Of Which Reality is this Crisis the Spectacle?
Alain Badiou, Le Monde, 17/10/08.
As it is presented to us, the planetary financial crisis resembles one of those bad films concocted by that factory for the production of pre-packaged blockbusters that today we call the "cinema". Nothing is missing, the spectacle of mounting disaster, the feeling of being suspended from enormous puppet-strings, the exoticism of the identical – the Bourse of Jakarta placed under the same spectacular rubric as New York, the diagonal from Moscow to Sao Paulo, everywhere the same fire ravaging the same banks – not to mention terrifying plotlines: it is impossible to avert Black Friday, everything is collapsing, everything will collapse...
But hope abides. In the foreground, wild-eyed and focussed, like in a disaster movie, we see the small gang of the powerful – Sarkozy, Paulson, Merkel, Brown, Trichet and others – trying to extinguish the monetary flames, stuffing tens of billions into the central Hole. We will have time later to wonder (the saga will surely continue) where these billions come from, given that for some years, at the least demand from the poor, the same characters responded by turning their pockets inside out, saying they hadn't a cent. For the time being, it doesn't matter. "Save the banks!" This noble, humanist and democratic cry surges forth from the mouths of every journalist and politician. Save them at any price! It's worth pointing this out, since the price is not insignificant.
I have to confess: given the numbers that are being bandied about, whose meaning, like almost everyone else, I am incapable of representing to myself (what exactly is one thousand four hundred billion euros?), I too am confident. I put my full trust in our firemen. All together, I am sure, I can feel it, they will succeed. The banks will be even greater than before, while some of the smaller or medium-sized ones, having only been able to survive through the benevolence of states, will be sold to the bigger ones for a pittance. The collapse of capitalism? You must be kidding. Who wants it, after all? Who even knows what it would mean? Let's save the banks, I tell you, and the rest will follow. For the film's immediate protagonists – the rich, their servants, their parasites, those who envy them and those who acclaim them – a happy ending, perhaps a slightly melancholy one, is inevitable, bearing in mind the current state of the world, and the kinds of politics that take place within it.
Let us turn instead to the spectators of this show, the dumbstruck crowd who - vaguely unsettled, understanding little, totally disconnected from any active engagement in the situation - hears, like a far-off noise, the mort* of the cornered banks. This crowd can only guess at the exhausting weekends of our heroic small team of heads of government. It sees, passing before it, numbers as enormous as they are obscure, automatically comparing them to its own resources, or even, for a very considerable part of humanity, to the pure and simple non-resource which is the bitter and courageous basis of its very life. That's where the real is, and we will only be able to access it if we turn away from the screen of the spectacle in order to consider the invisible mass of those for whom this disaster movie, its saccharine ending included (Sarkozy kisses Merkel, and the whole world weeps for joy), was only ever a shadow-play.
In these past few weeks we have heard a lot about the "real economy" (the production and circulation of goods) and the – how should we call it? unreal? – economy which is the source of all evils, in that its agents had become "irresponsible", "irrational" and "predatory" – fuelling, first rapaciously, then in a panic, the now formless mass of stocks, securities and currencies. This distinction is obviously absurd, and is generally immediately contradicted, when, by way of an opposite metaphor, financial circulation and speculation are presented as the 'circulatory system' of capitalism. Are heart and blood perhaps subtracted from the living reality of a body? Is a financial stroke indifferent to the health of the economy as a whole? As we know, financial capitalism has always – which is to say for the past five centuries – been a major, central component of capitalism in general. As for the owners and managers of this system, by definition they are only "responsible" for profits, their "rationality" is to be measured by their earnings, and it is not just that they are predators, but that they have to be.
Accordingly, we do not find anything more "real" in the engine-room of capitalist production than on its commercial decks or in its speculative cabins. The last two in any case corrupt the first: in their crushing majority, the objects produced by this type of machinery – being aimed solely at profit, and at the derivative speculations which form the fastest and most considerable part of this profit – are ugly, cumbersome, inconvenient, useless, and it is necessary to spend billions to persuade people otherwise. This presupposes that people be transformed into spoiled children, eternal adolescents, whose existence merely consists in changing toys.
The return to the real cannot be a movement leading from bad "irrational" speculation back to healthy production. It is the return to the immediate and reflective life of all those who inhabit this world. It is from that vantage-point that one can observe capitalism without flinching, including the disaster movie that it is currently inflicting upon us. The real is not this movie, but its audience.
So what do we see, if we turn things around in this way? We see, and this is what it means to see, simple things that we've known for a long time: capitalism is nothing but robbery, irrational in its essence and devastating in its development. Its few short decades of savagely unequal prosperity have always been at the cost of crises in which astronomical quantities of value disappear, bloody punitive expeditions into every zone that capitalism judges either strategically important or threatening, and world wars that brought it back to health.
