Palinurus: Engaging Political Philosophy

Alain Badiou: Philosophy and Politics

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From Plato until today, there is one word which can sum up the concern of the philosopher with respect to politics. This word is ‘justice.’ The philosopher's question to politics is the following: can there be a just political orientation? An orientation which does justice to thought? What we have to begin with is this: injustice is clear; justice is obscure. For he who undergoes injustice is the irrecusable witness to this. But who can testify for justice? There is an affect of injustice, a suffering, a revolt. Nothing, however, signals justice, which can be presented neither as a spectacle, nor as a sentiment.


Must we then resign ourselves to saying that justice is only the absence of injustice? Is it the empty neutrality of a double negation? I do not think so. Nor do I think that injustice is on the side of the perceptible, or of experience, or of the subjective; nor that justice is on the side of the intelligible, or of reason, or of the objective. Injustice is not the immediate disorder of which justice would be the ideal order.


‘Justice’ is a word from philosophy, at least if (as we must) we leave aside its legal signification, entirely devoted to the police and the magistrature. But this word of philosophy is under condition. It is under the condition of the political. Because philosophy knows it is incapable of realizing in the world the truths it testifies to. Even Plato knows that, for there to be justice, it's probable that the philosopher must be king, but that the possibility of there being such a monarch precisely does not depend on philosophy. It depends on political circumstances, which remain irreducible. We will call ‘justice’ the name by which a philosophy designates the possible truth of a political orientation.


The vast majority of empirical political orientations have nothing to do with truth, as we know. They organize a repulsive mixture of power and opinions. The subjectivity that animates them is that of the tribe and the lobby, of electoral nihilism and the blind confrontation of communities. Philosophy has nothing to say about all that, because philosophy only thinks thought, while these orientations are explicitly presented as non-thoughts. The only subjective element which is of importance to them is that of interest.


Some political orientations, throughout history, have had or will have a connection with a truth. A truth of the collective as such. They are rare attempts, often brief, but they are the only ones under condition philosophy can think about. These political sequences are singularities, they trace no destiny, they construct no monumental history. Philosophy can, however, distinguish in them a common feature. This feature is that these orientations require of the people they engage only their strict generic humanity. They give no preference, for the principles of action, to the particularity of interests. These political orientations induce a representation of the collective capacity which refers its agents to the strictest equality.


What does ‘equality’ mean? Equality means that the political actor is represented under the sole sign of his specifically human capacity. Interest is not a specifically human capacity. All living beings have as an imperative for survival the protection of their interests. The specifically human capacity is precisely thought, and thought is nothing other than that by which the path of a truth seizes and traverses the human animal.


Thus a political orientation worthy of being submitted to philosophy under the idea of justice is an orientation whose unique general axiom is: people think, people are capable of truth. Saint-Just was thinking of the strictly equalitarian recognition of the capacity for truth when he defined before the Convention, in April 1794, public consciousness: ‘May you have a public consciousness, for all hearts are equal as to sentiments of good and bad, and this consciousness is made up of the tendency of the people towards the general good.’ And in an entirely different political sequence, during the Cultural Revolution in China, we find the same principle, for example in the decision in sixteen points of 8 August 1966: ‘Let the masses educate themselves in this great revolutionary movement, let them determine by themselves the distinction between what is just and what is not.’



From Radical Philosophy, July/August 1999