Alain Badiou on Tunisia, riots & revolution

N.B. This is a rough translation of Daniel Fischer’s transcription of the 19 January 2011 session of Alain Badiou’s seminar What does “change the world” mean?. It is not something Badiou has written out. Nevertheless, it gets across his, apparently, impromptu comments on Tunisia, riots and revolution. It appears that Badiou correctly places the riot at the gateway of revolution and, in calling Tunisia “the weakest link” (Lenin re. Russia 1917), correctly notes the beginning of massive change in the Middle East. Daniel Fischer’s excellent notes are great resource on Badiou’s developing thought.

Thanks to Charles T. Wolfe for help with the translation.


Today I’ll talk to you about the riots in Tunisia. We won’t leave the subject of this year’s seminar — What does “change the world” mean? –  an expression whose ambiguous character I’ve already described to you.

If by “riots” we mean the street actions of people who want to overthrow the government by means of varying levels of violence, we must at once emphasise what makes these Tunisian riots rare: they have been victorious. A regime seemed securely in place for 23 years and here it is overturned by a popular action which, ipso facto, retroactively establishes it as the “the weakest link”. Why should we analyse this phenomenon, when we could just let ourselves rejoice? A vague uneasiness makes itself felt in the requisitely contented character, let’s call it a consensual character, that must be displayed in spite of the inherent illegality of the events concerned. Today it isn’t easy to declare: “I love Ben Ali, I’m truly heartbroken that he must leave power.” When one says that, one finds oneself in a very bad position. The reason we must pay tribute to minister Alliot-Marie, who publicly regretted her delay in putting the “know-how” of the French police force at the service of Ben Ali, is that she expressed aloud what her political colleagues only whispered. Next to her, Sarkozy is a hypocrite and a coward. Just as everyone, Right and Left, who, in only a few weeks, were congratulating themselves on having  Ben Ali as a solid bulwark against Islamism and an excellent pupil of the West, are today forced, because of a consensus of opinion, to pretend to rejoice in his departure, tail between legs.

Once again: a government overthrown by popular violence (and in particular by the young, who spearheaded it) is a rare event for which you must go back thirty years if you want to find a comparable precedent, namely to the Iranian Revolution (1979)*. Thirty years during which the dominant conviction was that such events were no longer really possible. The thesis of  “the end of history” made this claim. That thesis obviously didn’t mean that nothing more would happen: “the end of history” meant “the end of events in history [l'événementialité historique]“, the end of a moment where the organisation of power could be overthrown in favour of, as Trotsky said, “the masses entering on the stage of history”. The normal course of things was the alliance of the market economy and parliamentary democracy, an alliance that was the only tenable norm of the general subjectivity. Such is the meaning of the term “globalisation”: this subjectivity became global subjectivity. Furthermore, this wasn’t incompatible with punitive wars (Iraq, Afghanistan), civil wars (in dysfunctional African states), repression of the Palestinian Intifada, &c. So what is fascinating above all else in the Tunisian events is their historicity, they demonstrate that the capacity to create new forms of collective organisation is intact.

The ensemble formed by the market economy and parliamentary democracy, an ensemble given as an insuperable norm, I propose to name: “the West” – and this is what it calls itself. Among the other names in circulation, we note “international community”, “civilisation” (where it is opposed to, as its right, the diverse forms of barbarism, cf. the expression “clash of civilisations”), “Western powers” … Remember that more  than thirty years ago the only group who claimed this name — “Occident” — as their standard was a small group of fascists weilding iron bars (with whom I had to deal in my youth). That a name’s referent can change so dramatically can only mean that the world itself has changed. The world no longer has the same transcendental [pdf].

Are we in a time of riots?

You could think that, seeing recent events in Greece, Iceland, England, Thailand (the coloured shirts), the hunger riots in Africa, the considerable workers’ riots in China. Also in France, there is something like a pre-riot tension; through phenomena like the factory occupations, people are on the verge of accepting riots.

As an explanation, there is of course the systemic crisis of capitalism that became visible two or three years ago (and is far from finished) with its procession of social impasse, poverty, and the growing feeling that the system is not viable nor as magnificent as was previously said; the vacuity of political regimes has become manifest, service to the economic system is their only purpose (the “save the banks” episode was particularly demonstrative), which contributes greatly to their discrediting. In the same period, and precisely because they are the operators of systemic survival, states have taken dramatically reactionary measures in more and more areas (railways, post, schools, hospitals…).

