‘5 Theses on the Politics of Cruelty’ – Hostis: A Journal of Incivility

cross-chair- josef svoboda

(A preview from the forthcoming Issue of Hostis: A Journal of Incivility)

I). The politics that seduces us is not ethical, it is cruel.

We contrast the politics of cruelty to the politics of ethics. Ethics goes all the way back to the Greeks, whose ethics was the study of ‘the good life.’ Our interests do not lie in being better than our enemies.There is only cheap satisfaction in telling yourself that you have more exciting sex, stronger friendships, or fiercer personal convictions. The point is not to be better, but to win. Perhaps this leaves a bad taste in some mouths. However, we ask: is ethics not just a last resort for the impotent? Are ethical people what is left after struggles collapse into impossibility, futility, or counterproductivity

If abandoning ethics leaves one disturbed, it is because ethics is a wholly personal affair. To be ethical today is not even reformist – it is politics rendered as fantasy, a live action role play of those who ‘mean well.’ The sphere of ethical life is a world of braggarts and bullies looking for others to affirm that they have made the right personal choices. Ethics valorizes the virtue of activist intentions while leaving the systemic destruction of globally-integrated capital intact. In other words, it is fueled by the elitism of ‘being better than everyone else.’ And the problem with elitism is that it plunges us back into the milieu.

Cruelty has no truck with the individualism of ethics. It does not guide political action with virtue or best intentions. We are not looking to win the respect of those we wish to defeat. Ethics is the trap laid for those who walk the earth searching for respite from the destruction and violence of capital and the state. There is no use in making peace with an enemy whose realized interests entail your subjugation. There was nothing ‘ethical’ about the colonial world. And as Fanon reminds us, it could only be destroyed by giving up on an ‘ethical’ method. It is in this sense that a politics of cruelty picks up the old adage that one must ‘destroy what destroys you’.

II). Few emotions burn like cruelty.

It is already old wisdom that emotions are at stake when we talk about becoming ‘politicized.’ Emotions are what render the speculative and abstract into a lived reality. Winning is not simply a question of having the right ideas or right principles, this is why we define politics as the transformation of ideas into a whole mode of existence where one’s principles are at the same time one’s impulsion toward the world. If the politics of cruelty follows from the belief that we must destroy what destroys us, the emotion of cruelty is revenge. Only this taste for revenge offers resistance to the voices of this world that tell us to put up with the daily violence done to us. To feel cruel is to know that we deserve better than this world; that our bodies are not for us to hate or to look upon with disgust; that our desires are not disastrous pathologies. To feel the burning passion of cruelty, then, is to reclaim refusal. We refuse to compromising ourselves and the million tiny compromises of patriarchy, capitalism, white-supremacy, heter/homo-normativity, and so on. As such, the subject of cruelty no longer convinces themselves to love the world or to find something in the world that redeems the whole. Simply put: the subject of cruelty learns to hate the world. The feeling of cruelty is the necessary correlate to the politics of cruelty; learning to hate the world is what correlates to the political task of destroying what destroys us all. And as we already noted, it is because these two principles have a long history behind them that a politics of cruelty does not posit itself as a novelty: The Women’s Liberation movements are correct in saying: We are not castrated, so you get fucked.

III). Those motivated by cruelty are neither fair nor impartial.

Fairness is the correlate to the ‘ethics-as-politics’ paradigm. Why? Because fairness suggests that we relate to everyone in the same way. There is nothing about this world that encourages universal fairness or acting according to mutual support of any and all interests. Rather, we live in a world where everyone is pitted against each other – we have a structurally determined interest to be mean and to succeed at the expense of others. Fairness, as it currently exists, is the fairness of neoliberal competition; a state sponsored ‘state of nature’. Impartiality is the counter-tendency to the subject of cruelty. Unlike the cruel subject who understands that there can be no agreement made between capital and its dispossessed, the impartial subject furthers the myth that agreements can and should be found between the two parties. Impartiality is the idea that power is symmetrical and that a social contract can give this symmetry its proper force through law.

We know that we are in the midst of a civil war. We act as partisans. And as in any war, we have friends and enemies. For our enemies, we have nothing but disdain, hatred, and cruelty. Our only engagement with them is when it strategically advances our side in the conflict. For our friends, we extend care, support, and solidarity.

Some say that capital and the state operate through cruelty; and contrary to their cruelty, our struggle is to take the higher ground. This is to misunderstand what few things are unique to our position. Our enemies must reproduce their bases of power, which is takes a costly investment in corrupt political systems, crumbling industrial infrastructure, and expensive wars of ideology. As anarchists, we do not need to reproduce much  – we do not need to justify our actions, we do not need to be consistent in our activities, and we need not defend any of the institutions of this world. To limit ourselves even more than our enemies by following the narrow path of ethics is to give up our only advantage.

