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Review of Badiou’s The Meaning of Sarkozy

[Updating my blog with a couple of book reviews I wrote for Socialist Review. This first one of Alain Badiou’s The Meaning of Sarkozy and was published in the March 2009 issue.]

41JOEPlAyzL._ (1)Philosophers, it is well known, only interpret the world, when the point is to change it. France’s Alain Badiou is a rare exception to this rule – a philosopher who tries to do both. Published in France in 2007, this book was conceived as a polemical response to the election of Nicolas Sarkozy as the country’s president in May that year. It proved to be a surprise hit.

Alain Badiou’s politics are unrepentantly left wing. He was swept up by the May 1968 uprising, when he joined a Maoist revolutionary organisation. Ever since then he has remained politically active, focusing in particular on organising migrant workers and defending France’s minority communities. He was, for instance, one of the few French intellectuals to denounce the ban on the Muslim headscarf.

Needless to say, these positions have hardly made him popular among the French establishment. The unlikely mainstream success of his book has enraged the right, who responded with a furious campaign accusing Badiou of antisemitism – a baseless charge that Badiou takes great pleasure in ridiculing.

Part of the reason Badiou gained such popularity was that, unlike much of the left, he refused to be disheartened by Sarkozy’s victory over Ségolène Royal, the Socialist Party’s hopeless Blairite candidate. The book argues that real political change comes from the collective actions of ordinary people. He insists that it is both possible and necessary to open up what he calls a “new sequence” of radical egalitarian politics that starts from a thorough rejection of the limits that capitalism tries to impose.

Badiou argues that Sarkozy’s election is ultimately the result of fear. The right wing turned to Sarkozy out of fear of immigrants, workers and the youth of the suburbs. Much of the left turned to Royal out of fear of Sarkozy. In the face of this fear, Badiou makes the case for political courage.

His principles are at times brilliant and simple: “assume that all workers labouring here belong here, and must be treated on the basis of equality” and “any sick person who asks for a doctor should be examined and treated as well as possible, unconditionally with respect to age, nationality or financial resources”. At others they are dizzyingly abstract: “any process intended to serve as a fragment of emancipatory politics must be held superior to any managerial necessity” or “there is only one world”.

Starting from these principles, Badiou constructs a detailed and provocative comparison of Sarkozy’s politics with those of Philippe Pétain, the reactionary French general and head of the Vichy regime that collaborated with the Nazis. He ends with a call for a return to communist principles, in particular the kind of radical equality he sees at work in the early phases of the French Revolution, during the Paris Commune, and in the initial period of Bolshevik rule in Russia.

Badiou has a curious knack for combining speculative conceptual arguments with brawling polemic, and his book is a joy to read. Unfortunately it ends on a somewhat weak note, and one that underlines some of the problems with his fascinating but idiosyncratic political ideas. He is too uncritical of the Stalinist and Maoist politics that dominated the left during the 20th century, and too dismissive of the existing left’s potential.

But these weaknesses are minor compared to the strengths. Badiou is insightful and funny, especially when he gleefully castigates France’s corrupt political elites and idiotic business classes. These are the qualities that made his book a bestseller in France, and they shine forth for British readers too.

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This entry was posted on 9 February 2012 by in Marxism, Philosophy and tagged .