Political emancipation and representation – Interview with Alain Badiou

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In light of the 2020 uprisings sparked by the murder of George Floyd taking place across America, I want to share an excerpt of a longer interview on riots and protests I conducted with the philosopher Alain Badiou in 2013.

This excerpt concerns Badiou’s definition of what a militant subject is today, that is, how do we think about what sort of identity is formed in a revolt? Badiou argues that the key thing to consider in a movement of emancipation is to not operate within what he calls a representation, but to work as a “representative of differences.”

I find this idea of profound practical interest to thinking the next phase of these uprisings, namely that the task moving forward is to think of collection action as a unification of key components of subjectivity today, for which he locates four key points.

Interview Excerpt

Alain Badiou, Paris, November 2013

What is the militant subject today?

I think you know that we can define the contemporary militant subject at a very practical level, by the conviction that we must work in the direction of unification of very different components of the possible emancipation. So in the classical revolutionary vision, the militant is inside a representation of the working class. The militant is located within the party of the working class.

And not only the Communist militant, but the militant in a more general sense, is a part of that sort of representation of the revolutionary class, or maybe the revolutionary classes, in the case for example in China, we have as the revolutionary classes, not only the workers but of the peasants. OK.

I think the problem today is to find a representation of the militant subject, which is not inside the metaphysics of representation. Which is not the representation of something else. And it’s a rupture of the classical idea, the classical political idea of representation, not only at the level of government and so on, by election, but also at the level of the definition of what is a militant subject and what is an organization, more generally, of the political struggle.

So, my short idea – but because once more I say, we must accept that we are at the beginning of many things – is that today in practically all countries and certainly in Europe, North America and so on, we can see that we have four possible components of the global movement of emancipation, which are not hierarchies, but only a numeration:

First, educated youth, students

Second, popular youth in suburbs

Third, we have the hard part of workers, which are generally in many countries, workers that come from other countries from immigration and so on; and

Fourth, what I can name the ordinary, salaried workers.

For the moment, these four components are separated.

For example, when we have immediate riots of popular youth, we have no agency, no relationship, no real relationship with the other part of youth, when you look at the youth.

When you have mobilization of educated youth, we have some representation of popular youth, but not massive presence of popular youth.

And so, we can define politics in a very general sense, by the attempts to create some relationship between the four components. Not generally immediately between the four components – a big unity, and so on. No. But the militant subjectivity is based on finding a way to organize some intersection, some real common points between two or three or four, of the components of the popular possibility of politics, of emancipation.

And so, the way to define militant subjectivity is not by its representative position, but by the process itself of political action. So it’s in some sense the reverse, because the militant is somebody which is not at all the representative of the part of the people, but much more the activist of the possibility of some points which are precisely not representative of one component, but representative of the intersection of the relationship between two or more components.

And so, it’s the process of unification of differences, which define the militant subjectivity, and not the representation of an identity. That is a philosophical point.

Even in Marx we have the idea that we have a proletarian identity, and that the party of the working class is representative of this political identity. In the modern condition, we can say that “I don’t speak of party,” and so on, I don’t know exactly.

But the militant subjectivity is not representative of an identity. In some sense, it’s representative of a difference inside which can produce some common effect.

And so we can go, in my opinion, from the definition of the militant subject as a representative of some particular identity, to the representation of subjective, militant subjectivity as the active agents that work to unify differences. And so I propose the strange expression of “representative of differences.”

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