I’d like to try and locate these phenomena in the framework of a historical periodisation. In my opinion, the rioters’ disposition arises in interval periods [périodes intervallaires]. What is an interval period? There is a sequence in which revolutionary logic is clarified and where it explicitly presents itself as an alternative, succeeded by an interval period where the revolutionary idea has not been passed on to anyone [déshérence], and in which it hasn’t yet been taken up, a new alternative disposition has not yet been formed. During such periods the reactionaries can say, precisely because the alternative is impaired, that things have returned to their natural course. Characteristically, this is what happened in 1815 with the restorers of the Holy Alliance. In interval periods, discontent exists but it can’t be structured because it is unable to draw its force from a shared idea. Its power is essentially negative (“make them go away”). This is why the form of mass collective action in an interval period is the riot. Take the period 1820-1850: it was a grand period of riots (1830, 1848, the revolt of the Canuts of Lyon); but it doesn’t mean they were sterile, they were haphazard [aveugle] but very fertile. The great global political orientations that were the hinge [vertébré] of the next century emerge from that period. Marx says it well: the French workers’ movement was one of the sources of his thought (beside German philosophy and English political economy).

What are the criterion for evaluating riots?

The particular problem of the riot, in as much as it calls state power into question, is that it exposes the state to political change (the possibility of its collapse), but it doesn’t embody this change: what is going to change in the state is not prefigured in the riot. This is the major difference with a revolution, which in itself proposes an alternative. That is the reason why, invariably, rioters have complained that a new regime is identical to an old one (it’s model, after the fall of Napoleon III, is the constitution on 4 September of a regime made up of the old political staff). Notice that the party, of the type [concept] that was created by the RSDLP then by the Bolsheviks, is a structure explicitly designed to constitute itself as an alternative power in place of the state. When the figure of the rioter becomes a political figure, i.e. when it has in itself the political body that it needs and recourse to an inveterate politics [aux vieux chevaux de la politique] becomes useless, we can say that that moment there is the end of the interval period.

To return to the Tunisian riot, it is very likely that it is itself going to continue – and divide itself – by proclaiming that the figure of power that will be in place is so disconnected from the popular movement that it doesn’t want it either. On what criteria, then, can we evaluate the riot? In the first place, one must have a definite empathy towards the riot, this is an absolutely necessary condition. Another criterion is the recognition of its negative power, the hated power collapses at least symbolically. But what is affirmed? The Western press has already responded by saying that what was expressed there was a desire for the West. What we can affirm is that a desire for liberty is involved and that such a desire is without debate a legitimate desire under a regime both despotic and corrupt as was that of Ben Ali.  How this desire as is a desire for the West is very uncertain.

It must be remembered that the West as a power has so far given no proof that it cares in any way at all about organising liberty in the places where it intervenes. The account of the West is: “are you walking with me or not?”, giving the expression “walk with me” a signification internal to the market economy,** if necessary in collaboration with counter-revolutionary police. “Friendly countries” like Egypt or Pakistan are just as despotic and corrupt as was Tunisia under Ben Ali, but we’ve heard little expressed about it from those who have appeared, on the occasion of the Tunisian events, as ardent defenders of liberty.

How can we define a popular movement as reducible to “a desire for the West”? We could say, and this definition applies to any country, that it involves a movement that realises itself in the figure of the anti-despotic rioter whose negative and popular power takes the form of the crowd and whose affirmative power has no other norm than those the West invokes. A popular movement meeting this definition has every chance of ending in elections and there is no reason for another political perspective to develop. I claim that at the end of such a process, we will have witnessed the phenomena of Western inclusion. For what we call the Western press, this phenomena is the ineluctable result of the riot’s development.

If it is true that, as Marx predicted, the space where emancipatory ideas are realised is a global space (which, incidentally, wasn’t the case with the revolutions of the Twentieth Century), then the phenomena of Western inclusion cannot be part of genuine change. What would genuine change be? It would be a break with the west, a “dewesternisation”, and would take the form of an exclusion. A dream, you are thinking; but it is precisely a dream typical of an interval period like ours.

If there were a different evolution than the evolution toward Western inclusion, what could that attest to? No formal response can be given here. We can simply say there is nothing in the analysis of the state’s process which, through long and torturous necessity, will eventually result in elections. What is required is a patient and careful inquiry among the people, in search of that which, after an inevitable process of division (because it is always the Two that carries a truth, and not the One), will be carried by a fraction of the movement, namely: declarations [des énoncés]. What is stated can by no means be resolved within Western inclusion. If they are there, these declarations, they will be easily recognisable. It is under the condition of these new declarations that the development of the organisation of figures of collective action can be conceived.

We return, to conclude, to empathy. The lesson to draw from the Tunisian events, the minimal lesson, is that what appears as unfailing stable can itself in the end collapse. And that is reassuring [plaisir], very reassuring [plaisir].

A. B. ended the lecture with a poem by B. Brecht “In Praise of Dialectics”, a poem with the final line: And never will become before the day is out.

* The fall of the communist regimes of Eastern Europe 20 years ago is not comparable. They fell with the consent of the USSR, this was symbolised in a meeting between the East German leader Honecker and his Russian guardians: when he asked their permission to fire on the crowd (a necessary step for him), he was refused this permission. Change to the communist power structure was made by the same apparatchiks who installed themselves at the head of what remained of their system before it imploded.

** [trans.] The French verb ‘to walk’ is marcher and the French for Market Economy is l’économie de marché; Badiou is playing on marcher and marché here.