by Alain Badiou
Learning from the striking novelty of the riots in the Arab countries - especially their endurance, their determination, their unarmed tenacity, their unforeseen independence - we can, I believe, first of all propose a simple definition of an historical riot: it is the result of the transformation of an immediate riot, more nihilistic than political, into a pre-political riot. The case of the Arab countries then teaches us that for this the following are required.
1 . A transition from limited localization (assemblies' attacks and destructive acts on the very site of the rebels) to the construction of an enduring central site, where the rioters install themselves in an essentially peaceful fashion, asserting that they will stay put until they receive satisfaction. Therewith we also pass from the limited and, in a sense, wasted time of the immediate riot, which is an amorphous, high-risk assault, to the extended time of the historical riot, which instead resembles old sieges of a town, except that it involves laying siege to the state. In reality, everyone knows that destruction cannot last, except in 'major wars': an immediate riot can hold out for between one and five days at the most. In its monumental site, even when surrounded and harassed by the police, or on the main avenues it ritually occupies on a set day of the week, with the crowd constantly growing, an historical riot holds out for weeks or months.
2. For that to happen there must be a transition from extension by imitation to qualitative extension. This means that all the components of the people are progressively unified on the site thus constructed: popular and student youth, obviously, but also factory workers, intellectuals of all sorts, whole families, large numbers of women, employees, civil servants, even some police officers and soldiers, and so forth. People of different religious faiths mutually protect the others' prayer times; people of conflicting origin engage in peaceful discussion as if they had always known one another. And a multiplicity of voices, absent or virtually absent from the clamour of an immediate riot, asserts itself; placards describe and demand; banners incite the crowd. Even the reactionary world press will end up referring to the 'Egyptian people' in connection with those occupyingTahrir Square. At this point the threshold of historical riot is crossed: established localization, possible l0ngue duree, intensity of compact presence, multifaceted crowd counting as the whole people. As Trotsky, who was conversant with the subject, might have said: 'The masses have mounted the stage of history.'
3. It was also necessary to make a transition from the nihilistic din of riotous attacks to the invention of a single slogan that envelops all the disparate voices: 'Mubarak, clear off!' Thus is created the possibility of a victory, since what is immediately at stake in the riot has been decided. At the antipodes of destructive desires for revenge, the movement can persist in anticipation of a specific material satisfaction: the departure of a man whose name - a short while before taboo, but now publicly condemned to ignominious erasure - is brandished.
From everything we have witnessed over the last few months let us remember the following: a riot becomes historical when its localization ceases to be limited, but grounds in the occupied space the promise of a new, long-term temporality; when its composition stops being uniform, but gradually outlines a unified representation in mosaic form of all the people; when, finally, the negative growling of pure rebellion is succeeded by the assertion of a shared demand, whose satisfaction confers an initial meaning on the word 'victory' .
In this very general framework we must stress from the outset what constitutes the specifically historical rarity of the Tunisian and Egyptian riots in early 2011: in addition to the fact that they have taught or reminded us of the laws of the transition from immediate riot to historical riot, they were fairly rapidly victorious. There you had regimes which had long seemed securely in place, which had organized non-stop police surveillance and remorselessly employed torture, which were surrounded by the solicitude of all the imperial 'democratic' powers, large or small, which were constantly oiled by corrupting manna from these powers - and here they were overthrown, or at least those who were their emblem (Ben Ali and Mubarak) were overthrown, by completely unforeseen popular action directed by no established organization. This entails that the riotous dimension of these actions is not in doubt.
