Alberto Toscano, Politics & Culture
The philosophical injunction to grasp one’s time in thought is beset today by an oscillation between disorienting anxiety and a renascent enthusiasm. The anxiety is determined by the objective temporality of crisis, understood, in keeping with the medical derivation of the term from Hippocratic medicine, as that phase “in which a decision is due but has not yet been rendered” (Koselleck 361); when decisions are looking for their subjects. It is an anxiety that is also shadowed by a catastrophic tonality; in the absence of sublime visions of final collapse, there is a deep-seated sense that social stagnation or regression will continue to shadow any possible ‘recovery’, and that the only events punctuating an otherwise featureless future will be starkly negative.
The enthusiasm is that of a spectating consciousness once again solicited to express a collective, universalisable, and impassioned judgement about political action. Provisionally taking the public celebrations of the French Revolution in Immanuel Kant’s Königsberg – and his transcendental capture of that moment – as a kind of ‘primal scene’ of philosophy’s ambivalent relation to revolution, we could say that today we are faced with pre-historical signs. That is, not the historical signs whose anchoring in a regulative history of the species could be problematically judged to be bearers of progress (bracketing out the Terror and instrumentality that conditioned them), but signs that politics and history may once again become objects of both collective and philosophical affirmation – meaning that the post-historical, or post-modern interpretation of political judgment would be suspended or terminated.
These signs are ‘pre-historical’ also in the sense that the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have put the name of revolution into global circulation, but that a concept and a practice of revolution proper to our time remain to be developed (whilst counter-revolutionary techniques circulate happily). Folding these affective registers into one, we could say that something like an anxious enthusiasm marks our thinking of emancipation (needless to say, another term of our modern political lexicon standing-in as a problem and a demand, in wait of its concept and its practice). At a merely intra-philosophical level, it seems evident that a certain widely shared, politically over-determined, if often implicit ‘common sense’ of the radical thinking of the past thirty years is now in question.
Having assumed the obsolescence of narratives of inexorable emancipation and global revolution – often by contrast with a two-dimensional effigy of historical materialism – this philosophical radicalism tried to remain faithful to the emancipatory negation of the status quo by elaborating figures of political discontinuity such as event, act or dissensus. Schematically, we could say that the emergence of the notion of the ‘event’ in the 1970s and 1980s as a pole of attraction for ‘Continental’ philosophical and political thought went hand in hand with the loss or critique of a totalising horizon that would justify the use of the category of revolution as the name for a global change, a world-transformation. Indeed, offsetting a despairing estimation of the social resources of political subjectivity, or of the existence of a class subject, there has been a tendency to maintain the possibility of an emancipatory break at the price of curtailing its comprehensiveness, and making agency the result of discontinuity, rather than vice versa. In other words, the decision now comes before the decider, and the latter is no longer the overt bearer of a global project of change.
That said, the breaks and discontinuities that have so exercised radical thought over the past two decades or so are at the very least implicitly subjective; though the social existence of a collective agent may be uncertain, the only real interruptions and dysfunctions of the ruling order are ones borne, however precariously, by a subject. In this regard, for all of their avowed anti-economism and anti-determinism, most variants of post-Marxist radical thought arguably flirt with the error, criticised by Gramsci under the rubric of ‘historical mysticism’, of treating rupture as both a necessary and sufficient cause of subjectivation, and neglecting Gramsci’s suggestion that only the preliminary construction of a collective agent can prepare for, intervene in, and if needs be accelerate the crisis of a social and economic order. 
But what is precisely in question today is whether, as was more or less explicit in the turn away in the 1970s and 1980s from Marxism conceived as a political metaphysics, an onto-theology of emancipation, the idea of a politics of the event (or act or dissensus) is the correlate of a saturation and obsolescence of the idea of revolution. The displacement of revolution by the event as the name of emancipatory, anti-systemic discontinuity was also deeply entwined with the attack on the metaphysical inconsistency of categories of totality and totalisation.
Badiou’s philosophy, metapolitics and political commentary are a unique bearer and barometer of these questions. The play between the inscriptions of politics and philosophical creation that marks out his work also registers – especially in its gestures of periodisation, of the opening of phases or the closing of sequences – shifts in the very notion of what it might mean for philosophy to grasp its time in thought. Whether that time is a purely political one, born of a subject of exception, or whether it can also be totalised, represented, ‘idealised’ as History, is one of the crucial questions at stake in this philosophy.
