An A to Z of Theory | Alain Badiou: The State

In his latest examination of the work of the Alain Badiou, Andrew Robinson explores an important aspect of Badiou's ontology, and a central one to his political writings: the State. Robinson explains why Badiou's concept of the state is both political and ontological, why the state is the enemy of the Event, and why Badiou both wishes to, and yet often feels unable to, call for the destruction of the state.

In Theory, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Monday, August 18, 2014 17:09 - 0 Comments

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Alain Badiou - The State - Ceasefire Magazine
In his ten-part series on Badiou, Ceasefire columnist Andrew Robinson traces the influential French post-Maoist’s ideas from their philosophical foundations to their implications for radical politics.  For other articles in the series visit the In Theory page.

Badiou, the State, and the ‘State of the Situation’

As befits someone rooted in vanguardist politics, Badiou’s relationship to the state has always been – and remains – ambiguous. Historically, he saw the destruction of the state as one of the main goals of the communist movement. But he also supported Maoist groups which sought to seize state power so as to overcome the state ‘dialectically’. He vocally opposed those who wished to destroy the state at once. When the Cultural Revolution was ultimately suppressed by the army, with Mao’s encouragement, China returned to a bureaucratic political model which has today brought China to neoliberalism. But Badiou did not take this as evidence against his reliance on the state to destroy the state. Instead, he took it as throwing into question the very possibility of destroying the state.

In Badiou’s better-known recent works, particularly Being and Event, the idea of the state is further complicated by a conceptual split. The situation is organised by something called the “state of the situation“. Badiou often calls this simply the “state”, which leads to some confusion. Sometimes he means the political state, sometimes he doesn’t. Badiou’s conception is here in continuity with Althusser’s expanded sense of the state, as in his concept of Ideological State Apparatuses.

The state encompasses all the apparatuses and institutions which reproduce order (or meaning or hegemony). This includes the dominant structure of discourse, including the dominant ideology, and the social structures which underpin this ideology. Hence for instance, privately owned media and schools, trade unions, the structure of families, universities, consumerist identities and so on are all part of the state. There is also a “state” in the fields of art, science and love, which is defined as the organisation of the situation. In art and science, this would be the dominant academic or theoretical orthodoxy. For instance, Newtonian physics would be a ‘state’ disrupted by quantum physics as an ‘Event’. 

The relationship between the “state of the situation” and the political state in Badiou’s work is ambiguous and shifting. Most often, Badiou uses the two terms interchangeably. He effectively assumes that the political state always performs the ordering functions of the “state of the situation” in the political sphere.

However, more recently, in Logic of Worlds, Badiou largely replaces ‘state of the situation’ with ‘world’ as a name for the dominant order of representation. This makes it easier to separate the state in the usual sense from the concept dealing with the ordering of situations. In Being and Event, there is no space for multiple worlds to coexist. The single structure of reality is objective. In Logic of Worlds, there is more space for the possible coexistence of different “worlds” which use different systems of counting.

The Role of the State

In fact the ‘state of the situation’ or ‘world’ is only one way of organising the situation. It is a way of preserving order.  The initial ordering of the situation is not carried out by the state, in either sense. This ordering is an effect of the ‘count-for-one’. In other words, there is a structuring principle which determines the elements in a situation, and this principle is deeper than the state. Equivalential value in capitalism might be an example of a count-for-one.

The situation in itself is a ‘pure anarchy’. But it is overlaid by a ‘count-for-one’ which makes it comprehensible. There is a radical difference between the elements in a space and the space in which they are arranged. The space is always something different, which founds the ordering of elements. The space is created by the count-for-one. The count-for-one is like a knot, which holds the situation together in one point, rather than a chain, which joins together a connected series.

However, the ‘count-for-one’ is unstable. In Badiou’s theory, there is always at least one excluded part (we’ll come to this later). And the excluded part can always erupt in revolt at any point, because the ordering of the situation is arbitrary. A social order is always at risk of collapsing into the void of inconsistent multiplicity, or chaos.

The state tries to head off such a collapse through a second-order structuring of the situation. In the first order of structuring, a number of elements belong to the situation. In the second order of structuring, the state tries to structure all the possible relations among the elements. This is an attempt to include the ordering of the situation in its count-for-one, or to count its structure among its elements. If all the relations among elements are ordered, then chaos is less likely to erupt.

If we think of the capitalist state here, the count-for-one is the imposition of money as equivalential value. In Badiou’s account, this wasn’t done by the state (‘primitive accumulation’ aside). But the order of equivalent values is disrupted by the anomalous classification of labour-power as a commodity. Labour is a disruptive force which haunts capitalism with the ‘spectre of communism’. In addition, each object in its ‘use-value’ and its ecological position is not reducible to capitalist value.