Such phenomena are sufficient in themselves for us to speak of a 'rebirth of History' in connection with the riots. How many years back do we have to go to find the overthrow of a centralized, well-armed power by huge crowds with their bare hands? Thirty-two years, when the Shah ofIran, who just like Ben Ali was regarded as a Westerner and modernizer, and just like him was adored, subsidized and armed by our rulers, was overthrown by gigantic street demonstrations against which armed force was unavailing. But then we were precisely at the end of a long historical sequence when riots, wars of national liberation, revolutionary initiatives, guerrillas and youth uprisings had conferred on the idea of History its full meaning, charged as it is with sustaining and validating radical political options. Between 1950 at the earliest and 1980 at the latest, the ideas of revolution and communism were banally selfevident for masses of people throughout the world. However, a number of militants in our countries threw in the towel from the early 1970s onwards, starting down the distressing path of renegacy and rallying to the established order under the moth-eaten banner of 'anti-totalitarianism'. The Cultural Revolution in China, that Paris Commune of the epoch of socialist states,2 foundered on its own anarchic violence - was it perhaps merely a collection of immediate riots? - in 1976, with Mao's death. On their own in the world, a few groups attempted to preserve the means for a new sequence. In this sense the Iranian Revolution was terminal, not inaugural. In its obscure paradoxicality (a revolution led by an ayatollah, a popular rising embedded in a theocratic context), it heralded the end of the clear days of revolutions. In this it coincided with the working-class movement Solidarnosc in Poland. This highly significant popular uprising against a corrupt, moribund socialist state reminded us that action by the popular masses is always possible, even in a situation blasted by foreign occupation and a political regime imposed from without. Solidarnosc also reminded us that such action derives particular strength from being centred on factories and their workers. But aside from its critical force, the Polish movement remained bereft of any new idea about the country's possible destiny, and was incongruously cheered on by a future pope and an utterly reactionary clergy. Moreover, the outcome of the Iranian Revolution - the oxymoron represented by the expression 'Islamic republic' - did not, as indicated by its name, possess any universal vocation. Nor did the sad fate of the Polish state 'liberated' from communism: fanatically capitalist, xenophobic and slavishly pro-American.
Obviously, we do not know what the historical riots in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and other Arab counties are going to lead to. We are in the initial post-riot period, and everything is uncertain. But it is clear that, unlike the Polish historical riot or the Iranian Revolution, which closed a sequence in a violent, paradoxical darkening of their ideological context, the revolts in the Arab countries are opening a sequence, by leaving their own context undecided. They are stirring up and altering historical possibilities, to the extent that the meaning which their initial victories will retrospectively assume will in large part determine the meaning of our future.
While preserving their purely even tal dimension, which is thus subtracted from 'scientific' prediction, I believe that we can inscribe these riotous tendencies as characteristic actions of what I shall call intervallic periods.
What is an intervallic period? It is what comes cifter a period in which the revolutionary conception of political action has been sufficiently clarified that, notwithstanding the ferocious internal struggles punctuating its development, it is explicitly presented as an alternative to the dominant world, and on this basis has secured massive, disciplined support. In an intervallic period, by contrast, the revolutionary idea of the preceding period, which naturally encountered formidable obstacles - relentless enemies without and a provisional inability to resolve important problems within - is dormant. It has not yet been taken up by a new sequence in its development. An open, shared and universally practicable figure of emancipation is wanting. The historical time is defined, at least for all those unamenable to selling out to domination, by a sort of uncertain interval of the Idea.
It is during such periods that the reactionaries can say, precisely because the revolutionary road is faint, even illegible, that things have resumed their natural course. Typically, this is what happened in 1815 with the restorationists of the Holy Alliance, for whom feudal social relations and their monarchical synthesis represented the sole order worthy of God, so that republican, plebeian revolution was nothing but a monstrosity encapsulated in the Terror and the diabolical figure of Robespierre. And this, typically, is what people have tried to make us believe for thirty years. We know from reliable sources (say the sanctimonious democrats and new Tartuffes) that the totalitarian aberration, lethal ideocracy, the socialist states, Marxism, Leninism, Maoism and the intellectual and practical movements that discovered the principle of their intense existence in them, were nothing but inefficient, criminal impostures, encapsulated in the diabolical figure of Stalin. The peaceful course of things - the only valid thing on offer - is the natural harmony between unbridled capitalism and impotent democracy. Impotent because servile towards the site of real power - Capital - and firmly 'controlled' when it comes to working-class and popular aspirations.
For the intervallic period we are still in, running from 1980 to 2011 (and beyond?) - a period in which classical capitalism has been revived following the collapse of the state forms of the communist road issued from the Bolshevik revolution - 'liberal democracy' is what 'liberal monarchy' was for the intervallic period when modern capitalism took off, following the crushing of the final bursts of the republican revolution (1815-50).