Le Réveil de l’Histoire is the latest and sixth addition to Badiou’s Circonstances series of polemical essays and it is a text that I want to explore in terms of the resilience – however tenuous, however obscure – of a revolutionary horizon in our thinking of emancipation.  In partial testament to the daunting character of accounting for the dyad event/revolution in anything but an extremely cursory way, I want to do this by a detour through a category present in the two texts that, perhaps optimistically, could be said to bookend Badiou’s attempt to reinvent the concept of a politics of non-domination under conditions of reaction and restoration – Le Réveil de l’Histoire itself and Peut-on penser la politique? (the latter delivered as seminars in 1983 and 1984, and published in 1985). The category, which resonates so well with the anxious enthusiasm I’ve spoken of, is that of the pre-political.
Now, the link between the pre-political and a politics of revolt, riot, uprising that is defined by the lack of revolutionary consciousness and orientation (or of an Idea of communism) is of course not specific to Badiou. It defines the various attempts in historical materialism, ever since Engels’s The Peasant War in Germany, to draw – along the axes of temporality, subjectivity and (capitalist) totality – the border between revolt and revolution. When the British Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, in Primitive Rebels, sought to apply Engels’s schema to the study of modern millenarian movements among the peasantry, in the impoverished and peripheral areas of European countries suffering the dispossessions and upheavals of capitalist modernisation (Sicily in Italy, Andalusia in Spain), it was the category of the pre-political that organised his research.
In that framework, millenarianism stood out as a reaction-formation whose ‘primitive’ character is to be understood in political terms: the peasants who respond to the capitalist cataclysm by mobilising on apocalyptic grounds are not yet capable of attaining the organisational solidity and political impact that qualify mature varieties of anti-capitalism – namely, the labour movement – which have gestated in the belly of the capitalist beast. Noting that they still make up the numerical majority of the world’s masses, Hobsbawm famously refers to the objects of his book as “pre-political people who have not yet found, or only begun to find, a specific language in which to express their aspirations about the world” (2). The ‘pre’ is determined by a spatial exteriority or peripherality that translates on the temporal axis into backwardness, in terms of both political mentality and organisational capacity. Hobsbawm prefaces his study of modern millenarian movements with this instructive statement:
“The men and women with whom this book is concerned differ from Englishmen in that they have not been born into the world of capitalism as a Tyneside engineer, with four generations of trade unionism at his back, has been born into it. They come into it as first-generation immigrants, or what is even more catastrophic, it comes to them from outside, insidiously by the operation of economic forces which they do not understand and over which they have no control, or brazenly by conquest, revolutions and fundamental changes of law whose consequences they may not understand, even when they have helped to bring them about. They do not as yet grow with or into modern society: they are broken into it, or more rarely … they break into it. Their problem is how to adapt themselves to its life and struggles, and the subject of this book is the process of adaptation (or failure to adapt) as expressed in their archaic social movements”. (3)
Millenarian movements respond to this problem of adaptation in what is, at least initially, a purely negative form. Insofar as they are driven by “a profound and total rejection of the present, evil world, and a passionate longing for another and better one”, failure to adapt seems to be their raison d’être. Suffused with an apocalyptic ideology, drawn from a pre-existing canon or syncretically fashioned, they are also, because of their hostility to the political world as it stands, affected by a “fundamental vagueness about the actual way in which the new society will be brought about” (57-8).
If politics entails an organisation of means in view of calculable ends (Hobsbawm’s classically ‘programmatic’ premise) then these movements are indeed pre-political – though perhaps this should be understood in the sense of proto-political, of harbouring a radical potentiality to which alliances and struggles can accord a real political valence. Hobsbawm’s compelling thesis is that it is precisely the all-encompassing negativity and ‘impossibilist’ desire for a wholly new world of millenarian movements which makes them – unlike other forms of pre-political mobilisation, such as social banditry – politically modernisable. Paradoxically, the very fanaticism that makes it difficult to identify their rational political core is, in the last instance, their rational political core.