So capitalism is disrupted by types of valuing and ecological relations which escape it, or which reproduce it in hard-to-control ways – traditional land use, subsistence farming, black markets, ‘commons’ and so on. The capitalist state tries to prevent this disruption in two ways. It classifies labour-power as a normal commodity, and tries to suppress Events which show otherwise. It also tries to arrange, classify and regulate the relationships among objects in ways which make them more systematic and easier to control. For instance, it passes laws on land-use which favour commercial farming, it encloses land, it specifies times and places for certain kinds of trades, it regulates banking, and so on.

Hence, there are two levels of ordering in a situation. ‘Presentation’ or ‘belonging’ comes from the count-for-one. ‘Representation’ or ‘inclusion’ comes from the state of the situation. Normal elements of the situation are both ‘present’ and ‘represented’. A bank, for instance, is both socially real and legally recognised. But something can also be present without being represented, or represented without being present.

Badiou theorises the state in set-theoretical terms. If the situation is a ‘set’, then the state of the situation is its ‘power-set’. This means that it counts all the possible relations or combinations of elements. Suppose for instance that a society, as a set, contained three classes which each ‘count for one’: landlords, peasants and artisans. The state of the situation (the power-set) contains the following: landlords;  peasants; artisans; landlords + peasants; landlords + artisans; peasants + artisans;  landlords + peasants + artisans; and the empty set (more on the empty set later; this is the excluded part, which contains none of the three recognised/counted elements).

The state of the situation might arrange each of the possible relations in a systematic order. The combination landlords + peasants is regulated by laws on rent, serfdom or its abolition, and so on; the combination peasants + artisans is regulated by laws on whether peasants can join guilds, on state-recognised prices for grain sales and the like. The state is always ‘excessive’ over the situation because there are more combinations than there are elements. There are always many more ways of representing elements in the state of the situation than there are elements in the situation.

The state has the role of creating an order which classifies and names elements or parts, and gives them all a specific place. It can do this to some degree among normal elements. However, the project is frustrated by the excluded part. It is not possible for the excluded part to appear as an element in the situation (because it cannot be counted). But it can appear as an “inexistent” part or subset. This is what happens in an Event. The role of the state is to make sure that this part remains merely “inexistent”, and does not appear.

However, an Event is necessarily opposed to an existing state. The state does not want the excluded part to appear. The state arranges the normal situation so as to create an ignorance or unconsciousness of the ‘void’ of the situation: the excluded part and the inconsistent multiplicity it contains. By extension, it also conceals the arbitrariness of the count-for-one, the decisionist nature of the social order, and the constructedness and contingency of the situation.

Badiou uses this to reinforce and inflect Marx’s view that the state is always in the service of the ruling class. For Badiou, the state rearranges the situation so as to reinforce the position of the dominant parts, by strengthening the exclusion of other parts.

Badiou distinguishes different kinds of states. Some – such as feudal and Stalinist states – explicitly privilege one part. Others, like the liberal state, incorporate a biased, elite perspective instead of an explicit recognition of domination. The liberal state locks-in bourgeois domination by treating the elements (such as workers) as commodities. As a result, Badiou says, the liberal state counts only capital. Workers are counted only as a type of (living, mobile, human, or social) capital. For instance, people have a right to benefits only if the state thinks they are doing their best to be usefully exploitable. Like any state, the liberal state tries to defend the dominant social order against any attack on this way of arranging things.

In essence, there isn’t much of a structural difference between a liberal state and a totalitarian or absolutist one. The exclusion of the excluded part cannot be challenged as long as one remains within a normal situation, or ‘business as usual’. This is the case regardless of how apparently inclusive the existing order seems to be.

Degrees of Appearance

In Being and Event, this account is pretty much either-or – something is represented or it is not. In Logic of Worlds, the regulation of worlds partly occurs in terms of the measurement of degrees of identity and difference among elements. Things are said to ‘exist’ (meaning to be self-identical) to varying degrees, depending on how they relate to the count-for-one (or ‘transcendental’) of their world. Badiou’s examples focus on clear and vague elements in paintings. Roughly speaking, the further something is from the world’s trunk, the vaguer and less well-defined its identity is. This approach is a way of reading situations so as to map possibilities.

