majority'
to be expressed in one person, and that both Rousseau and Marx (in a
reference to the notion of the dictatorship of the proletariat) agree
that number is the wrong method for making really important deci-
sions (Cl 39-41). Elsewhere, Badiou suggests that 'the essence of pol-
itics is to exclude ... Its essence is found entirely in fidelity to the event
as it materializes in the context of activist interventions' (PP 82).

Badiou's political activism

For Badiou it is as important to understand and participate in grass-

roots activism as it is to engage intellectually with a variety of schools
of philosophy and with other areas of thought. Indeed, there are few
philosophers either living or dead whose work moves so readily
between the realm of philosophical abstraction on the one hand and
details of the militant activities of political groups and campaigns
on the other; the theoretical and the material are interwoven in an
unusual and highly developed way. Throughout Badiou's writings,
then, there are frequent references to actual political struggles and,
explicitly or more obliquely, to his own activism.
In many ways Badiou's activist politics are, like his political theory,
a politics of purity, perhaps in keeping with his belief that there is little
to distinguish political thought from political action. His energies are
now mainly channelled into the very small, 'post-party' I3Organisation
politique (OP), which intervenes at grass-roots level on such questions
76 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

as immigrant hostels, sans papiers and equality in education and

health, taking stands on a limited number of issues but insisting that
it has no programme. It publishes a regular bulletin, La Distance poli-
tique (LDP), which contains a mixture of commentary on current
affairs and more theoretical writing, and although the articles are
anonymous many of them are apparently written by Badiou himself
and his close associates, Sylvain Lazarus and Natacha Michel (see
LDP online at
page=distance). Reminiscent in important ways of French Maoist
organizations of the 1970s, OP is highly oriented towards workers,
especially factory workers, and sets up its own groups in factories
whilst shunning established trade unions and trade union activities.
Much of OP's work in factories is an attempt to promote what it
describes as 'a new figure of the worker5 (PH 115), which is an
abstract - arguably idealized - notion, distinct from a more empiri-
cal approach to the working class and any deference that might per-
haps be expected from a left intellectual towards grass-roots trade
unionism, for example. 'By figure of the worker we mean a political
subjectivity constituted in the factory, in an ability to make declara-
tions about the factory and the worker that are different from those of
management, the unions ... and the state. This intrication is essential.
It alone puts an end to the classist figure which founded trade union-
ism ...' (LDP, 26-7.02.98, p. 8, in Hallward 2003: 7). (Badiou and his
activist friends almost invariably use the word ouvrier^ meaning blue-
collar worker, rather than travailleur, which means worker in a more
general sense, and encompasses both blue- and white-collar workers.)
The view that trade union activity does no good is often asserted and is
perhaps rather odd for someone so inspired by May 1968, an uprising
whose historical (and eventmental) significance is surely found largely
in the three-week-long general strike. Badiou argues that strikes 'only
modify salaries' (PH 46).
His fascination with Saint Paul is explained partly because Paul is
seen as the ultimate model of the modern, post-Bolshevik activist, as
he explains at the beginning of his book on Paul:

If I wish now to outline in a few pages the singularity of this con-

nection as far as Paul is concerned, it is certainly because there is
The Paradoxes of Alain Badiou's Theory of Politics 11

everywhere a search - including in the denial of its possibility - for

a new figure of the activist, destined to succeed the one put in place
at the beginning of the century by Lenin and the Bolsheviks, which
can be described as the party activist. (SP 2)

This contemporary version of the political activist must have an

unmediated presence - in particular with no parliamentary or trade
union affiliation - at the sites of popular struggles, including in parti-
cular amongst sanspapiers and of course in factories (SP 83). In prac-
tice, OP's orientation towards workplace-based politics takes the form
of intervention on specific issues via small groups of OP supporters.
For example, in the run-up to the historic closure of Renault Billan-
court in 1991 - a factory which had become an important, even
iconic, symbol of working class resistance and a magnet for post-1968
militant activity - OP encouraged a campaign in support of more
favourable redundancy packages, criticizing the trade unions for
being too conciliatory (Hallward 2003b: 10-11).
Badiou and OP are and have long been active in defence of sans
papiers, arguing their cause in LDP, in articles in mainstream newspa-
pers, in books and speeches, where he and his comrades demand full
rights for all immigrants. They also help organize rallies to support
them, for example. Badiou believes that the hostility and racism
experienced by immigrants is intimately linked with the consensus
associated in particular with the Mitterrand era and which has
helped create the rise of the National Front. This climate is strongly
linked, according to Badiou, with the decline of the figure of the
worker and a reassertion of the figure of the worker is needed in
order to combat this (AM 133).
However, Badiou is highly sceptical with regard to political move-
ments which are based around ethnic or gender oppression, asking
what is meant by 'black' or 'woman5. Capitalism, he believes, can
easily absorb demands for increased rights for oppressed groups with-
out threatening capitalism itself, which means such movements are
not properly political (PH 118-19). Badiou's position is reminiscent
to an extent of French Republicanism, which is reluctant to promote
special conditions for the flourishing of particular ethnic, religious or
gendered groups and cultures, by contrast with the positions of many
78 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

progressive intellectuals and activists in the United States and Britain,

for example. This view also extends to ethnic and religious groups
within disputed territories, where Badiou argues that the way forward
is to 'count all people as one', rather than create small states along
ethnic lines.
It is perhaps instructive to contrast the activities of OP with
the views and activities of the French Trotskyist movement. Since the
early 1970s, French Trotskyists, and especially the Ligue communiste
revolutionnaire (LCR) and Lutte ouvriere (LO), have had a small but
ongoing impact on national politics and trade unionism, in part via
tactical alliances with more moderate left political forces which have
included, for example, critical support for the PS-PCF Union of the
Left in the 1970s on the part of the LCR. In the trade union movement,
these organizations are very active at grass-roots level, and LO in par-
ticular has also won positions of considerable national influence, espe-
cially in the trade union confederation Force ouvriere. In local and
national elections it is the same case, with the combined LO and LCR
vote in the 2002 presidential elections totalling 10 per cent of votes cast.
This system of tactical alliances in the form of the united front was
advocated by Trotsky, who argued that activists could retain their
ideological and practical allegiance to revolutionary politics by
belonging to the party, thus helping to resist the temptation of adapt-
ing to the reformist attitude of the organizations with which they were
allying, in particular trade unions. As we have seen, OP by contrast
shuns any ongoing work with reformist organizations, retaining a
purist approach which promotes the importance of a correct political
(but emphatically not politically correct) stance over any considera-
tion of weight of numbers influenced. In fact, as we have also seen,
Badiou states quite explicitly that there is too much emphasis on num-
bers and majorities, reminding us that revolutions and uprisings in
various domains have taken place because of the actions of a minority.
As I comment above, it would be hard to argue that Badiou is entirely
wrong here, given that, almost by definition, opinions that end up
being dominant and influential begin as minority views. But sooner
or later weight of number must surely begin to matter, unless we
decide that - as sometimes seems to be the case with Badiou - it is
more important to be a small number of people with entirely correct
The Paradoxes of Alain Badiou's Theory of Politics 79

theoretical positions than a large number of people who can make a

real impact with even a small degree of perhaps temporary compro-
mise. (This relates back to Badiou's position on democracy and to his
interpretation of Rousseau's theory of democracy and the general
will.) Badiou's approach to political activism would seem to spring
more from his philosophical abstraction and an activist residue of
Maoism than from a real adherence to the notion of deeper democ-
racy and influence on things political. Arguably, in order to have a
politically appropriate position you need widespread contact with
ordinary activists, not to mention non-activists, in part therefore
starting where people are, rather than from a position of isolationist
purism where activist intellectuals are likely to be quite out of touch
and come up with unrealistic positions, which in turn compound their
isolation. This has been a dilemma for far-left organizations in France
and elsewhere for many years and in part explains their fissiparous
If we compare the attitude of the LCR with OP on the question of
the French Communist Party (PCF), we see that the LCR - at least
until the PCF participated in government in the early 1980s -
regarded the PCF as the party where the French working class (albeit
mistakenly) placed its faith and was therefore worth having an
ongoing orientation towards, as was the old Labour party for the Brit-
ish working class. Badiou and OP, by contrast, believed that it was
necessary to attempt to destroy the PCF.
Badiou's position regarding activist politics is indeed, in essence, a
particular position within the long-running debate within the far left
regarding the nature of revolutionary politics as opposed to reformist
politics, that is, acceptance that benign capitalism is as good as things
are likely to get. This is a discussion which has been ongoing since the
1930s in France, when the PCF supported (but did not participate in)
the Popular Front government led by Leon Blum and made up of
centre-left and centrist ministers. It was heightened by debates sur-
rounding the PCF's participation in the postwar government in
France in 1944-47, the PCF's attitude towards the events of May
1968, its programmatic alliance with the Socialist Party during the
1970s and most recently and most conclusively, perhaps, participa-
tion in various predominantly Socialist governments since 1981
80 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

which have seen the implementation of some policies which would

have been previously associated only with the right.
The core of the debate, although not always articulated in precisely
this way, has always regarded how to juggle participating in grass-
roots activities where working-class and progressive-minded people
are actually found, on the one hand, and retaining a revolutionary
path ahead; too far in either direction and groups either get swallowed
into purely reformist practices which have no relation with the strug-
gle for socialism, or into a position of total isolation. This balancing
act has been an ongoing and overriding concern for the far left in
France and elsewhere since the early 1970s. Lenin's view was that
the revolutionary party, made up largely of petit bourgeois intellec-
tuals in the years when the advent of communism remains fairly
remote, should keep the flame of revolutionary purity burning whilst
its members are active in other areas as well, hopefully recruiting acti-
vists to the revolutionary cause. There are indeed many elements of
engagement and positioning within this sort of debate in both
Badiou's political practice and in his activist writings, engagement
and positioning which many intellectuals and activists alike have left
long behind them. But, as in his philosophical system, Badiou seems to
have a dual - but not coherent - approach to activist politics. On the
one hand, he is in search of revolutionary purity in a way that is akin
to the practices of French Maoist groups in the 1970s. On the other
hand, OP engages in campaigns which would certainly be seen as pro-
gressive by most left-leaning individuals and organizations, but
hardly revolutionary, or even in many respects particularly challen-
ging to the centre-left-centre-right consensual mainstream in France.
In what is perhaps LDP's oddest and least-expected intervention, it
published an article in 1995 on constitutional reform which recom-
mends: the abolition of the President of the Republic as an elected
position, replacing the President by one who has merely a role as fig-
urehead; reforms which ensure that the leader of the party with the
most votes becomes Prime Minister; and electoral reform which
makes sure that there is one leading party (LDP 12, Feb. 1995: 5-6).
As Peter Hallward (2003: 239) comments, '[t]he once Maoist Orga-
nisation Politique now recommends something very like the British
The Paradoxes of Alain Badiou's Theory of Politics 81

Concluding remarks

A key chapter of Badiou's Abregede Metapolitique is entitled 'Politics as

Thought' (AM 35-66). He explains: 'Politics is thought. This state-
ment excludes any recourse to the doublet theory/practice. There is
certainly a "doing" associated with politics, but it is in an immediate
sense the pure and simple testing of thought, its localization. There is
no distinction' (AM 56). The chapter as a whole is a glowing review
and endorsement of Sylvain Lazarus's book, Anthropologie du nom, in
which Lazarus himself insists that 'my fundamental thesis on politics
is that it should be approached as a form of thought' (Lazarus 1996:
11). The fact that Alain Badiou's point of departure is in the realm of
the ideal means that, despite a keen interest in politics as lived reality,
he is unable to unite the two aspects of his theory - the metaphysical
and the material - in a coherent system. By contrast with Marx, who
strove to bring theory far closer to material reality than it had pre-
viously been and who argued that the abstract was determined by
the material, Badiou does the opposite, insisting that in order to
understand the material one must understand the nature of truth via
a highly abstract, mathematical ontology. Certainly, he argues that
philosophy is conditioned by developments in the material world,
but his theory of the event relies on essentialism in order to achieve
internal coherence.
I have argued that this fundamental problem with Badiou's system
of thought has serious consequences for his theory of politics. For
example, the role of the subjects of a political event is, paradoxically,
a highly passive one until the event has taken place, at which point the
role of the subjects becomes crucial. Also, what is the relationship, if
any, between events in the different domains? Is there any hierarchy
of causation (a term Badiou would certainly shun) between events in
the different domains, between say a social revolution and an artistic
revolution? Badiou has retained Marx's commitment to the notion of
emancipation and egalitarianism (although in a far less material and
more abstract way), but has relinquished Marx's scientific, or histor-
ical materialist, approach to change. For Badiou true politics is about
sudden and serious change in the form of an event, and not about
ongoing power struggles which sometimes erupt into emancipatory
82 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

events and sometimes into momentous setbacks for egalitarian politics

such as coups d'etat, dictatorship, invasion or some combination of
these. The event not only springs from nowhere, but it is also always
egalitarian and emancipatory. This conception of the nature of poli-
tics means that Badiou on the whole refuses to engage with politics
where the mass of politically active ordinary people are - in trade
unions, political parties and pressure groups and local campaigns, for
example - except in a negative sense, to wholly criticize established
structures. As far as democracy is concerned, Badiou is often so scep-
tical about the idea of majority rule or any form of representation that
he condemns the idea of democracy altogether, invoking both Plato
and Rousseau, rather than pursuing the idea of an extension of
democracy in a practical sense. In other words he does not believe
that it is possible to encourage some aspects of liberal democracy and
to discourage others, to identify those features of liberal democracy
that are preferable and closer to socialist democracy than others, and
see them as progress compared with what went before.
On the other hand, by contrast with either deconstruction or liberal
approaches to the philosophy of politics, Badiou places commitment
to radical and progressive change at the heart of his system. He puts
struggle by ordinary people at the centre and argues that it is above all
this which has universal meaning. This revolutionary and praxis-
driven approach makes discussion of and engagement with his
thought both fruitful and necessary.
To conclude, I would like to suggest that both the nature of, and
debates regarding, the May 1968 uprising in France could be seen as
pivotal to Badiou's approach to the political. We know that, as for so
many French intellectuals, May 1968 was a watershed for Badiou,
after which nothing was ever to be the same. It was also doubtless the
major political event (in the Badiouian as well as the more widespread
meaning of the word) in France between 1945 and the present. May
arguably shares more of the characteristics of Badiou's general con-
ception of the event than do many other political phenomena. First,
it took place in a country which had one of the most advanced and
apparently stable capitalist economies in the world and the uprising
was kindled neither by the Communist Party nor by the more radical
trade unions, but by middle-class students. In this sense it seemed to
The Paradoxes of Alain Badiou's Theory of Politics 83

come out of the blue and did not seem to fit with the circumstances of
its genesis (the 'situation' in Badiouian language). From President de
Gaulle to the activists taking part, via analysts who had the benefit of
hindsight, many have struggled to explain convincingly the causes
and nature of the movement but few have succeeded and no widely
respected view has emerged. During May, activists quickly became
passionate about revolt in favour of greater justice in many and pro-
found ways, keeping this idea going for many years after the uprising
itself had ended; Badiou would describe this as subjects acting in fide-
lity towards May. In a way, to examine rationally the causes of May is
to spoil the specialness, the excitement and the 'inexplicability' of
May, and it might be argued that Badiou extends this reluctance to
his approach to all events. But it is necessary to continue to attempt
to examine the reasons for the May uprising, just as it is for all upris-
ings and other phenomena which Badiou would describe as events.
May did spring out of the circumstances of the time and historians
must continue to examine the revolt in that way, however difficult it
might be to imagine such an uprising today.
Chapter 4

Jacques Ranciere:
Politics is Equality is Democracy

In 1973 Jacques Ranciere attempted to withdraw his chapter on

Marx's political economy from the new edition of Reading Capital and
by so doing firmly distance himself from the theory of Louis Althusser.
The attempted withdrawal failed, but it was preceded, in 1969, by the
publication of a highly critical essay and followed in 1974 by a full-
length book, La Leqon d'Althusser. The May 1968 uprising had inter-
vened since the publication of the original edition of Reading Capital
in 1965, obliging Marxist intellectuals, according to Ranciere, to
take notice of real revolt and to become less dependent on the sup-
posed rigours of abstraction (LA 228). May had indeed dramatically
changed Ranciere's views, persuading him, as he put it in the preface
to La Leqon d'Althusser, that Althusser's school was a 'philosophy of
order' whose main tenets set its followers apart from the struggle
against the bourgeoisie (LA 9). Not only was Althusser's interpreta-
tion of Marx incapable of enabling an understanding of the May 1968
uprising, it was being used by the PCF as an analytical tool in an ideo-
logical offensive against the far left. Ranciere explained that his own
most important difference with Althusser concerned the role of the
subject in human history, which he believed his former mentor greatly
underestimated. He also accused Althusser of elitism, because of
Althusser's claim that there was a firm distinction between Marxism
as science on the one hand and ideology on the other. In a much later
essay, Ranciere argues that Althusserian Marxism, 'with its notion of
the subject-free process and its radical opposition to all humanism',
had to fly completely in the face of what Marx actually wrote
in order to achieve compatibility between this pseudo-Marxism
and structuralism. In fact, he argued, Althusser was not simply
influenced by the structuralism that was so prevalent in Parisian
Jacques Ranciere: Politics is Equality is Democracy 85

intellectual circles at the time, but by drawing on Levi-Strauss in

anthropology, Lacan's interpretation of Freud, and Foucault on
knowledge-power, Althusser was a foremost pioneer of structuralism
and 'more than any other, made structuralism a philosophical para-
digm' (AL 532-3) (also CD 157-77).
This strong reaction against Althusser was to have a determining
influence on Ranciere's work for many years and has arguably
shaped both its considerable strengths and its various weaknesses.
By the late 1970s he was deeply engaged in what became a decade of
historical research in nineteenth-century worker archives, which
resulted in several books whose purpose was to allow working people
to speak for themselves instead of, as he saw it, being spoken for and in
most cases mis-represented by historians and philosophers alike.
Ranciere's mature work is often difficult to place according to
conventional disciplines and he consciously seeks to challenge tradi-
tional disciplinary divisions and boundaries. His historical work is
found for example in Les Noms de I'histoire. Essai de poetique du savoir
(1992), and his political thought, perhaps best described as the
point at which politics and philosophy meet, is found in particular in
AUK Bords dupolitique (1992 and 1998), La Mesentente. Politique et Philo-
sophie (1995), Ten Theses on Politics (2001), Chronique des temps consensuels
(2005), and La Haine de la democratic (2005). In addition to history
and politics, his work spans aesthetics (e.g. Esthetiques dupeuple [1985];
Le Partage du sensisble: Esthetique etpolitique [2000]; L3 Inconscient esthetique
[2001]; Malaise dans I3esthetique [2004]), literary criticism (La Parole
muette: Essai sur les contradictions de la la litterature [1998]) and film
theory (La Fable cinematographique [2001]). The two most obvious
strands linking all these works across the disciplines are a strong inter-
est in language and a commitment to egalitarian politics.
In this chapter I begin with a brief look at Ranciere's earlier, but
nonetheless firmly post-Althusserian works, and move on to an analy-
sis of his treatment of democracy, consensus and dissensus, and a com-
parison of his work with that of Alain Badiou. I thus follow his path
from his parting with Althusser to history and historiography, then
to political thought. I argue that in some important respects Ran-
ciere's approach to politics is effective, relevant and timely, particu-
larly in the way it offers a powerful expose and critique of liberalism
86 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

and liberal democracy, and there are key elements of his discussions
of democracy, consensus and dissensus that are useful and insightful.
It is a powerful and substantial intervention which is in some ways
useful as a tool to understand politics in advanced capitalist countries
in the early twenty-first century. But I also argue that Ranciere's con-
ception of politics is too narrow to be useful as a general method in
approaching the political, and that his definition of politics seems
to contain elements of self-destruction where progressive, egalitarian
politics can only fail and revert to the unjust status quo.