Millenarian utopianism is a sui generis political realism. It is “probably a necessary device for generating the superhuman efforts without which no major revolution is achieved”; what is more, these movements prove to both activists and observers that the world can indeed be utterly changed, to begin with by utterly transforming previously depoliticised masses into political subjects (60-1). Conversely, revolutionism translates into doomed revolt if it is unable to find organisational forms that can actually gain traction on the very capitalist system that triggered the cultural crisis in the first place. Hobsbawm’s own politics are manifest here, as he negatively compares Andalusia’s conjunction of peasant millenarianism and anarchist agitation with the sublation of the Sicilian fasci into the labour movement, the former coded in terms of the recurrent defeat of heroic revolts, the latter as incorporation into a revolutionary politics capable of wresting real reforms from capitalism. 
The critique of Hobsbawm’s political model of millenarianism played an important role in the genesis of subaltern studies in India. For Ranajit Guha, the very notion of the pre-political occludes the logic of peasant revolts in the subcontinent; more importantly, it takes their practical consciousness and political subjectivity – the negative consciousness and negative subjectivity – away from those who time and again rose up against the domination of the British Empire. For Guha, this logic and this consciousness of negativity are based on a politics that insistently negates the radical distance and oppression that characterises the subaltern’s relation to the imperial authorities, as testified to in the types of violence employed by the peasant rebels. As he writes, “once the glare of burning mansions died down and the eye got used to the facts of an uprising, one could see how far from haphazard it had been” (20). For him, the idea of pre-political people suggests forms of blind spontaneity or false consciousness that do not do justice to the distinctive features (the ‘elementary aspects’) that can be gleaned from more than a century of peasant insurgencies. What’s more, since economic exploitation took place in late eighteenth and nineteenth-century India through the application of direct force, “there was nothing in the militant movements of the rural masses that was not political” (6).
The formulation and formalisation of the pre-political in Badiou’s Peut-on penser la politique? in many ways prolongs, in an arguably more dialectical vein, his own articulation of Engels’s treatment of the 1525 revolution of the common man in terms of the theory of ‘communist invariants’, in De l’idéologie. What is at stake in the 1985 text, with its schematic division into the destruction and recomposition of Marxist politics, is at one and the same time the abandonment of a totalising, transitive, programmatic and/or expressive conception of revolutionary politics and the refutation of the ‘idealism’ that would (as in much post-Marxism) vouch for the potential upsurge of politics from any point whatsoever within the landscape of subjection and domination. Abandoning the canonical temporal and subjective understanding of pre-politics in the likes of Hobsbawm – where it would come before real revolutionary politics on a developmental line, and would somehow stand beneath the attainment of full political consciousness – Badiou compellingly presents the pre-political as the problematic field and material of a politics of non-domination, of communism. Pre-political names situations, not people.
As Badiou writes in Peut-on penser la politique?:“I call pre-political situation a complex of facts and statements such that worker and popular singularities find themselves collectively engaged within it, and such that a failure of the regime of the One is discernible in it. Thus, an irreducible ‘there is (some) Two’. Or: an unrepresentable point. Or: an empty set” (76). Pre-politics is itself an evental effect, to the extent that it already defines a situation in which the closure of action within the law and language of a situation has been undermined. The pre-political in this regard is not a kind of social latency, but already a political effect. But politics – that is organised, transformative politics – does not involve the mere recognition or assumption of this new alteration and duality, this dysfunction in the One, but its extension, through a series of consequential inquiries and decisions, beyond the original situation. Whence the definition: “I call politics what established the consistency of the event within the regime of intervention, and propagates it beyond the pre-political situation. This propagation is never a repetition. It is a subject-effect, a consistency” (77).
Yet this propagation does not take the shape of a strategy that would invest pre-identified levers of power and transformation. It intervenes in the world, but is not of the world, insofar as it has already broken with its criteria of possibility. Hence, in arresting counterpoint to the idea of philosophy as a grasp of one’s time in thought, the notion of a ‘deafness to one’s time’, to everything within it which ‘impossibilises’ politics. As Badiou declares, in homage to Rousseau: “It is important to put all the facts aside, so that the event may come”. Even more starkly, perhaps, Badiou argues that the wager-intervention which defines his conception of the politics of non-domination is always beyond analysis: “An intra-political defeat is for me the interventionist incapacity to disjoin politics from analysis. To fail is not to interrupt a given state of certainty” (104).