Here lies the didactic force in looking at this crisis-film. Faced with the life of the people watching it, do we still dare to pride ourselves in a system which delegates the organisation of collective life to the basest of drives – greed, rivalry, unthinking selfishness? Can we sing the praises of a "democracy" whose leaders do the bidding of private financial appropriation with such impunity that they would shock Marx himself, who nevertheless already defined governments, a hundred and sixty years ago, as "the agents of capital"? The ordinary citizen must ‘understand’ that it is impossible to make up the shortfall in social security, but that it is imperative to stuff untold billions into the banks’ financial hole? We must sombrely accept that no one imagines any longer that it’s possible to nationalise a factory hounded by competition, a factory employing thousands of workers, but that it is obvious to do so for a bank made penniless by speculation?
In this business, the real is to be found on the hither side of the crisis. For where does this entire financial phantasmagoria come from? Simply from the fact that, by dangling miraculous credits before their eyes, people devoid of the means to afford them were browbeaten into buying flashy houses. These people’s IOUs were then sold on, mixing them, as one does with sophisticated drugs, with financial securities whose composition was rendered as scientific as it is opaque by battalions of mathematicians. All of this then circulated, from sale to sale, its value increasing, in ever more distant banks. Yes, the material measure for this circulation was to be found in the houses. But it was enough for the real estate market to go bust and, as this measure became less valuable and the creditors demanded more, for the buyers to be less and less able to pay their debts. And when finally they couldn’t pay them at all, the drug injected into the financial securities poisoned them all: they were no longer worth anything. But this only seems to be a zero-sum game: the speculator loses his wager and the buyers their homes, from which they are politely evicted. But the real of this zero-sum game is as always on the side of the collective, of ordinary life: in the end, everything stems from the fact that there exist millions of people whose wages, or absence thereof, means that they are absolutely unable to house themselves. The real essence of the financial crisis is a housing crisis. And those who can’t find a home are by no means the bankers. It is always necessary to go back to ordinary existence.
The only thing that we can hope for in this affair is that this didactic power may be found in the lessons drawn from this grim drama by people, and not by the bankers, the governments who serve them, and the newspapers who serve these governments. This return to the real has two related aspects. The first is clearly political. As the film has shown, the "democratic" fetish is merely the zealous servant of the banks. Its real name, its technical name, as I have argued for some time, is capitalist-parliamentarianism. It is advisable, as several political experiments have begun to do in the past twenty years, to organise a politics of a different nature.
Such a politics is, and no doubt will be for a long time, at a great distance from state power, but no matter. It begins level with the real, through the practical alliance between those who are most immediately available to invent such a politics: the newly-arrived proletarians from Africa and elsewhere, and the intellectuals who have inherited the political battles of the last few decades. This alliance will grow on the basis of what it will be capable of doing, point by point. It will not entertain any kind of organic relationship with the existing parties and with the electoral and institutional system that keeps them alive. It will invent the new discipline of those who have nothing, their political capacity, the new idea of what their victory will look like.
The second aspect is ideological. We must overthrow the old verdict according to which ours would be the time of "the end of ideologies". Today we can clearly see that the only reality of this supposed end lies in the slogan "save the banks". Nothing is more important than recovering the passion of ideas and countering the world such as it is with a general hypothesis, the anticipated certainty of an entirely different state of affairs. To the nefarious spectacle of capitalism, we oppose the real of peoples, of the existence of all in the proper movement of ideas. The theme of an emancipation of humanity has lost none of its power. Undoubtedly, the word "communism", which for a long time served to name this power, has been debased and prostituted.
But today, its disappearance only benefits the advocates of order, the feverish actors of the disaster movie. But we will resuscitate communism, in its new-found clarity. This clarity is also its oldest virtue, as when Marx said of communism that it "breaks in the most radical fashion with traditional ideas" and that it will bring forth "an association in which the free development of each is the precondition for the free development of all".
Total break with capitalist-parliamentarianism, the invention of a politics on a level with the popular real, sovereignty of the idea: it's all there, everything we need to turn away from the film of the crisis and to give ourselves over to the fusion between live thought and organised action (everything we need to turn away from the film of the crisis and rise up).
*In French: hallali. In English, the nearest equivalent is 'mort', the note sounded on a hunting horn to announce the death of a deer.
[Hot off the keyboard, a quick translation of Badiou's piece from yesterday's Le Monde. Translation by myself and ICR].
UPDATE: Badiou actually originally wrote this as a longer piece (which is here). We have added in the extra sections/noted changes in bold. As you can see, the original is quite a bit longer and includes a discussion of housing. Badiou on mortgages! Who'd have thought it?]