:: Article

Liquidating May 1968

By Andrew Coates.


Alain Badiou, The Meaning of Sarkozy, Verso, 2009

Everywhere you look in Europe enthusiasts for Mao are flowering a thousand blooms. The President of the European Commission José Manuel Durão Barroso, once an activist in Portugal’s PCTP/MRPP, thunders for the free-market. La COPE, Spain’s steadfast Catholic radio, stars Frederico Jimenez Losantos, a former Mao fan in the anti-France underground. He rails against socialists, Communists, separatists, free-masons and secularists. But it is from France, home of the Maoist movement, that we hear from a great philosopher with a Mao badge past. Alain Badiou, ex-Union communiste de France, Marxiste-Léniniste (UCF-ML) polemicises against Nicolas Sarkozy, the “rat-man”. Inter alia he makes fun of Blair, following his discovery that Blaireau means Badger in French, and notes that Sartre called an anti-communist a dead-dog (chien crevé – inexplicably translated by Verso as ’swine’). As Pierre Assouline remarks, “Après les rats, puis les blaireaux, les chiens. Décidément, drôle d’oiseau que ce philosophe.” (after the rats, then badgers, and dogs… Certainly what a strange bird this philosopher is…) A period of enthusiasm for the Great Cultural Revolution and its Helmsman does give one such a way with words.

But that’s enough on les noms d’oiseux (insults) for the moment.

The Meaning of Sarkozy (De Quoi Sarkozy est-il le nom?) is a political pamphlet. It is written by a professional philosophy teacher (in the ENS – France’s most elite college in the discipline). Born in 1937, and a long period of adhesion to leftist causes behind him, Badiou is still active in L’Organisation Politique – a group principally committed to defending immigrant rights. Badiou’s tract made a splash. Including comparisons with the political interventions of the late, much respected, sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. The main conceit (in all senses) of the polemic is that the Victory of Nicolas Sarkozy and his UMP party in the French 2007 elections heralded the triumph of Pétainism. Yes, the puppet far-right regime that ruled the Southern half of France from Vichy during the German Occupation. Sarkozy represent a ‘restoration’, after (very much after one would say) May 1968, a national revolution to ensure, “unconditional obedience to the potentates of world capitalism.”. Its themes, an end to moral decadence. Its models, the US and Blair’s Britain, servility, like Pétain, to the foreign powers (see potentates). It loathes immigrants. France has undergone a huge reaction. A way prepared by the anti-Communist Nouveaux Philosophes, André Glucksman (an ex-Mao rival), and Bernard Henri Lévy. And the whole political class, left included, very much included. The Communists? Enemies of 68 par excellence. Result? Now we have France under Petanism “on a mass scale”. A return to the social ‘transcendental’ (underlying structure beyond appearances) – France’s – apparently – eternal ultra-conservative order. There is ”fear, informing, contempt for others” around Sarkozy and his Prime Minister Fillon. The President encourages work, family and dislikes criminals! This is the spirit that gave 1940s France total censorship, banning of political parties, repression of all dissent, not to mention co-operation with the Nazi Final Solution. This New Order is truly an equal threat.

Sarkozy is a ‘rat’ who rushes in on what’s on offer, obsessively gnawing away. Badiou then explains how this sharp-tooted vermin came to power (counter-revolution) in a highly original way. It appears that ‘democracy’, at least in the sense Badiou gives it – “equality in the face of the Idea” – was not involved. In any case, “voting is a state operation. And it is only by assuming that politics and the state are identical that voting can be conceived as a political procedure.” In fact, “Rejecting our illusions means categorically denying that voting is the operation of a genuine choice”. Thus, there was no choice. None. Voting for a Socialist alternative, like Ségolène Royale, or for the various Trotskyist, Communist, Green candidates on offer during this (bogus) election? Not a true choice. Poor fools who backed them, weep now at your folly. These marionettes were not prepared really to confront the system. The ballot – piège à cons!

The author of Ethics (2001 – English translation) offered an alternative: “politics without party”. A crude Marxist analysis of the state (basically that the state is class domination) and a politics of truth. That is fidelity to the ‘event’, unique bursts of life in the world unsullied by the existing Order (something similar to the existentialist notion of ‘authenticity’). Badiou’s cumbersome writings on ‘ontology’ may explain something. I couldn’t put them down (having never picked them up). Practice? Essentially Badiou backs “local experiments in politics”. His central one is his – feeble group of mates, if truth be my politics – L’Organisation Politique. A few principles are strewn around, that all workers belong here, that art is creation, science is superior to technology, love must be reinvented, any sick person is entitled to treatment, and that newspapers that belong to rich managers do not deserve to be read (a reference no doubt to Libération, now under Rothschild Bank control). Apparently he works with “our African friends” (cosy expression), to “exchange experiences”. And that, “The Morrocan worker forcibly asserts that his traditions and customs are not those of the petty bourgeois European.” Noble North Africans! This ‘test-bed for political experience” is already showing its worth.

Or not. Badiou seems to be groping towards the, commonplace, idea of unifying the oppressed, without imposing uniformity. Nothing much wrong there. But it hardly needs the strident vocabulary he uses to get there. Such as the wholly misguided idea that the State in his Third Period Stalinist rhetoric, is a bogus simulacrum of democracy, based on naked repression and obedience to the rule of world capital. Furthermore one can do without the comparison between Sarkozy and Pétain: History involves no such “eternal return”. Sarkozy is a right-wing liberal (economically) and a conservative morally (except in his public-private life – Carla to the fore). Far from encouraging a Corporate Organic Vichiest state he has sought to reform his bureaucracy on free-market lines. His Catholic moralism does not extend to any legislative effect (unlike Pétain). Sarko comes from the Neuilly Haute Bourgeoisie, which gives him a brittle smartness and narrow-mindedness. Sarkozy’s cosmopolitan origins (his, absent, father is Jewish), is very far from the provincial terrain of the Vichy notable. A smart-arse, nervously rushing around and hard to bear. I can loathe him quite happily without any comparison with the Marshall. I do and I will. Full stop.

Mass opposition to the President is under way, from workers, intellectuals, and students. Led by democratic parties and unions who spend a lot of their time engaged in that mystifying democratic process. We do not need to be amused any longer by Badiou or others’ hysterical hyperbole. As unrest spreads in Europe we, in each country, need to act: not to stew in this warmed-up dish of puerile rancour.

All of which amounts to less than a hill of haricots blancs. Badiou has none of Bourdieu’s seriousness and clear objectives (directed at preventing backward looking neo-liberal ‘reforms’). Is there anything of comparable urgency on offer here? No: an abstract call to vigilance and to stand behind banner. Of what? The assertion of the ”Communist hypothesis” is about all Badiou has to affirm: the conjecture that a communist society is worth trying to create (discussion of the economics and politics of Das Kapital are noticeably absent here). Plus a few historical examples of when people have tried to verify the theory. Such as, Maoism oblige, the Shanghai Commune. Can anyone who’s for the self-emancipation of the working class can so easily dismiss the electoral process? Clearly L’École normale supérieure, is a better vantage point from which to decide the workers’ views than the voting slip. In the face of such certainty it seems impertinent to observe that more participate in the latter than get educated at the former.

Andrew Coates
is long-standing socialist and trade union activist who lives in Ipswich, near the Sunshine Suffolk Coast. He owns one of the best collections of sectarian left literature in East Anglia and 540 Everyman Classics. To while away the long-days he posts incessantly on the Web, pursuing vendettas and the line of his international organisation, Tendance Coatesy. His pastimes include putting slug pellets down on his allotment and watching the creatures die.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, April 19th, 2009.