IV). Their actions speak with an intensity that does not desire permission, let alone seek it.

There is a qualitative difference between the cruelty exercised by us and the cruelty of capital and its State(s). In the United States, there is the idea that the 18th amendment guarantees the protection of citizens from ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’ This was to juridically curtail the power of the State over and against its citizenry. But due to the explicitly bourgeois heritage from which it emerges, this guarantee against State-cruelty only goes as far as the eyes of the State can see; that is, only insofar as two isolated individuals are coming into conflict with one another, and where the State intervenes impartially as the mediating third term. It is in this way that the curtailing of State-cruelty remains within the logic of recognition: metrics of intelligibility only pertain to situations of isolated actions. State recognition ignores situations of collective antagonism. What is more, is what we gain via the channels of State recognition (e.g., desegregation in the 1950’s) was already being eroded through other State sanctioned economic mechanisms (e.g., redlining as early as the 1930’s). The conclusion should be obvious by now: State-recognition is nothing more than the continuation of war by other means.

Thus, if our politics of cruelty seeks to destroy what destroys us coupled to its subjective correlate of revenge – which means our learning to hate the world while staving off the internalization of those norms which teach us to hate ourselves – then it is clear that our political-cruelty cannot treat the state and capital as reliable sources for recognition since what we want and need cannot be tolerated by globally integrated capital and thus pre-emptively renders us all variations of pathological, trouble-making, hysterical, killjoys alike.

V). While social anarchism sings lullabies of altruism, there are those who play with the hot flames of cruelty.

Altruism comes in at least two variants. The first is already well known; the emphasis on collectivist ethics that diffuses any antagonism through its criteria of absolute horizontalism. The second, more insidious, is a zealous altruism; here the emphasis is placed on the absolute destruction of the individual put in the service of actualizing an Idea. These are not the actions of the dispossessed. Rather, it is the altruism of an anarchists crucifixion. If the latter at least agrees that struggle is an ineluctable fact of politics, the zealous altruists weakness still lies in his belief that to engage in civil war means to burn out in the process. For every form of communal horizontalism that defers the moment of attack there is a correlating tendency to collapse heroism and martyrdom. Additionally, it is true that we have said that our political-cruelty seeks to destroy what destroys us. However, this does not necessitate the assertion that real transformation means our own self-destruction. There is a world of difference between converting structural oppression into a fight for abolition and identifying existential abolition as the proper means toward the abolition of capital as such. In a word: “Even if we had the power to blow it [the State] up, could we succeed in doing so without destroying ourselves, since it is so much a part of the conditions of life, including our organism and our very reason? The prudence with which we must manipulate that line, the precautions we must take to soften it, to suspend it, to divert it, to undermine it, testify to a long labor which is not merely aimed against the State and the powers that be, but directly at ourselves.”

That said, the first iteration of altruism should not be given scant attention precisely because of its prevalence. In place of weaponizing our feelings of cruelty, social anarchism substitutes a straight forward Habermasianism sutured to the mantra of ‘returning to a class based analysis’. This helps some sleep at night. Contra these political sedatives, we again confront the history and cruelty of our politics. What is at stake is the feminist lesson we must never forget: that the personal is political; that few emotions burn and catalyze collective insubordination like those of pain, vengeance, and cruelty. The lesson is that the efficacy of political-cruelty lies not in the never ending reflections and discussions on what pains us; rather, that emotions such as cruelty are what constitute the armature of our collective antagonism.

Frankenstein Revenge Poster

A Brief Note For Enemies And Allies:

We could care less about those whose politics amounts to being a good ‘friend’ to those who struggle, or being a good ‘ally’ by reading up on the history of people of color, queers, and so on. A politics of cruelty is not a politics of friendship; since we do not see a softer world here because sociability has its cruelties, friendship has its rivalries, and opinion has its antagonisms and bloody reversals.

Friendship is already too Greek, too philosophical, and too European for our politics of cruelty. In its place, we should reinvigorate the politics of the Guayaki in Paraguay or the many tribes in that territory known as Zoma. That is, political cruelty does not seek to be included into the universality proposed by the history of Western capitalism and instead seeks to find the means of escaping from a universality that was never ours from the start. For those who would prefer reductive formulations, we could say that while the West continues its process of inclusion and expansion, our political-cruelty maintains its relation to the Outside. To our enemies who get off on finding contradictions that abound in this politics of cruelty we say to them ‘all the better!’ For them, whose desire is to be the intelligible subjects of globally integrated capital, these contradictions are mere impasses on their road to being exceptions to the rule. To our allies, who opt for a politics of cruelty, we say ‘savor these supposed contradictions!’ From the point of view of political-cruelty a contradiction simply means that we have a weapon with more than one side.