Listening to the unheard

With only a little exaggeration, one can sum up Ranciere's entire

project since his break with Althusser as an assertion of the impor-
tance of the human subject. It is a statement both of the right of the
ordinary person to be listened to and a celebration of the profound
usefulness of learning from what the ordinary person has to say, unme-
diated as far as possible by the intervention of the more powerful.
In this respect his work is intended to fly in the face of many accepted
wisdoms regarding the division of labour between expert and ama-
teur, teacher and student, wise and unwise. It is in itself a bold state-
ment - and an intended exemplar - of the possibility of a different
type of politics, and he consciously mixes analysis and intervention
which begins with the premise of equality instead of viewing equality
as a distant goal to be achieved at a far later date (a point to which I
return below). Between his close association with Althusser and his
return to political theory in the 1990s, Ranciere wrote and edited a
number of historical works which are particularly clear expressions
of this approach, which also underpins the more theoretical of his
recent writings.
In precisely this spirit of allowing ordinary people to speak for
themselves, Ranciere edited (with Alain Faure) La Parole ouvriere,
1830-1851 (1976), a collection of long-neglected texts by workers writ-
ing in this period of intense popular political activity. It was a project
reflecting Ranciere's more general attempt at the time to, as he
Jacques Ranciere: Politics is Equality is Democracy 87

put it, 'establish what working class tradition was, and to study how
Marxism interpreted and distorted it ... I posited the existence of a
specifically working-class discourse' (Ranciere 1997b). Searching for
a 'real' history unmediated by historians with a particular paradigm
or school of historiography to defend, La Parole ouvriere reflected a view
that in order to understand the true nature of working-class values
and their expression one should turn to this period and in particular
to the socialism of the French artisans.
Embarked on a quest for the authentic and essential voice of the
progressive, nineteenth-century working class, Ranciere was at this
point wide open to the allegation of populism, to the accusation that
he and his collaborators had a naive faith in the forward-looking and
egalitarian outlook of this particular section of the French work-
ing class. But a new, if no less controversial, twist was to make such
criticisms less relevant. As a result of his intense archival activity,
Ranciere came to believe that the nineteenth-century working class
behaved less autonomously and with far less pride in itself than he
had previously thought, and was 'a working class which was more
mobile, less attached to its tools and less sunk in its poverty and drun-
kenness than the various traditions usually represent it' (Ranciere
1988:51). He now argued that, contrary to the belief of many his-
torians of the nineteenth-century working class, many ordinary
working people did not take pride in their work and in their way of
life. Quite the contrary; many - including the most significant and
militant artisans - were primarily preoccupied with planning or at
least dreaming about an escape from their own trades and ways of
life and were hankering after the lifestyles and cultures of the bour-
geoisie. The aspirant, self-taught and articulate amongst these indivi-
duals, who imitated the more privileged, were the most impor-
tant object of study for the socialist historian: 'A worker who had
never learned how to write and yet tried to compose verses to suit
the taste of his times was perhaps more of a danger to the prevailing
ideological order than a worker who performed revolutionary songs'
(Ranciere 1988: 50).
This approach of course constituted a substantial shift away from
Marxist historiography. For Marx, the future was likely to be shaped
by the collective might of the proletariat, of wage labourers and their
88 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

allies, who would work for the cause of socialism because it was they
who suffered most from the process and consequences of the Industrial
Revolution. It was they who were most likely to organize resistance
and revolt, in part because they had the least to lose. Aspirant arti-
sans, Marx had argued, had far more to lose than the proletariat and
in fact benefited from the status quo, compared with proletarians at
least. Whatever one might make of Ranciere's new approach, it was
indeed this particular shift, which was arguably as significant as his
earlier strong reaction against Althusser, that led to some unique posi-
tions and placed his thought in a far less identifiable place in a disci-
plinary sense than had previously been the case. He was now working
on the boundaries between history, aesthetics and critical theory, and
later political theory as well. Ranciere was now looking at working
class history as culture, as writing, rather than social or political his-
tory in the more conventional sense.
His work was certainly intended to be provocative and to challenge
much accepted wisdom, including orthodox historical materialism.
The Nights of Labour: The Workers' Dream in Nineteenth-Century France
(1989 [1981]) follows in great detail intellectual expressions of work-
ing class life of the 1830s and 1840s such as workers' debates with the
Fourierists and St Simonians, views expressed in popular newspapers,
diaries, letters and poetry. Many of the individuals and groups who
produced this material were affected by the July 1830 uprising in a
way Ranciere and his generation were by the events of May 1968.
Via an examination of these documents Ranciere attempts to demon-
strate how working-class thought in the nineteenth century, far from
identifying proudly with a culture of the working class, on the con-
trary strived to effect a rupture with any such culture and instead
sought to take on the mantle of writers and poets. 'At the birth of the
"workers' movement", there was thus neither the "importation" of
scientific thought into the world of the worker nor the affirmation of
a worker culture. There was instead the transgressive will to appro-
priate the "night" of poets and thinkers, to appropriate the lan-
guage and culture of the other, to act as if intellectual equality were
indeed real and effectual' (Ranciere 2003 [Afterword]: 219). In other
words, these worker-intellectuals, far from writing in order to con-
solidate a popular culture with pride in its honest simplicity and
Jacques Ranciere: Politics is Equality is Democracy 89

worker solidarity, were in fact trying to be other people; they were

aspirational. As we shall see, this also anticipated Ranciere's theory
whereby politics and democracy both consist of a radical affirmation
of the claim to legitimate activity of individuals or a group whose acts
are deemed illegitimate by the rules of the status quo. Discussing
The Nights of Labour Ranciere comments:

[t]he idea of a 'poetics of knowledge' that would cut across all dis-
ciplines thus expresses a very close relationship between subject and
method. The Mights of Labour was a 'political' book in that it ignored
the division between 'scientific' and 'literary' or between 'social'
and 'ideological', in order to take into account the struggle by
which the proletariat sought to reappropriate for themselves a
common language that had been appropriated by others, and to
affirm transgressively the assumption of equality. (LP 5)

The Nights of Labour was also the beginning of what would become
a more developed critique of historicism (in NH), exemplified in
particular by the histoire des mentalites approach of the Annales school,
and Ranciere later argued that to interpret a historical phenom-
enon by reference to its time was to lend such an interpretation a
wholly spurious authority. The view that many historians were prac-
tising a 'discourse of propriety' and serving to consolidate a received
wisdom about past and present was to push Ranciere even further
into a studied a-disciplinarity and an ever stronger opposition to
anything remotely or partially relying on positivism or empiricism
(DW 121-2).
There is, it would seem, an irony with this shift away from a view of
the working class as a progressive force because of its pride in working-
class traditions and practices, to a view of ordinary people as being
most challenging to the status quo in a progressive sense when they
seek to imitate other (more privileged) groups and classes. However
problematic Marx's claim might be in its empirical detail that the
working class, by acting in a way which is true to itself, can be the
vehicle of its own emancipation, Ranciere's determination to shed
any remnants of claims to scientific references - including 'scientific
socialism' - is at least equally problematic. If Ranciere viewed other
90 BadioUy Balibar, Ranciere

historians as being unchallenging to the status quo by describing and

attempting to explain generalities, he now seemed to have shifted
from a populist stance to an approach where he was highly selective
regarding whom he studied in order to support a view of the world
which relied more on its own internal logic than on a thorough
exploration of the world as it is. Ironically, by abandoning all notions
of generalization and testability in an empirical way he was putting
the intellectual in a position of authority because it was now the scho-
lar who decided who was worthy of study and who was not, appar-
ently without reference to broader criteria. By adopting an approach
that was arguably in part at least a form of critical theory, he was
allowing the interpreter of history full reign to pick and choose at
will, influenced largely by the logic of the historian's own abstrac-
tions - Ranciere's own story - rather than more generalizable cri-
teria, be they historical or sociological or both.
Ranciere however reached the opposite conclusion, namely that it
was established philosophy and sociology that were intrinsically eli-
tist, including not only and most obviously the work of Plato, but
also the writings of Marx, Sartre and Bourdieu, which he explores in
The Philosopher and His Poor (2003 [1983]). These and other thinkers,
he argues, all of whom wrote major texts where the poor (or others
whose role in society was not to think) play an important part, para-
doxically reinforce the separation that exists between the mass of
ordinary people on the one hand, and thought and art on the other.
In what turned out to be a contributing factor to his passage back to
theory, Ranciere attempts to show that the foundations of philosophy
(and in Bourdieu's case sociology) are built on the exclusion of the
poor rather than their integration, where the poor are firmly placed
in one position in society and the philosopher (or sociologist) in
another. The thinker examines the poor, who do not think for them-
selves; they are intellectual objects, not subjects. Philosophy, includ-
ing Marxist and neo-Marxist philosophy, seeks to explain why there is
a particular distribution of social roles and serves to reinforce the
injustices and inequalitites of the status quo. Philosophy is thus a jus-
tification of domination.
He points out that Plato is quite clear that there is and should be a
strict division of labour between people whose social role is to do one
Jacques Ranciere: Politics is Equality is Democracy 91

thing or another, in particular to be either artisan or philosopher,

doer or thinker, but never both. From a fairly uncontentious review
of Plato's comments on social roles, Ranciere moves more controver-
sially to Marx, Sartre and Bourdieu. According to Ranciere, Marx
views the poor - the proletariat - in a similar fashion to the way
Plato views the poor, to the extent that for Marx the historic role of
the working class is to rise up, to revolt and to overthrow capitalism.
It does this not because of what it has to contribute in a positive sense,
socially, politically or culturally, but because of what it is not, because
it is emptied by the capitalist mode of production of all positive
attributes: 'The proletarian has only one role, to make revolution, and
s/he cannot not make revolution, given who s/he is. For the proletarian is
the pure loss of any attribute, the identity of being and non-being'
(PP 122, italics in original). Once again, then, according to Ranciere,
Marx the philosopher, like Plato before him, treats the poor as a cog in
the philosopher's explanatory machine and not as a group of indivi-
duals who take any initiatives, or pursue creative activities.
Sartre also takes the function and potential freedom of ordinary7
working people to be crucial in any proper understanding of the
world. But like Marx, Sartre as interpreted by Ranciere only treats
them as rounded and intrinsically interesting people who think for
themselves in a distant and imaginary future, not in the present,
when by contrast the philosopher has depth and a great deal of under-
standing and the poor have neither. Finally, Bourdieu is a particularly
important object of criticism in The Philosopher and his Poor, partly
because, whilst Ranciere was finishing his book, Bourdieu's sociology
of education in The Inheritors (1979 [1964]), Reproduction in Education
(1977 [1970]) and Distinction (1984 [1979]) was being taken seriously
by the new Socialist government in France, after the election of
President Mitterrand in 1981. For Ranciere, Bourdieu's description
of education as being designed almost exclusively for the educated
classes, as culture for the already cultured, does not challenge the ini-
quities of the status quo any more than Plato had. Certainly, Bourdieu
defends the dispossessed against the privileged, but this popular align-
ment still leaves no room for individuals to do any of the social shifting
that had become so crucial to Ranciere's view of any real struggle
for emancipation:
92 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

[T]his 'taking sides' consists in explaining backwards the same thing

as the philosopher. But this reversed order is not indifferent. The
philosopher started from the arbitrary in order to reach necessity.
The sociologist reaches necessity starting from the illusion of free-
dom. He proclaims that it is the illusion of their freedom that binds
artisans to their places. The declared arbitrariness thus becomes a
scientific necessity, and the redistribution of cards an absolute illu-
sion ... [Bourdieu] doubled Marxist necessity with the Parmeni-
dian necessity of its eternity. (PP: 179)

Ranciere's critique of Marx, Sartre and Bourdieu in The Philosopher

and his Poor would seem to stem from a broader position regarding the-
ories of socialist emancipation. For socialist theorists, the most
oppressed and excluded members of society are also, by definition,
those who are the most marginal with regard to advanced formal edu-
cation and participation in theoretical discussions. The theoretical
agenda tends very much to be set and explored by the highly educated
who are often also part of other social elites. The poor (in Ranciere's
parlance) are therefore likely to seem at times like objects rather than
subjects of socialist theories. Having sprung from the Althusserian fold
where this tendency was arguably pronounced - and Althusser was
himself, after all, professor at an elite grandeecole - Ranciere's reaction
was to go far in the opposite direction, to a position that could easily
be described, once again, as populist, where theory was shunned
almost entirely in order to record and then disseminate the words
and thoughts of workers. This approach and the pursuit of theory are
not wholly incompatible, although Ranciere might have at least
seemed to think so at the time. A corrective to the idea that one must
choose between accepting uncritically the views of worker intellec-
tuals and rejecting theory by intellectuals deemed part of a social
elite might lie in the notion of Marx's 'revolutionizing practice', sug-
gesting that ideas (including theory) are bound to change as practical
struggles take place and reflect back on and inform ideas which influ-
enced the struggles in the first place.
Ranciere's response to his conclusions regarding philosophy and
the poor was to distance himself from the practice of many radical
intellectuals who, it seemed to him, suggested to the oppressed and
Jacques Ranciere: Politics is Equality is Democracy 93

exploited what they should be doing and thinking, how they should
remain in their respectives roles and places.
If The Philosopher and his Poor was one transitional work on Ran-
ciere's way back to theory, The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in
Intellectual Emancipation (1991 [1987]) was the other. In this slightly
later book he challenges the dominant notions of the nature of
teaching and learning by exploring the emancipatory pedagogy of the
eccentric Joseph Jacotot (1770-1840). Jacotot was a multi-skilled
emigre teacher at the University of Louvain who took as a starting
point the belief that all human beings have equal intelligence and
that differences in educational attainment stem almost exclusively
from differential opportunities and experiences. This relatively un-
contentious starting point, which is indeed found in many liberal and
left-leaning approaches to pedagogy, leads Jacotot to a far more radi-
cal assertion that the position of the teacher is not one of authority
where she or he imparts to students what s/he knows and what the
students do not know. Quite the contrary; the best learning takes
place along the same lines as infant language learning, where experi-
ment, exploration and imitation are far more important and effec-
tive than the conventional pedagogic process which involves receiving
and absorbing knowledge passively from one's teacher and then
reproducing it. Perhaps more reminiscent of supervision of disser-
tations or theses in higher education than of conventional school
teaching or even some undergaduate teaching, Jacotot's challenge
to conventional pedagogy is so extreme that, as Ranciere puts it:
'[t]he duty of Joseph Jacotot's disciples is thus simple. They must
announce to everyone, in all places and all circumstances, the news,
the practice: one can teach what one does not know' (IS 101). This
highly unorthodox approach to pedagogy could hardly be further
removed from that of Althusser, whom Ranciere quotes in La Le$on
d'Althusser as follows: 'The object of pedagogy is to transmit a particu-
lar body of knowledge to subjects who do not possess this knowledge.
The pedagogical situation therefore relies on the absolute condition
of inequality between knowledge and absence of knowledge' (LA 17, italics
in original). Jacotot apparently did teach languages to students
from a position of having no knowledge of the languages himself
and according to Ranciere this de-mystified form of teaching which
94 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

takes as its starting point an assumption of equality is the essence of

emancipatory practice.
From a pedagogical point of view, many questions can be raised
regarding this approach. For example, for learners to pursue an inde-
pendent line of enquiry implies a high level of motivation or a high
level of understanding of the process of learning, or both. Moreover,
particularly at more elementary stages, the student arguably benefits
greatly from the more extensive knowledge of the teacher in a fairly
conventional way, especially with regard to the technical skills of lan-
guage learning or the basics of chemistry, for example. Leaving such
practical objections aside for the moment, I would suggest that this
view of pedagogy and in particular the social analysis that underpins
it is a partial challenge to Enlightenment notions of progress and
emancipation. Instead of the idea that human beings can strive
to improve their lot by working towards equality and freedom,
Ranciere, like Jacotot, takes equality to be a starting point for all poli-
tical analysis and not a medium- or long-term goal to be striven for
with the help of an approach located within the Enlightenment tradi-
tion of social progress. As we shall see, this has considerable conse-
quences for Ranciere's more fully-fledged political thought, in
particular in AuBordsdupolitique (1992), La Mesentente (1995) and Ten
Theses on Politics (2001), all of which are influenced by Jacotot's views.
In the meantime, one of Arthur Rimbaud's poems provided the
title for the journal of which Ranciere was one of the founding editors
in 1975 and with which he remained involved until its demise in 1981
(see SP and Ross 2002: 124-37). The name Les Revoltes logiques was
taken from Rimbaud's poem 'Democracy', written after the defeat of
the Paris Commune and which describes how the bourgeois class was
'destroying all logical revolt'; the parallel with the period after May
1968 is clear and the title was also a reference to the slogan 'On a
raison de se revolter' ('We're right to revolt') adopted by the Maoist
group the Gauche proletarienne of which some of the editors had been
members. The journal was concerned with the social history of
labour, working from the premise discussed above that there was
often a considerable difference between what workers said and wrote
about themselves on the one hand and what professional intellectuals
said about them on the other.
Jacques Ranciere: Politics is Equality is Democracy 95

In the first issue of the journal, the mainly philosophy-trained edi-

torial collective stated that they intended to write a different sort of
history from any of the established French schools of historiography,
and most importantly to 'resituate ... thought from below' (in Ross
2002: 128). Contributors would be concerned with searching archives
for examples of primary speech and text in particular, thus allowing
worker-intellectuals to speak for themselves. Highly reminiscent of
Ranciere's approach in The Nights of Labour, the journal's inaugural
statement expressed particular interest in workers who emulated
people from other cultures and classes, including those who adopted
a language more associated with the bourgeoise.
Ranciere's return to theory thus emerged against a background of
strong reaction against the scientific structuralism of Louis Althusser,
a Maoist and populist influence, much meticulous research in histor-
ical archives, and some highly unorthodox and original conclusions
regarding both the historiography of the working class and actual
conclusions drawn from an archive-based study of its history.

Liberal democracy and language

During the many years he spent arguing in favour of listening to

unheard voices and promoting unsung heroes, Ranciere was attempt-
ing to assert the importance of the experiences and views of ordinary
people who were, he believed, overlooked by liberals and by left phi-
losophers alike; both groups contributed to keeping the poor in their
place. So Ranciere's project during what might be termed his histor-
ical period, discussed above, confronted the notion that modernity
and the liberal order allowed all individuals equal opportunity and
allowed them to interact with each other as equals. But it also con-
fronted analysts working in the socialist tradition who highlighted
from afar (as Ranciere saw it) the historic, progressive role of the
oppressed, but who knew little of their real lives. Since his return
to political thought, Ranciere has taken these themes as a point of
departure and, seen as a whole, his thought can be interpreted as a
powerful critique of the very bases upon which liberal democracy is
built and the consequences of liberal-democratic assumptions for the
96 Badiou} Balibar, Ranciere

day-to-day reality of both politics and people's lives more generally.

(I discuss the consequences for socialist theory below.) I will argue
that he identifies some crucial ways in which liberalism is flawed as a
progressive and supposedly egalitarian doctrine and that, broadly
speaking, highlighting the notion of democracy linked to a radically
egalitarian notion of politics is a useful way to pursue a critical
exploration of liberal democracy.
Language, which Ranciere explores partly as a metaphor and
partly in a more literal way, is at the heart of his approach and as I
mention above it is one of the unifying factors in his entire political,
historical, aesthetic and literary oeuvre. However, if some of the
most important detail of his theoretical writing investigates the nature
and results of speech acts, he is by no means part of the mainstream
structuralist or poststructuralist 'linguistic turn', and is far more con-
vinced of the theoretical centrality of popular revolt than either
Derrida or even Foucault, for example. But the importance of what
can broadly be termed 'discourse' certainly borrows from the post-
structuralist tradition.
Before examining Ranciere's exploration of language more fully,
let us pause in order to remind ourselves of the major tenets of a liberal
democratic approach to politics. Liberal democracy promotes the
importance of freedom to vote, regular elections and eligibility of vir-
tually all adults for public office. Instead of emphasizing the impor-
tance of collective interests and popular rule, it defends the rights of
the individual. John Rawls (1971: 61), for example, argues that there
are certain fundamental liberties that should take precedence over
popular rule in order to ensure that individuals are free and equal,
including freedom of speech and assembly, liberty of conscience and
freedom of thought, the right to hold personal property, and freedom
from arbitrary arrest and seizure as defined by the concept of the rule
of law. Rawls and many other liberals argue that defence of these
aspects of personal freedom helps protect the individual's private
sphere against what he sees as often counterposing interests of the
public sphere. Liberalism thus stresses individual rights, equality
before the law and formal equality of opportunity, often before
even minimal electoral concerns. It relies upon notions of equality
of opportunity and equality before the law, equalities which are
Jacques Ranciere: Politics is Equality is Democracy 97

achieved in part via a defence of the rights of the individual. This,

according to liberals, enables equality of rights and equality of com-
petition between individuals playing by the same rules.
For Ranciere, any such approach to the notion of equality and
democracy is profoundly misleading. Liberal approaches to equality
take as read the idea that the fundamentals of political equality can be
upheld despite inequalities of wealth, status and influence. But for
Ranciere there are profound structural ways in which the poor are
kept in their traditional place. The way he puts this is that in normal
times not only is the speech of ordinary people ignored, but their
words are not recognized as speech at all; rather, they are taken to be
mere noise, a type of Aristotelian blaberon of meaningless utterances.
One can think of daily, minor but actual examples of this. From chil-
dren in the company of adults to discussions in a cafe or pub or at
dinner parties, in trade union and political meetings, to intellectual
debates in many arenas, there are instances where words uttered by
some seem to count so much more than words uttered by others,
at times regardless of the substance of the words themselves. Words
are not simply words with inherent, context-free meaning, but are
received very differently according to who is uttering them and
where they are uttered.
Thus when the powerless rise up and assert their legitimacy and
their right to be taken notice of, it is a legitimacy to be heard. Ran-
ciere argues that radical, and in particular insurrectional, assertions
cannot be recognized as speech by those in harmony with the status
quo and this is where deliberation politics (and consensus politics)
are particularly wrong: they assume people are talking in a context
where they fully understand each other, and assume that they are
communicating on the same wavelength. In this respect, Ranciere is
explicit in his critique of Jiirgen Habermas5 theories of communica-
tive action and deliberative democracy which also have a linguistic
orientation, but which rely on the notion that human speech acts can
and indeed do tend to enable mutual understanding, agreement and

... what radically distinguishes my thinking from a communicative

rationality model is that I do not accept the premise that there is a
98 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

specific form of political rationality that may be directly deduced

from the essence of language or from the activity of communica-
tion. The Habermasian schema presupposes, in the very logic of
argumentative exchange, the existence of a priori pragmatic con-
straints that compel interlocutors to enter into a relation of inter-
comprehension, if they wish to be self-coherent. This presupposes
further that both the interlocutors and the objects about which
they speak are preconstituted; whereas, from my perspective,
there can be political exchange only when there isn't such a pre-
established agreement - not only, that is, regarding the objects of
debate but also regarding the status of the speakers themselves.
It is this pheonomenon that I call disagreement...' (DW 116)

Political discussion, then, 'is never a simple dialogue' (M 77), never a

rational debate between competing but equally represented and
equally representable interests, but is a battle to make one's voice
count as one that is recognized as legitimate. As is so often the case
with Ranciere, this characteristic of all politics is best understood by
reference to classical antiquity, and in this case the secession at Aven-
tin in Rome. For Ranciere the patricians at Mount Aventin did not
recognize the noises the plebeians were making as speech and took
their utterances to be meaningless. The plebeians were therefore
obliged not only to argue their case, but also to frame what they were
saying in such a way that the patricians recognized their words as
being endowed with meaning in the first place. 'The principal of poli-
tical interlocution', Ranciere concludes from this, 'is thus disagree-
ment; that is, it is the discordant understanding of both the objects of
reference and the speaking subjects' (DW 116).
In the spirit of the slogan 'We are all German Jews', chanted in
May 1968 in response to xenophobic remarks about Daniel Cohn-
Bendit, he thus considers words not as mere superstructural manifes-
tations of something deeper and more significant, but items of signifi-
cance in themselves, real political acts; speaking of The Nights of
Labour, he explains that he 'treated these texts not as documents that
either expressed or concealed the "real" conditions of the workers and
the forms of domination they had endured but rather as evidence
of the controversial polemical configurations resulting in that form of
Jacques Ranciere: Politics is Equality is Democracy 99

political subjectivity known as "the worker'" (M 172, DW 114).

He goes on to explain that, beginning from

a different reading of Plato's critique of writing... the central ques-

tion for me rests upon the politically fertile potential of the opposi-
tion between two differing accounts of how words circulate. The
'silent word of writing', according to Plato, is that which will sway
no matter what - making itself equally available both to those
entitled to use it and to those who are not. (DW 115)

Human beings are political, then, precisely because they are

literary, because the meanings of words are contested and struggled
over in disputes between the powerful and the powerless, those who
have to date determined the meaning of words and those who have
not. Applying this approach in The Names of History: On the Poetics
of Knowledge (1999 [1992]), Ranciere attempts to demonstrate the
way in which it can recognize the power of speech acts. Indeed,
when Ranciere comes to lay down systematically his views on a
theory of politics, a notion as central to his thought as equality is
itself a speech event.
I would suggest that Ranciere's political thought can be read in
part as an exploration of the notion of power in a general sense.
Power is the generally accepted logic of what Ranciere describes as
the orderly domination of the arkhe, which is the logic of liberalism
and the denial of the voice of ordinary people, the sons-part. In fact,
Ranciere's approach is in some ways reminscent of Steven Lukes'
thesis in Power: A Radical View (1974). Lukes argues that a proper,
'three-dimensional' view of power must certainly take into account
more conventional and restricted views of power which emphasize
overt instances of people preventing other people from doing what
they would otherwise have done, or compelling them to do what
they do not want to do. But a more complete theory of power
should also include the idea that those who are more powerful set
the agenda in the first place and thus prevent the emergence of
other views or desires on the part of the less powerful. When Ranciere
describes the way in which the language of the sons-part is unitelligi-
ble to those who only speak the language of the status quo, he
100 BadioUy Balibar, Ranciere

appears to be making a similar point. The powerful not only con-

sciously and obviously override the less powerful in terms of what
does and does not get done, and what people are and are not allowed
to do, but they also set the terms of debates in such a way that the
views and demands of the less powerful cannot be understood, or
sometimes even formulated.
Having said that, Ranciere's belief that normal politics is charac-
terized by absence of understanding contributes to a very limited
view of what politics is, a position which, I believe, weakens his case.
Before moving on, it is worth saying that Ranciere himself uses lan-
guage in a way that is often open to different interpretations, which at
times makes it both intriguing and difficult to understand. Of course,
punning and wordplay more generally are characteristic of poststruc-
turalist thought and have to an extent become part of Ranciere's phi-
losophy as well. This is of course familiar territory to students of
Derrida in particular, who goes out of his way to include in his writing
elements of ambiguity and performativity via the manipulation of the
form of the language itself; punning, hyphenation and mis-spellings
become part of the philosophy and the distinction between form and
content is blurred. Ranciere practises linguistic games in a relatively
minor way compared to Derrida and other major figures in poststruo
turalist thought, but playful linguistic devices are certainly present.
This is in part informed by Ranciere's belief that there is no strict
demarcation between aesthetics and politics in particular and
between other traditional disciplines such as literature and philoso-
phy; elements more traditionally associated with one discipline thus
infuse others, most commonly, aspects of linguistic or discourse analy-
sis infusing political thought. We have already seen that for Ranciere,
writing itself is a form of political intervention, a form of performance,
not a type of detached analysis.