Take the case of a legal system which assumes an ideal model of a rational, knowing individual. In this system, a stockbroker would have a high degree of appearance, because s/he lives in a world which produces a subject who fits with this assumption. A traumatised person from a poor background, who does not have the same degree of “fit” with the bourgeois model of the subject, would have a much lower degree of appearance as an individual who has rights. Such a person has difficulty being heard – they are not heard equally with the stockbroker, and are treated more harshly. Someone whose way of thinking does not fit the image of a rational, knowing individual at all – such as a ‘psychotic’ person, or someone from a culture which is not recognised – would have a very low degree of appearance and basically would be unable to get a hearing.

So the stockbroker is unlikely to be convicted, even if s/he causes a lot of harm, and the laws in the area have wiggle room. The poor person would be judged much more harshly, possibly for making bad choices or lacking self-control (i.e. for being bad at being a rational, knowing individual). Whereas the stockbroker’s “bad choices” are understood to be mitigated or excused, the poor person’s “bad choices” are not so understood, because the poor person isn’t as close to the ideal of the subject.

In a similar vein, the psychotic person might be denied rights completely, and jailed simply for being psychotic, or for being a “risk”. They wouldn’t even be recognised as a subject, but at most as a “potential subject”, to be coerced through “treatment” into approximating the ideal model. What happens here is a kind of injustice arising from unequal degrees of appearance.  Notice that this injustice can happen even though there is an equal ‘count-for-one’ that, in principle, treats everyone the same, and that has its roots in an earlier revolutionary Event (the “bourgeois revolution”). 

In Badiou’s terms, this situation would mean the stockbroker has a high degree of appearance, the poor person has a low degree of appearance, and the psychotic is “inexistent”, or does not appear at all. This relates to how far they are socially recognised – in this case, how the state treats them. But it also relates to the extent to which they are “self-identical” in the dominant discourse. In this discourse, people are meant to identify as knowing, rational individuals. The stockbroker is able to feel s/he is a full person in this way. Someone from a poor background is split between this ideal of who they are, and the realities of dependency, trauma, emotional responses to poverty, lack of meaningful choices and so on. They might become a kind of “split” person. The psychotic person is unable to identify as a person in the way recognised by the dominant discourse at all, or can do so only very weakly. This is why Badiou sees ‘appearance’ as also being ‘existence’.

Think also of what happens when an actor with a high degree of appearance is pitted in the legal system against an actor with a low degree of appearance – a company development project against a local community; a cop against someone who is poor, Black, or young; a company or a cop against an activist. Think about something like the Trayvon Martin case – a subject with high appearance (Zimmerman) against one with low appearance (Martin). Think also of the difficulties courts seem to have in taking certain kinds of rapes seriously – particularly if the rapist is a high-status, socially recognisable subject, and the rape survivor is not.

My emotional response to this kind of account is that Badiou is letting institutions off the hook, that he is making certain structures of injustice essential to the structure of any situation – which minimises the outrage that concrete injustice can otherwise cause. This kind of inequality is an abuse of the legal system, even in relation to its own ideals.

However, Badiousians would recognise all of this as injustice. Even though Badiou sees this kind of structure as necessary in any situation, this doesn’t mean that he can’t recognise its concrete manifestations as wrong, even intolerable.

Part of Badiou’s argument is that the injustice which arises from degrees of recognition is not simply a failure of the state to act consistently. So if my analysis above is right, then a Badiousian argument would conclude that an Event, or revolutionary change, is needed. Things wouldn’t be OK if only poor people had equal legal representation, or judges made more allowance for circumstances. The problem is rooted in the ‘count-for-one’. To address the injustice, it would be necessary to have a completely different ‘count-for-one’. This in turn would require an eruption by unrepresented groups, which would then be elaborated into a new situation. (More on this later).

The State and the Event

As well as ordering the possible combinations in a situation, the state also functions to head off Events by repressing the excluded part, keeping it invisible, ‘inexistent’ and politically absent.

The state exists to contain the excess of parts over elements (i.e. the existence of an excluded part which cannot be an element). In some accounts of Badiou’s theory, it is even identical with this excess. This, according to Badiou, is why the state seems immeasurably excessive in normal (non-Evental) circumstances. (Think of phrases like “there is no alternative”, “resistance is futile”, “there’s nothing we can do about it”, even “the long arm of the law”).

In other words, the state seems to have so much power that it cannot be challenged by any part, or group of parts. The appearance that “there is no alternative”, that no other world is possible, is central to the preservation of social normality and stability. But in Badiou’s theory, this appearance is ultimately false.

A central task of any political revolt is to interrupt this appearance of immeasurable power, turning state power into something visible. This happens, for instance, when a movement acts in a way which the state tries to repress. For Badiou, the movement forces the state to show its hand, which makes its power something calculable, rather than something immeasurable.