Ideas Are Problems Themselves and Not the Criteria For Their Possible Solution: Deleuze, Plato, Dialectic

Cy Twombly - Polaroid

“With Plato…The Idea is not yet the concept of an object which submits the world to the requirements of representation, but rather a brute presence which can be invoked in the world only in function of that which is not ‘representable’ in things. The Idea has therefore not yet chosen to relate difference to the identity of a concept in general: it has not given up hope of finding a pure concept of difference in itself” (DR, 59).

/0/. On Myth & Mediation

Deleuze’s reading of Plato in Difference and Repetition hinges on his interpretation of the relationship between Ideas and its participants as developed in the Statesmen and the Sophist. In each text Deleuze finds Plato posing a specific problem – who is the true shepherd of men? who is the true philosopher and who is the sophist? – where this problem and its formulation as a question becomes the grounds by which Plato can determine better and worse claimants; authentic and inauthentic philosophers and statesmen. Now, it may strike one as an odd opening onto Deleuze’s relationship to dialectics – mainly those who see Deleuze as the arch anti-Platonist and someone who seeks to undertake Nietzsche’s project of ‘overturning Platonism.’ However, it is clear that Deleuze discovers the impetus to think difference-itself already at work in Plato’s dialogues. Additionally, Deleuze recognizes Aristotle’s critique of Plato’s reliance on myth in these texts. For Aristotle, the fact that Plato invokes myth signals that Plato lacks a mediating term; that is, the Platonic relationship between Ideas and things does not yet have a term which can establish a relationship of equivalence and identity between the one who claims to be a philosopher and the Idea of the philosopher as such. And while it is important to note that Deleuze does not jettison Aristotle’s critique of Plato, he does take issue with Aristotle’s criticism, since for Deleuze, the moment where Plato realizes the necessity of a mediating term does not come at the moment of the establishment of myth. Rather, Plato realizes the necessity for this term of equivalence in relationship to the problem of distinguishing the philosopher from the sophist. In other words, the role that myth plays in these dialogues should not be seen as Plato’s nascent attempt at establishing a truly mediating function between Ideas and things. Rather, on Deleuze’s reading, myth functions as a test established by Plato to understand the continuum of all those individuals, who differ-in-kind, and who would lay claim to the title of Statesman or Philosopher.

/1/. Proceeding By Way of Problems

In beginning this immanent critique/overturning of Platonism by undertaking what was true in Plato’s definition of dialectics and responding to the Aristotelian worry regarding the role of myth on Plato’s dialogues Deleuze writes: “…myth establishes the model of a partial circulation in which appears a suitable ground on which to base the difference, on which to measure the roles or claims […] The function of the ground is then to allow participation, to give in second place. Thus, that which participates more or less in varying degrees is necessarily a claimant” (DR, 61-2). Thus, Deleuze praises Plato insofar as he understood dialectic as proceeding by problems and insofar as we understand that the role of myth in these dialogues serves as the grounds by which different claimants can participate, to a greater or lesser extent, in the Ideas themselves. However, says Deleuze, Plato has not gone far enough:

“The whole of Platonism…is dominated by the idea of drawing a distinction between ‘the thing itself’ and the simulacra. Difference is not thought in itself but related to a ground, subordinated to the same and subject to mediation in mythic form. Overturning Platonism, then, means denying the primacy of original over copy, of model over image; glorifying the reign of simulacra and reflections” (DR, 66).

Thus we can understand Deleuze’s criticism of Plato, and how it has resonances with the Aristotelian worry mentioned earlier: namely, it is because Plato is concerned with distinguishing between the true and false copy, the better and worse claimant vís-a-vís Ideas themselves, Plato’s dialectic culminates in the logic of subsuming difference-itself under the Same; under the concept of the good copy as opposed to the bad; the authentic claimant as opposed to the inauthentic participant. This forces Deleuze, then, to address the following question: what are the implications for Thought (and thinking difference-itself) given this image of overturning Platonism, which requires the valorization of the free play of simulacra over and against the model-copy logic proposed by Plato? The answer comes much earlier in the same chapter when Deleuze asks if

‘it is enough to multiply representations in order to obtain such effects? Infinite representation includes precisely and infinity of representation…The fact is that the infinite representation is indissociable from a  law which renders it possible: the form of the concept as a form of identity which constitutes on the one hand the in-itself of the represented (A is A) and on the other hand the for-itself of the representant (Self=Self)…The immediate, defined as ‘sub-representative’, is therefore not attained by multiplying representations and points of view…Each point of view must itself be the object, or the object must belong to the point of view. The object must therefore be in no way identical, but torn asunder in a difference in which the identity of the object as seen by a seeing subject vanishes” (DR, 56).