Defining the political

It will now be clear that the heart of Ranciere's political thought is a

belief in the right of the mass of ordinary people to play a different role
in society from the one they have been playing, and more generally to
Jacques Ranciere: Politics is Equality is Democracy 101

lead different lives from the ones they have been leading. True politics
exists when there is a popular uprising of a particular type, when the
sans-part revolt and disrupt the status quo by asserting their right to be
equal with all others. This direct challenge to the unjust status quo
itself takes the form of a declaration of radical equality on the part of
the excluded and is necessarily just:

[PJolitics exists where the count of parts of society is disturbed by

the assertion of a part of those who have no part \l3 inscription d'une
part des sans-parf\. It begins when the equality of anyone with
anyone else is declared as being liberty of the people ... those who
are nothing assert that they are collectively identical to the whole of
the community. (M 169)

Highly reminiscent of the powerful phrase in the original French ver-

sion of the Internationale,, *nous sommesrien, soyons tonf (we are nothing,
let us be everything), Ranciere places emphasis on the importance of
insurrection and rare, radical disruption of the status quo which can
be altered in positive fashion only by the determined, subjective
actions of the dominated. Influenced by classical reflections on poli-
tics, real politics appeared for the first time in Ancient Greece when
parts of the demos insisted they should be listened to and their views
and demands regarded as legitimate and equal with those who were
in positions of power, and these members of the demos insisted this
should happen in the public sphere. Even more importantly, this
crucial group, whose individual members were insignificant in the
previous order of things, put themselves forward as representatives of
society as a whole. Those who had counted for nothing audaciously
presented themselves as having universal significance.
Central to Ranciere's theory of politics is his notion of police.
He splits the conventional notion of the political into police on the one
hand, which he describes as 'a certain manner of partitioning the sen-
sible ... [everything in its place' (TT 7) and where inequality and
injustice abound. On the other hand, politics - in the true, Rancier-
ian sense disrupts and overturns the order of the police in an interven-
tion which explores radical equality. The essence of politics is thus
disagreement (la mesentente) between orderly inequality and disorderly
102 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

equality (M 17, 28-9). It is this disorderly - one is tempted to say

anarchic - equality which Ranciere champions.
A proper understanding of the emergence of politics, Ranciere
argues, needs to take account of an aesthetic of the political, where
the process of political interrruption enables that which was previously
invisible or inaudible to become seen or heard. In the normal state of
affairs, the police determines what is perceptible and audible and what
is not, people's and groups' places and functions, the social and politi-
cal hierarchy and more generally the social and political system. As we
have seen, in Ranciere's jargon the very essence of politics is the disrup-
tion of the partition of the sensible by supplementing it with a part of
those who have no part; in this way the perception of what is visible and
audible is altered. Despite his strong reaction against Althusser, one
cannot help but see aspects of Althusser's theory of ideology here,
where the status quo is maintained in important ways by Ideological
State Apparatuses and where moving beyond the status quo depends
in part at least on tackling these apparatuses.
Much of Ranciere's political theory was written during Francois
Mitterrand's 14-year presidency, beginning in 1981. Mitterrand
came to power with a neo-Keynesian programme of reform, which
included nationalizations, job creation, higher public sector wages,
social security reform and a more progressive foreign policy than
France had known before. All of this was wholly out of step with
what key governments were doing elsewhere in the world, when
Margaret Thatcher in Britain, Ronald Reagan in the USA and
Helmut Kohl in West Germany were pursuing vigorous programmes
of neoliberal economic policy and regressive social agendas. By the end
of 1982, Mitterrand and his Socialist-Communist government had
embarked upon a U-turn which was to set the tenor for successive gov-
ernments for the next decade and beyond; austerity measures in eco-
nomic policy to attempt to stem the rising tide of unemployment, only
the mildest social reform, highly pragmatic, conformist foreign policy,
and 'cohabitation' between left and right when for two periods of
two years (1986-88 and 1993-95) there were right-wing govern-
ments working with the Socialist President Mitterrand. As Ranciere
points out (AB 5), when Mitterrand was re-elected in 1988 he made
not a single promise of reform, compared with 110 proposals for
Jacques Ranciere: Politics is Equality is Democracy 103

significant change in 1981. The Mitterrand era came to be known as

one which was characterized by consensus-oriented politics, when
divisions of left and right were supposedly far less relevant than in the
past and when private enterprise was championed more than it had
been by any other French government since 1945. Many intellectuals
applauded the new governmental pragmatism and joined the search
for the ultimate form of managerial, centre-oriented government.
In institutional terms this notably found expression in the Fondation
Saint Simon think-tank, where intellectuals, professional politicians
and business people met to discuss the intersection between business,
politics and the world of ideas.
Although those schooled in the ideas of May 1968 were under no
illusions that profound change would follow the elections of 1981,
neither did they have the direct experience of adaptive social democ-
racy that those on the left in many other countries of Western Europe
had, for example in West Germany, Britain and Sweden. When
the Socialist-Communist government performed its economic policy
U-turn of 1982-83, implementing austerity measures and embracing
the market, many intellectuals and activists alike were genuinely
taken by surprise. Ranciere himself certainly had few illusions regard-
ing either the Socialist Party or the Communist Party, and would not
have seen the 1981 Mitterrand victory as the beginning of a socialist
new dawn. But his thought does seem to contain elements of impas-
sioned reaction to the rapid move to the right on the part of the
traditional parties of the left. As we have seen, the only way that pol-
itics comes about in his theory of politics is via the disruption of the
logic of the police and through disagreement; Ranciere is emphatic
not only that politics is anomalous and 'exists as a deviation from this
normal order of things' (TT: 8) but also that the essence of politics is
indeed dissensus (TT: 8).
Against the precepts of liberal democracy and centre-oriented con-
sensus politics, against a celebration of the alleged demise of the
French revolutionary spirit, and against the managerial claims of pro-
fessional politicians who have long forgotten what more participative
politics might be like, we have seen that Ranciere suggests that a radi-
cal assertion on the part of the dispossessed that they have legitimate
demands (demands that are not even recognized as such in the
104 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

language of the arkKe) can transform a situation dramatically towards

the achievement of greater justice. The sans-part must rise up in order
to assert the legitimacy of their demands and without such an uprising
they will be permanently overlooked, no matter how much dialogue
and deliberation takes place along liberal lines. Read in the con-
text of the Socialist U-turn and its aftemath, Ranciere's theory is a
strong reminder that another type of politics is possible, more organi-
cally connected with ordinary people, and his theory suggests that the
abandoning of more traditional left politics is not inevitable. His
theory of politics is in this sense an antidote to the depoliticization
of governmental and party politics which has been so pronounced in
France, contributing both to a rise in the level of abstentions at
national elections and indirectly, no doubt, to the rise of the extreme
right National Front.
It is perhaps not suprising, then, that in Ranciere's work the politi-
cal is ephemeral and fleeting. It emerges only at points of tension and
polemic between two or more areas, at boundaries and divisions and
points of flux, and never in areas or times of stablity and calm. The
political subject is 'defined by its participation in contrarities' and pol-
itics itself is a 'type of paradoxical action' (TT 2). He explains that he
chose the particular title for his book The Nights of Labour precisely
because it suggests these worker-intellectuals were exploring emanci-
pation by transgressing the normally assigned division between day
and night, which usually implied work and sleep respectively, but
which they replaced with work and emancipatory writing (LP 4-5).
This particular type of exploration of emancipation is exactly the sort
of exceptional, temporary and illegitimate (according to prevailing
norms) form that politics takes in his theory, and indeed at times it
has almost dream-like overtones.
It would be hard to imagine a more extreme theoretical challenge
to the politics of Francois Mitterrand after 1982, or to the politics of
many other centrist politians who have embraced a pragmatic
approach to government, once labelled Third Way, whether in Brit-
ain, Germany or a host of other industrialized countries. Ranciere,
by stark contrast with this sort of governmental pragmatism, sug-
gests that a substantial departure from the unjust status quo is possi-
ble, a departure which had previously seemed impossible to many.
Jacques Ranciere: Politics is Equality is Democracy 105

He does this by placing emphasis on the subject and on political

activism, and his theory is to an extent reminiscent of what Marx
describes as 'revolutionizing practice'. He advocates progress via
political experimentation informing theory and belief in the insight
and soundness of ordinary people - 'the paradox of "the competence
of incompetents" that is the basis of politics in general5 (LP 21) -
and he suggests, contrary to the tendency for professionalization of
much politics, that the ordinary person is best - in fact is alone -
equipped to partake in politics. His theory offers hope and promotes
belief in the possibility of radical change in a situation where normally
the large numbers of people whose voices are not heard suffer huge
dis-advantages, which according to police logic is part of the natural
order of things.
Ranciere's ideas are, however, problematic in a number of further
respects. First, given his highly restricted definition of politics, he does
not offer any way of interpreting ongoing characteristics of and
changes in what we would normally call politics, whether this be a
more restricted, party and parliamentary politics, or a broader defini-
tion which takes on board a large number of manifestations of power,
including many lower-level power struggles which need to be under-
stood in order to make sense of and encourage more radical change.
For Ranciere much of what political and social analysts do when they
analyse power is to analyse the police order and not politics at all. He is
emphatic (in the very first sentence of his Ten Theses] that '[pjolitics is
not the exercise of power'. But if politics is defined so narrowly, as rare
moments of disruption, how are we to understand what happens in
between these moments? Ranciere might answer that we also have to
understand the police order. But how do we distinguish and analyse
more positive, progressive political acts short of uprising in this
schema and how do we understand 'bad polities'? Moreover, is there
any hope for a more stable, ongoing form of social and political orga-
nization which is not unjust? According to Ranciere, politics 'exists
when the natural order of domination is interrupted by a part of
those who have no part. Without this interruption there is no polities'
(M 31). Real politics is thus defined against an enduring and stable
order and apparently cannot itself be enduring or stable. Because of
Ranciere's highly specific definition of politics, his theory does not
106 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

seem to equip us to examine what happens outside the extraordinary7

event of politics, nor to properly understand how one situation leads
to the other.
As Bob Jessop (2003:17) suggests, there seems to be a 'recurrent
cycle' whereby when political insurrection takes place, it is bound to
fail and is 'doomed to re-institutionalization'. It is not at all clear that
there is a possibility of ongoing democratic and egalitarian politics
because the interruption of the police seems bound to be temporary7
and fleeting, because it is defined as an exception to the status quo
rather than as a potentially normal and ongoing state of things (or
slowly evolving situation) in its own right. Failure of radical politics
seems to be built into radical politics5 very definition.
This seems again to break with an Enlightenment concept of
progress, without convincingly replacing it with another. Indeed,
Ranciere's notion of politics is ahistorical to the extent that politics
takes much the same form in Ancient Greece as today; it is not, for
example, class-specific in a historical sense except to say that it is the
poor, the oppressed, the (in Bourdieu's language) 'dispossessed' that
bring it about. In the quotation his theory does not seem to to
embrace any notion that one type of police politics represents progress
compared with another, although in his polical commentary he does
suggest distinct advantages of liberal democracy over other forms of
government (e.g. LH 81).
Finally, the notion of equality breaks with more conventional
notions of it, to the extent that, as we have seen, it is a theoretical
starting point rather than an objective: 'Equality is not a goal that
governments and societies could succeed in reaching. To pose equal-
ity as a goal is to hand it over to the pedagogues of progress, who
widen endlessly the distance they promise that they will abolish.
Equality is a presupposition, an intial axiom, or it is nothing'
(Ranciere 2003 [Afterword]: 223). Once again, this approach seems
to be a direct challenge to Enlightenment notions of progress and
equality. Since human beings clearly do not live equal lives in so
many ways, should not material and other forms of equality therefore
remain a goal to be striven for? Ranciere's theory of politics seems
deliberately to break with the idea that material equality is in fact a
major goal of egalitarian politics. Moreover, it seems to suggest a sort
Jacques Ranciere: Politics is Equality is Democracy 10 7

of political passivity, by stark contrast with what some other aspects of

his theory suggest. What are the sans-part rising up in favour of if not
greater equality? If equality is taken as given and as a starting point -
not a goal - then it seems the struggle for a better life is not a practical
one but a state of mind, a particular consciousness, which is ironically
rather unthreatening to the police state of affairs and possibly rather
unmotivating for people wanting to get involved in a struggle for a
fairer world.
At times it is not clear if Ranciere is in fact developing a praxis-
informed, progress-oriented, emancipatory theory or if he is thinking
more in aesthetic terms of the Utopian and an impractical ideal,
which might ultimately inspire the practical but is itself quite
removed from it; in Le Maitre ignorant, talking about the self-education
of artisans in the early nineteenth century, he comments:

Thus one can dream of a society of emancipated individuals that

would be a society of artists. Such a society would repudiate the
divide between those who know and those who do not know,
between those who possess or who do not possess the property of
intelligence. It would recognize only active minds ... (MI 120-1)

Ranciere's notion of politics is political - and not politico-economic,

and sometimes not materialist for that matter, and certainly not his-
torical materialist - in that it relies on a notion of the gap between the
established order - the police - and political interventions as speech
acts on the part of individuals or groups who disrupt the injustice of
the status quo; by doing this the sans-part assert their right to be under-
stood in a way that the discourse of received wisdom does not allow;
the rebels' statements cannot be understood by the ruling police and
the conditions of comprehension are created in the process of rebellion
and its aftermath, through the rebels seizing the opportunity to assert
themselves and, in linguistic terms, asserting the comprehensibility of
their utterances. In this sense Ranciere's theory is a theory of the sub-
ject similar to Badiou's, in that subjects must believe in their actions
and statements and make them true by creating the revolutionizing
criteria by which they are judged. In Ranciere, however, it seems
there is far more premeditation on the part of the dominated than in
108 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

Badiou (people are subjects before the event as well as afterwards).

In this particular respect Ranciere's theory is not unlike Marx's idea
that people make their own history, but what is missing is the idea that
people make their history in very particular circumstances, so the
importance of the subject is there but not the importance of specific
material circumstances, it seems.
To sum up my views on Ranciere's definition of politics, despite my
generally favourable comments above regarding his approach to the
role of ordinary people in politics and conclusions we might draw
about his approach to power generally, on closer inspection his defini-
tion of politics is more limited.

Democracy and post-democracy

We are now in a position to analyse Ranciere's conception of democ-

racy, which we can do fairly briefly, because true democracy is synon-
ymous with true politics. Thus democracy has nothing to do with
government or any institution, or any ongoing, stable organization
of society at all, but is on the contrary sudden confrontation with the
established police order. Democracy is a transforming force where
the demos, defined as 'those who have nothing, who do not have spe-
cific properties allowing them to exercise power' (DW 124), crea-
tively disrupts the status quo where everything has its place in order
to create space for polemic and dissensus, where the place of things is
subject to intense debate and dispute. Highly activist and concerned
with creating political subjects, Ranciere's conception of democracy is
disruptive and exceptional.
Democracy thus defined is to an extent effective as a tool in a left
critique of the lived reality of liberal democracy and a number of
contemporary discussions of democracy. Ranciere's emphasis on the
active and activist role of ordinary people contrasts sharply with
the minimally political versions of liberal democracy which have
become prevalent, where political structures do as much to shelter
the individual from politics as encourage participation, and he insists
on a discussion of important areas which many versions of democracy
leave untouched. Ranciere uses this approach to great effect in his
Jacques Ranciere: Politics is Equality is Democracy 109

writings on the conventional domain of politics and society and

is particularly effective in countering more mainstream interpreta-
tions of the supposed 'end of exceptionalism' in French politics,
society and intellectual life, as I have already argued. In On the Shores
of Politics (2007), he argues convincingly that the superficially con-
sensual characteristics of the Mitterrand era and post-Mitterrand era
are certainly not the characteristics of democracy but are, with the
increasing professionalization of governmental politics, the decline of
interest in party politics and government on the part of ordinary
people and the convergence of centre-left and centre-right, quite the
opposite of democracy; real democracy allows the demos to undo
arrangements and alliances as much as create them and is certainly
not there simply to rubber-stamp what the political elite is doing.
In La Haine de la democratic (2005) he continues his analysis both of
various aspects of the established order and of its intellectual advo-
cates, such as the historian Francois Furet and the neo-Tocquevillian
social analyst Gilles Lipovetsky. Ranciere argues that these writers
amongst many others promote a highly superficial and simplified ver-
sion of democracy, where the person in the street is reduced to an
occasional, reluctant and uninterested voter, which is precisely one
reason why there is in fact no democracy. Proper democracy, by con-
trast, sends liberal democracy into disarray:

[DJemocracy is the name of a singular interruption of this order of

the distribution of bodies in a community that I have suggested
should be conceptualized as police. It is the name of that which
interrupts the smooth functioning of this order through a singular
process of subjectivization. (M 139)

By contrast, many forms of what is called 'representative democracy',

he argues, are in fact a type of functioning of the state based on an
unhappy compromise between the privileges of supposedly natural
elites, on the one hand, and on the other the results of long struggles
for more genuine democracy. The best example of this is found in
Britain, with its tradition of liberalism combined with a history of
struggles for electoral reform. The goal of liberal and representative
democracy today, he argues, is in fact to govern without the people,
110 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

or at least with an undivided people, and thus to govern without

politics (LH 61,88).
Thus Ranciere's discussion of democracy is put to use in uncompro-
mising fashion to expose the severe democratic shortcomings of liberal
democracy, especially in the form it has taken in the late twentieth
and early twenty-first century. It is once again a bold assertion of the
political legitimacy of ordinary people and is a theory which serves as
an effective critique of aspects of the status quo. In Chronique des temps
consensuels (2005), a series of short pieces formerly published as news-
paper articles, he sets out an alternative vision of a variety of phenom-
ena, ranging from international political developments to new films,
from the bicentenary of Victor Hugo's birth to the philosophy of
Adorno and Horkheimer. He explains at the beginning of the book
that he is attempting in this writing to contribute to creating the
space for proper politics (CT 10).
Most of what passes for democratic politics in the West today, then,
is post-democracy (M 135), which promotes supposed consensus
politics, which is in fact a depoliticized form of government where
the people disappears, and one of whose major goals is to keep
everyone in their place and not to allow the eruption of real politics
(M 142~3). Consensual democracy is in fact a contradiction in terms
because democracy is about disagreement. One characteristic of post-
democracy is that what is supposed to be democratic opinion is in fact
opinion polls. Another is the apparent submission of politics, in the
form of the state, to the judiciary, which is the submission of politics
to the state (M 151). The modest state, which is supposedly not over-
bearing, in fact puts politics into abeyance, sidelines the demos and in
various ways strengthens its position; it does this notably by claiming
not to have any choice or room for manoeuvre regarding econ-
omic policy, because of international constraints. Ranciere points out
that when today's governments claim to be nothing but the simple
servants of international capital, they have taken on board Marx's
once-ridiculed views in this respect and use them to legitimize their
behaviour (M 156).
Ranciere's theory of democracy is thus a rare and forceful anti-
dote to the prevailing views on democracy and politics more widely.
He argues that we need to rethink how we create politics by thinking
Jacques Ranciere: Politics is Equality is Democracy 111

differently about disagreement in such a way that this process con-

fronts the supposed consensus of the status quo, without however
creating a new form of police society and politics.
Ranciere's theory of democracy is, however, problematic in the
ways described above in relation to his definition of politics. It is
for example always defined in terms of what it is against and seems
necessarily fleeting. Crucially, there is no hint at how a democratic
society would be organized, nothing approaching a model of sus-
tained democracy. If the demos is defined as 'those who have nothing,
who do not have specific properties allowing them to exercise power'
(DW 124), how would the demos play an active role in a more demo-
cratic society if, as it seems, an upturn in the demos' political (and pre-
sumably material) fortunes automatically disqualifies them from
political influence? If democracy comes about when 'those who have
no business speaking, speak, and those who have no business taking
part, take part' (LP 19), how could democracy ever be sustained?
How could the sons-part^ whom Ranciere promotes so effectively in
his theory, ever play a full and positive role in a democratically orga-
nized society if the very existence of democracy depends on their play-
ing a marginal role and being in an apparently constant state of
revolt? It seems the demos is defined in terms that only allow it to
play a part which is against the prevailing, unjust order of things,
and is therefore condemned for ever to a marginal role. Ranciere
says as much when he comments:

Democracy means firstly that: an anarchic 'government' founded

on nothing but the absence of any entitlement to govern (LH 48).

