Since I just posted a thing on Badiou I figure I’ll post this too. It’s an old post I never finished. I read a few old printouts of articles by Alain Badiou that I’d had for a long while. I can’t remember if I ever finished them, I know I didn’t finish taking notes on them, as the fragmentary post below demonstrates.

I like some of what Badiou has to say in his political stuff that I read, as I’ll get to in a moment. I find his philosophical work hard going but at least somewhat interesting but I find his mixing of the two really annoying. His philosophical vocabulary adds nothing that I find useful to his political writing. It’s sort like if a friend said “I want to tell you about my trip to New York!” then used interpretive dance or tile mosaic art as a way to do the telling. There may well be something worthwhile about the effort to do the telling using that means, but the means also has some real downsides. Another way to put this – I suppose if people want to use philosophical vocabularies that’s their business, if it scratches their itches then great. But it does not scratch all itches. (There’s this great book, Exercises in Style, by Raymond Queneau, where he tells the same very short very dull story 99 different ways. Each has a use, but I’d maintain that the uses relate to different ends and that both uses and ends could be ranked, and some some of the uses seem mostly to be the comical effect of using that style to tell this story, the combination being odd at the least. There’s a comment to be made in here somewhere about Badiou but I’m too lazy to make it just now. This reminds me I want to buy that Queneau book or at least read it again.)

Since I find Badiou’s philosophical stuff irritating when mixed in with the political stuff, I’m not going to really engage with any of that here.

In his article “The Factory as Event Site” Badiou argues for the relevance of ‘the factory’ and ‘the worker’ as political points of reference. I don’t like the equation of all workplaces with factories and I find ‘the worker’ a bit monolithic, but I like what I take to be its most general point – workplaces and workers are important for left politics. One annoying thing about Badiou’s answer to his opening question – which is, “Why should the worker be a reference in our vision of politics?” – is that the “we” implied in his “our” seems to me to not include people who work for wages. Badiou’s not saying “those of us who work” or even “those of you who work” but “those of us…” in a way that seems to suggest people who don’t work for a living.

Badiou makes the point (albeit in his philosophical vocabulary that I’ve already objected to as a vocabulary for posing this) that understanding exploitation does not give us an understanding of organization. He also underscores competition between workers on the labor market as an obstacle to class consciousness and class power (not his terms). He asks “what destabilises the competition between workers and unifies the class”? He doesn’t actually say that competition is the main problem but I think he overestimates that. Badiou notes two types of answers in the marxist tradition, one he identifies with the Marx of the 1844 Manuscripts


and one he identifies with Engels.

The first points to workers owning nothing but labor power, which we are forced to sell. This is a unity of general condition (again not Badiou’s term). The second is more historical – industrial work brings great numbers of people together, disciplines them, and so on. (Again I don’t like the emphasis on factory work, industry narrowly defined.) Badiou likes both of these formulations, apparently. I don’t think he adheres strictly to these but he tries to keep them in mind as he proceeds. He talks about them combined as joining “representation of workers’ political positivity – it is because they are nothing that they are capable of organising everything [Badiou at some point references the line in the Internationale, “we have been naught, we shall be all,” though I’m not sure about his causal claim – either its truth or its accuracy as a reading either of Marx or the Internationale; I think the claim is prescriptive rather than causal] – to a local register – it is because their exists (…) the factory, that there is the possibility of the workers’ one in politics.” (172.)

Badiou takes pains to stress that he is saying the factory is important but that it’s not *all* that is important. The factory is necessary to any good politics, but not sufficient.

I find Badiou’s account of unions and unionism leaves me cold in the way that a fair bit of ultraleft/council communist stuff does. I find it accurate as a description of some unions but I find it overly narrow in its definition: it criticizes some unions as if all unions – all groups that call themselves unions – must be like what he describes. The common ultraleft reply is “if it doesn’t do that stuff then it’s not a union,” which I find annoying, a sort of legislating on words implying that organizations that don’t fall into those traps are making a mistake in using the word ‘union.’ It seems to me more accurate to just say “some unions” and be more specific, and that that would also involve a less haughty posture of ruling on others’ uses of words. (A bit ironic for me to say given my complaints about Badiou’s vocabulary. Fair enough.)

Here are Badiou’s criticisms –


Badiou makes a point I like very much despite my complaints about his vocabulary. To paraphrase, he says that part of what is compelling about workplace struggles is that the ordinary operation of a workplace under capitalism involves preventing or subordinating workers’ collective power – negating or preventing workers as political, and the reverse is also true: workers’ power or workers’ politics in the workplace involves messing up or stopping the ordinary process of what happens in a capitalist workplace. (175.)

Badiou describes marxism in its “bare bones” as asserting the importance of factories and workers (I’d say “workplaces”) and as holding out the possibility of “a politics of non-domination.” (176.) I like that a good deal. If we take the first part as a sort of test then it seems to me that a great many ostensible marxists in universities are not marxists in Badiou’s sense, given how much of marxism and how many marxists have so little to say about workplaces and workers and workers’ organizations. Badiou also says – and while I don’t find this helpful in the sense of casting any light I like it for its heat, its rhetorical power – that those who don’t engage with work and workplaces basically do what the state does, treating work as non- or a-political. (He could be read as suggesting that the state ignores work and workplaces which is obviously untrue – the state structures and monitors and maintains work and workplaces in a great number of ways. The real point is that the state is part of treating the state as not political, not what Badiou calls an ‘event site.’)