Alain Badiou: “The alleged power of capitalism … today is merely a reflection of the weakness of its opponent.”

The following interview with Alain Badiou, conducted by Darko Vujica, was originally published by 

Darko Vujica:  You have invested a lot of energy in realizing the Idea(s) of communism. What drew you to a revolutionary engagement and why?

Alain Badiou: My father was a socialist, who participated in the Resistance against the Nazis. My mother leaned more towards anarchism. My first philosophy teacher, Jean Paul Sartre, was a fellow traveller of the French Communist Party. When I was a teenager, there was a terrible colonial war in Algeria and I stood up against it. When I was 30, May ‘68 happened, a huge movement of young people and workers. In short, my entire education led me towards politics in its revolutionary and communist form.

You have severely criticized the phenomenon of elections, which you consider a fools game. Could you elaborate on that argument? What would be its alternative?

Elections only work if there is basic agreement between the majority and the opposition concerning the organisation of the society. No one has ever seen a complete change of society that resulted from elections! And it is perfectly understandable: how could any party supporting a conservative idea of society accept a complete overturn simply as a result of voting? And inversely, if you change society through a revolution, how could you possibly accept a return to the way things were and calmly hand back power to the reactionaries? In our “Western” countries the rule is fairly simple: once in power, you can change some small details, but there is no question of changing the capitalist basis of society. Do you know of any “democratic” country that is not in fact, and above all, dominated by an extremely stable capitalism? Elections are but a façade for preserving the dominant order.

The German economic sociologist Wolfgang Streeck said that today’s political imagination has faded due to the capitalistic dynamic and that capitalism would crumble without any kind of alternative scenario ready to replace it. How would you comment on that?

It is completely false. The heart of capitalism, its absolute condition of existence, is private property over the means of production and exchange. It is the existence of a very small oligarchy that controls the capitals of the big multinational corporations; it is the excessive power of money, that creates false values as exchange values, fixed by the market, and not by the use value of commodities. If you attack all of it, if you change the mode of production, you really step into another world. The alleged power of capitalism, its false “dynamism”–it actually goes through long periods of crisis and stagnation—today is merely a reflection of the weakness of its opponents.

In the Communist Hypothesis you posit that certain great leftist moments existed in the previous century, but also that the communism of the 20th century is finished and that we should restart. With that in mind, I would like to ask you what can be learnt from the failures of the 20th-century communism and what should be the foundation of communism today?

The weakness of the communism of the 20th century was primarily political. Centralised and militarised communist parties were good instruments for seizing power. But they were not good instruments for organising communist society. They were too attached to state power and did not develop a true internationalism. We now have to organise communist power around three things: mass movements, organisations that continuously forge the slogans and wills of the movements, and, what will remain for a long time states, which must be under the constant supervision of the movements and organisations. The great failure of the 20thcentury was the fusion of the Party with the State, the creation of Party-States, gradually cut off from the masses. The political dialectic has to comprise three terms: (movement, organisations, states) and not two (masses and state), or even one  (Party-State).

You called capitalism the sickness of mankind. However, capitalism is the reality for many people who consider it the only workable system. How can we make communism appealing to people preoccupied with consumerist culture?

When only one social and dominant regime is left, once it achieved huge victory over its communist adversary—it is obvious that it will create widespread support. In 17th century France, the overwhelming majority of the French thought that the absolute monarchy was the only possible political form. One century later, this belief did not prevent republican revolutions and the installation of the capitalist bourgeoisie in power. The same is true for today. The thing you call the “culture of consumerism” is simply the dominant ideology under the “democratic” dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie in effect draws its profits from a circulation of commodities that is as rapid as possible. However, in one or more centuries, the hold this ideology has on today’s minds certainly won’t prevent the replacement of this corrupt commodity “order” with a reinvented communism.

With the fall of real socialism, the debates about communism have been marginalized. The communism-oriented parties are weak and communism is argued only in narrow intellectual circles. How can we transfer the debates about communism from the margins into the center of (public) attention?

How would your question have sounded in, say in 1840 when Marx and Engels, and a few other people began their activity and writing their works? They were only a handful of people, and there was basically no public opinion in their favour. In 1848 they wrote the “Manifesto of the Communist Party” when the party did not exist at all! Since then it has become a kind of classic. We, just like them, have to start again, begin, first and foremost with an intense ideological activity in order to show that today we have not only one, but two possibilities, the capitalist and the communist. And we have to participate, at an international level, in all relevant popular movements, analysing them from the point of view of communist principles, of which we in effect have four:

– collectivisation of the means of production and exchange, expropriating the oligarchy that possesses them

– reduction and suppression of the “big differences” that affect our lives practically: between manual and intellectual labour, between town and country city, between managerial and  executive tasks… Creation of a polymorphous worker.