Concluding remarks

Jacques Ranciere has developed a radical and emancipatory

approach both to popular history and to political theory which asserts
the importance of an engaged - as opposed to managerial - form of
politics and which poses sound theoretical challenges to liberal-
ism and liberal democracy in particular. In a body of work which
challenges many fundamental aspects of the status quo, he puts the
112 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

ordinary person at the heart of his system and suggests that a form of
self-realization, or political subjectivity, comes about via an asser-
tion of equality in a process by which the views and interests of the
sans-part assume universal significance. Taken as a whole, Ranciere's
approach is an innovative and uncompromising defence of the politi-
cal legitimacy of the demos and the importance of self-organization
of non-experts. I would suggest that this interpretation of politics is
particularly effective when seen as a critique of the professionaliza-
tion, cynicism, elitism and depoliticization which often characterize
parliamentary politics in advanced capitalist societies in the early
twenty-first century, which is often accompanied by rising levels of
abstentions at elections, profound disillusionment with professional
politicians, and the rise of extreme right political parties. Ranciere's
theory is also useful in terms of exploring the nature of power more
generally and the ways in which many people fail to assume any
measure of self-realization because of the structures and practices of
what Ranciere describes as police practice.
By contrast with what is often described as democracy in liberal
theory and more general parlance, democracy for Ranciere is both
an active and activist term, where the demos intervenes directly not to
endorse the legitimacy of the political elite, to smoothe over differ-
ences or to achieve consensus, but, on the contrary, to assert the legiti-
macy of a different type of politics and systematically undermine
complacent practices of the existing order. Extraparliamentary activ-
ity is thus crucial (e.g. LH 84) and all true political activity takes
place in the name of equality. Ranciere's project is thus, implicitly at
least, also a challenge to large areas of debate and research in the
social sciences, especially political science, sociology and economics,
whose starting point is often to take as read the legitimacy of the
established order and whose conclusions therefore reinforce its pur-
ported legitimacy.
I have argued that in these ways Ranciere's work is sound and
useful. I have also argued, however, that his work suffers from
various shortcomings. The nature of Ranciere's reaction against
Althusser means that there is a reluctance to identify a class or subsec-
tion of a class as a progressive force in a historic sense. This is
Jacques Ranciere: Politics is Equality is Democracy 113

particularly clear both in his writings on the nineteenth century and

in his discussion of the work of Marx, Sartre and Bourdieu. One
apparent consequence of this for Ranciere's political theory is that he
does not suggest how a radical, egalitarian politics can be sustained;
his socialist uprising is to an extent one without an empirically defined
agent. Next, his definition of politics is so narrow that politics can
only, it seems, be fleeting and any progressive uprising will soon
revert to the status quo. Roughly the same applies to Ranciere's
theory of democracy, given that politics and democracy are virtually
Ranciere uses a notion of speech as a political act, aesthetics and the
'poetics of polities' in order to illustrate the need for radical emancipa-
tion. But his discussion of disagreement (mesentente] in these respects is
strongly reminiscent of ideology, and even Althusser's notion of inter-
pellation. Could it be that a virtual equating of revolution on the one
hand and the assertion of ideological change on the other explains the
extremely fragile nature of Ranciere's real politics? If uprising is in
fact ideological rather than a process where material circumstances
are substantially changed, then uprising is bound to be vulnerable to
swift reversion to the status quo.
Finally, and more generally, we have seen in the opening para-
graph of this chapter that Ranciere criticized Althusser for construct-
ing a 'philosophy of order', a philosophy that left too much intact and
did not sufficiently challenge the status quo, and that Ranciere pro-
ceeded to react strongly against his former mentor. I would suggest
that the degree and the nature of reaction is such that when one
looks at the detail of his definition of politics, appealing as an idea
though this ephemeral disorder of egalitarian revolt may be, Ran-
ciere's own system often becomes a philosophy of exception or even a
philosophy of disorder.
Let us for a moment compare Ranciere and Badiou, both of whom
have a commitment to the idea of emancipation via activist and ega-
litarian politics. Badiou suggests (in AM 129-38) that the following
aspects of Ranciere's work are borrowed from his own, an influence
which Ranciere acknowledges to some extent (e.g. AB 32). First,
Ranciere's notion of police appears to draw on Badiou's 'state of the
114 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

situation', which is pure multiplicity, or metastructure. The state (or

for Ranciere the police) attempts to prevent the event taking place,
and denies its possibility (AM 134). Next, Ranciere, like Badiou,
believes that politics comes about when individuals and/or groups
act (in Badiou's language) in fidelity towards an event, in effect creat-
ing this event by naming it. It is only when this process of creation of
subjecthood takes place that political activity takes place. Third, both
agree that politics is a linguistic expression of radical equality and
Badiou reminds us that, like Ranciere, he believes that declarations
can be an important manifestation of the political. Finally, they both
believe that politics renders visible formerly invisible aspects of a
situation, so that from a situation where the terms of the event are
not recognized, the actions of individuals - and only these actions -
assert the legitimacy and indeed the existence of the event. Summing
up their similarities, or more precisely his own influence on Ranciere,
Badiou points out (AM 134-5) that for Ranciere politics 'is not the
exercise of power' and that politics is 'a specific rupture in the logic of
the arkKe\ that politics is rare and subjective and that politics is 'the
action of supplementary subjects who assert themselves as super-
numerary by conventional methods of counting parts of society'.
I would suggest that Badiou's advantage over Ranciere in his over-
all scheme of things is that human beings are able to sustain tremen-
dous and positive change in the long term through their commitment
to the event. Badiou's philosophy is in this way a philosophy which
looks to the future in its concentration on after-the-event change,
which to an extent offers a way out of existing injustices. Ranciere,
by contrast, does not include any real hints as to how to move
beyond police rule, as we have seen. One of Badiou's overall weak-
nesses, on the other hand, is that he is unable to explain properly the
pre-evental genesis of change, or movement more generally and
indeed is adamant that the emergence of the event is not explicable
by reference to the circumstances in which it came about. Ranciere,
on the other hand, places emphasis on explaining the genesis of his
event-equivalent, which is the disagreement which leads to rupture
and which allows the emergence of politics.
Both writers conceive of politics proper as a process where the
human subject is of crucial importance. Without the political activism
Jacques Ranciere: Politics is Equality is Democracy 115

of individuals or groups there is no (in Badiouian language) political

event. For Ranciere, a rupture in the logic of the arktie generates
political subjectivity, that is proper politics. For both, then, people
become subjects when they rise up and create or act in fidelity towards
new rules and circumstances.
Chapter 5

Etienne Balibar: Emancipation, Equaliberty

and the Dilemmas of Modernity

Like Badiou and like Ranciere, Etienne Balibar has resisted any temp-
tation to adopt a wholesale liberal approach in his interpretation
of politics, or to succumb in a major fashion to posts true turalism.
At the heart of his definition of the political is the notion of emancipa-
tion, with the defiant actions of ordinary people taking centre-stage.
Taken as a whole, Balibar's preoccupations are often reminiscent of
those of Althusser - both are interested in Spinoza, Marxism as philo-
sophy, ideology, and conjuncture, to mention but the most obvious -
although the conclusions Balibar draws diverge increasingly with
those of his former mentor as time goes by. Balibar worked closely
with Althusser and wrote important parts of Reading Capital (1970
[1965]), in which he explores the role of modes of production in the
process of historical change. He continued to write from within a
Marxist perspective and remained engaged with some of the central
questions of Marxism until the late 1970s, examining in particu-
lar the nature and role of ideology, the scientific and philosophical
claims of historical materialism, the meaning and relevance of the
notion of class struggle, and the capitalist state. By the early 1980s
he was moving away from a strictly Marxist approach, although he
continued to make a significant contribution to the study of Marx's
writings and continued to work broadly within a materialist and
historical framework.
Again like Badiou and Ranciere, much of Balibar's work since the
early 1980s relates in one way or another to the question of the human
subject. In his general theory of politics and emancipation, it is the
emergence and role of the subject in relation to politics and society
that one must understand first and foremost. In his reading of
Emancipation, Equaliberty and the Dilemmas of Modernity 117

Spinoza, he develops a theory of 'transindividual subjectivity' which

promotes the importance of the imaginary and of ideology, and in his
work on citizenship, borders and racism he also discusses theories of
subjectivation (SP, WP, RNC). Unlike Badiou and Ranciere, how-
ever, Balibar's major later writings are characterized by growing
attention to the lived reality of politics, in particular international
politics as it relates to borders, citizenship and racism.
In this chapter I discuss some of the important contributions
Balibar makes to debates concerning both the general nature and
detail of emancipatory politics at the beginning of the twenty-first
century. I argue that the rather fragmented and uneven character of
Balibar's work and some of the consequent weaknesses are an integral
aspect of it, which can be explained in part by the political and histor-
ical context in which his writing career developed and by his own
position within this context. Born in 1942, Balibar joined the French
Communist Party in 1961, studied at the Ecole Normale Superieure
and became one of Althusser's closest intellectual allies. He remained
active within the PCF throughout the 1960s and 1970s and was one of
the party's most prominent public intellectuals. This was the decade
during which the party was making the first serious bid for many
years to participate in the national government of France, to such
an extent that the PCF was in a formal electoral pact with the re-
emerging Socialist Party: both parties had signed the Union of the
Left Common Programme of Government in 1972 and both hoped -
vainly as it turned out - jointly to win a majority at the 1978 parlia-
mentary elections. For any intellectual steeped in the Marxist tradi-
tion, this Euro-communist venture, accompanied by the growing
crisis of Marxism among intellectuals in France, raised certain funda-
mental questions in a particularly acute way. For example: can the
capitalist state be reformed in order to serve the interests of the work-
ing class properly, or does it have to be dismantled in order to do this?
What is the nature of bourgeois versus proletarian democracy? And
what are the consequences for communist parties themselves of alli-
ances with social-democratic parties such as the French Socialist
Party? Balibar's voice became increasingly one of dissent within the
PCF and his On the Dictatorship of the Proletariat (1977 [1976]) openly
criticizes the leadership of the PCF for its concessions to liberal
118 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

democracy and its pursuit of short-term electoral gains. He con-

demned the party's abandonment of the principle of the dictatorship
of the proletariat, and he asserted the continued importance of work-
ing to destroy the capitalist state rather than attempting to reform it
from within. Despite these and other serious differences with the
party leadership, Balibar remained within the PCF until he was
expelled for his open and forceful criticism of the party's position on
immigration in 1981, the same year the PCF finally joined the Socia-
lists in government.
Balibar's uneasy position as both Marxist intellectual and PCF
activist during this crucial period has, it would seem, manifested
itself in his writings. His mature work is characterized by an ambiva-
lence towards some crucial questions in modern politics and philoso-
phy and this ambivalence appears to leave a defining mark in some
areas. These include some of the central questions of Marxism, and
indeed arguably some of the central questions regarding the nature
of political modernity. For example, what is the role of the state in
modern emancipatory politics, and to what extent can liberal democ-
racy and the structures that accompany it be harnessed for more pro-
gressive ends? Many of Balibar's arguments are important and
insightful as individual positions, and some are brilliant, but they do
not, when put together, amount to a unified system or worldview.
As Balibar himself comments regarding a collection of essays pub-
lished in English, he '[does] not claim to present a systematic doctrine
of political philosophy' (MCI vii), and this is a remark which might
be extended to his work as a whole.
In what follows I examine some of the areas where Balibar has had
significant insights regarding the analysis of politics and human socie-
ties in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. I begin by examining
his overall approach to the question of politics, where he embraces
and explores the notion of emancipation and links it with a term
which he has himself coined, namely 'equaliberty'. Next, I examine
his use of the Althusserian term 'conjuncture', his conception of citi-
zenship and the formation and role of the subject in politics. I then
return to the question of Balibar's ambivalence in some areas of his
thought, before looking at his approach to political violence, civil dis-
obedience, Lenin and Gandhi.
Emancipation, Equaliberty and the Dilemmas of Modernity 119

The political

In Balibar's discussions of what constitutes the political, the influence

of traditional Marxism is clear. He emphasizes the emancipatory and
revolutionary potential of modernity, with apparent glimpses of what
might lie beyond the era born of bourgeois revolutions. In a landmark
essay entitled 'Trois concepts de la politique: Emancipation, transfor-
mation, civilite', he argues that emancipation, transformation and
civility are the key notions for understanding modern politics. They
occur all together, or not at all (LC 19-53).
Emancipation is closely bound to the notion of equaliberty (which I
discuss in more detail below), meaning the inseparability of equality
and freedom. Politics thus defined, as politics of emancipation, is a
practical exploration of the self-determination of the people; all obsta-
cles to greater equality and freedom are illegitimate and must be abol-
ished. A precondition for collective self-government is freedom from
all reference to a supposedly natural order, in a clear allusion to the
watershed and progressive nature of Enlightenment thought. Collec-
tive politics can only exist in the form of self-government, whether this
collective politics concerns society, the nation, the state, the people
more broadly or even humanity as a whole, and in the process of col-
lective self-determination the political sphere becomes autonomous
(LC 22). This type of government must also be free from institutiona-
lized and systematic discrimination and constraints.
Still in the spirit of popular self-determination, Balibar empha-
sizes the importance of a universal right to inclusion in the political
sphere, and argues that no-one can 'be emancipated5 by an external
entity; they cannot be granted political freedom by an outside agency.
He argues that although rights won in the process of emancipation are
individual rights of equaliberty, they not only have to be struggled
for and won (they will not be simply granted to the deserving in the
fullness of time), but the process must be a collective one (LC 22).
Balibar's subject as citizen and collective subject as demos is thus
highly active and he comments on democratic politics as follows:

... the continuous process in which a minimal recognition of the

belonging of human beings to the 'common5 sphere of existence
120 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

(and therefore also work, culture, public and private speech) already
involves - and makes possible - a totality of rights. I call this the
'insurrectional' element of democracy, which plays a determinant
role in every constitution of a democratic or republican state. Such
a state, by definition, cannot consist (or cannot only consist) of sta-
tutes and rights ascribed from above; it requires the direct partici-
pation of the demos. (WP 119)

Defined in this way, political subjects embody the universal in the

sense that they represent themselves. Reminiscent in this respect of
Ranciere and indeed of Marx, for Balibar the emancipation of those
who are dominated is conceived by them as the emancipation of all;
the dominated beome the universal class. Balibar does however allow
for political representation, as long as delegation is controlled and
recallable (LC 23).
For Balibar any process of progressive political transformation is,
like or perhaps even more so than emancipation, bound up with the
process of subjectivation, which is indeed intimately part of all poli-
tics. It is in the struggle for emancipation and transformation that
participants become autonomous subjects. Arguing again on the
whole with Marx, he suggests that particular historical conditions lar-
gely determine the nature of the process of transformation and subjec-
tivation, during which these historical conditions themselves change.
These are what Balibar, with direct reference to Althusser, calls 'con-
juncture'. For both Althusser and Balibar, all writing, including phi-
losophy, must be interpreted in the context of the historical and
political conditions in which it is written. This is what both these phi-
losophers practise in their writings on Marx, Spinoza, Machiavelli
and others. Balibar's insistence that 'philosophy is never independent
from specific conjunctures' (1C 44) is reminiscent of Althusser's
description of the new practice of philosophy which he argued Marx
had pioneered: 'The measure of Marx's materialism is less the materi-
alist content of his theory than the acute, practical consciousness of the
conditions, forms and limits within which these ideas can become
active' (Althusser 1990: 275). For Althusser and Balibar the notion of
conjuncture must also be understood in terms of the contradictory
Emancipation, Equaliberty and the Dilemmas of Modernity 121

elements that make up a historical and political context. Althusser

interprets Lenin's writings between the 1905 and 1917 revolutions as
an analysis of the uneven and contradictory relations within the Rus-
sian political economy of the time, which offered the preconditions for
socialist revolution. In an approach similar to Trotsky's theory of
uneven and combined development (a likeness not mentioned by
Althusser), Lenin points to an explosive mixture of industrial devel-
opment characteristic of advanced capitalism, alongside rural socio-
economic conditions containing elements of feudalism, all faced with
the challenges and demands of a world war (Althusser 1969:178-80).
Perhaps Balibar's most tangible application of analysis using con-
juncture is found in We, the People of Europe? Reflections on Transnational
Citizenship (2004 [2001]), as Jason Read has argued in comprehensive
and convincing fashion (Read 2004). In this book Balibar argues that
the expansion and consolidation of the European Union offers in the
same broad gesture both opportunities and substantial threats to large
numbers of ordinary people. On the one hand, enlargement offers
the possibility of deeper democracy on an international scale. On the
other, it threatens to bring a form of European apartheid accompa-
nied by the further rise of the extreme right in many countries. It is
this contradiction, or at least this situation which he argues has both
progressive and reactionary elements, that must be explored.
The question of the border must be addressed in order to democra-
tize Europe, for at present the border acts as a means of discrimi-
nating between 'legitimate' Europeans on the one hand, who are
mainly white, indigenous inhabitants, and on the other hand 'illegiti-
mate' Europeans, who are mainly non-white and non-indigenous to
Europe. This latter group is an important and integral part of the suc-
cessful economy of Europe, but its members are politically excluded
using many means, including violence. Balibar's proposed solution is
a form of 'transnational citizenship', where the Rights of Man are
applied in a radical way to all residents, including all immigrant
workers and asylum seekers. As long as one lived in the EU, one
would have full voting rights and full rights to draw on state-provided
social protection.
This is an example of Balibar applying the notion of conjuncture -
where economic and political aspects of a situation are pulling in
122 Badiouy Balibar, Ranciere

different directions - in order to explore the construction, or poten-

tial construction, of the political subject. The economic benefit
which immigrant workers bring to Europe combined with political
exclusion, and any resolution or partial resolution of this contradic-
tion, is an important part of this particular process of subjectivation.
We might comment at this point that the practical political solution
proposed by Balibar is far less radical than his complex theoreti-
cal framework might suggest. This particular argument for practical
exploration of political subjectivization and emancipation seems to
lead to a somewhat less discriminatory approach (compared with the
status quo) to relations between individuals on the one hand and
the national and emerging international state on the other, but little
more. The practical conclusions of this sophisticated theory would
appear to leave many unjust structures and practices untouched,
including, incidentally, routine exploitation of non-immigrants,
which seems to be overlooked.
Civility, meanwhile, Balibar defines as

the speculative idea of a politics of politics, or a politics in the second

degree, which aims at creating, recreating, and conserving the set of
conditions within which politics as a collective participation in
public affairs is possible, or at least is not made absolutely impossi-
ble ... In particular, 'civility' does not necessarily involve the idea
of a suppression of'conflicts' and 'antagonisms' in society, as if they
were always the harbingers of violence and not the opposite. Much,
if not most, of the extreme violence we are led to discuss in fact
results from a blind political preference for 'consensus' and 'peace'
. . . ( W P 115-16)

Civility thus creates the space in which politics takes place and elim-
inates the extremes of violence without suppressing all violence and
revolt (LC 47).
If Balibar's discussion of politics becomes less threatening to the
status quo and indeed less emancipatory the nearer it gets to reality,
his discussion of his term equaliberty (egaliberte) is often radical and
inspiring. By equaliberty he means, in the broadest of terms, that
freedom can only be fully realized if equality is also fully realized,
Emancipation, Equaliberty and the Dilemmas of Modernity 123

and vice versa. The historical conditions where liberty and equality
arise are the same, and therefore the one cannot exist without the
other, and this is a truth that is discovered through revolutionary
struggle. Moreover, if liberty is maximized then equality is as well.
By the same token, any circumstances that limit or suppress freedom
also limit or suppress equality; increased social inequality always
accompanies limits to freedom and vice versa. Thus there are both
political and ethical obligations to eradicate exploitation and domi-
nation (MCI 48).
Balibar's starting point for this radical notion, the logic of whose
adoption is a form of politics dedicated to a struggle against all types
of exploitation and domination, is a critical attitude towards contem-
porary liberalism. In liberalism freedom and equality cannot possibly
occur alongside each other, apart from within the narrow confines of
the juridical, where equality before the law is strongly defended. But a
belief in the mutual exclusivity of the two concepts, he argues, is also
found among some socialists and in West European anti-racist move-
ments, for example (MCI 39). This mistaken approach, Balibar
argues, relies on three fundamental misconceptions. The first is the
mistaken belief that equality is mainly economic and social, whereas
freedom is mainly legal and political. The second is the belief that
equality can only be realized via actions by the state, above all
through material distribution, whereas freedom implies limited state
intervention. Finally, there is a misconception that whilst equality is a
collective goal, freedom is above all an individual one. It is these pre-
cepts, Balibar argues, that lead to a gulf between contemporary dis-
cussion on the 'rights of man5 on the one hand and the 'rights of
citizen' on the other. By contrast with the 1789 Declaration of the
Rights of Man and the Citizen, modern liberalism and other ideologies
uphold a strict non-identity between man and citizen, with the view
that an equation between man and citizen means everything is politi-
cal, which in turn leads to totalitarianism.
Balibar's other starting point for the discussion of equaliberty is
thus the Declaration itself, which he argues - controversially - does
not take the pre-existing ideology of human nature, or natural rights,
as the basis for law and politics, but is a bold assertion of wholly
modern democratic principles (MCI 43-4). The core and indeed the
124 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

major goal of the text, he contends, is precisely the identity of man and
citizen. Moreover, the upholding of the right to resist oppression
asserted in article two of the Declaration is effectively an assertion of
the right to collective freedom, whose corollary is indeed the right to
resist oppression: 'to be free is to be able to resist any compulsion that
destroys freedom' (MCI 45). Equality, meanwhile, is implicitly at
least the notion that links all others together, although this is not
spelled out in the Declaration in so many words.
Balibar continues his argument for a re-reading of the Declaration
as a statement of the principles of equaliberty by suggesting that
Marx was quite wrong to invoke (in On the Jewish Question) the text
as an expression of the separation of public and private spheres of
human existence, characteristic of bourgeois notions of modern poli-
tics. On the contrary, according to Balibar the Declaration puts for-
ward a new idea regarding the relationship between equality and
freedom, expressed as a universal:

What is this idea? Nothing less than the identification of the two
concepts. If one is willing to read it literally, the Declaration in fact
says that equality is identical to freedom, is equal tofreedom, and vice
versa. Each is the exact measure of the other. This is ... the proposi-
tion of equaliberty: a portmanteau word that is 'impossible' in French
(and English) but that alone expresses the central proposition. For
it gives both the conditions under which man is a citizen through
and through, and the reason for this assimilation. Underneath the
equation of man and citizen, or rather within it, as the very reason of
its universality - as \\spresupposition - lies the proposition of equal-
iberty. (MCI 46-7, italics in original)

It would seem that the most important part of Balibar's argument is a

view that political aspects of modernity offer the immediate possibi-
lity of a more radical form of emancipation than humanity as a
whole or any part of it has experienced to date. It was in the logic
of some aspects of the revolution of 1789 to establish the precondi-
tions for overcoming all exploitation and domination. Indeed in
Balibar's The Philosophy of Marx, he comments that for Marx commun-
ism is 'a social movement with demands that were merely a coherent
Emancipation, Equaliberty and the Dilemmas of Modernity 125

application of the principle of [the 1789] Revolution - gauging how

much liberty had been achieved by the degree of equality and vice
versa, with fraternity as the end result' (PM 20). As a general idea
this is satisfyingly optimistic with regard to the revolutionary and pro-
foundly just potential of modernity. But I would argue that it is also
characteristic of Balibar's over-optimistic interpretation of the direct
legacy of 1789 and an underestimation of the depth of transformation
necessary to enable profound democracy and justice.
Indeed, one certainly should take issue with Balibar's exaggerat-
edly radical reading of the Declaration, a text which does in fact make
explicit reference to natural rights (articles ii and iv). Moreover, as
Kouvelakis has argued, Balibar ignores certain aspects of the Declara-
tion and in certain respects misinterprets Marx's discussion of the dis-
tinction between citizen and man in order to argue the case for the
Declaration containing important elements of equaliberty. Marx
makes the distinction in relation to the Declaration precisely because
he interprets the document as one building block for bourgeois - and
therefore restrictive - politics, which will serve the interests of the
bourgeoisie more than others (Kouvelak's 2004: 15-22). This does
not, however, invalidate what seems to be Balibar's more general
thesis, namely that 1789 and other bourgeois revolutions helped
create the social, economic and ideological circumstances where
emancipatory politics consonant with such a notion as equaliberty
could be played out. This is also one of the powerful messages of
Marx and Engels' Communist Manifesto.
In order to explore Balibar's approach to the citizen and modernity
further, let us return for a moment to the question of the human sub-
ject. As we have seen, in one way or another, Balibar's discussion of
politics is always concerned with the emergence of political subjects.
His reading of Spinoza seeks to interpret Spinoza's Theologico-Political
Treatise in part as a study of the construction of the subject. Marx,
meanwhile, is a 'philosopher of the subject in the most classical sense'
^IC 151), whose view of the subject as achieving self-realization and
freedom through revolutionary activity is most clearly expressed in
the Theses on Feuerbach, although the naming and fuller exploration of
the role of'subject of history' in the form of the proletariat comes only
with Lukacs in his History and Class Consciousness. Balibar even suggests,
126 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

many years after his collaboration with Althusser had ended, that his
own contribution to Reading Capital in the shape of an exploration of
forms of historical individuality and also his denial of the importance
of the subject to structural Marxism was in some sense laying the
ground for subsequent studies of its importance (1C 149). When
Balibar comes to address the question of the human subject in his own
philosophy, he comes up with what is perhaps a surprising position.
In response to Jean-Luc Nancy's question, 'Who comes after the
subject?', Balibar answers:
... after the subject comes the citizen. For the 'subject', which has
haunted the whole problematic of liberty and of the individual
[personnel for fifteen centuries, is not an ontological figure, that of
an objectum or hypokeimenon, but a legal, political, theological and
What - or rather who ~ comes after the subject (first around
1789-93), is the universal, national, and cosmopolitical citizen
who is indissociably both a political and philosophical figure ...
there is no doubt that with the revolutionary event the subjectus irre-
versibly cedes his place to the citizen. (1C 152, italics in original; also
see Cadava et al 1991)
Thus for Balibar the modern subject is necessarily political; modernity
offers for the first time the possibility of both citizenship and subjectiv-
ity, and he talks of his 'research on the revolutionary relieving and
replacing of the subject by the citizen, and on the becoming-citizen
of the subject' (1C 156). Balibar disagrees with what he sees as
Marx's belief that man is private and part of civil society and that
the citizen is the political entity with political rights and political
Whatever one might think of this comment on Marx, Balibar is not,
it would seem, particularly ambitious for his subject, who is an indivi-
dual who becomes subject via rather minimal political rights afforded
by the Declaration and the modern state, albeit with much participa-
tion by the citizen-subject. Rather than emancipation and transfor-
mation leading to the formation of a more self-realized human being
who could at last determine his or her own fate free from the fetters of
socio-economic and political exploitation and all that goes with it, as
Emancipation, Equaliberty and the Dilemmas of Modernity 12 7

Marx suggested, for Balibar the emancipated human subject appears

above all to enjoy a series of political rights determined by and relat-
ing to the state.

