Monday, 18 July 2016

Brexit is a Pseudo-Event

Alain Badiou: France's most influential radical philosopher
structures his entire philosophy around a notion of the event


Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's novel The Leopard, set amidst the heroic arrival of Garibaldi in Sicily and the ensuing unification of Italy, contains one of the great clich├ęs of political reaction. "Everything needs to change so that everything can remain the same," is the assured counsel of Tancredi Falconeri, an aristocrat convert to the nationalist cause. Falconeri here gives voice to that enduring ability of the ruling class to change its stripes and adapt to new facts. No matter the epoch-shaking nature of certain events, they will only ever play into the hands of the ruling elite.

Such is the case with Brexit: despite the mounting political headcount and the seismic shock to Britain's economic and political system, the country is likely to remain firmly in the hands of its long-term political masters. A government inclined to impose authoritarian cruelty on the poor, people of colour, foreigners and women has emerged as the only available option, fronted indeed by a close ally of the former Prime Minister. Even as the Conservatives doubled-down on their immigrant-bashing (refusing to guarantee the rights of European nationals currently residing in the UK), the Chancellor announced plans to further slash corporation tax to just fifteen percent. As the long-term commitment to budgetary discipline is yet again kicked down the road, the Chancellor's emphasis was entirely on soothing the market's jitters over sterling and winning back waverers in the City. Meanwhile, Nigel Farage may have quit as leader of UKIP, but his attendance at the parties of the UK's grateful media barons will no doubt still be keenly sought. Boris Johnson managed a silence of several days before he was back in the cabinet by elite demand.

The French philosopher Alain Badiou advances the notion that some events are - despite all the outward appearance of violence - merely pseudo-events. Before we can sketch how he can make this claim, we have to quickly look at his definition of what an authentic event is. Badiou believes that each dominant "situation" (the prevailing conditions which allow being to be ordered into a world) is constituted via the exclusion of one element. Badiou refers to the much-abused but useful notion of the proletariat as the revolutionary subject, excluded from influence over the circulation of capital, as the subject whose formation intrudes on the situation of capitalism and shatters it with its demands for political representation. This shattering is what Badiou calls an authentic event. Badiou insists that mathematics is the only means by which being can be described (it's complicated) and so therefore this kind evental opening in being - in which the excluded "part of no part" intrudes into the order of being and disrupts it - is productive of truth. Authentic events produce truths - or more controversially, conditions where unflinching loyalty (what Badiou calls "fidelity") can be declared. In Badiou's understanding it is impossible to anticipate an event exactly, they simply happen and the choice is whether to dedicate oneself to the event or to turn away from it. An authentic event must propel its excluded element to a "maximal intensity of appearance" by rupturing being. In a political event, then, a group that is basically invisible or unable to create the grounds of its own visibility in the dominant order, must stake its claim.

It is this appearance of a new political subject that truly marks an event and it is this subject which names the event. There are philosophical problems with such a theory, of course, in that it makes political events purely subjective - nameable only by those who participate in the project. But it is nevertheless useful for understanding Brexit from the perspective of radical philosophy. Brexit is a pseudo-event because it does not rupture being and fails to propel any subordinate group into the limelight. As we can already see from the masses of data, no single political subject can emerge from the Brexit debacle: the very wealthy, small business owners, many petit-bourgeois, and huge swathes of the declining working class are counted among the leave data. There is no sign of some unprecedented emergence and however much commentators attempt to be shocked by the vote, it is clear that it falls into a pre-ordained, easily marked out story.

So perhaps we can adjust Lampedusa's dictum of the renascent aristocracy: "Everything must change in order that nothing new emerges." In its enthusiasm for a return to the days of grand political strategy much of the intellectual left has forgotten this kind of ontological categorisation of events. With oppositions of the left - and also the far right - forming across much of the previously moribund political terrain of the west, this return to immediate engagement with actual politics is both necessary and appealing. But we would do well to remember that the "potentials" and "possibilities" for the left that can be unpicked from the Brexit tangle are exceedingly narrow. This is not fully understood with reference to the "balance of political forces" - it has to be taken to a higher level of abstraction. Brexit cannot yield meaningful opportunities for the left because it is incapable of producing a subject which breaks with the dominant order.

Slavoj Zizek, one of Badiou's closest philosophical allies, describes the pseudo-event as an aestheticised dramatisation of the event shorn of its radical implications, and has used the rise of fascism as the best example. The discourses assembled around the Brexit vote do not present any intensification of class struggle in the left's sense but rather its displacement by racial and national tensions. Brexit even comes with its own racialised others: the usually Muslim immigrant/refugee in whose favour the cosmopolitan Brussels bunch secretly lobby. Brexit, unlike the rise of fascism, is not articulated exclusively around the rejection of the racial other. Rather it is a form of petty-bourgeois and relatively impoverished working-class nationalist reaction - but reaction nevertheless.

The idea that the left can easily exploit the ruling class divisions opened up by Brexit is highly dangerous. How then to fight the racial discourses articulated through Brexit? It is important that this fight be undertaken in a way which respects the democratic decision to leave the European Union. It is not Exit itself that the left should resent, only the manner of its undertaking and the political discourses which are articulated through it. Here, it seems to me, it is worth returning to Badiou, who argued a few years ago, in the wake of the re-election of Nicolas Sarkozy in France, that the first gesture of a radical politics must be to assert that 'there is only one world of living men and women.' This was said in the face of Sarkozy's repeated deployment of a cultural-nationalist ontology: 'we' constitute this place, and those not from here should love it or leave. "The single world of living men and women may have laws," Badiou writes, "what it cannot have is subjective or 'cultural' preconditions for existence within it - to demand that you have to be like everyone else. The single world is precisely the place where an unlimited set of differences exist. Philosophically, far from casting doubt on the unity of the world, these differences are its principle of existence." Fighting the racist or at least racialising discourses around Brexit doesn't entail fighting for EU membership. Instead we should work to consolidate that which is universal in all identities. This insistence on universality is not, Badiou argues, an argument to abolish all other particular forms of identity, but rather to supplement them with fully developed commonalities. In other words to say that from the perspective of the world "no one is illegal." Once we declare that we inhabit a shared world - a single world shared by those drowning in boats in the Mediterranean or fleeing war in Syria or languishing in camps in Calais - we can develop solidarities that are universal.    

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