Revolutions and Events are always directed against the existing state of the situation. Such revolts involve arranging the excess of the excluded part in an ‘inconsistent’, ‘disorderly’ way. The state tries to repress, foreclose, or conceal the excluded part, whereas an Event reveals it. An Event involves free association of elements, instead of an integrating social order.

Can the State be Smashed?

So Events are always directed against the existing state. But do they overthrow the state for good, or do they just provide a basis for replacing one state with a different one?

In his early works, Badiou saw the destruction of the state as a central goal of the revolutionary process. Today, he sees states as in some sense unavoidable. But Badiou still excludes the state from the field of the subjective Event. Subjectivity, in politics or other fields, has to occur at a distance from the state, and might even create a ‘counter-state’. And Badiou still insists that thought should be driven by the desire to be rid of the state, which he calls an ‘exorbitant excess’. He tries to free politics and thought from the grip of the state, and of the dominant count-for-one.

However, Badiou is critical of the view that revolution involves inventing or recovering non-state social forms. Rather, revolution de-links (dé-liaison) the connections among parts which hold the situation together. It is primarily decomposition rather than composition.

In Being and Event, Badiou is still critical of the state. But he now writes as if the state is a primordial response to the chaos of meaninglessness and lack of structure which would pertain if there was only inconsistent multiplicity. In other words, he treats the state as structurally necessary and unavoidable.

The goal of politics can no longer be the destruction of the state, or ‘destatification’. This argument partly stems from Badiou’s rejection of the destatification carried out by transnational capital. And it partly comes from Badiou’s rejection of the total success of a truth-procedure, which he now sees as leading to terror.

Similarly, in Theory of the Subject, Badiou maintained that the order of a splace (his earlier name for a state of the situation) must be reconstituted. The Event destroys an existing splace but puts in place a new splace with the same kind of law. This is necessary because otherwise, people are submerged in anxiety by the lack of symbolic order, and are unable to act. However, he also suggested at this point that the state needs to be destroyed. He sees the failure to destroy the state as the remainder – the ultimate failure in the Truth – of Leninism and Maoism. Like other Marxists, he maintains that this failure was due to the rise of a bureaucratic bourgeoisie – not an effect of an inevitable totalitarianism. However, every splace is also an effect of the destruction of a previous splace.

So to take the example above, it would be possible to destroy the existing legal system. The Event would reveal that some people are being treated unjustly. A new standard of equality would be created which gives greater, or full, appearance to the excluded. But there would either have to be another legal system which does the same kind of thing based on a different image of how people are, or a different social system which takes the same function.

What this system might look like can’t be specified in advance, because the Event initiates a new Truth which then unfolds in its own way. But we can imagine hypothetical possibilities. It might for instance be a legal system which takes the embodied self as the starting-point, instead of a knowing, rational subject. This would make the poor person highly visible, the psychotic person a lot more visible, and the stockbroker a lot less visible – maybe rendering them equally visible and heard (‘apparent’), as different kinds of embodied subjects. Each ‘counts for one’ as an embodied subject. Or there might be a reconciliation system in everyday life, instead of a legal system. People would be supported by their families or affinity-groups, and some kind of mutually tolerable outcome would be negotiated in community assemblies or arbitration settings, perhaps using conflict transformation and non-violent/compassionate communication.

But Badiou assumes the form of the state is built into the ontology of situations. It seems to me that this means that someone else would have to suffer the fate of becoming the ‘inexistent’ part. So in the first case, certain subjects would come to seem less ’embodied’ than others. Maybe the stockbroker would be treated as the poor person is today, because s/he doesn’t seem ’embodied’ enough. In the second case, maybe people with fewer social affinities would be made invisible, and suffer injustice. Advocates of either system would claim that this outcome could be avoided. Critics might suggest a further alternative model as a way to get around this exclusion. But Badiou seems to think that the system must degenerate into a new state, there must be less existent and inexistent parts. Any alternative model whatsoever must have some such exclusionary effect.

So while someone excluded today – an undocumented migrant for example – might gain hope of inclusion from social transformation, the injustice affecting this person could end but someone else would have to be exposed to a similar kind of injustice which has the same effects on them. This is a pretty pessimistic conclusion. It seems to offer existing oppressed groups a chance of liberation, but only at the cost of inevitably oppressing someone else. And this conclusion also risks making us complacent and tolerant of oppressions committed by ‘post-revolutionary’ states, or committed inside our own movements.