Ambivalence, universality, ideology

I suggest that Balibar's ambivalence towards certain key aspects of

modern politics has resulted in an often incomplete and inconclusive
aspect to his work. In an essay perhaps tellingly entitled 'The Infinite
Contradiction' which offers an overview of his own work, he says
himself that his writing is 'governed by disparity and abounds in
palinodes' (1C 142). He frequently writes of'aporia', suggesting a
sense of wonder but also preoccupation with paradoxes and confu-
sion. He comments that 'aporia does not mean error of course but
double bind of a simple discovery or simply of a revolutionary theore-
tical question, posed in the very terms of its denial or in the impossi-
bility of its solution' (1C 159). Indeed, he talks of 'incompleteness
[inackevement] proper to philosophical texts - an incompleteness that
my readings constantly illustrate, and that has led me to use the verb
to incomplete [inachever] in the active form' (1C 147, italics in original).
He goes on to suggest that Marx 'incompleted' Capital, Heidegger
'incompleted' Being and Time and Spinoza 'incompleted' his Political
Treatise, and that the nature of great philosophy is both to incomplete
itself and to incomplete others. Balibar is influenced by Derrida's close
attention to the text and does not always impose his own (that is Bali-
bar's) conclusions on the text, allowing the text to serve as its own con-
clusion, with the reader of Balibar's own text feeling left, again, with a
sense of ambiguity and absence of conclusion. We have already seen
that Balibar is emphatic that he does not have a complete political
philosophy, what one might call a worldview, and both the structure
of his work and its frequent asides add to an already unfinished qual-
ity; he often comments that what he is saying is a briefer or more par-
tial account than he might wish, or that he has run out of time.
Moreover, one is reminded of the postmodern rejection of grand nar-
ratives when he comments that 'I am not proposing here a general
theory that is nowhere to be found in my essays' (1C 147).
128 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

I wish to dwell briefly on the manner in which Balibar, in an article

entitled 'Sub species universitatis5 (2006), reflects on the way philoso-
phy addresses the question of universality, for this discussion might
give us further indicators as to the nature of his overall approach to
philosophy and politics. Balibar discusses what he describes as the
'Hegelian-Marxist strategy5 regarding universality, and more specifi-
cally the notions of consciousness and antagonism in the early Hegel,
and in Marx the notions of ideology and ideological domination
(SS 8-12). In a nutshell, universality of either ideas or actions always
takes the form of domination over other ideas or actions. 'Therefore,
universality and hegemony become equivalents, and conversely no
ideology (system of representation, figure of consciousness) can
become 'universal5 unless it becomes also dominant, more precisely
works as a process of domination, a 'dominant ideology5 (herrschende
Ideologic)' (SS8j.
In what Balibar describes as 'HegePs paradox5, he reminds us of
HegePs thesis in the Phenomenology of Spirit that when one speaks of uni-
versality it becomes a particular discourse or representation. This
conscious representation of the world in general thus in fact becomes
not the world in general but the world according to the point of view
of the individuals or groups expressing the view. This has a clear influ-
ence on Marx's notion of ideology, which draws on HegePs idea that
domination is achieved via the triumph of a particular view of the
world and which puts other views into a position of relative inferiority.
For Marx, the challenge for communists is to achieve hegemony for a
communist worldview against one that privileges private property
and all that goes with it. Up to a point, opposition to the dominant
ideology serves to reinforce the authority of the dominant ideology,
or dominant view of universality, although this process is not, of
course, insurmountable.
I have summarized this particular discussion because it would seem
to help us understand the course which Balibar's work has taken over
the past few decades. First, and most obviously, it suggests a continued
and major preoccupation with the question of ideology, a central con-
cern of the whole Althusserian project. Second, choosing to highlight
the way in which some philosophy deals with the universal suggests
an ambivalence regarding the capacity of philosophy to deal with
Emancipation, Equaliberty and the Dilemmas of Modernity 129

universality; universality itself is intrinsically and necessarily both

relative (and relativity is a quality which characterizes much of
Balibar's work) and evolving over time. Finally, and leading on from
this, it perhaps helps explain the somewhat fragmentary and incon-
clusive nature of Balibar's work.
Balibar's belief in the importance of ideology is such that he rejects
Althusser's view of philosophy as 'theory of theoretical practice' and
instead locates philosophy within ideology. He is insistent that what
he calls (after Althusser) the 'imaginary' is not, in traditional Marxist
parlance, simply a superstructural manifestation of the economic
base, but is a determining influence in its own right. There are in fact
two bases:

[Tjhe mode of subjection and the mode of production (or, more generally,
the ideological mode and the generalized economic mode ...) Both
are material, although in opposite senses. To name these different
senses of the materiality of subjection and production, the tradi-
tional terms imaginary and reality suggest themselves. One can
adopt them, provided that one keep in mind that in any historical
conjuncture, the effects of the imaginary can only appear through
and by means of the real, and the effects of the real through and by
means of the imaginary . . . fIC 160, italics in original

For Balibar, then, ideology is very much part of the base and is
no less determined by economics than economics is determined by
ideology. This is the theoretical starting point of Race, Nation, Class,
where imaginary communities are as real or more real than more
tangible entities.
Thus, Balibar's theory leaves little room for any ongoing influence
of the economy and one wonders if there is really anything left of
Marx's political economy.

Political violence

If Balibar's overall approach to the political has certain serious

drawbacks, he has made a significant contribution to a general theory
130 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

of political violence, an area which has, I would argue, taken on

increased significance - or has at least become more complex - in
the last part of the twentieth century and the early part of the twenty-
first century. This is for at least four reasons. First, since the break-up of
the USSR and the more general disintegration of communism, histor-
ians and political theorists have been preoccupied with the question
of whether Marxist-inspired politics are inevitably violent, as the
repression in the Soviet Union and the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia
(to give just two examples) might suggest. Second, professional politi-
cians in advanced capitalist countries with centre-oriented govern-
ments often suggest that their apparently highly consensual regimes
and political parties do not in the least rely on political violence and
indeed that these sorts of politics have helped achieve the end of poli-
tical violence in the advanced capitalist world; this is a question which
can only be addressed within a developed theoretical framework
regarding the nature of political violence. Next, in the post-Cold
War reality of global politics, political violence often takes a form
which is different to that of the political violence which was prevalent
before the break-up of the Eastern bloc. Where advanced capitalist
countries intervene in less developed regions, the huge imbalance
between the two sides in terms of weaponry, intelligence and technical
back-up is often presented by the more powerful country or counties
as a non-war - or at least some sort of'smart' war - and bloodshed is
greatly played down, especially as far as enemy casualties are con-
cerned. Finally, questions of political violence, revolution, uprising
and cruelty now have renewed urgency both given the renewal of con-
flict in, and as a result of conflict in, the Middle East, including of
course recourse to terrorism and various forms of counter-terrorism
on an increased, international scale.
Balibar addresses aspects of political violence relating to the reality
of international politics in a variety of works, in a way which I will dis-
cuss below. But first I will turn to his valuable discussion of the theory of
political violence and Gewalt (a term which combines the notions of
both violence and power and for which there is no direct equivalent in
French or English) in the Historisch-Kritisches Worterbuch des Marxismus
(HW). Balibar's general thesis is that Marx's thought has a paradoxi-
cal relationship with the question of violence. Certainly, it makes a
Emancipation, Equaliberty and the Dilemmas of Modernity 131

major contribution to understanding the role of violence in history,

in particular with reference to the relationship between forms of dom-
ination and exploitation under capitalism, the inevitability of class
struggle, and revolution, thus contributing to defining the conditions
and nature of modern politics. But Marxism has been incapable of
properly addressing the tragic association between politics and vio-
lence. The reasons for this include in particular an absolute emphasis
in Marxist theory on one form of domination, namely the exploitation
of labour, of which the others are mere 'epiphenomena'. The result of
this is that other forms of exploitation are ignored or at least played
down in discussions of violence.
The second reason for Marx's failure properly to address the ques-
tion of the relationship between politics and violence is the 'anthropo-
logical optimism' at the heart of his concept of progress, contained in
the notion of the development of human productive forces which
is central to his theory of the history of social formations. Finally,
Balibar blames the Marxist metaphysics of history, which, via the
alienation and reconciliation of the human essence, incorporates a
theological and philosophical conversion of violence into justice.
According to Balibar, this recognition of the social role of violence
and misunderstanding of the specifically political role of violence has
had considerable consequences for socio-political struggles and revo-
lutionary movements inspired by Marxism. A thorough discussion of
the relationship between Marxist theory and violence, he argues, is
crucial to the search for political alternatives during the current
phase of capitalist globalization (HW 1-2).
Via a reconsideration of the work of Engels, Lenin, Fanon and Lux-
emburg, as well as Marx's own work, and distinguishing historically
between periods of intense class struggle and anti-capitalist revolutions
on the one hand, and anti-imperialist, anti-colonial and post-colonial
struggles on the other, Balibar examines the strengths and weaknesses
of Marxism in relation to the theory of political violence more gener-
ally. Given, in particular, the multiple catastrophes of the twentieth
century, of which Marxism was both perpetrator and victim, it is
necessary to rethink Marxism, he argues, in terms of a 'civilising
of revolution' (^ivilisierung der Revolution), on which depends a 'civil-
ising of polities' more generally. A discussion of political violence, of
132 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

Gewalt more broadly and at the same time a reappraisal of the

notion of revolution is thus 'not just one question amongst others but
the fundamental question for polities' and one which allows a theore-
tical and ethical reappraisal of Marxism overall, enabling its contin-
ued usefulness (HW 7). Balibar's contribution to this particularly
important area of reappraisal is to detect a dual approach to the
matter of political violence, an ambivalence which lies at the heart
of Balibar's belief in Marx's contemporary relevance to understand-
ing the question:

[W]e believe ... one can detect, each time, a very strong tension in
Marx's thought between two ways of thinking about the status and
the effects of extreme violence: one which undertakes, if not to 'nat-
uralise' then at least to incorporate it in a chain of causes and
effects, to make it a process or a dialectical moment of the process
of social transformation whose actors are the antagonistic classes, in
a way which makes intelligible the conditions of real politics (wirk-
lichePolitik) (as opposed to moral or ideal politics); and another way
of thinking which finds in certain extreme or excessive forms of vio-
lence - at once structural and conjunctural, ancient and modern,
spontaneous and organised what one might call the real of poli-
tics (das Reale in der Politik?), that is to say the unpredictable or the
incalculable which confers on it a tragic character, which it feeds off
and which also threatens to destroy i t . . . (HW 10-11

Despite Marx's oscillation between different perspectives on violence,

including an 'ultra-Jacobin' one, which tends virtually to glorify pop-
ular violence in times of revolutionary change, and despite Lenin's
subsequent development of this particular perspective into a fully-
fledged 'politics of violence', including a new conception of the
dictatorship of the proletariat, Balibar insists on the contemporary
relevance of Marx's other, more open-ended view of political violence
and argues that this other approach is the more useful one. Certainly,
Balibar agrees that intense exploitation which includes extreme vio-
lence is inherent in the capitalist mode of production, and capitalist
modernization involving the abolition of pre-capitalist modes of life
and culture at times takes on extremely violent forms which today
Emancipation, Equaliberty and the Dilemmas of Modernity 133

we might call ethnocide or genocide (HW 13). But Balibar also con-
tends that in Capital itself Marx argues that a violent and final confon-
tation with the bourgeoisie is not the only possible outcome for
struggles between capital and labour. According to Balibar:
... the work [i.e. Capital] had opened up other possibilities, which it
will always be possible to turn to without abandoning the 'Marxist'
reference: namely a process of reforms imposed on society by the
state under pressure from increasingly powerful and organised
workers' struggles, which would oblige capital to 'civilise' its meth-
ods of exploitation, or to innovate constantly in order to overcome
resistance from 'variable capital'; also the exporting of overexploi-
tation to the 'periphery' of the capitalist mode of production, in
such a way that the effects of 'primitive accumulation' are pro-
longed ... In these scenarios the proletariat no longer appears
as the predetermined subject of history, and the Gewalt which it
either suffers or wields does not lead 'naturally' to the final goal.
The subjectivization of the working class, that is its transformation
into revolutionary proletariat, then appears as an indefinitely dis-
tant horizon, an improbable counter-tendency, or even a miracu-
lous exception to the course of history. (HW 17)
Balibar is insistent that debates between Marxists regarding reform
and revolution have been posed in the wrong way and at any rate
that the really important question is how to 'civilize revolution', as
discussed above. But it seems that Balibar's reflections in this respect
are at least influenced by long-running (and at one time often bitterj
debates and disputes within the European left around the theme
of'reform or revolution'. These debates have evolved over time but
certainly have not disappeared completely and indeed are likely to
intensify if the left continues to gather strength again. As a dissident
within the French Communist Party, and as an intellectual deeply
immersed in Marxist theory, Balibar was intensely involved with
such questions for many years. Balibar's position certainly seems at
times to under-estimate the extent to which, for example, govern-
ments and other political or quasi-political entities are prepared to
use violence against even the most 'civilized' revolution in order to
prevent it from taking place.
134 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

However, Balibar is no doubt correct to point out that advanced

capitalist societies 'export' violence in part in order to continue to
ensure that rates of profit remain high whilst the domestic (and rela-
tively comfortably off) labour force remains fairly docile, a process
which Marxists have long referred to as involving the creation of an
aristocracy of labour in the imperialist heartlands. Examples of the
exporting of violence at the end of the twentieth century and begin-
ning of the twenty-first century might include the wars which are at
least in part informed by a desire to protect oil interests in the Middle
East. Another is the political economy of global production in this era,
which involves paying barely subsistence wages, offering extremely
backward conditions (by Western standards) and in some cases child
labour in less developed countries in order to maintain a flow of cheap
goods to Western outlets; this aspect of the political economy of
advanced capitalism depends on forms of what should be construed
as political violence. However, it is likely that at some point in the
medium-term future such conditions will evolve further, either as a
result of revolt in developing countries or as a result of rapid industria-
lization of countries such as China and India, making exploitation of
cheap labour in developing countries less possible, or a combination of
both. In other words, the question of revolutionary violence may well
return to the political agenda in the West as exploitation intensifies
again in countries which were the first to industrialize.
Balibar's writings on the reality of global politics and violence re-
flect some of the themes of his more theoretical writings on violence
and here again he offers some real insights. His general contention
with regard to what he describes as the present 'era of global violence'
is that the level of actual violence or the threat of violence is such that
the very existence of politics is at risk. This he contrasts with the
notion of civility, which he defines in this context as the 'circumstances
where the practice of politics is made possible' (WP 115). On a global
scale, he argues, extreme violence and mass insecurity is used as a form
of 'preventative counterrevolution or counterinsurrection' against
emancipatory movements but it also stems from a predilection in the
developed world for supposedly consensual and conflict-shy forms of
governance (WP 116). This approach to governance, which treats
politics as a mere superstructure where conflict and antagonism are
Emancipation, Equaliberty and the Dilemmas of Modernity 135

avoided wherever possible, denies the essential 'insurrectionary ele-

ment5 of politics and direct, popular participation (WP 119).
Drawing on the work of international relations specialist Pierre de
Senarclens, Balibar argues that since the end of the Cold War, the
boundaries on some forms of political violence imposed by the two
blocs have collapsed and the distinction between war and peace has
become blurred. Since 1989, there has been a proliferation of armed
conflict, in particular civil war, enabled in part by the transformation
of international power structures. Balibar suggests that mass and
extreme violence is replacing politics, or that the fields of politics and
violence have now merged (WP 125).
For Balibar, this global culture of political violence is part of a
global system of socio-political control, dividing the world into 'life
zones' and 'death zones'. The death zones suffer a variety of mortal
problems ranging from civil war and inter-state wars, to communal
rioting, famine and extreme poverty. Apparently natural phenomena
such as Aids are made far worse by material hardship. Although the
causes of these disasters may be numerous, the overall effect is to
create a large, international population of very insecure, and in some
cases re-proletarianized, people, who have little or no influence on
national or international politics. There is, then, a sort of planned
obsolescence of human beings on a global scale, which is, in clinically
capitalist terms, economically wasteful but has a perverse and tragic
political logic, sometimes involving self-destruction through civil
war, for example. Concluding this discussion, Balibar again suggests
that theorists and activists must develop the idea of'counter-counter-
revolution', or simply revolution. But unless the future is to become, in
the words of Hobsbawm, another age of extremes, revolutionaries
must civilize the notion and practice of revolution.
In Balibar's discussion both of theoretical and more factual aspects
of violence, Gewalt, cruelty and global politics, he thus puts forward a
remarkable case for placing these matters centre-stage in any serious
analysis of contemporary
v politics and any discussions of the politics of
emancipation. As Zizek suggests, Balibar's theory of political violence
can be positioned in a place which is distinct from the other two major
theories which seek to account for the appalling bloodshed of the
major catastrophes of the twentieth century. Habermas argues that
136 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

the Enlightenment and modernity are inherently emancipatory and

contain no grain of totalitarianism. The mass violence of the twentieth
century suggest that the Enlightenment project is unfinished and the
major political task is to complete the project. Meanwhile, for Adorno
and Horkheimer (and now Agamden), the dictatorships and mass
destruction of twentieth-century Europe are part of the Enlighten-
ment's totalitarian potential and mass murder part of the logic of the
rationalism of modernity. For Balibar, modernity has very positive
consequences but also new risks and it is the task of politics to ensure
that the long-term outcome is humane and democratic and that suf-
fering is minimized (Zizek 2006:337-8).
Rather like in his broader discussion of the theory of politics,
Balibar combines what we might term elements of radical, deeply
transformational politics which offer hope for a better world, with
elements of far more moderate, reformist politics which appear to
leave many important injustices untouched.