The pre-political is here created, and it is created by that deafness, that laying aside of the material rationality and immanent law of a given state of affairs. “The historically assigned essence of the impossible is thus to be deaf to the voice of time”:
“A pre-political situation is thus created, whose principle, it is clear, is interruption. Interruption of ordinary social listening, the putting aside of the facts. That is why the police arrives, which is always the police of the facts, the police against the deaf. ‘Are you deaf?’, says the cop. He’s right. The police is nothing but the amplifier of already established facts, their maximum noise, addressed to all those whose speech and action attests, because it is historically impossible, that they are hard of hearing”(96).
The pertinence to our present day of this détournement of the Althusserian scene of interpellation is considerable, both in terms of an increasing refusal to tolerate the injunctions to listen to social and economic reason, and with respect to the repressive repercussions meted against this strategic, liberating, pre-political deafness. And it is in this pre-political separation from the pervasive, persistent demand to bow down to the way of the ‘real world’, that collective subjectivity finds its resources, as Badiou encapsulates in a striking definition: “The organised collective body is above all a constructed deafness to the injunction of established facts” (110).
To follow the threads tying this formalisation of the pre-political to the development of the theory of the subject and to a politics of the event would of course transcend the purposes of this article. But I think we can identify a number of crucial questions bequeathed by Peut-on penser la politique‘s to contemporary reflection on the problem of the pre-political, which are differently, at times contrastingly, articulated in Le Réveil de l’Histoire, a book whose sustained reflection on this problem would almost warrant subtitling it, Peut-on penser la pré-politique?
First, the problem of revolution. In the conclusion of Peut-on penser la politique?, with reference to the workers’ movements in Poland which had defined for him what he elsewhere called “the expatriation of Marxism”, Badiou writes:
“That the infinite is the evental consistency propagated by the risk of intervention makes it so that this infinite is never presentable. Inadmissible at its source, politics is unpresentable in its procedure. In this way it is both radical and interminable. Since there is no halting point nor symbol of its infinity, politics must give up the sublime. This is doubtless why, in subjective terms, it distances itself so strongly from the revolutionary representation. As one sees in Kant, the sublime indexing of revolutionary historicity is present from the origin. But let us be attentive to that which is perhaps the deepest characteristic of the Polish movement, which is the constant internal struggle against the sublime of action” (115).
The Polish reference alerts us to an interesting change in the periodisation and judgment of political sequences. What in Peut-on penser la politique? had appeared as an inaugural precursor of a workers’ politics that had moved beyond an expressive teleological theory of working-class revolution, is re-read in Le Réveil de l’histoire, alongside the Iranian revolution, as signalling the endof the clear period of revolutions (61). Along with this periodising shift, comes a considerable change in philosophy’s prescriptions. Not only does Le Réveil propose what could, by provocative contrast with Badiou’s philosophical tenets, be termed a totalising representation of History as emancipation, but it also shifts registers, as Badiou’s texts on the idea of communism already had, from restricted action to a much more global horizon of opposition.
The tonal shift is thus also the index of a conceptual rearrangement. In what I don’t think is a mere question of terminology, the abandonment of the ‘revolutionary representation’ has morphed into the demand for its reinvention. If the “the present moment is in fact that of the very beginning of a popular global uprising against this [capitalist] regression” (14), as Badiou declares in Le Réveil, then we could say the problem has been reversed: no longer struggling against the sublime of action, but against its self-imposed restrictions, its false modesty. When, in Le Réveil, Badiou notes that “an open, shared, and universally practicable figure of emancipation is lacking” (61), is he not saying that what we most lack is… a revolutionary representation? If finding a political form means drawing force from a shared Idea, can we really say we’ve left the politics of representation behind? Is there not a recognition in the very formulation of the idea of communism by Badiou, and others, that there is an insurpassable need for ‘ideology’, which is to say for a representation that would both orient and mobilise? That ‘affirmative singularities’, if they are to establish a kind of duration, are consequently obliged to erect a kind of fiction of consistency?