However, there is some wiggle room for people wanting to use Badiou in less authoritarian ways. The assumption that the “state of the situation” is always created by a political state is problematic. For instance, the functions of naming and classifying can be performed by systems of local knowledge. There is an ordering of parts in indigenous social groups, but without a political state. So it’s possible to argue that a “state of the situation” could exist, without there being a political state (but still with the usual exclusions, degrees of appearance and so on).

It is not clear how the Badiou of Being and Event would deal with actually-existing societies without states, which have certainly existed historically, and some of which still exist today. It is possible that he would claim that they have a “state of the situation”, but without a political state. But if he conceded this point, he would also concede that the political state is not necessary. Indeed, in his most recent works, Badiou has returned to the view that societies without the state are possible – including by recognising past stateless societies. Indeed, he now defines the abolition of the state as a central aspect of communism.  He wants, however, to keep what he calls a ‘liberating constraint of organized action’, exercised by non-state institutions or mass movements. He is, as we shall see later, almost obsessively afraid of anything that might be construed as individualism.

As a critic of Badiou, I would suggest that he mistakes the structure of the capitalist axiomatic for the structure of any possible ‘world’ or ‘situation’ whatsoever. Hence, he ultimately concludes that another world isn’t possible, except in terms of a reshuffling (however radical) of elements. Badiou allows another world only momentarily, in the experience of the Event.

I would argue that the entire Badiousian structure of ontology can be avoided if we dispense with the need for a ‘count-for-one’.  We can dispense with the need for a ‘count-for-one’ if we relate to situations primarily through the qualitative (or temporal), rather than through mathematics (or space). There are also other ways to conceive the symbolic order. For instance, Baudrillard rejects the association of the Symbolic exclusively with an order of a ‘count-for-one’.

Another political problem can also be raised here. In many ways, Badiou offers a kind of totalistic philosophy (even though ultimately the totality is undermined by the excluded part). By this I mean that Badiou presents reality as a single whole, integrated in a single way. He assumes that we are always in one particular world or ontology, with a single count-for-one and a single state, which subsumes us with or without remainder, or else relegates us to pure negativity.

I believe this is part of the heritage of structuralist Marxism, and its synchronic, totalising view of capitalism. And it succumbs to the problems inherent to this model: the invisibility of diachronic processes of social contestation, class (and other) struggles, ‘good sense’, ‘hidden transcripts’, everyday resistance and so on. In other words, by treating the system as a totality, it downplays the reality of struggles between different conceptions and structuring principles.

To be sure, Badiou permits the re-entry of diachronic processes in the form of the Event and its effects. But these processes are occasional, rare, drastic and all-consuming. They’re a kind of negative inverse-image of the totality of the situation.

It’s more accurate to say that small diachronic processes are always going on. In fact, the apparent order of the situation is built on top of processes of constant movement. Because of these diachronic processes, there are always several ‘counts-for-one’ and different ‘states of the situation’ operative to varying degrees in different parts of the situation. Some of these involve discontinuities among the parts of the dominant system itself – differences between legalistic and economic ‘counts-for-one’, between the territorial logic of the state and the functional logic of capital, between classical, liberal and neoliberal approaches to education, and so on. Others involve low-intensity contestation of the inclusion of fields of life in the dominant system. This contestation involves both autonomous and progressive transformative tendencies, and tendencies which are oppositional but also reactive, conceiving a possible authoritarian ‘counter-state’.

At any given time, there is a balance of power among the forces, in a field of conflict rather than ontological integration. Crucially, a particular ‘element’ (a person, group, class, practice, etc) usually has different degrees of visibility, is ‘counted’ differently or not at all, in different ‘micro-worlds’ within the situation. An activist, for instance, has one location within the world of the state (perhaps as excluded part, perhaps as marginalised and semi-apparent, perhaps even as an included subject from an elite background), and another location within activist networks. Something which ‘counts’ or is valued in one world does not ‘count’ in the other.

The same kind of thing happens when someone lives between two cultures, or when subsistence economies intersect with commodity economies, or when peasants articulate hidden transcripts against the dominant count-for-one. We don’t live in a single, locked-down totality – or if we do, it is for contingent reasons, not ontological reasons. This means that a lot more political actions are available to alter the balance of power and create other worlds than Badiou’s model allows.

For all articles in the series visit the In Theory page.

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Andrew Robinson

Andrew Robinson is a political theorist and activist based in the UK. His book Power, Resistance and Conflict in the Contemporary World: Social Movements, Networks and Hierarchies (co-authored with Athina Karatzogianni) was published in Sep 2009 by Routledge. His 'In Theory' column appears every other Friday.

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