Lenin and Gandhi

Such dilemmas are also explored in a thought-provoking paper on

the question of transformational practice and violence in relation
to Lenin and Gandhi. Balibar argues that these two 'revolutionary
activist-theorists' are the most important such figures of the first half
of the twentieth century (LG). Not only did their theories, actions
and movements have a profound effect on the course of the twentieth
century, but in the longer term the results are still being felt and are
still the subject of profound controversy. In the case of Lenin, one
principal alleged result was the horrors of Stalinism, and in the case
of Gandhi the partition of India along ethnic and religious lines.
These assertions already make substantial assumptions, of course,
which are partially acknowledged by Balibar; most importantly,
they assume that these outcomes (Stalinism and partition) are
directly attributable to Lenin's and Gandhi's actions, theories and
influence, rather than being attributable to quite other phonomena.
Balibar argues that there are certain important areas of common
ground between Leninism and Gandhi's theory and practice. First,
Emancipation, Equaliberty and the Dilemmas of Modernity 13 7

both place centre-stage popular mass movements, which in the course

of their development go through more active and less active periods,
and whose engagement with the appropriate issues of the time must in
both cases be sustained over a long time. The second shared charac-
teristic is a confrontational attitude towards the state and thus they
both advocate systematically breaking the law; for Lenin the interests
of the working class override the supposed legitimacy of the law,
taking in extremis the form of dictatorship of the proletariat in order
to overthrow the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. For Gandhi, civil dis-
obedience is used as a tactic in order to attempt to force the state to act
against its own constitutional principles, and thus to push it towards
In Lenin's theory of revolution, both institutional and anti-
institutional organized violence plays a central role, in his conception
of state power as class dictatorship, in his directive issued frequently
from 1914 onwards to 'turn the imperialist war into a revolutionary
civil war', and indeed in the whole concept of dictatorship of the pro-
letariat (LG 6). Balibar suggests that the extreme violence against
the Soviet people after the 1917 revolution might have been linked in
part to the pre-1917 practice of revolutionary violence against the
Tsarist regime and its allies, as well as being partly attributable to
the siege mentality of the Soviet Union as revolution failed to spread
to other countries.
Gandhi, by stark contrast, emphasized what he saw as the need to
overcome a hatred of the enemy and to organize 'aggressive' but 'con-
structive' non-violent, illegal acts. One important aspect of this
approach is the underlying idea that the nature of the struggle affects
the nature of the outcome, an idea which might be described as the
opposite of the notion of ends justifying the means (or perhaps a con-
sequence of this approach), which it might be argued underpinned
Lenin's theory and practice of violence. Gandhi's theory of 'dialo-
gism' holds that mass movements must engage in tactical concessions
to the adversary, a tactic which helps control the process of transfor-
mation, and in limiting the actions of the masses in terms of degree of
violence, for example.
In this thought-provoking but inconclusive - at times even indeci-
sive - discussion, Balibar does not suggest how elements of Lenin's
138 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

and Gandhi's thought might be reconciled. He suggests briefly, how-

ever, that an attempt to answer this question might be approached by
examining whether the era of revolutionary mass movements is now
over, a question which he also leaves unanswered. As far as the ques-
tion of means and ends is concerned, I would suggest that there are
situations where violence in the form of resistance becomes not only a
tactic but also a matter of survival, if not in the short term then cer-
tainly in the longer term; examples of this include French resistance
against Nazi occupation, wars of national liberation (including those
in French Indochina and Algeria, for example), and the Vietnamese
struggle against the USA in the 1960s and 1970s. The possibility and
tactical efficacy of non-violence certainly depend on the circum-
stances of the struggle, including the degree of violence in which the
adversary is prepared to indulge.
Balibar's distant but at times approving stance towards the modern
state is demonstrated in an article published in Le Monde newspaper in
February 1997 on the question of civil disobedience, as part of a
debate regarding a bill on immigration known as the Debre bill
(projetdeloiDebre}. This proposed legislation was legally to oblige all
those sheltering non-French nationals to inform the police of both
their arrival in and departure from France. Originally published
under the title 'Democratic State of Emergency5 (and reproduced in
the book Droit de cite as 'Sur la desobeissance civique' (DC 17-22),
Balibar argues in this essay that by stark contrast with what the then
Prime Minister Alain Juppe had declared, citizens must sometimes re-
create their citizenship by disobeying the state. Writing in response to
a petition launched by film makers who declared that they had and
would again give shelter to illegal immigrants, Balibar argues that a
government is only legitimate as long as it does not contradict certain
higher laws of humanity which, whilst perhaps unwritten, take prece-
dence over written legislation. These higher laws include basic respect
for human beings alive or dead, hospitality, the inviolability of human
beings, and the sanctity of truth. When the two groups of laws -
higher and written - are in contradiction, citizens have a duty to
obey the higher laws and thus bring themselves into conflict with the
law of the land, and in the process defend legality in an expression of
the'general will'.
Emancipation, Equaliberty and the Dilemmas of Modernity 139

This type of action, Balibar argues, is inevitably necessary from

time to time, as governments are not perfect. In modern French his-
tory civil disobedience has been crucial, he argues, for example during
the Dreyfus affair, during resistance against Nazi occupation and at
the abortion trial in Bobigny, France in 1972 when 121 well-known
women signed a petition claiming to have had illegal abortions.
Putting the debate on immigration in this broader context and in the
context of the rise of the extreme right in Europe, Balibar suggests
that citizenship at times involves (in the words of article two of the
Declaration of the Rights of Man) 'resistance against oppression'. Impli-
citly, this includes resistance against the oppression of others. Here
again, then, the conclusions Balibar draws from an important and
insightful discussion are rather timid. His support for civil disobe-
dience is not put in the context of a greater project for change, which
might perhaps relate to his own interpretations of emancipation and
transformation. On the contrary, he seems to be arguing ultimately
that civil disobedience is necessary in order to reinforce the legitimacy
of the law as devised and upheld by the modern state, rather than to
contribute to a practical and theoretical critique of the very nature of
the modern state.

Concluding remarks

In his substantial and complex ceuvre, Balibar raises some crucial ques-
tions for our time and discusses them in a way that contibutes to a
greater understanding of these questions. For example, many who
take his work seriously will recognize the relevance of the notion of
human emancipation which contrasts with the preoccupation with
mild reform which is so prevalent in parliamentary and party politics
in the West. The same could be said for his discussion of universality, a
notion that is seldom taken seriously except in a religious context in a
world which is often so preoccupied with surfaces and transience.
Meanwhile, his own term equaliberty is a constructively provocative
blending of equality and liberty which insists on their mutual depen-
dence in a way which also flies in the face of much contemporary
received wisdom. More specifically, Balibar is an insightful theorist
140 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

of political violence, exploring a complex relationship between means

and ends in any political struggle involving violence. Moreover, he is
emphatic that the extreme preoccupation with superficially consen-
sual politics in the West has a direct relationship with the extreme vio-
lence that has become more prevalent elsewhere, and which threatens
the very existence of politics.
My major reservation with regard to Balibar's position is, how-
ever, that he has too much faith in the capacity of the modern state
and its structures in bringing about radical transformation, whereas
the evidence - often in fact referred to by Balibar himself - is so
often to the contrary. Both Badiou and Ranciere, I have argued, go
to the other extreme and virtually ignore the liberal democratic state
in their discussions of politics. Balibar, by contrast, for example in his
virtual equation of modern man, citizen and subject as enabled by the
1789 revolution and its consequences, appears to believe that the
necessary political as well as socio-economic upheavals have been
achieved to bring about the flowering of a profoundly democratic
and just society. This combination of positions in support of emanci-
patory investigations on the one hand and political positions which
would effect relatively little change on the other is, I suggest, sympto-
matic of his position as philosopher schooled in classical Marxism
whilst at the same time having been an activist in an increasingly
reformist and pragmatic Communist Party.
Balibar's undue faith in what the modern state can deliver is also
informed by his relative disregard for the political economy of capit-
alism as opposed to its purely political structures. Whilst it is relatively
straightforward to argue that liberal republican politics can be radi-
calized to such an extent that profound injustices can be addressed, it
is far more difficult to do so in the economic domain, where vastly
powerful interests defend the extreme exploitation and violence of
which Balibar is so aware but which in terms of economic underpin-
ning feature far less in his writings. Marx's base-superstructure model,
which in its most vulgar forms is unhelpful, speaks volumes in its more
thoughtful versions as to the nature of politics, economics and interna-
tional relations in the present period. Balibar's overemphasis on ideol-
ogy and the 'imaginary' detracts from this.
Emancipation, Equaliberty and the Dilemmas of Modernity 141

Alongside some important insights, then, Balibar's uneasy blend of

liberal republicanism, radical republicanism and residual Marxism,
together with influences of poststructuralism, fails to draw satisfactory
conclusions. While some of the individual parts of his work are highly
stimulating and useful, the whole fails to deliver a convincing emanci-
patory political theory.
Chapter 6

With and Beyond Badiou, Balibar and Ranciere

In this book I have attempted to assess the contribution of Alain

Badiou, Etienne Balibar and Jacques Ranciere to political thought
and reflect on how their work is relevant to the lived reality of politics
at the beginning of the twenty-first century. In this concluding chap-
ter, I wish to reiterate in succinct form some of my views regarding
their strengths and weaknesses and highlight the differences and simi-
larities between them. I will then go on to make some broader obser-
vations and comments regarding the renewal of thought which is in
the emancipatory tradition. Both the most obvious and the most
important point to make is that each of these writers begins from the
premise that, compared with the world we live in, other, far more ega-
litarian and just forms of human society are possible. A major goal of
each of them in their work is therefore to help understand the nature
of the world as we know it and explore the potential for change. One
of their collective strengths is to contribute to reopening properly the
debate on the left regarding the viability of profound socio-political
transformation, precisely because they are not overly preoccupied
with, or influenced by, the political or politico-intellectual develop-
ments which have contributed to weakening the debate about a socia-
list emancipatory project over the past few decades.
Badiou, Balibar and Ranciere each retain at the heart of their sys-
tems a radical break with the status quo, a position which is at odds
with various forms of political thought which deny the possibility of a
profoundly different future. None are prepared to add their voices to
those who condemn Marxism wholesale or condemn as being inher-
ently totalitarian other revolutionary thinkers and leaders, such as
Lenin. None are influenced in their core work by Eurocommunist
notions of pragmatic compromise, involving electoral pacts with
With and beyond Badiou, Balibar and Ranciere 143

social democratic parties, for example, although I have argued that if

one looks at some details of Balibar's thought, there is ambivalence in
this respect. None take the end of Stalinist communism in the Eastern
bloc as proof that all societies that seek to follow an egalitarian path are
bound to suffer dictatorship and failure. None are persuaded by the
various forms of French or Anglo-American liberalism which have
become so prevalent. One is in fact reminded of the rebellious spirit of
May 1968, a spirit which has so often been mocked or dismissed over
the past few decades and which is unapologetically integrated into
their thought. Is not Badiou's notion of the event as sudden, life-
changing rupture precisely the explosion of desire for change against
the odds which characterizes May 1968? Is not Ranciere's radical
assertion by the sans-part, which profoundly challenges the terms of
debate, also reminscent of the out-of-the-blue May uprising which de
Gaulle and the ruling arkKe found so incomprehensible? Finally, is not
Balibar's notion of equaliberty, which holds that the conditions of
the realization of freedom are also the conditions of the realization
of equality (the two concepts being indissociable), again reminiscent
of the spirit of the 1968 movement, which voiced apparently outland-
ish demands and said insistently and provocatively: 'why not?'
These core ideas all seek to restore a belief in the notion of radical
transformation. Perhaps even more importantly, they reassert a belief
in the political and theoretical usefulness of listening to and learning
from the enormous wealth of the ideas of ordinary people, an
approach that flies in the face of much contemporary mainstream pol-
itics which promotes above all the legitimacy of professional expertise
in organizing societies and systems of governance, and whose logic is
an increasing distance between political elites and ordinary people.
For each of these thinkers, politics is about the emergence of the
human subject as collective and activist subject and it is the ordinary
person - as opposed to professional politicians, specialist intellectuals
or consultants of some kind - who have the most to offer in terms of
ideas for transformation. In this sense each of their systems is a way
of enabling politics to take place, or detecting it and encouraging it
where it does, rather than devising some sort of model for change.
I have also suggested that although Badiou, Balibar and Ranciere
are each influenced to a certain extent by poststructuralism, they
144 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

might play an important part in offering a long-term alternative to

the aspects of poststructuralist and postmodern theory which empha-
size difference and the relative rather than the general and the
absolute, the partial and fragmentary rather than the whole. Ran-
ciere and in particular Badiou have devised totalizing theories whose
spirit, and often whose detail, runs counter to what I have argued is
the depoliticizing logic of postmodernism. Ranciere uses as a spring-
board to the development of his own theory a critique of the way in
which Plato, Marx, Sartre and Bourdieu approached the role of the
oppressed and exploited in their thought. His later political thought
then becomes, I have argued, in part an exploration of power in gen-
eral and politics proper is an abstracted, universalized form of popular
revolt. Balibar, whilst constructing a totalizing theory around the
idea that both freedom and equality must be maximized, and arguing
the importance of universals, is arguably more affected than either
Badiou or Ranciere by the fragmentary and the inconclusive, which
are characteristics of a postmodern approach. Badiou emphasizes
the crucial nature of universals and constructs a philosophy which is
arguably the ultimate metanarrative. By stark contrast with the post-
modern insistence that it is now impossible to base thought or politics
on timeless truths a path which leads inexorably to totalitarian
destruction - Badiou insists on the power and importance of universal
and eternal truth. Moreover, truth exists when people act with pro-
found, unflinching belief, an idea which again flies in the face of post-
modern cynicism towards commitment to a cause. Finally, Badiou's
event is of profound and enduring significance, which challenges
the postmodern emphasis on surfaces, illusion, simulacra and contin-
gency. For Badiou, earth-shattering events do happen and they
assume universal significance through belief on the part of the event's
followers; they follow a cause. What could smack more of Enlighten-
ment thought and modernity?
However, I have argued that in some respects Badiou's philosophy
is uncharacteristic of thought which is in the tradition of the Enlight-
enment. He is insistent that the event cannot be explained in terms of
the situation from within whose context it emerges, thus challenging
important aspects of modern rationalism, and insisting instead on a
theory of subtraction from given circumstances in order to explain
With and beyond Badiou, Balibar and Ranciere 145

the event. This, I argue, means that Badiou is unable to construct a

general theory of movement and change. Ranciere does not appear
to incorporate a modern view of progress into his thought, and the
essence of the political is the same in Ancient Greece as it is today.
Moreover, for both Badiou and Ranciere, enquiry based closely on
empirically testable fact appears to be of little value - in a way
which is a clear and deliberate departure from Marx and Engels'
'scientific socialist3 method - and seems to lead to what might be
described as an assertive mode, where assertions are made without
systematic reference to empirical evidence.
In the introductory chapter of this book, I suggested that, in addi-
tion to the emergence and increasing influence of structuralism and
poststructuralism in France since the 1970s, in order to understand
the nature of these thinkers it is necessary to take into account other
intellectual developments. In general, the intellectual and political
climate in both France and beyond has not been favourable for
thought which embraces the idea that emancipation is both possible
and necessary. Although Badiou, Balibar and Ranciere avoid many of
the major intellectual concessions I referred to above, this climate, I
suggest, has nevertheless contributed to weakening each of their phi-
losophies in certain respects. Badiou's system is certainly the most
optimistic and detailed; human beings are described as having tre-
mendous, albeit often unrealized, potential, capable of wonderful
things in the domains of love, art, science and politics. The human
subject is a convincingly profound subject. But what I have just
called the assertive mode - often characterized by a certain detach-
ment from lived reality - is perhaps a reflection of the less hopeful
times in which we have been living and offers no clear argument to
take us from lived reality to the abstract and then back again to lived
reality. In other words, it lacks this particular form of dialectics. Simi-
larly, and in some respects more so, Ranciere adopts a position which
is remote from the dialectics of change and his system sees real politics
as the ephemeral moment of uprising with little exploration of the
evolution of circumstances leading to change or the perhaps less dra-
matic sequel to uprising. Balibar is caught between the radical con-
ception of politics as emancipation, transformation and equaliberty
on the one hand, and far more pragmatic conclusions drawn from an
146 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

analysis of, for example, the European Union, and finally an unhap-
pily over-optimistic interpretation of the legacy of 1789, which seems
to suggest that, after all, no further dramatic emancipatory transfor-
mation is necessary. In Badiou and Ranciere, then, there are margin-
alist tendencies, whereas in Balibar there are weakening concessions
to more conventional, mainstream politics.
Each of these thinkers offers important insights into the nature of
the supposedly consensual and centre-oriented governmental politics
so prevalent in the past few decades in Western Europe and the USA,
politics which serve to disguise and leave un-debated many forms of
injustice and exploitation. Balibar suggests convincingly that this
sort of consensus politics goes hand in hand with the extreme violence
found in less developed countries. Ranciere's On the Shores of Politics
(2007 [1998]) is one of the most insightful and trenchant analyses to
have appeared of France's superficially consensual form of govern-
ment since the early 1980s. However, such is both Badiou's and
Ranciere's position regarding the political and intellectual climate
and practice of the period, they offer little purchase in their core the-
ories on the nature of politics outside the exceptional occurrence of
the event (for Badiou) and popular uprising by the sons-part (for
Ranciere). In other words, in their theories proper they leave us little
the wiser regarding the nature of politics beyond the extraordinary;
nothing else really counts as politics so cannot be analysed within
their core framework. Indeed Ranciere insists in the opening line of
his Ten Theses on Politics that '[pjolitics is not the exercise of power'.
In the introductory chapter of this book I also referred to Perry
Anderson's suggestion that Western Marxism moved increasingly
into the realm of philosophy and into the academy from the 1920s
onwards and that in some respects Western Marxism had suffered as
a result. Whilst agreeing with Anderson's view in general terms, I also
suggested that Western Marxism had benefited from this move in that
it had managed to maintain a certain distance from some of the prag-
matic and damaging adaptations made by some Marxists in and close
to communist parties in particular and others who became persuaded
of the merits of embracing liberal democracy and the values of the
West more generally. I hope to have shown that the exploration of
the philosophical on the part of Badiou, Balibar and Ranciere has,
With and beyond Badiou, Balibar and Ranciere 147

despite some associated shortcomings, enabled a distance from adap-

tations and political pragmatism so prevalent in both party politics
and thought. In this way their relative intellectual distance from the
material world has been a strength as well as a weakness. I have sug-
gested that some of Balibar's weaknesses are attributable to his posi-
tion as a communist activist (albeit leaving the party in 1981) closely
subjected to the Eurocommunist arguments of the 1970s and 1980s.
Given the generally conservative nature of the current era, it is no
surprise that in the academy any renewal of radical thought about
politics is less likely to be found in politics, economics and sociology
departments, which tend (with some exceptions) to stick fairly close
to the mainstream political agenda, a practice which is encouraged
and reinforced by availability of selectively allocated government
funding. Radical, egalitarian thinking is more likely to be found in
philosophy departments, but also English literature, French and
German departments. If we take Hardt, Harvey, Jameson, Negri
and Zizek as some of the foremost international representatives of
contemporary radical thought, only David Harvey has had a long-
term career in a social science (geography) department; Michael
Hardt and Frederic Jameson are in comparative literature, Slavoj
Zizek is in philosophy and Antonio Negri is an independent re-
searcher, although he did at one time teach political science. If we
add the three thinkers studied in this book to this list, who are all pro-
fessional philosophers, it is small wonder that the role of the economy
and the state has been rather overlooked.

The above remarks and the more detailed critique expressed in the
preceding chapters suggest the need for additional lines of intellectual
enquiry which both complement the thought of Badiou, Balibar and
Ranciere, and compensate for and move beyond their weaknesses.
I have made the point several times in the course of this book that
in particular neither Badiou nor Ranciere pay enough attention to
the economic sphere, which perhaps significantly is the reverse of the
way in which we in the West experience the world; on a daily basis,
the reign of commodities seems to make itself felt ever more intensely
and influence ever more spheres of our lives, including of course parts
of our private lives. One of Marx's most significant contributions was
148 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

to argue that a proper understanding of virtually any aspect of human

existence would take into account the (broadly speaking) economic
circumstances of the era in which they lived and this has of course
become a key aspect of the Marxist materialist legacy. Similarly, any
change in the nature of human existence must take into account the
evolving economic circumstances which accompany it. I am not
advocating some form of vulgar economism, but any continued
renewal of the theoretical aspects of emancipatory politics would
need to take far more notice of the political economy than do Badiou
and Ranciere in particular, who in their core theories have margin-
alized the economic virtually out of existence. Balibar has not gone
quite as far, but his thought is still weakened as a result of relatively
little emphasis on the economic.
I have already pointed out that the strong tendency towards
abstraction is due not only to these thinkers' philosophical training
but also to the particular trajectory which Western Marxism - and
now quasi- or post-Marxism - has taken. But this tendency might
also be related to the legacy of Louis Althusser. Certainly, Althusser
famously spoke of the 'ultimately determining instance' of the mode of
production, and suggested that 'we owe to [Marx] the greatest discov-
ery of human history: the discovery that opens for men the way to a
scientific (materialist and dialectical) understanding of their own his-
tory as a history of class struggle' (Althusser 2001: xv). The nature of
economic relations and other aspects of the capitalist mode of produc-
tion were very much part of Althusser's materialism and 'scientific
understanding'. We have seen, however, that Badiou, Balibar and
Ranciere have retained in particular elements of Althusser's work on
ideology. I have suggested that Badiou's philosophy is quite un-mate-
rialist in parts and that this weakens it considerably. Ranciere's defi-
nition of politics is essentially aesthetic in that politics involves the
formerly invisible becoming visible, or else linguistic, as those who
speak a different language from the dominant language - one is
tempted to say from the dominant ideology - assert their right to be
heard and be understood. At the centre of Ranciere's philosophy there
is also an ahistorical description of the way in which an uprising offers
a 'true moment' of politics. Balibar is particularly clear in his preoccu-
pation with the ideological sphere, or the 'imaginary' as he (after
With and beyond Badiou, Balibar and Ranciere 149

Althusser) often calls it, and the ideological becomes very much a
determining influence. Part of the Althusserian legacy seems indeed
to be the process of subjectivation, which as others have pointed out
is close to Althusser's notion of interpellation, where forms of commit-
ment mean individuals are interpellated into subjects.
It will be clear that I would wish to place greater emphasis on the
major theories of Marx as originally stated by him than do any of
these thinkers. In particular, I would reassert the importance of his
analysis of the political economy of capitalism in order to help under-
stand the nature of the current period and the potential for change
within and beyond it. A thorough examination of the political econ-
omy of late capitalism and its integration into a more general theory
could offer a greater understanding of the current epoch, and an indi-
cation of possible futures. Marxist analysis is, however, greatly
enriched by many forms of quasi-Marxist, post-Marxist and non-
Marxist approaches (the distinction between these categories is often
not in itself important), particularly when they are motivated by pro-
gressive goals. Frederic Jameson makes roughly the same point when
he says:

Marxism is not a philosophy ... it is, like psychoanalysis and unlike

any other contemporary mode of thought, what I will call unity-of-
theory-and-practice. This means that it has concepts, but that those
concepts are also forms of practice, so that one cannot simply
debate them in a disinterested philosophical way without the
uncomfortable intervention of practical positions and commit-
ments. But it also means that the various philosophical currents of
the time have always been able to seize on those concepts and to
transform them into so many distinct and seemingly autonomous
philosophies ... Each of these 'philosophies' has in my opinion
something to teach us, and illuminates a new aspect of that original
unity-of-theory-and-practice which is Marxism as such; but the
latter is always distinct from them. (Jameson 2001: ix)