During these intervallic periods, however, discontent, rebellion and the conviction that the world should not be as it is, that capitalo-parliamentarianism is in no wise 'natural' , but utterly sinister -all this exists. At the same time, it cannot fmd its political form, in the first instance because it cannot draw strength from the sharing of an Idea. The force of rebellions, even when they assume an historical significance, remains essentially negative (,let them go', 'Ben Ali out', 'Mubarak clear off'). It does not deploy a slogan in the affirmative element of the Idea. That is why collective mass action can only take the form of a riot, at best directed towards its historical form, which is also called a 'mass movement' .
Let us recapitulate: the riot is the guardian of the history of emancipation in intervallic periods.
Let us return to the period 1S15-50 in France and Europe, for our own interval bears an uncanny resemblance to that Restoration. It followed the Great Revolution and, like our own last thirty years, its vertebral column was a virulent reactionary restoration, which was politically constitutionalist and economically liberal. Yet from the start of the 1830s it was a major period of riots, which were often momentarily or seemingly victorious (the 'Trois Glorieuses' of 1830, workers' riots pretty much everywhere, the 1848 'revolution', and so on). These were precisely the riots, sometimes immediate, sometimes more historical, characteristic of an intervallic period: after 1850 the republican idea, now insufficient for demarcation from bourgeois reaction, would have to be succeeded by the communist Idea.
That the awakening of History, in the form of a riot and its possible immediate victory, is not generally contemporaneous with the revival of the Idea, which would give the riot a real political future, is a very old observation. This decoupling is fully evident in some of the riots of the sans-culottes, of the bras nus, during the French Revolution itself. These riots could not make do with revolutionary ideology in its strictly republican form. They presupposed an ideological hereafter, which had not taken shape. Consequently, in the absence of any real subjective sharing of an Idea, it was impossible for them to resolve the problem of the transition from riot, albeit historical, to the consistency of an organized politics.
The inevitable lagging of riots, in as much as they are the mass sign of a reopening of History, behind the most contemporary questions of politics, themselves bequeathed by the pre-intervallic moment when there existed a broad vision of the politics of emancipation, is doubtless the most striking empirical proof of the fact that History does not contain within itself a solution to the problems it places on the agenda. However brilliant and memorable the historical riots in the Arab world, they finally come up against universal problems of politics that remained unresolved in the previous period. At the centre of these is to be found the problem of politics par excellence - namely, organization. Only, as Mao puts it, 'to have order in organization you must have it in ideology'. But ideology is only ever the set of abstract consequences of an Idea or (if you prefer) of one or several principles.
In short, guardians of the history of emancipation in an intervallic period, historical riots point to the urgency of a reformulated ideological proposal, a powerful Idea, a pivotal hypothesis, so that the energy they release and the individuals they engage can give rise, in and beyond the mass movement and the reawakening of History it signals, to a new figure of organization and hence of politics. So that the political day which follows the reawakening of History is likewise a new day. So that tomorrow is genuinely different from today. So that, in sum, the lesson contained in the last verse of a famous poem by Brecht, 'In Praise of Dialectics', is wholly valid:
Today, injustice goes with a certain stride,
The oppressors move in for ten thousand years.
Force sounds certain; it will stay the way it is.
No voice resounds except the voice of the rulers
And on the markets, exploitation says it out loud:
I am only just beginning.
But of the oppressed, many now say: What we want will never happen.
Whoever is still alive must never say 'never' !
Certainty is never certain.
It will not stay the way it is.
When the rulers have already spoken
Then the ruled will start to speak.
Who dares say 'never'?
Who's to blame if oppression remains? We are.
Who can break its thrall? We can.
Whoever has been beaten down must rise to his feet! Whoever is lost must fight back!
Whoever has recognized his condition - how can anyone stop him?
Because the vanquished of today will be tomorrow's victors
And never will become: already today!
ALAIN BADIOU/THE REBIRTH OF HISTORY/ Times Of Riots and Uprisings
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