Or as Deleuze mentions later in the chapter: 

“It is not enough to multiply perspectives in order to establish perspectivism. To every perspective or point of view there must correspond an autonomous work with its own self-sufficient sense: what matters is the divergence of series, the decentering of circles, ‘monstrosity’…The simulacrum is the instance which includes a difference within itself” (DR, 69).

In what way, then, is this a response to the claim of glorifying the free play of simulacra? By understanding that what was established as the ground in these Platonic dialogues (myth) provides us with a continuum of differences-in-kind before any differences-in-degree. In other words, what Plato discovered and quickly covered up by separating the ‘thing itself’ from any simulacra was precisely the qualitative differences that occur in the every claim made to the Idea of what it means to be a Philosopher, for instance, as opposed to a Sophist. That is, prior to the criteria of distinguishing the Philosopher from the Sophist comes the qualitative differences that are made apparent by their claims to the same Idea. In this way we can understand not only how difference precedes identity/sameness, but how the Ideas themselves (taken as the problem-question ground) unite qualitative differences in such a way that does not require any mediating concept or category of equivalence. The philosopher and sophist, as claimant to the same Idea and prior to their evaluation, equally participate in the same Idea taken in itself. Thus, it is the very claimants of an Idea that differ from both their rivals and any purported ‘essence’ of the Idea in which they instantiate. Or, in Deleuze’s own formulation: “Plato gave the establishment of difference as the supreme goal of dialectic. However, difference does not lie between thing and simulacra, models and copies. Things are simulacra themselves” (DR, 67, my emphasis). If Difference is already given in the simulacra themselves it is only because, prior to any attempt to render commensurate claimant and Idea, every claimant is qualitatively different from every other claimant in the continuum opened up by myth as the grounds for division and selection. This is the meaning behind the self-sufficiency of every point of view, or claim, made in relation to an Idea.

/2/. Univocity Thesis

This valorization of simulacra over the model-copy relationship must be understood in conjunction with Deleuze’s proposition that Being is univocal, since as Deleuze himself writes “Being (what Plato calls the Idea) ‘corresponds’ to the essence of the problem or question as such” (DR, 64). Why is there a correlation between Ideas and the univocity of Being for Deleuze? Because what we see happen in this overturning of Platonism is the same logical relationship with this principle of univocity: namely, if Being is said in a single and same sense, then, Being gives no privilege to beings themselves. The univocity of Being and the valorization of the simulacra assert that every mode of substance, being of Being, or claimant of an Idea, exists in an equal relationship to Ideas (Being) only on the basis of each individual’s fundamental difference from all others. Being does not grant privileges to beings just as the main consequence of this overturning of Platonism is the assertion that Ideas themselves only provide the grounds for participation without privileging one participant among others. The distinction between true and false copies attributes something to the Ideas themselves (to Being-itself) that is not already contained within them. As we cited earlier regarding Deleuze’s reading of Plato, “The Idea has therefore not yet chosen to relate difference to the identity of a concept in general” (DR, 59). Deleuze gives another formulation later in the text that gives the sense of the overturning of Platonism in its most direct manner: “Does this not mean, however, that if simulacra themselves refer to a mode, it is one which is not endowed with the ideal identity of the Same but, on the contrary, is a model of the Other, an other model, the model of difference in itself from which claws that interiorised dissimilitude? Among the most extraordinary pages in Plato, demonstrating the anti-Platonism at the heart of Platonism, are those which suggest that the difference, the dissimilar, the unequal – in short, becoming – may well be not merely defects which affect copies like a ransom paid for their secondary charactery or a counterpart of their resemblance, but rather models themselves, terrifying models of the pseudos in which unfolds the powers of the false” (DR, 128). Thus it is shown to be Plato himself who lays the grounds for the overturning of Platonism, which concludes that the Ideas do not act to guarantee the identity or sameness between Ideas and participants; rather, Ideas themselves give rise to their own simulacra; to those who differ-in-kind from the Ideas themselves.

