Through a Glass Darkly: Alain Badiou's Critique of Anarchism

By Noys, Benjamin | Anarchist Studies, July 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Through a Glass Darkly: Alain Badiou's Critique of Anarchism


Noys, Benjamin, Anarchist Studies


ABSTRACT

The French philosopher Alain Badiou is one of a number of contemporary theorists whose work has been identified as a source for postanarchism. This essay questions that identification by focusing on Badiou's sustained criticism of anarchist and libertarian currents for their failure to engage fully with the difficulties of political power, and in particular their failure to break with capitalist and statist political forms. Although problematic, these criticisms converge with existing debates in the 'movement of movements', which have started to address the difficulty of finding egalitarian forms of practice to sustain the movement. These debates lead us towards the often elided problem of the relationship between postanarchist theory and anarchist practice.

It has become a commonplace to argue that we have witnessed the resurgence or renaissance of anarchism in recent years, particularly with the emergence of the 'movement of movements' after the Seattle uprising of 1999 or the earlier Chiapas uprising of 1994. David Graeber has poetically summarised the case: 'Anarchism is the heart of the movement, its soul; the source of what's most new and hopeful about it' (2002: 62). This new attention to anarchist practice has been accompanied by a renewed interest in anarchist theory. In this, important parallels have been noted between the work of leading thinkers and philosophers, including Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Michel Foucault, Jacques Rancière, and anarchist themes and approaches. What is striking in bom cases, especially the second, is the general absence of anarchism as an explicit reference point. It seems as if anarchism is the politics that dare not speak its name. One of the results of this absence has been the significant effort by anarchists or those sympathetic to anarchism to re-establish the anarchist credentials of the present. As Saul Newman, one of those responsible for this effort has put it: 'perhaps anarchism can be seen as the hidden referent for contemporary radical politics' (2007: 12). In fact, as Newman himself stresses, this is one way to define postanarchism: as the production of a synthesis that will establish that both contemporary radical political practice and political theory constitutes a new form, or new paradigm, for anarchism.

To make good on this argument postanarchist thinkers have typically made a double move. First they have argued that many contemporary theories, which are usually identified as post-structuralist or post-Marxist, are better understood through the lens of a revised anarchism. While these theories often remain attached to a residual Marxism or are vague about their political implications, integrated into anarchism they can become truly radical. The ways in which these theories challenge the primacy of class explanation, attack the dominance of the state and attend to the micro-politics of power, converge with anarchist thought and practice. The second move is to argue that these theories allow us to purge 'traditional' anarchism of its humanist, naturalist, and positivist residues. Post-structuralist or post-Marxist thought allows us to shift anarchism away from its supposed reliance on a set of 'essential' human qualities or norms that would then dictate a natural, or true, politics. In this way, it is argued, these theories open anarchism up to a new thinking 'that embraces contingency and indeterminacy and rejects essentialia identities and firm ontological foundations' (Newman 2007: 16). The postanarchist synthesis is then often linked to the new forms of decentered and dispersed practice in the movement of movements, to this new political and social inventiveness that remains unconstrained by the limits of traditional anarchism. In this way a narrative has been constructed in which the 'hidden referent' of anarchism is explicit: our moment is anarchist in theory and practice if we fundamentally revise what we mean by anarchism to become postanarchist

Critics rightly argue that this seemingly persuasive narrative tends to flatten the depth of traditional anarchism into the cliché of 'essentialism' (Conn 2002). …

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