I would also argue that a thorough exploration of the notion and

practice of democracy is necessary. Badiou is profoundly ambivalent
on the question of democracy, praising it only in rare and isolated
150 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

instances. At his most extreme, he suggests that we do not need to

rethink and radicalize democracy but to invent a new system and set
of parameters in order to replace it altogether (talk at Institute for
Contemporary Arts, London, 25 September 2006). For me this is
quite wrong. Certainly, as I have argued elsewhere (Hewlett 2003),
much of the discussion regarding democracy is concerned with very
weak forms of democracy, often infused more with liberalism than
notions of popular rule, with more reference to individual rights and
managerial approaches to government than debate regarding what it
would be to have rule by the people in a more direct sense. There is a
gulf between what often passes for democracy on the one hand and
genuine, deeper democracy on the other. But elections and other
aspects of contemporary liberal democracy, which Badiou argues has
nothing to do with real politics, should not simply be dismissed. They
might be a very poor relation of deeper democracy, but they are a sig-
nificant advance on previous forms of political organization, offering
both the opportunity of debate around the nature of democracy and
an actual platform for debate, as well as political participation, how-
ever much this might often consist of arrangements to select elites who
operate within highly restricted parameters. For Ranciere democracy
is not an ongoing form of political practice, but an interruption of the
unjust status quo. Thus he offers a version of democracy which is a
generic and appealing form of popular uprising with wholly just
motives, but he seems to have little faith in democracy being sustained
in the longer term. Its life is intense but fleeting.
This also brings us to the question of the modern state. Because of,
in particular, Badiou and Ranciere's view of real politics as exception,
or at least an activity that is very marginal, neither of them offer a way
of understanding the role of the state. Again, this suggests an under-
estimation of the extent to which the modern state is an obstacle to
radical change and as something the uprising will take care of because
it is intrinsically correct and the state intrinisically wrong. As with the
economy, if anything we are more likely to have a rather crude view of
the state if we do not properly analyse it. We need to understand it as a
complex entity, which in practice for example lessens the suffering
of some of the poorest in society as well as defending mechanisms
and structures which keep the poor in poverty. It also for example
With and beyond Badiou, Balibar and Ranciere 151

protects its citizens against violence and itself perpetuates violence

against them, as well as against others outside its national boundaries.
Balibar, in his writings on racism, violence and borders, is more com-
mitted to an approach which explores this practical but also theo-
retical complexity than either Badiou or Ranciere. Indeed, I have
argued that Balibar in some respects goes too far in the opposite direc-
tion and has too much faith in the state's willingness to enable debates
around crucial issues, particularly human rights.
Also virtually absent from Badiou and Ranciere's writings is a treat-
ment of the oppression of women, perhaps reflecting a rather franco-
republican approach to the question of ordinary people. Neither seek
to explore this particular form of oppression which is an important
structural characteristic of all contemporary societies. A continued
project of attempting to understanding politics and society from a
feminist viewpoint will also offer insights into the nature of oppres-
sion, exploitation and thus emancipation in other domains.
As we know, there has been and continues to be a Maoist influence
on these thinkers. This means that there is at least a residual notion of
an idealized proletariat which is fiercely defended in a fashion that is
detached from any concept of tactical alliances which might win
short-term battles and build support along the way. On the contrary,
Badiou and Ranciere in particular conceive of real politics as an
explosion of powerful emotions on the part of the oppressed in a sort
of essential expression of truth, after which in the case of Badiou it
depends on converts to the cause to ensure that the world changes in
a way that is faithful to the explosion, and for Ranciere things are
likely to revert to the status quo. In neither schema are we offered a
view as to how we might get from where we are now to the moment of
egalitarian uprising. In an attempt to maintain a sort of revolutionary
purity and perhaps out of fear of being tainted with capitulation to
either reformist Stalinism or social democracy, Badiou and Ranciere
shun virtually all aspects of what might be seen as mainstream politi-
cal groups, including trade unions, which are seen as part of the
problem and bound to lead to massive concessions to the status quo.
I would suggest that Trotsky's theory of the united front might serve
as inspiration for a way out of this dilemma of capitulation versus
marginalism. Trotsky advocated a strategy of alliances with other,
15 2 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

non-revolutionary groups on particular points in order to win certain

modest demands and persuade other activists of the legitimacy of
revolutionary politics. As a general strategy, this does open the way
for a course of action for those who seek to follow a radically emanci-
patory path and also relate to - without being part of - more main-
stream politics. It avoids the dilemma of a bipolar view of political
activism with a stark choice between capitulation and marginalism.
The British Anti-war Coalition against US and British occupation of
Iraq is an example of such politics of the united front, where activists
of many persuasions unite on a single issue, without compromising
their own, broader politics of the longer term, and some groups
within this coalition no doubt hope to win other activists over to
their own worldviews.
In my appraisal of the work of Balibar, I have emphasized how
important it is to raise, as he does, the question of political violence.
Such a discussion brings us to crucial questions for the present age.
First, in asking whether, for example, domestic violence, or extreme
physical hardship characteristic of a particular type of industrial or
agricultural production should be included in a definition of political
violence, we also beg the question of where politics begins and where it
ends, in other words how to define it. Second, in analysing the rela-
tionship between 'consensus' politics in the West and violence of var-
ious kinds in developing countries, as does Balibar, we gain insights
into both the nature of contemporary forms of political regimes in
the West and the nature of international productive relations and
political relations (or political and economic aspects of international
relations). Next, it raises the question of the legitimacy and effects of
the use of violence in the struggle for a better world. Is Balibar correct
to suggest that we need to 'civilize revolution' and in so doing explore
an imaginary encounter between Lenin and Gandhi? Do violent
means justify (hopefully) non-violent ends, and to what extent do vio-
lent means necessarily lead to violent outcomes, as many pacifists and
others argue? It is certainly true that the contemporary world politi-
cal order is one where violence abounds; to take just one example, in
December 2006 alone the official statistics issued by the Interior Min-
istry in Baghdad put the death toll among Iraqi civilians at 1,930, a
figure which only hints at the physical suffering of the Iraqi people
With and beyond Badiou, Balibar and Ranciere 153

due to political circumstances over the previous decade (Saddam

Hussein's regime, economic sanctions by the West, the US-led inva-
sion and finally occupation and uprising).
We know that countless thousands of innocent people have died
under regimes purporting to be communist. But to suggest that if the
struggle for emancipation involves violence the outcome is also neces-
sarily violent - which is the logic of Balibar's argument - means that
one only and at all times counters the violence of the status quo with
peaceful means and when these peaceful means do not work one
accepts the violence of the status quo. Unlike Furet, Balibar is keen
to emphasize the just legacy and positive effects of 1789, but his discus-
sions on political violence in the modern era are nevertheless some-
what reminiscent of Furet's position that revolution is inevitably
followed by terror. Balibar also points out, however, that (as I suggest
above) there are many terror-equivalents in today's world. Zizek sug-
gests that unless one eternally resides in the margins, and for ever
dodges the question of the exercise of power, there may well be
moments when one must take responsibility for the 'passage a Pacte, of
accepting all the consequences, unpleasant as they may be, of realiz-
ing [a] political project' (Zizek 1999:236).
The practical detail of such dilemmas is at present remote. Despite
what I argue in the introductory chapter regarding a certain upturn
in left radicalism and thought over the past decade or so, it is safe
to assert that we are still living in a conservative age. Since well
before the break-up of the Soviet Union, even grass-roots activists,
along with professional politicians and many intellectuals, have
often argued that we must broadly speaking accept the world as it is,
whilst perhaps addressing some of the worst excesses of injustice and
exploitation. Outside the confines of small far-left political groups,
and publications either by these small groups or by individuals who
are broadly sympathetic to them, the generally accepted view of the
last few decades has been that any radical, structural transformation
of the way in which human beings relate to one another within socie-
ties is not possible, and is probably not desirable either. In this sense,
Anderson's argument in La Pensee tiede (2005) that France is now
characterized by conservative and liberal-democratic thought is
largely correct.
154 Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere

He is not, however, entirely correct. I opened this book by suggest-

ing that we might explore the work of Badiou, Balibar and Ranciere
in the context of thought as praxis, where the relationship between
theory and material aspects of the world is particularly important.
Certainly, one striking and uniting characteristic of these thinkers is
that in order to understand the world one must, in addition to reading
and debating, actively intervene in it. At risk of exaggerating the
common features of their thought, I will close by suggesting not only
that theirs is the most engaged philosophy since Sartre and Althusser,
but that we may be glimpsing a series of different, more politically
committed systems of thought that will grow in influence in the years
to come.
References and Bibliography

Principal works by Alain Badiou

1969: Le concept de modele. Paris: Maspero.
1975: Theorie de la contradiction. Paris: Maspero.
1976: DeUIdeologie. Paris: Maspero. (With F. Balmes.)
1977: Le noyau rationnel de la dialectique hegelienne. Paris: Maspero. (With L. Mossot
andj. Bellassen.
1982: Theorie dusujet. Paris: Seuil.
1985: Peut-onpenser lapolitique? Paris: Seuil.
1988: UEtreetUevenement. Paris: Seuil. (Trans, by Oliver Feltham as Being and Event,
London: Continuum, 2005.)
1989: Manifeste pour la philosophic. Paris: Seuil. (Trans, by Norman Madarasz as
Manifesto for Philosophy, New York: SUNY, 1999.)
1990: Le Nombre et les nombres. Paris: Seuil.
1991 /1998: D'un Desastre obscur (Droit, Etat, Politique). Paris: L'Aube.
1992: Conditions. Paris: Seuil. (Trans, by Gabriel Riera as Philosophy Under Conditions.
New York: SUNY Press, 2005.
1993: L'Ethique: Essai sur la conscience du mal. Paris: Hatier. (Trans. By Peter Hall-
ward as Ethics. An Essay on the Understanding of Evil, London: Verso, 2001.
1995: Beckett. Uincrevabledesir. Paris: Hachette. (Trans, by Nina Power and Alberto
Toscano as On Beckett, Manchester: Clinamen Press, 2003.)
1997: Gilles Deleuze: cLa clameur de I'etre'. Paris: Hachette. (Trans, by L. Burchill as
Deleuze: The Clamor of Being. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.
1997: Saint-Paul. Lafondation de I'universalisme. Paris: PUF. (Trans, by Ray Brassier as
Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, Stanford: Stanford University Press,
1998: Abrege de metapolitique. Paris: Seuil. (Trans, by Jason Barker as Metapolitics.
London: Verso, 2005.;
1998: Court traited'ontologie transitoire. Paris: Seuil. (Trans, by Norman Madarasz as
Briefings on Existence: A Short Treatise on Transitory Ontology, Albany: State Univer-
sity of New York Press, 2006.)
1998: Petit manueld'inesthetique. Paris: Seuil. (Trans, by Alberto Toscano as Handbook
oflnaesthetics, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005.)
156 References and Bibliography

2003: Circonstances, 1. Kosovo, 11 septembre, Chirac/Le Pen. Paris: Editions Lignes et

2003: Infinite Thought: Truth and the Return to Philosophy. London: Continuum.
2004: Circonstances, 2. Irak,foulard, Allemagne/France. Paris: Editions Lignes et Mani-
2004: Theoretical Writings. London: Continuum. (Edited and translated by Ray
Brassier and Alberto Toscano.)
2005: Circonstances, 3. Portees du mot 'juif. Paris: Editions Lignes et Manifestes.
2005: LeSiecle. Paris: Seuil.
2006: Logiquesdesmondes. Paris: Seuil.
2006: Polemics. London: Verso. (Various essays trans, by Steven Corcoran.)

Works of literature
1964: Almagestes. Paris: Seuil (novel).
1967: Portulans. Paris: Seuil (novel).
1979: UEcharperouge. Paris: Maspero (libretto).
1994: Ahmedlesubtil. Aries: Actes Sud (play).
1995: Ahmedsefache, suivipar Ahmedphilosophe. Aries: Actes Sud (play).
1995: Citrouilles. Aries: Actes Sud (play).
1997: Calmeblocici-bas. Paris: P. O. L. (novel).

Selected shorter works by Alain Badiou

1966: 'L'autonomie du processus historique'. In Cahiers Marxistes-Leninistes, Paris:
Ecole Normale Superieure, 12-13, pp. 761-89.
1967:'Le (re)commencement du materialisme dialectique'. In Critique 240 (May),
pp. 438-67.
1981: Jean-Paul Sartre. Paris: Potemkine (Pamphlet).
1985: 'Six proprietes de la verite'. In Ornicar? 32 (Jan.), pp. 39-67; and Ornicar?
33 (April), pp. 120-49.
1986: Est-il exact que toute pensee emet un coup de des? Paris: Conferences du Peroquet
1988: Une Soireephilosophique. Paris: Potemkine/Seuil. With Christian Jambet, Jean-
Claude Milner and Francois Regnault (Pamphlet).
1989: 'D'un sujet enfin sans objet'. In Cahiers Confrontations 20, pp. 13-22. (Trans, by
Bruce Fink as 'On a Finally Objectless Subject' in Who Comes after the Subject?,
Eduardo Cadava, Peter Connor and Jean-Luc Nancy [eds], London: Routledge,
pp. 24-32.)
1990: 'L'Entretien de Bruxelles'. InLes Temps Modernes, May, no. 526, pp. 1-26.
1991: 'L'Etre, Pevenement et la militance'. In Futur anterieur 8, pp. 13-23. (Inter-
view with Nicole-Edith Thevenin.)
1992: 'L'Age des poetes'. In Jacques Ranciere (ed.), La Politique despoetes: Pourquoi
despoetes en temps de detresse? Paris: Albin Michel, pp. 21-38.
References and Bibliography 15 7

1993a: 'Nous pouvons redeployer la philosophic'. In Le Monde, 31 Aug., p. 2. (Inter-

view with Rober-Pol Droit.)
1993b: 'Qu'est-ce que Louis Althusser entend par "philosophic"?'. In Sylvain
Lazarus (ed.), Politique et Philosophie dans I'&uvre de Louis Althusser', Paris: Presses
Universitaires de France, pp. 29-45.
1994: 'Being by Numbers' (interview with Lauren Sedajsky). Artforum 33: 2 (Oct.),
pp. 84-7.
1998: 'Politics and Philosophy'. Interview with Peter Hallward in Angelaki: Journal
of the Theoretical Humanities, 3:3, pp. 113-33.
1998: Tenser lesurgissementde Pevenement'. In CahiersduCinema (May), pp. 53-8.
(Interview with E. Burdeau and F. Ramone.)
2000: 'Metaphysics and the Critique of Metaphysics'. In Pli. Warwick Journal of
Philosophy 10, pp. 174-90. (Trans. Alberto Toscano.)
2000: 'Huh theses sur Puniversel.' In Sumic, Jelica (ed.), Universel, singulier,sujet.
Paris: Kime, pp. 11-20. Viewable at: php3?
2001: 'The Political as a Procedure of Truth'. In lacanian ink 19 (fall), pp. 70-81.
Trans. Barbara P. Fulks.)
2001: 'Who is Nietzsche?' In Pli. Warwick Journal of Philosophy 11, pp. 1-11. (Trans.
Alberto Toscano.)
2002: La Revolution culturelle: la derniere revolution? Paris: Les Conferences du Rouge-
Gorge, Feb. (Pamphlet).
2002: 'Que penser? Que faire?' Le Monde, 28 April. (With Sylvain Lazarus and
Natacha Michel.)
2003: 'One Divides into Two', Culture Machine,
2003: 'Beyond Formalisation: An Interview' with Bruno Bosteels and Peter Hall-
ward. In Angelaki 8:2, August (special issue: The One or the Other? French Philosophy
Today), pp. 111-36.
2004: 'Afterword. Some Replies to a Demanding Friend'. In Peter Hallward (ed.),
Think Again: Alain Badiou and the Future of Philosophy. London: Continuum Press,
pp. 232-7.
2005a: 'Democratic Materialism and the Materialist Dialectics'. In Radical Philoso-
phy 130.
2005b: 'The Adventure of French Philosophy'. In New Left Review 35, Sept.-Oct.,
pp. 67-77.
2006: 'The War on Terror', Institute for Contemporary Arts, London, 25 Septem-
ber (Talk).

Special issues of journals on Alain Badiou

2003: Communication & Cognition 36:1-2. 'The True is Always New: The Philosophy
of Alain Badiou', ed. by Dominiek Hoens.
158 References and Bibliography

2005: Polygraph no. 17. 'The Philosophy of Alain Badiou', ed. by Matthew Wilkens.
2005: positions: east asia cultures critique 13:3. 'Alain Badiou and Cultural Revolution',
ed. by Tani E. Barlow.

Principal works by Jacques Ranciere

1965: 'Le concept critique et la critique de I'economie politique des "Manuscrits de
1844" au "Capital" ', in Louis Althusser, Etienne Balibar, Roger Establet, Pierre
Macherey and Jacques Ranciere, Lire le Capital, Paris: Maspero.
1974: La Legond3 Althusser. Paris: Gallimard.
1976: (ed., with Alain Faure) La Parole ouvriere, 1830/1851. Paris: 10/18.
1981: La Nuit des Proletaries. Paris: Fayard. (Trans, by Donald Reid as The Nights of
Labour, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989.)
1983: Le Philosophe et ses pauvres. Paris: Fayard. (Trans by John Drury, Corinne
Oster and Andrew Parker as The Philosopher and his Poor, London/Durham: Duke
University Press, 2003.)
1983: (ed.) Gabriel Gauny, Le philosophe plebeien, Paris: Presses Universitaires de
1984: (ed.) L3 Empire du sociologue. Paris: La Decouverte.
1985: (ed.) Esthetiques du peuple. Paris: La Decouverte/Presses Universitaires de
1987: Le Maitre ignorant. Cinq Lemons sur I3emancipation intellectuelle, Paris: Fayard.
(Trans. By Kristin Ross as The Ignorant Schoolmaster. Five Lessons in Intellectual
Emancipation, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991.)
1990: Courts Voyages aupays du peuple. Paris: Seuil. (Trans. By James B. Swenson as
Short Voyages to the Land of the People, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003.)
1992: Aux bords du politique. Paris: Osiris (Trans by Liz Heron as On the Shores of Poli-
tics, London and New York: Verso, 1995.)
1992: LesNoms de Uhistoire. Essai depoetique du savoir. Paris: Seuil. (Trans, by Hassan
Melehy as The Names of History: On the Poetics of Knowledge, Minneapolis: Univer-
sity of Minnesota Press, 1999.)
1992: (ed.) La Politique des poetes: Pourquoi des poetes en temps de detresse? Paris: Albin
1993: (ed.), with Christine Buci-Glucksmann and Genevieve Fraisse) Jean Borreil,
LaRaisonnomade. Paris: Payot.
1995: La Mesentente. Politique et Philosophie, Paris, Galilee. (Trans, by Julie Rose
as Disagreement. Politics and Philosophy, Minneapolis and London: University of
Minnesota Press, 1998.)
1996: Mallarme. La politique de la sirene. Paris: Hachette.
1997a: Arretsurhistoire, Paris: Edns du Centre Pompidou (with Jean-Louis Comolli).
References and Bibliography 159

1998: La Chair des mots. Politiques de I'ecriture, Paris: Galilee. (Trans, by Charlotte
Mandell as The Flesh of Words. The Politics of Writing, Stanford: Stanford Univer-
sity Press, 2004.)
1998: Auxbordsdupolitique. Paris: Gallimard. (2nd edn.) (Trans, by Steve Corcoran
as On the Shores of Politics, London and New York: Verso, 2007.)
1998: La Parole muette: Essai sur les contradictions de la litterature. Paris: Hachette.
2000: LePartagedu sensible. Esthetiqueetpolitique. Paris: La Fabrique. (Trans, by Gab-
riel Rockhill as The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, London and
New York: Continuum, 2006.)
2001: Ulnconscientesthetique. Paris: Galilee.
2001: La Fable cinematographique. Paris: Seuil. (Trans, by Emiliano Battista as Film
Fables, Oxford: Berg, 2006.)
2003: Les Scenes dupeuple. (Les Revoltes logiques, 1975-1985). Lyon: Horlieu.
2003: Le Destin des images. Paris: Fabrique. (Trans, by Gregory Elliott as The Fate of
the Image, London: Verso, 2007.)
2004: Malaise dans I'esthetique. Paris: Galilee.
2005: La Haine de la democratie. Paris: Seuil. (Trans, by Steve Corcoran as Hatred of
Democracy, London: Verso, 2007.)
2005: Chroniques des temps consensuels. Paris: La Fabrique.
2005: La Parole muette: Essai sur les contradictions de la litterature. Paris: Hachette.
2006: Mallarme: lapolitiquedelasirene. Paris: Hachette.
2007: La Politique de la litterature. Paris: Galilee.

Selected shorter works by Jacques Ranciere

1973: 'Mode d'emploi pour une re-edition de Lire le Capital*. In Les Temps modernes,
1974: 'On the Theory of Ideology - Althusser's Polities', Radical Philosophy 1. (Rep-
rinted in Roy Edgely and Richard Osborne, The Radical Philosophy Reader,
London: Verso, 1985.)
1988: 'Good Times or Pleasure at the Barricades', in Voices of the People: The Politics
andLife oj*''La Sociale* at the End of the Second Empire, ed. by Adrian Rifkin and Roger
Thomas, trans, by John Moore, London: Routledge, 1988, pp. 45-94.
1991: 'After What?'. In E. Cadava, P. Connor and J.-L. Nancy (eds), Who Comes
After the Subject? NW York: Routledge, pp. 246-52.
1994: 'Post-democracy, Politics and Philosophy: An Interview with Jacques Ran-
ciere', Angelaki 1:3, pp. 171-8.
1997b: 'Democracy Means Equality.' Interview with Andrew Parker and Jean-
Philippe Deranty in Radical Philosophy no. 82, March-April 1997, pp. 29-36.
(Trans. David Macey.)
1998: 'Althusser'. In Simon Critchley and William R. Schroeder (eds), A Companion
to Continental Philosophy, Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 530-6.
160 References and Bibliography

2000: 'Jacques Ranciere: Literature, Politics, Aesthetics: Approaches to Demo-

cratic Disagreement' (interview with Solange Guenoun and James H. Kava-
nagh), trans. R. Lapidus, SubStance, no. 92, pp. 3-24.
2000: 'Dissenting Words: A Conversation with Jacques Ranciere' (interview with
Davide Panagia), diacritics 30:2, pp. 113-26.
2001: 'Ten Theses on Polities'. Theory and Event 5:3, n.p.
2002: 'Eclipse de la politique'. UHumanite, 29 May.
2002: 'Guantanamo, Justice and Bushspeak: Prisoners of the Infinite'. Counterpunch.
30 April.
2003: 'Politics and Aesthetics' (interview with Peter Hallward, trans. Forbes
Morlock), Angelaki8:2, pp. 191-212.
2003 : 'The Thinking of Dissensus: Politics and Aesthetics'. Paper presented at the
conference 'Fidelity to the Disagreement: Jacques Ranciere and the Political'.
Goldsmiths College, University of London, 16-17 September.
2003: 'Afterword to the English-Language Edition (2002)', The Philosopher and his
Poor, pp. 219-22 7.
2003: 'Comments and Responses'. Theory and Event 6:4.
2004: 'The Politics of Literature'. Substance, 33:1, pp. 10-24.
2004: 'Aesthetics, Inaesthetics, Anti-Aesthetics' (trans. Ray Brassier). In Peter
Hallward (ed.), Think Again: Alain Badiou and the Future of Philosophy. London:
Continuum, pp. 218-31.
2005: 'From Politics to Aesthetics?' In Robson 2005a (ed.), pp. 13-25.

Special issues of journals on Jacques Ranciere

1997: Critique601/2. 'Autour de Jacques Ranciere', ed. by Philippe Roger.
2003: Theory and Event 6:4.
2004: Substance 33:1. 'Contemporary Thinker: Jacques Ranciere', ed. by Eric
2004: Racques Ranciere, I'indiscipline, Special issue ofLabyrinthe, winter 2004.