However, this raises a new problem for Deleuze: if we agree that difference precedes identity in this way, what allows us to differentiate the philosopher from the sophist, since it appears that we have sacrificed any possible criteria by which we can offer an answer to the question posed by the Idea of who is the true philosopher? In other words, what is the fate of philosophy in light of what appears to be the absence of any grounds for adjudicating, distinguishing, and dividing between claimants to an Idea? This question allows us to understand another aspect of Deleuze’s task: namely, a wholesale reorientation of Thought in relationship to Being. The task assigned to philosophy, to thinking and to concept creation, is not the appraisal of claimants to an Idea (this is the moral character of thinking that Deleuze finds at the heart of Plato’s distinction between copy and simulacra). Rather, the task of philosophy is the understanding and articulation of Ideas themselves. If it is already a well known trope of Deleuzean rhetoric that we must proclaim the innocence of Being through the affirmation of “a difference of difference as its immediate element” (DR, 69), it is precisely because what is affirmed in Thought, when thinking is confronted with its proper object of cognition, is nothing other than the problem-questions opened up by Ideas themselves. The task of thought is not to propose, or determine, the solution to a problem. Rather, “if according to Kant, reason does pose false problems and therefore itself gives rise to illusion, this is because in the first place it is the faculty of posing problems in general. In its natural state such a faculty lacks the means to distinguish what is true or false, what is founded or not, in any problem it poses…Ideas have a perfectly legitimate ‘regulative’ function in which they constitute true problems or pose well-founded problems. That is why ‘regulative’ means ‘problematic’. Ideas are themselves problematic or problematising – and Kant tries to show the difference between, on the one hand, and, on the other, ‘hypothetical’, ‘fictitious’, ‘general’, or ‘abstract’” (DR, 168)

/3/. The Fate of Philosophy

On Deleuze’s account the fate of philosophy, seen in light of the claim that there is a difference-in-kind between Ideas and things, is that thought must not comfort itself with thinking the relationship between the empirical and the transcendental, or the copy and its model in a given Idea. Rather, thought must aspire to grasp the conditions for the Ideas themselves and understand that Ideas, or Problem-questions, are the true objects of thought. It is in this manner that Platonic Ideas are understood as ‘problem-questions’; that Ideas and Thinking are understood as the grounds that give rise to modes that differ from them in kind, while still maintaining a necessary relation to that which they differ from. One formulation of this claim would follow the Principle of Identity understood as an Identity of Inclusion instead of Reciprocity. The relation A=A, understood as Inclusion, would not mean that both instances of A share the same essence. Rather, A=A would mean that the first iteration of A and its second are essentially different but despite this essential difference, we cannot conceive of one without the other. Thus, Identity-as-inclusion allows us to understand the relationship between differences while preserving their differences and establishing a continuous, serial, relationship between the two. It is in this way that Deleuze can assert on the one hand that Plato “has not given up hope of finding a pure concept of difference in itself” (DR, 59), while on the other hand claiming that Identity understood as mediating equivalence covers over the more profound Identity of Inclusion; Inclusion that preserves the qualitative differences between terms while acknowledging that we cannot adequately conceive of one term in its singularity without other singular terms to which it is related by necessity. Thought must aspire to Ideas understood as regulative and problematic; where what is implied in the claim that Ideas are the true objects of Thinking is the assertion that to think Ideas is to think the differential relations laid out by Ideas themselves (or the problematic-conditions that give rise to the products/solutions of these conditions) without recourse to any empirical content that seeks to confirm the essential identity between Ideas and its claimants. Additionally, what is implied throughout Deleuze’s interpretation of the legacy of Plato’s dialectic is the need to rehabilitate the Kantian distinction between thinking and knowing. While the latter functions as the knowing-subject’s understanding of the manifold of sensibility through conceptual determination, the former operates in relation to an object whose synthetic content is foreclosed to the understanding but whose existence can be legitimately theorizable.

Thus, the fate of philosophy understood as thinking the differential relations that are given by Ideas themselves sets the stage for what Deleuze will later term ‘transcendental empiricism.’ Thinking cannot be confused, or treated as reducible to, the activity of ‘tracing the transcendental from the empirical’ since this ‘tracing’ still requires the verification of what we apprehend through the understanding by means of what is phenomenally given. Rather, Thinking is transcendental precisely because its objects are the specific conditions that serve as the basis for further exploring the relation between the transcendental and empirical; and thinking is empirical since the Ideas themselves afford the possible existence of every particular claimant that would find a stake in the question of who is the true shepherd of men? And who is the true philosopher? It is only through a transcendental empiricism that we can understand how Difference precedes Identity; how the Ideas themselves cannot serve as the criteria for establishing true and false claimants; the good copy from the bad simulacra.