This question of representation is the second problem opened by inquiring into the standing of the pre-political across these two texts, Le Réveil and Peut-on penser,which can serve as theoretical and periodising markers both for Badiou’s thought and for the thinking of politics (of revolution, democracy and philosophy) more broadly. I would hazard that some of the oppositions that sustained Badiou’s thought, along with that of other thinkers and currents, through what he calls the ‘Restoration’, have lost their metapolitical pertinence, if not necessarily their intra-philosophical coherence. Along with the displacement of revolution by event, and the repudiation of totality through multiplicity, I think there is something increasingly problematic – as indexed by Badiou’s own turning to a discussion of communism in terms of the idea, the symbol or even the fiction – about the equation between emancipatory and non- or anti-representational thought (an equation often undergirded by a facile slippage between epistemic representation and parliamentary representation).
In Peut-on penser, Badiou had recast the dialectic, in keeping with another, French genealogy, as an anti-representational thought. This is dialectics as a thought-practice of the wager and the exception. “One will recognise a dialectical form of thought”, writes Badiou “by its conflict with representation. Such a thought stalks in its field the unrepresentable point, which testifies that one is touching on the real” (86). And: “Thought, which does not represent, produces effects, through the interruption of a chain of representations. Every dialectical thought is therefore above all an interpretation-cut” (88) – the refusal or break with representation is articulated with a hypothesis about a capacity for truth, the existence of a procedure in which truth circulates without being represented.
There is a certain irony then, in contrasting such formulations – which I believe still deeply determine Badiou’s thought – with the unproblematic way in which Badiou, in Le Réveil and other recent texts, treats the existence of capital as a totality and appears to accept, or indeed to champion, the necessity for a totalising representation of revolutionary or emancipatory politics. A politics of the event is predicated on the inconsistency of structure and the inexistence of totality, but inasmuch as both of these are thought as partisan, contradictory and processual, surely a certain notion of the event is compatible with a dialectical conception of totality. The irony then is that in Le Réveil Badiou seems to propose a representation of contemporary capitalism – as oligarchy, banditry and regression to the age of Empire – much more seamless and non-contradictory than any which a Marxian theory of value or crisis could ever allow itself.
Conversely, the discussion of the Idea seems to put far more store and emphasis on representation than a relatively classical Marxism ever did. Marx’s conception of a communist movement as a form of negative praxis may suffer from an ideological and motivational deficit, but it is telling that he rarely conceived the deficit of political agency principally in terms of a deficit of ideational coherence. As he noted in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844: “In order to supersede the idea of private property, the idea of communism is enough. In order to supersede private property as it actually exists, real communist activity is necessary” (365).
In Le Réveil, Badiou establishes a suggestive progressive phenomenology of our contemporary pre-political forms of antagonism, identifying the peculiarities of and relays between immediate, latent and historical riots [émeutes]. The categories of the pre-political and the event are accordingly recast:
“A pre-political event, a historical riot, is produced once an intensive over-existence, articulated with an extensive contraction, defines a place in which the situation as a whole is refracted in a universally addressed visibility. You can identify an evental situation at a glance: because it is universally addressed, you are gripped, like everybody else, by this universality of its visibility. You know that the being of an inexistent has just appeared in a place that is proper to it. This is indeed why, as we’ve said, no one can deny it publicly” (104-5).
In this conceptually compressed passage, Badiou is in a sense both reviving the Kantian theory of the historical sign, of a presentation of the universal and of its publicity, and undoing it – tellingly, by explicitly presenting the subjective localisation of the break with the One of the situation, in phenomena like the popular occupation of Tahrir Square in Cairo in 2011, as a “representation of the whole by contraction” (97). The whole is here the People, again a category that seems inseparable from a problematic of representation, and from its familiar impasses, namely the internal division of the people between sujet de l’énonciation and sujet de l’énoncé.
If representation can be reprised in terms of the revolutionary idea and the revolutionary subject, I think it should also be revisited in terms of the question of capitalism. In staging his engagement with this issue via the post-workerist theme of capitalism as creative, cognitive and postmodern, in order to repudiate it, I think Badiou, in Le Réveil, has eluded a more interesting political and philosophical problem, which is that of the relation between crisis and event, capital and its negation. Though this is a vast topic, especially in what concerns the articulations and disjunction between capital and the state, the political and the economic, I would simply wish to indicate that if we think through the problem of crisis and that of the limits to capital – as what Marx called an automatic subject and a social form, rather than merely as an organisation of banditry by the 1%, which it also is – we may want to dissent with the idea that “it is certainly not capitalism and its political servants that reawaken History, if we understand by ‘reawakening’ the upsurge of a capacity which is both destructive and creative and whose aim is to really exit the established order”(26).