– gradual disappearance of false collective identities, whether racial, national, religious, etc, that poison public life.

– gradual withering away of the state in favour of direct self-management of society, in the form of continuous meetings determining the slogans, tasks and goals.

Twenty years ago a bloody disintegration took place with Yugoslavia. How do you explain the dissolution of Yugoslavia and how do you regard the post-Yugoslavian territory from today’s perspective?

I am for the withering away of states, for Marx’s slogan: “the workers have no country”. I am firmly internationalist. From this point of view, I am generally opposed to dismembering of existing states and to artificial “independence” supported by chauvinism or tradition. We need to abolish nationalist oppressions from above through internationalist activity, and not from below by the regional nationalisms. I strongly regret the disappearance of the ex-Yugoslavia, and I do not at all believe that the existence of some ten states in its place constitutes progress. Certainly, the colonial empires had to collapse. During the Algerian national liberation war, I supported the Algerians. I also supported Vietnamese against the USA army. But this epoch is basically over. Today, communist internationalism comes first!

2 replies on “Alain Badiou: “The alleged power of capitalism … today is merely a reflection of the weakness of its opponent.””

Good god, economic literacy is so poor. Badiou makes the same logical error as the libertarians, actually another type of communist, in a way; they both conflate free markets and utility markets. Too rarely do we look at these markets. Libertarians are correct about free markets, they are wonderful for both provider and customer, such that we say, “the customer is always right.” But, we seldom define our terms; free markets must include Competition and Alternatives. So, not only are there different providers fighting for your business, there are alternatives, often several. Utilities markets are inherently different. Utilities are often “global” systems (meaning one system must serve the entire market, not the entire earth) they are “essential” services, (water/sewage/drainage, electricity, natural gas, roads) these are necessary for life, though I wouldn’t include food, as Utilities markets also face either production or distribution issues. There are many markets and ways to bring food to market (though the USDA has arguably falsely created utility out of food when there are many possibilities, this has limited alternatives wrongly) The one-off, global nature of utilities, and the scale means that gov’t is required (or at least very helpful) in making efficient systems, and funding these extensive systems in a way we’d never see in the free market.

There is another market, other than Free Markets and Utilities Markets, and these would be “fiduciary” or Professional Markets, these are lawyers, accountants and even real estate agents. These are different from trades due to the representative nature of these roles. Professionals are dealing with sensitive information, and have a presumed expertise beyond the “Client’s” understanding, so that the “customer” can’t be right as in a free market, the customer isn’t knowledgeable enough to be right, he’s usually buying advice and representation after all. I would suggest there are at least two professional roles that serve a utility function; major healthcare and retail level banking (“commercial banking” as opposed to “investment banking”) These I call “professional utilities” meaning they’re one off systems/services that involve great gov’t funding and coordination, and they’re serving a client, but are also beholden to the others, creating a conflict of interests. In regular fiduciary markets, the payer and the “client” are usually the same, and if not, an opportunity for conflicts of interest might well arise. So, these “professional utilities” services ought to be, as all utilities markets, either regulated or wholly socialized.

Let’s look at the etymology; Free markets have “customers” the competition and alternatives give the customer all the power in the relationship, such that we say the “customer is always right.” Pricing is based on “whatever the market will bear” as customers have the freedom of choice to participate/buy or not. Abuses in these markets are usually simple theft or fraud, and very few gov’t protections are needed to protect customer and provider.
Professional (Fiduciary) markets have “Clients” who are served by providers who are bound by “Fiduciary Law” to look out for the best interests of their clients. Failure to do so is regulated by courts and the body of “Fiduciary law.” These markets have many providers (competition) though there are few if any “alternatives” Again, short of invocation of fiduciary law, there is little role for gov’t–except where poor and indigent are forced to be represented in dire circumstances; ie public defenders and Hippocratic care in ERs.
Utilities markets have “Consumers” who have really no alternative and little to no competition to choose from. These are essential services unlike Free and Fiduciary markets, the “market” would “bear any price” for water, electricity… Demand for these services is highly inelastic (or unchanging based on price) Since everyone needs these services, if these cost too much, they will suck all the demand from free markets. So, gov’t has a unique need to control these costs; THESE are the services that need be either regulated or wholly socialized.

If we can socialize the utilities demands, and the demands for healthcare, education and essential utilities services, we can provide for the many. This actually serves the people, AND liberty. Libertarians ignore these different markets and would crush liberty by allowing essential services to break the backs of the lower classes. Communists and Socialists would break the freedom and variety of the free markets. Both argue too broadly. Neither define their terms, and neither really understand economics. Simple sweeping answers are seldom the solution to complex systems. We need to be smarter, we need to define our terms, and we need limits, to both gov’t and “freedom”

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