Notes on Badiou’s ‘Affirmative Dialectics’

Soyez réalistic demandez l'impossible '68


The fundamental problem in philosophy today, for Alain Badiou, is the creation of a new logic “or more precisely, a new dialectics” (1). It is this new logic that precedes any considerations regarding “politics, life, creation, or action” (1). For Badiou, the two main problems that Marx dealt with (revolutionary politics and a new dialectical framework) are our problems today. Thus, Badiou’s search for a new form of dialectics is characterized by his concern with rectifying revolutionary politics “after two centuries of success and failures in revolutionary politics, and in particular, after the failure of the State-form of socialism” and by articulating a new logic which corresponds to “a new philosophical proposition adequate to all forms or creative novelty” (1). This can be summed up, as Badiou himself does, in one word: negativity. “If you want, our problem is the problem of negativity” (1).

For Badiou, when we think of political action in a dialectical manner, we find ourselves already immersed and committed to the classical dialectical logic which privileges negation and understands novelty to arise from this process. In this framework, “The development of the political struggle is fundamentally something like ‘revolt against’, ‘opposition to’, ‘negation of’, and the newness – the creation of the new State, or the creation of the new law – is always a result of the process of negation. This is the Hegelian framework; you have a relation between affirmation and negation, construction and negation, in which the real principle of movement, and the real principle of creation, is negation” (1-2). If we commit ourselves to the classical dialectical logic, then we are necessarily committed to understanding “the very definition of the revolutionary class” as that which is “against the present State or against the present law in the precise sense that revolutionary consciousness, as Vladimir Lenin would say, is basically the consciousness that one stands in a relation of negation to the existing order” (2). Therefore, in classical dialectical logic, negation is the principle of creativity, novelty, and political action is characterized by the oppositional manner in which the proletariat engages with the bourgeois state.

For Badiou, the classical dialectical logic “cannot be sustained today” (2). The crisis of the ‘trust in the power of negativity’ is characterized by a critique which claims, on the one hand, Hegelian dialectics being too affirmative (e.g., Adorno), and on the other, Hegelian dialectics being too negative (e.g., Negri and Althusser). The crisis, then, is characterized by either side that Hegelian dialectics goes too far in either the direction of negativity or affirmation: one either risks submitting to “the potency of the Totality and of the One’ or one risks forgoing the model of philosophy set forth by Spinoza, who is the main source of the anti-Hegelian critiques of Negri and Althusser. With the latter group of neo-Spinozists, Badiou writes “They find in Spinoza a model of philosophy which is finally without negation. We know today that in this way, we have an accepting of the dominant order, through the conviction that this order is full of newness and creativity, and that finally modern capitalism is the immediate strength which works, beyond the empire, in the direction of a sort of communism” (2). While not the most accurate of portrayals of the positions taken by Negri and Althusser, what is essential for Badiou is underscoring the full affirmation, the abandoning of the role played by negation, in analyzing and making sense of contemporary capitalism. It is true that both Negri and Althusser opt for Spinoza’s substance in opposition to Hegelian dialectics, and for this, Badiou remains skeptical since he remains convinced that the role of the negative retains a certain importance in thinking revolutionary politics and a new form of dialectics which can account for creative novelty without relying on negation pure and simple. To choose the paths of Adorno, or Negri and Althusser result in either “the aesthetics of human rights” or a “Nietzschean ‘Gay Science’ of History” which destroys all forms of dialectical thought, respectively (3).

Given the crisis of our trust in the power of negativity, Badiou writes, “I think the problem today is to find a way of reversing the classical dialectical logic inside itself so that the affirmation, or the positive proposition, comes before the negation instead of after it. In some sense, my attempt is to find a dialectical framework where something or the future comes before the negative present. I’m not suggesting the suppression of the relation between affirmation and negation – certainly revolt and class struggle remain essential – and I’m not suggesting a pacifistic direction or anything like that. The question is not whether we need to struggle or oppose, but concerns more precisely the relation between negation and affirmation. So when I say that there is something non-dialectical…formal it’s the same idea” (3). Ultimately, for Badiou, the answer to this crisis in the negative is the understand that it is, what he calls “primitive affirmation” that comes before negation and therefore, the principle of change and novelty is not negation (although it has its role to play) but rather affirmation (Affirmative Dialectics) (3).

Affirmation Precedes Negation: From St. Paul to Democracy

In order to understand how positivity precedes the negative, Badiou relies on his vocabulary of Event and Subject. So, how do we account for how affirmation precedes negation? For Badiou, it begins with understanding how Events transpire in Worlds. For Badiou, it is with an Event that we can begin to understand how affirmation precedes negation. As he writes, “an event is not initially the creation of a new situation. It is the creation of a new possibility, which is not the same thing. In fact, the event takes place in a situation that remains the same, but this same situation is inside the new possibility” (3).