Though it would be ‘historical mysticism’ to think of ‘the’ crisis as a unified phenomenon, one cannot gainsay its capacity to negatively totalise movements that are otherwise disparate, and which now are not united by a project, programme or Idea, but by their opposition to what Badiou rightly presents as an intolerable regression. In that regard any idea of communism will also need to contend with the malevolent objective spirit of the crisis, with the bad new, as what is in fact impelling – without in any way determining or automatically generating – the propagation of pre-political situation across sites that have no pre-given ideological or subjective commonalities.
Dialectics, historical materialism, and communism can in many respects be defined by their relationship to the pre-political. Is the latter a latency, potential, presupposition, a teleologically-oriented movement? In our times of riots, which are also times of anxious enthusiasm, Badiou’s thinking of the pre-political is a critical testing-ground or interlocutor for anyone concerned with rethinking the articulation between philosophy, revolution and politics. To his formalisation and phenomenology of our time of riots, I would wish to add the need to move beyond the oligarchic image of capital, so pertinent but also so misleading today, to really think the political valences of an ongoing crisis, the differential specificity of the pre-political in crisis, which is also to say the unpredictable but non-arbitrary intertwining of political sequences and capitalist temporality. Not to do so treats the pervasive form of social organisation and over-determination of politics, baldly present today in terms of the increasingly open ‘dictatorship of the bourgeoisie’ (where dictatorship should be understood not just as domination but as a logic of permanent emergency powers); as a kind of backdrop, or a purely subjective figure of enmity (oligarchs, bandits, the 1%…), rather than as a crucial condition for social and political movements – movements which, to the extent that they tackle the brutality of capital’s abstract domination and its concrete personifications cannot but engage in a practical critique of political economy.
 ‘The immediate economic element (crises, etc.) is seen as the field artillery which in war opens a breach in the enemy’s defences—a breach sufficient for one’s own troops to rush in and obtain a definitive (strategic) victory, or at least an important victory in the context of the strategic line. Naturally the effects of immediate economic factors in historical science are held to be far more complex than the effects of heavy artillery in a war of manoeuvre, since they are conceived of as having a double effect: 1. they breach the enemy’s defences, after throwing him into disarray and causing him to lose faith in himself, his forces, and his future; 2. in a flash they organise one’s own troops and create the necessary cadres—or at least in a flash they put the existing cadres (formed, until that moment, by the general historical process) in positions which enable them to encadre one’s scattered forces; 3. in a flash they bring about the necessary ideological concentration on the common objective to be achieved. This view was a form of iron economic determinism, with the aggravating factor that it was conceived of as operating with lightning speed in time and in space. It was thus out and out historical mysticism, the awaiting of a sort of miraculous illumination.’ (Gramsci 487).
Translated as The Rebirth of History by Gregory Elliot for Verso in 2012. All translations in this essay, drafted prior to the publication of the translation of Le Réveil de l’Histoire, are my own.
See Löwy for some perspicuous criticism of Hobsbawm’s evaluation on Spanish anarchism.
This essay was originally delivered at the “Revolution, Democracy, Philosophy” conference, held at Boğaziçi University, 1-2 December 2011.
Badiou, Alain. Peut-on penser la politique? Paris: Seuil, 1985.
Badiou, Alain. Le réveil de l’histoire. Circonstances 6. Paris: Lignes, 2011.
Gramsci, Antonio. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1998.
Guha, Ranajit. Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India. Durham: Duke UP, 1999.
Hobsbawm, Eric J. Primitive Rebels: Studies in Archaic Forms of Social Movement in the 19th and 20th Centuries. New York: Norton, 1965.
Koselleck, Reinhart. “Crisis”. Journal of the History of Ideas 67.2 (2006): 357-400.
Löwy, Michael. “From Captain Swing to Pancho Villa. Instances of Peasant Resistance in the Historiography of Eric Hobsbawm”. Diogenes 48 (2000): 3-10.
Marx, Karl. Early Writings. London: Penguin, 1992.