Principal works by Etienne Balibar

1965: Lire le Capital (With Louis Althusser, Etienne Balibar, Roger Establet, Pierre
Macherey, and Jacques Ranciere). Paris: Maspero.
1974: Cinq Etudes du materialisme historique. Paris: Maspero.
1976: Sur la Dictature du proletariat. Paris: Maspero. (Trans, by Grahame Lock as
On the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, London: NLB, 1977.)
References and Bibliography 161

1979: Ouvrons lafenetre, camarades! (With Guy Bois, Georges Labica and Jean-Pierre
Lefebvre.) Paris: Maspero.
1979: Marx et sa Critique de la politique. (With Cesare Lupotini and Andre Tosel.
Paris: Maspero.
1985: Spinoza et la politique. Paris: Presses universitaires de France. (Trans, by Peter
Snowdon as Spinoza and Politics, London and New York: Verso, 1998.)
1988: Race, nation, classe: les identites ambigues. (With Immanuel Wallerstein.) Paris:
La Decouverte (Trans, by Chris Turner as Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities.
London: Verso, 1991.)
1991: Ecritspour Althusser. Paris: La Decouverte.
1992: LesFrontieresdelademocratie. Paris: La Decouverte.
1993: La Philosophie de Marx. Paris: La Decouverte. (Trans, by Chris Turner as The
Philosophy of Marx, London: Verso, 1995.)
1994: Lieux et noms de la verite. Paris: Ed. de 1'Aube.
1997: La Crainte des masses: politique et philosophie avant et apres Marx. Paris: Galilee.
(Trans, partially by James Swenson as Masses, Classes, Ideas, London: Routledge,
1994 and partially as Politics and the Other Scene, London: Verso, 2002.)
1999: Sans-papiers: Varchaume fatal. (With J. Costa-Lascoux, M. Chemillier-
Gendreau, E. Terray.) Paris: Editions La Decouverte.
2001: Nous, citoyens d} Europe: Les Frontieres, VEtat, le peuple. Paris: La Decouverte.
(Trans, in modified form by James Swenson as We, the People of Europe? Reflections
on Transnational Citizenship, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.
2002: Droitdecite. Paris: PUF. (Trans, partially by James Swenson as We, the People of
Europe? Reflections on Transnational Citizenship, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton
University Press. 2004.
2003: UEurope, VAmerique, la guerre: reflexions sur la mediation europeenne. Paris:
La Decouverte.
2005: Europe constitutionfrontiere. Paris: Editions du Passant.

Selected shorter works by Etienne Balibar

1985: Entries in Gerard Bensussan and Georges Labica (eds), Dictionnaire critique du
marxisme, Paris, PUF (2nd edn, revised and enlarged): 'AppareiP, 'Bakounisme',
'Classes', 'Critique de 1'economie politique', 'Contre-revolution', 'Deperisse-
ment de 1'Etat', 'Dictature du proletariat', 'Division du travail manuel et intel-
lectuel', 'Economique politique (critique de 1')', 'Droit de tendances', 'Lutte de
classes', 'Pouvoir'.
1991: 'Citizen Subject'. In E. Cadava, P. Connor andJ.-L. Nancy (eds), Who Comes
After the Subject? New York: Routledge, pp. 33-57.
1993: 'Some Questions on Politics and Violence'. In Assemblage: A Critical Journal of
Architecture and Design Culture. April, 20:12.
162 References and Bibliography

1993: 'The Non-Contemporaneity of Althusser'. In E. Anne Kaplan, and Michael

Sprinker (eds), The Althusser Legacy, London: Verso.
1994: 'Subjection and Subjectivation'. InJ. Copjec (ed.), Supposing the Subject, New
York: Verso, pp. 1-15.
1995: 'La violence des intellectuels'. In Etienne Balibar and Bertand Ogilvie (eds),
Violence etpolitique. Special issue ofLignes, 25, May.
1995: 'The Infinite Contradiction'. In Tale French Studies 88 (special issue: Deposi-
tions: Althusser, Balibar, Macherey and the Labor of Reading), pp. 142-64.
1996: 'Is European Citizenship Possible?' Public Culture: Society for Transnational
Cultural Studies 8:2, pp. 355-76. (Trans, by Christine Jones of'Une citoyennete
europeene est-il possible?'
1996: 'On Literature as an Ideological Form: Some Marxist Propositions'. (With
Pierre Macherey.) In Terry Eagleton and Drew Milne (eds), Marxist Literary
Theory: A Reader, pp. 275-6. Oxford and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.
1996: 'What is "Man" in Seventeenth-Century Philosophy?' In Janet Coleman
ed.), The Individual in Political Theory and Practice. Oxford and New York: Oxford
University Press.
1996: 'On Literature as an Ideological Form: Some Marxist Propositions'.
(With Pierre Macherey.) In Terry Eagleton and Drew Milne (eds), Marxist
Literary Theory: A Reader, pp. 275-6. Oxford and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell,
1999: 'Conjectures and Conjunctures'. Interview in Radical Philosophy, September/
2003: 'Structuralism: A Destitution of the Subject?' In differences: A Journal of Femin-
ist Cultural Studies 14:1, Spring 2003, pp. 1-21.
2004: 'The History of Truth: Alain Badiou in French Philosophy'. In Peter Hall-
ward (ed.), Think Again: Alain Badiou and the Future of Philosophy. London: Conti-
nuum Press, pp. 21-38.
2004: 'Gewalt'. In Das Historisch-Kritisches Worterbuch des Marxismus, Das Argument
Verlag, Berlin. Available online in French at
2004: 'Is a Philosophy of Human Civic Rights Possible? New Reflections on Equal-
iberty'. In The South Atlantic Quarterly, 103:2/3, pp. 311-22.
2004: 'Violence et civilite. Sur les limites de Panthropologie politique'. In Alfredo
Gomez-Muller (ed.), La Question de I'humain entre I'ethique et Panthropologie, Paris:
L. Harmattan. Viewable at:
2004: 'Lenine et Gandhi: une rencontre manque?' Communication au Colloque
MARX INTERNATIONAL IV, Guerre imperiale, guerre sociale, Universite
de Paris X Nanterre, Seance pleniere, 2 Octobre-1 novembre 2004. http://
2006: 'Sub species universitatis'. In Topoi no. 1-2, September, pp. 3-16. Viewable
References and Bibliography 163

2006: 'Strangers as Enemies: Further Reflexions on the Aporias of Transnational

Citizenship'. Lecture delivered at McMaster University, 16 March. Text
viewable at:
balibar % 20extreme % 20violence % 22

Other works consulted

Althusser, Louis (1965): Pour Marx. Paris: Maspero. (Translated by Ben Brewster as
For Marx', London: Verso, 1969.)
Althusser, Louis (1971): Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. New York: Monthly
Review Press. (Trans. Ben Brewster.)
Althusser, Louis (1973): Reponse a John Lewis. Paris: Maspero.
Althusser, Louis (1978): 'What Must Change in the Party'. In New Left Review 109,
pp. 19-45. (Trans. Patrick Camiller.)
Althusser, Louis (1990): Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists and
Other Essays. London: Verso.
Althusser, Louis (2001): Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. New York: Monthly
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abortion trial, Bobigny, France 139 Bidet, Jacques 9

Abrege de Metapolitique (Badiou) 81 Billancourt, Renault 76
activism 6, 17, 52, 73 Blum, Leon 12,79
Adorno, Theodor 14, 110, 136 Bolsheviks 55
aesthetics 4,88, 100, 113 Boltanski, Luc 9
AIDS 135 borders 117,151
Algeria 138 Bourdieu, Pierre 9
struggle for national liberation 26 bourgeoisie 43, 58, 63, 84, 87,95, 125,
Althusser, Louis 5, 6, 11, 14, 17-22, 133,137
24,52, 53,54,60,84,85,86,88,92, Britain 5,78, 103, 109
121, 126, 129, 148, 154 Cahierspour I'analyse group 26
For Marx 18, 19 Callinicos, Alex 17
Reading Capital 18 Cambodia 130
ambivalence 127-9 Camus, Albert 12
American Revolution 1 Cantor, Georg 25, 32,40
Anderson, Perry 146, 153 set theory 48
antagonism 128 capital 73,110,133
anthropology 85 Capital (Marx) 7, 19, 127, 133
anti-capitalism 8 capitalism 7, 8, 15, 20,43, 56, 64, 67,
anti-nuclear movement 16 69,76,79,91,121,131,134,149
anti-semitism 11 Carnap, Rudolf 30
and-Vietnam war movement 55 Celan, Paul 32
aporia 127 Chiapello, Eve 9
appearance 41 child labour 134
archaeology 13 China 69
Arendt, Hannah 49 Cultural Revolution 32
Aron, Raymond 11,12 industrialization 134
art 35, 36, 39, 47,49, 60, 66, 90, 145 Chirac, Jacques 74
artists 51 Chomsky, Noam 8
asylum seekers 121 Christ, resurrection 39
AuBorddupolitique (Ranciere) 94 Christianity 36,60
Chronique des temps consensuels
Baudrillard, Jean 16 .Ranciere) 110
Beckett, Samuel 32 citizenship 6, 117, 126, 139
Bensaced, Daniel 9 civil disobedience 138, 139
Berman, Marcel 66 civil servants 15
174 Index

civil war 135 demos 101,110,111,112,119,120

civility 119,134 Derrida, Jacques 9, 12, 16, 17, 24, 27,
Cixous, Helene 16 96, 100, 127
class 64 Spectres of Marx 9
class struggle 116,131,148-9 Descartes, Rene 28,31
Cohen, Paul 32 developing countries 134, 152
Cohn-Bendit, Daniel 98 dialectics 145
Cold War 8,14,135 dictatorship 137
Colletti, Lucio 14 discourse analysis 100
colonialism 55 dissensus 85,86
Commune see Paris Commune division of labour 90
communism 8, 15, 27,40, 64, 69, 71, domestic violence 152
80, 143 Dreyfus affair 139
disintegration of 130 Dumenil, Gerard 9
Communist Manifesto 50,62,68
Communist Party (France) 6, 11, 13.
71,79,82,103,117,133, \4Qseealso Eastern bloc 8, 14, 56, 143
Parti Communiste Frangais break up of 130
Communist Party (USSR) 21 Ecole Normale Superieure 26
compossibilite 32 ecology 15
Conditions (Badiou) 31 economic determinism 33
conjuncture 120, 121 economic policy 7
consciousness 128 economics 112,140
consensus 85,86, 110, 112 economy 33, 63, 64, 66, 70, 150
consensus politics 97, 103, 146, 152 education 92
Constant, Benjamin 11 egaliberte see equaliberty
constructivism 56 egalitarianism 71,81
contingency 38 elections 73, 150
counter-terrorism 130 electoral reform (Britain) 109
critical theory 88, 90 elite, political 112
Cultural Revolution (China) 21, 32 elitism 84,112
Cultural Studies 21 emancipation 10,81, 119, 120, 124,
126, 140, 145, 153
Darwin, Charles 44, 45 emancipatory politics 117, 125, 148
theory of evolution 423 empire 7
de Gaulle, Charles 55,71, 83, 143 empiricism 35,41,57,89
Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Engels, Friedrich 63, 71, 131, 145
Citizen (178-9) 123-4, 125, 126, Communist Manifesto 50, 125
139 Enlightenment 1, 16, 136, 144
deconstruction 17, 59 equaliberty (egaliberte} 118,119,
Deleuze, Gilles 16, 17 122-3, 124, 125, 140, 143, 145
Delia Volpe, Galvano 14 equality 2,86,94,97,106-7,112,114,
democracy 69-72, 74, 82, 85, 89, 123, 124, 144
108-11, 112,117,125,149-50 equality of opportunity 96
see also liberal democracy Establet, Roger 5
Ranciere's theory of 113 ethnocide 133
Index 175

Eire et I'evenement, U (Badiou) 4, 26, Gramsci, Antonio 18, 58, 66

27, 40, 64 Greece, Ancient 101, 106, 145
EU see European Union green politics 73
European Union (EU) 146 Guevara, Che 62
expansion 121
exploitation 59, 123 Habermas,Jiirgen 97, 135
Haine de la democratie, La
famine 135 (Ranciere) 109
Fanon, Frantz 131 Hardt, Michael 7,16,147
fascism 14 Harvey, David 7, 16, 66, 147
feminism 73 Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich 1,12,
Ferry, Luc 12 14,19,68,128
feudalism 121 hegemony 128
fidelity 40 Heidegger, Martin 30
Fondation Saint Simon (think tank) 103 Being and Time 12 7
Force ouvriere 78 historical materialism 9, 11, 18
foreign policy (France) 102 historicism 31
Foucault, Michel 12, 16, 34, 85, 96 historiography 85,95
France 9,10,11,19,69,74,79 Marxist 87
foreign policy 102 history 12, 64-6, 67, 85, 88, 108, 131
Nazi occupation 10, 138, 139 Hitler, Adolf 75
parliamentary politics 71, 72-5 Hobsbawm, Eric 135
presidential elections 2002 9, 78 Horkheimer, Max 110
social security reform 102 Hugo, Victor 110
freedom 122-3, 124, 144
freedom of expression 70 Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs)
French (language) 12 20, 102
French Revolution of 1789 1,10,12, ideology 127-9, 140
38, 39, 48, 51, 54, 56, 60, 65, 124, illegal immigrants 138
125, 140, 146 immigrant workers 121, 122
Freud, Sigmund 85 immigrants 76
Furet, Francois 12, 13, 54, 60, 109 immigration, bill on (France) 138
Gadamer, Hans-Georg 30 industrialization 134
Galileo Galieli 19 partition 136
Gandhi, Mahatma 118,136-9, 152 Indochina 138
Gaucheproletarienne (journal) 945 Industrial Revolution 88
gay movement 16 Infinite Contradiction, The (Balibar) 127
genetics 43 international relations 140
genocide 133 Internationale 101
Germany, West 103 Iran, revolution of 1980 32
Gewalt 130, 132, 133, 135 Iraq
Gilles Deleuze (Badiou) 59 U S and British invasion of 8
globalization 15, 27, 131 US and British occupation of 152
Glucksmann, Andre 11 Irigaray, Luce 16
Goldmann, Lucien 14 ISAs see Ideological State Apparatuses
176 Index

Jacotot, Joseph 93, 94 liberal republicanism 141

Jambert, Christian 11 liberalism 10,15, 46, 48, 52, 85,99.
Jameson, Fredric 8, 16, 147, 149 109,123, 143, 150
job creation 102 Ligue communiste revolutionnaire (LCR
Judt,Tony 12 78,79
Julliard, Jacques 13 Lilla,Mark 12
July 1830 uprising 88 Lipovetsky, Gilles 109
Juppe, Alain 138 LO see Lutte ouvriere
justice 125 Locke, John 3
logic 31
Kant, Immanuel 1, 14, 48, 54 logical positivism 30
Khilnani, Sunil 12 Logiques des mondes (Badiou) 4,27,41.
Kohl, Helmut 102 45
Kojeve, Alexandre 12 love 35, 36, 40,47, 49, 51, 60, 145
Korsch,Karl 14 Lukacs, Gyorgy 14, 18, 125
Kristeva, Julia 16 Lukes, Steven 99
Lutte ouvriere (LO) 78
La Distancepolitique (LDP) 76 Luxembourg 131
Labour Party (Britain) 79 Lyotard, Fra^ois 16, 24, 27, 30
labour power 43
Lacan, Jacques 8, 13, 20, 24, 32,35,
40,85 Macharey, Pierre 5,9
writings on psychoanalysis 48 Machiavelli, Niccolo 120
language 95-100 Maitre ignorant, Le (Ranciere) 107
Lazarus, Sylvain 50, 76, 81 Mallarme, Stephane 24, 48
LCR see Ligue communiste revolutionnaire Mandel, Ernest 8
La Distance politique (LDP) 76, 80 Mao Zedong 51,62,69
LDP see La Distance politique Maoism 6,21,26,62,66,67,79
Le Monde (newspaper) 138 Marcuse, Herbert 14
Le Pen, Jean-Marie 9, 73-4 Marx, Karl Heinrich 1, 3, 6, 8, 9, 11,
learning 94 14, 19, 24, 33, 42,43-5. 47, 50, 61,
Leqon d'Althusser, La (Ranciere) 93 71, 75,81,84,87,88,89,90,91,92,
Lefebvre, Henri 14 105,108, 110, 113, 120, 124,125,
Lenin 62, 69, 71, 80, 118, 121, 131, 126,127,128,129,130,132,144,
132, 136-9, 142, 152 145, 147, 148, 149
theory of revolution 137 Capital 7, 19, 127. 133
What is to be Done? 50 Communist Manifesto 125
Leninism 136 German Ideology, The 19
Levinas, Emmanuel 29 Paris Manuscripts of 1844 14
Levi-Strauss, Claude 21, 85 Theses on Feurerbach 19
structuralist anthropology 21 Marxism 2, 14, 15, 21, 23, 27, 49, 53,
Levy, Bernard-Henri 11 62-72,84,87,116,117,118,119,
Levy, Dominique 9 126,131,132,140,141,142,148,
liberal democracy 59, 69, 70, 71, 73, 149
82, 86, 95-100, 103, 106, 108, 109, Stalinist 32
110, 111, 117-18^ also democracy Western 13, 14, 146
Index 111

Marxism-Leninism 18 Paris Commune of 1871 10,50,65,94

Marxists 133, 134 Paris, University of Paris VIII 26
mass murder 136 Parole ouvriere, La (Ranciere) 87
Masses, Classes, Ideas (Balibar; 4 Parti Communiste Franqais (PCF) 21, 22,
materialism 8 55, 84, 117, 118 see also Communist
mathematical ontology 46 Party (France)
mathematicians 51 Parti Socialist Unifie (PSI) 25
mathematics 26, 39, 41, 63, 68 party politics 140, 147
May 1968 uprising (France^ 5, 6, PCF see Parti Communiste Franqais
10, 13, 26, 27, 37, 38-9,48, 51, 55, Pensee 68, La 12
74, 76, 79, 82, 83, 84, 88, 94, 98, Petain, Philippe 75
103, 143 Philosopher and his Poor, The
Mesentente, La (Ranciere 4, 94 (Ranciere) 90,91,92,93
metanarratives 30,45 Philosophy of Marx, The (Balibar) 124
metaphysics 25, 30, 34, 49 Plato 24, 34,59,61, 71,82,91,99, 144
Michel, Natacha 76 Republic 71
Middle East poetry 32
conflict 130 Pol Pot 130
oil 134 Poland
Mitterand, Fran$ois 13, 76, 102-3, workers' uprising 32
104, 109 police 101-3, 105, 106, 107, 108, 109,
election of 1981 91 111,112,113,114
modernity 119, 126, 136 political activism 66, 114
music 39 political science 112
political theory 88
political violence 129-36
Names of History, The (Ranciere} 99
politics 2, 35, 36,47,49-59,60,61, 70,
N ancy, Jean-Luc 126
72, 82, 85, 86, 89, 96, 97, 98,
National Front (France) 9, 71, 73, 76,
100-108, 104, 105, 106, 107, 108,
113, 114, 115, 116,118, 119-27,
nationalism 6
140, 143, 145
nationalization 102
emancipatory 117
natural selection 423
France 109
Negri, Antonio 7,16,147
green politics 73
Nights of Labour, The (Ranciere) 88,
left politics 48
89,95,98, 104
Politics and the Other Scene (Balibar) 4
popular culture 25
On the Dictatorship of the Proletariat populism 87
(Balibar) 117 positivism 35,89
On the Shores of Politics (Ranciere) 109, post-Cold War 130
146 post-democracy 108-11
ontology 25,37,40,56,81 post-Fordism 66
OP see Organisationpolitique postmodernism 17, 27, 34, 144
opinion polls 72 postmodernity 30
Organisation politique (OP) 5, 26, 69, poststructuralism 4, 13, 16, 17, 24, 27,
75,76,77,78,79,80 116, 141, 143, 145
178 Index

poverty 135 Sartre, Jean-Paul 2, 11, 12, 17, 18, 24,

pragmatism 147 52, 53, 54,90,91,92,113, 144,154
praxis 3,55 science 35,36,47,49,60,145
proletariat 63, 87, 88, 118, 125, 137 self-determination 119
PS I see Parti Socialist Unifie self-realization 35, 125
psychoanalysis 48 Senarcles, Pierre de 135
punning 100 set theory 25, 26,40,41,46,48
social democracy 10, 151
race 6 social exclusion 6
Race, Nation, Class (Balibar) 129 social inequality 123
racism 76,117,151 social sciences 112
radical republicanism 141 social security reform (France) 102
radicalism 11 socialism 14,40,67,88
rationalism 144 Socialist Party (France) 71, 79, 103,
Rawlsjohn 24,29,48 117
Reading Capital (Ranciere) 5, 6,84 sociology 90,112
Reagan, Ronald 102 Solidarite, Unite, Democratie (SUD)
Renaut, Alain 12 9,67
Repressive State Apparatuses sovereignty 7
(RSAs) 20 Soviet Union see USSR
republicanism (France) 76, 141 speech acts 96,97,99
Resistance 74,75, 138 Spinoza and Politics (Balibar) 4
revisionism 13 Spinoza, Benedictus de 1,4, 7, 14, 31,
Revoltes logiques (journal) 6 116,117,120,125
revolution 2,44 Theologico-Political Treatise 125,127
Revolution of 1789 (France) 1, 10,12, Stalinism 15,21,136,151
38, 39,48, 51, 54,56,60,65, 124, Stalinist communism 143
125, 140, 146 structuralism 13, 16, 84, 85, 95, 145
Revolution of 1830 (France) 10 subjectivation 117, 120, 122
Revolution of 1848 (France) 10 subjectivity 126
Revolution of 1917 (Russia) 14-15, subtraction 65
40,55,56,69,121,137 SUD see Solidarite, Unite, Democratie
Revolution of 1980 (Iran) 32 Sweden 103
Rimbaud, Arthur 94
Robespierre, Maximilien 50, 54, 62
Rosanvallon, Pierre 13 teaching 93
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques 1, 14,24,50, Ten Theses on Politics (Ranciere) 4, 94,
70,71,75,82 146
theory of democracy 79 terror 12
RSAs see Repressive State Apparatuses terrorism 130
Thatcher, Margaret 102
Saint Paul 36, 60, 76 Theorie du sujet (Badiou) 26
Saint Paul (Badiou) 36, 39, 63 Third Way 104
Saint-Just, Louis de 50, 54, 62 Tocqeville, Alexis de 11,48
sans papiers 74, 77 totalitarianism 37, 123, 136
sans-parts 107, 111, 112, 143, 146 trade unionists 15
Index 179

trade unions 9,13,55,57,67,76,78, USSR 14,15,21,56

82,151 break-up 8, 130, 153
transformation 119,120,126,143,145
Trotsky, Leon 78, 121, 151 Vietnam 138
truth 33-7 violence 151
truth procedures 56
Twentieth Congress of the Communist We, the People of Europe? (Balibar)
Party of the Soviet Union 21 4,121
Wittgenstein, Ludwig 30, 31, 38
UCFML see Union des communistes de women, oppression of 151
France marxistes-leninistes women's movement 16
unemployment 102 wordplay 100
Union des communistes de France marxistes- workers' uprising (Poland) 32
leninistes (UCFML) 5,26 working class 43, 76, 79,80,87,88,91,
universal suffrage 70 95,117,137
universalism 48 emancipation 89
universality 29, 31, 1279, 140 World War II 11,14
uprising of May 1968 see May 1968
uprising Zizek, Slavoj 8, 16, 36, 59-60, 135,
USA 5, 7, 78, 146 147, 153
overseas policy 8