Thus, with an Event we have the existence of a new possibility within a world, while at the same time having that world remain fundamentally unaltered by the event. These are the Events two defining characteristics, for Badiou. Second, and following from this definition of an Event, we have the understanding of the subject, or a “new subjective body:” “A new subjective body is the realization of the possibility that is opened by the event in a concrete form, and which develops some consequences of a the possibility. Naturally, among these consequences there are different forms of negation…but there forms of negation are consequences of the birth of the new subjectivity, and not the other way around; it is not the new subjectivity that is a consequence of the negation. So there is something really non-dialectical – in the sense of Hegel and Marx – about this logic, because we do not start with the creativity of negation as such, even if the site of negativity is certainly included in the consequences of something which is affirmative” (4).

This idea, that affirmation and the positivity of an event precedes the various forms of negation is what Badiou understands to be at stake in figures like St. Paul. As Badiou writes, “what is interesting in the example of Paul is that the very beginning of something new is always something like a pure affirmation of the new possibility as such. There is a resurrection; you have to affirm that! And when you affirm the resurrection, and you organize that sort of affirmation – because affirmation is with others and in the direction of others – you create something absolutely new, not in the form of a negation of what exists, but in the form of the newness inside what exists. And so there is no longer negation on the one hand and affirmation on the other. There is rather affirmation and division, or the creation that grounds the independence of new subject from within the situation of the old. This is the general orientation of the new logic” (5).

Paul, by virtue of the fundamental change instituted by the resurrection regarding his own existence, becomes the figure of Badiou’s affirmative dialectics: the principle of change is affirmation, whereby negation takes a secondary role. The example of Paul, because he is the figure of this new logic, is exemplary of a new relationship to Power and a new conception of resistance. As Badiou goes on to inquire, “is there today a possible good use of the word ‘democracy’?”(5). This simple question is what allows Badiou to unfold the difference between classical Hegelian and Marxist dialectics and Badiou’s affirmative dialectical logic. The further we begin to inquire into the debate between the good and bad use of the word democracy, its political relevance and the debates political importance, we may often find ourselves in a particularly defensive position, if we want to retain the word ‘democracy’ in our political vocabulary. Badiou opts for this position, while outlining the possible trap laying at the end of the road for those who remain committed to the classical version of dialectical thought:

“I have decided ultimately to keep the word, ‘democracy’. It’s generally a good thing to keep the word, because there is something problematic about leftists saying, ‘I am not interested in ‘democracy’ at all, because it has become practically meaningless’…The situation is difficult because we have to criticize the actual ‘democracies’ in one sense and in a different sense we have to criticize the political propaganda made today about the term ‘democracy’. If we do not do this we are paralyzed. In this case we would be saying ‘yes, we are in a democracy, but democracy can do something else’ and we would ultimately be in a defensive position. And this is the opposite of my conception, because my position is to begin by affirmation, not at all by a defensive position. So, if we keep the world, we must divide the signification of the world classically and differentiate between good democracy and bad democracy, between the reactionary conception of democracy and the progressive conception of democracy” (6).

Thus, everything rests on the division: the division between good and bad democracy, between reactionary and progressive democracy, etc. While in the traditional Marxist framework this division is grounded on class divisions, which then allowed on to understand popular democracy as distinct from bourgeois democracy. However, for Badiou, “this strict duality, however, is not convincing in the framework of a new dialectical thinking; it’s too easy to determine negatively the popular democracy as being everything the state democracy is not” (6-7). In order to evade the trap and the inefficient logic of Hegelian dialectics, Badiou offers “three understandings of democracy” (7). These ‘three understandings of democracy’ are all rooted in this new logic which has four terms, instead of Hegel’s three: “Hegel has three terms, because after the negation and the negation of negation, he has the totality of the process, the becoming of the absolute knowledge as a third term, but for me, after two different affirmation [Event and Subject], the conservative one and the affirmation of the new possibility, I have two different negations. It’s because the conservative negation of novelty by the reaction is not the same as the negative part, against the conservative position, of the new affirmation” (7).

Thus the three understandings of Democracy: 1) Democracy = a form of State (representative or parliamentary). 2) Democracy = “movement…which is not democracy directly in the political sense, but perhaps more in the historical sense.” So when democracy takes place, it is democracy in the form of an event. This is the sense of democracy in the work of Jacques Rancière, for example. For Rancière, as for me, democracy is the activation of the principle of equality. When the principle of equality is really active, you have some version of our understanding of democracy: that is, democracy as the irruption of collective equality in a concrete form, which can be protest or insurrection or popular assembly or any other form in which equality is effectively active” (7).

Badiou notes that this second definition of democracy is less understood as a system of governance than a “form of a sudden emergence in history, and ultimately of the event” (8). That is to say, when democracy signals collective equality within a situation understood as a movement, democracy is present insofar as democracy means, in this instance, “collective equality in a concrete form” (7). However, the third form of democracy is still different from these two understandings. As Badiou writes, “we have to find a third sense of democracy, which is properly the democracy of the determination of the new political subject as such. This is my ultimate conception. Democracy for me is another name for the elaboration of the consequences of collective action and for determining the new political subject” (8). It is from these three articulations of democracy (State, political action in relation to an Event, and Determination of New Subjects) that Badiou arrives at his 4 terms:

i) classical representative democracy (form of State power)

ii) mass movement democracy (historical)

iii) democracy as a political subject

iv) Communism (vanishing of the State, which is the historical and negative inscription of politics in History).

Badiou provides another example – the relationship between politics and power – to illustrate how affirmation precedes negation in his affirmative dialectics. Here Badiou takes as an example his own political activism regarding sans papiers  and one’s relation to the State in this circumstance. If we are to struggle for the livelihood and political power of immigrants coming into France, “we will have to confront new laws and decisions of the State, and we will have to create something that will be face to face with the State-not inside the State, but face to ace with it. So, we will have a ‘discussion’ with the State, or we will organize various forms of disruption. In any case, we will have to prescribe something about the State from outside” (9). Here we see the role of “struggle” as it appears in affirmative dialectics: in confronting State power, and particularly, a State which excludes and perpetuates violence against a portion of its population, what is necessary is not simple negation, mere opposition to the State. Rather, Badiou claims, resistance to State power begins with a prescription, from those who resist and addressed to the State, all from the outside. Here we are reminded of what Badiou writes in his text Metapolitics regarding the relationship between the power of the State and the truth procedure of politics, which alludes to the same thought: “The real characteristic of the political event and the truth procedure that it sets off is that a political event fixes the errancy and assigns a measure to the superpower of the State. It fixes the power of the State. Consequently, the political event interrupts the subjective errancy of the power of the State. It configures the state of the situation. It gives it a figure; it configures its power; it measures it” (Metapolitics, 145).This is, for Badiou, what characterizes politics: the prescription and measure of the power of the State by a mass or movement which has “collective equality in a concrete form” as its axiom.

If struggle, in accord with this new dialectical framework with two affirmations and two negations, does not privilege negation as its creative principle, it is because, as Badiou writes, “to be somebody is to be inside the State, otherwise you cannot be heard at all. So there are two possible outcomes. Either finally there is a discussion and some political results or else there is no room for discussion because we are nobody. It is once more the precise question of affirmation: how can we be somebody without being on the inside? We must affirm our existence, our principles, our action, always from outside” (10). That is to say, there is a ‘primitive’ affirmation which precedes negation when we understand political activity as finding its place outside of the State. It is outside of the state that characterizes Badiou’s conception of ‘class struggle.’ For Badiou, class struggle is no longer internal to State power, and therefore the contradiction of bourgeois society is not between Labor and Capital. Rather, for Badiou, if resistance always begins, and comes from, the outside, this new logic must articulate the relationship between the State and those who resist the state. Articulating the logic of resistance as first, beginning with affirmation which precedes all negation, and second, operates as an ‘outside’ to Capital can be seen in the passages of Tiqqun, which seems to dovetail nicely with Badiou’s project to think beyond the Hegelian-Marxist dialectic:

“…under Empire, negation comes from outside, that it intervenes not as heterogeneity in relation to homogeneity, but as heterogeneity itself, as heterogeneity in which the forms-of-life play in their difference. The Imaginary Party can never be individuated as a subject, a body, a thing or a substance, nor even as an ensemble of subjects, bodies, things and substances, but only as the occurrence of all of that. The Imaginary Party is not substantially a remainder of the social totality but the fact of this remainder, the fact that there is a remainder, that the represented always exceeds its representation, that upon which power exercises itself forever escapes it. Here lies the dialectic. All our condolences.”

In the end, Badiou’s article provides one with many starting points, and various ways to begin to pose the question according to his ‘affirmative dialectics,’ and allows us to understood what is at stake and how processes of truth relate to Events on account of the affirmation which precedes negation.