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Alain Badiou: Elections, The State, Sarkozy, Communism, and Courage

Posted by voidmanufacturing on September 5, 2008

new left review 49 jan feb 2008 29 

Alain Badiou

THE COMMUNIST HYPOTHESIS 

There was a tangible sense of depression in the air in France 

in the aftermath of Sarkozy’s victory.1 It is often said that 

unexpected blows are the worst, but expected ones some- 

times prove debilitating in a different way. It can be oddly 

dispiriting when an election is won by the candidate who has led in the 

opinion polls from the start, just as when the favourite horse wins the 

race; anyone with the slightest feeling for a wager, a risk, an exception or 

a rupture would rather see an outsider upset the odds. Yet it could hardly 

have been the bare fact of Nicolas Sarkozy as President that seemed to 

come as such a disorientating blow to the French left in the aftermath 

of May 2007. Something else was at stake—some complex of factors for 

which ‘Sarkozy’ is merely a name. How should it be understood? 

An initial factor was the way in which the outcome affirmed the mani- 

fest powerlessness of any genuinely emancipatory programme within 

the electoral system: preferences are duly recorded, in the passive man- 

ner of a seismograph, but the process is one that by its nature excludes 

any embodiments of dissenting political will. A second component of 

the left’s depressive disorientation after May 2007 was an overwhelming 

bout of historical nostalgia. The political order that emerged from World 

War Two in France—with its unambiguous referents of ‘left’ and ‘right’, 

and its consensus, shared by Gaullists and Communists alike, on the 

balance-sheet of the Occupation, Resistance and Liberation—has now 

collapsed. This is one reason for Sarkozy’s ostentatious dinners, yacht- 

ing holidays and so on—a way of saying that the left no longer frightens 

anyone: Vivent les riches, and to hell with the poor. Understandably, this 

may fill the sincere souls of the left with nostalgia for the good old days— 

Mitterrand, De Gaulle, Marchais, even Chirac, Gaullism’s Brezhnev, who 

knew that to do nothing was the easiest way to let the system die.

 

Sarkozy has now finally finished off the cadaverous form of Gaullism over 

which Chirac presided. The Socialists’ collapse had already been antici- 

pated in the rout of Jospin in the presidential elections of 2002 (and still 

more by the disastrous decision to embrace Chirac in the second round). 

The present decomposition of the Socialist Party, however, is not just a 

matter of its political poverty, apparent now for many years, nor of the 

actual size of the vote—47 per cent is not much worse than its other recent 

scores. Rather, the election of Sarkozy appears to have struck a blow to the 

entire symbolic structuring of French political life: the system of orienta- 

tion itself has suffered a defeat. An important symptom of the resulting 

disorientation is the number of former Socialist placemen rushing to take 

up appointments under Sarkozy, the centre-left opinion-makers singing 

his praises; the rats have fled the sinking ship in impressive numbers. 

The underlying rationale is, of course, that of the single party: since all 

accept the logic of the existing capitalist order, market economy and so 

forth, why maintain the fiction of opposing parties? 

 

A third component of the contemporary disorientation arose from the 

outcome of the electoral conflict itself. I have characterized the 2007 

presidential elections—pitting Sarkozy against Royal—as the clash of 

two types of fear. The first is the fear felt by the privileged, alarmed that 

their position may be assailable. In France this manifests itself as fear of 

foreigners, workers, youth from the banlieue, Muslims, black Africans. 

Essentially conservative, it creates a longing for a protective master, even 

one who oppresses and impoverishes you further. The current embodi- 

ment of this figure is, of course, the over-stimulated police chief: Sarkozy. 

In electoral terms, this is contested not by a resounding affirmation of 

self-determining heterogeneity, but by the fear of this fear: a fear, too, of 

the cop figure, whom the petit-bourgeois socialist voter neither knows 

nor likes. This ‘fear of the fear’ is a secondary, derivative emotion, whose 

content—beyond the sentiment itself—is barely detectable; the Royal 

camp had no concept of any alliance with the excluded or oppressed; 

the most it could envisage was to reap the dubious benefits of fear. For 

both sides, a total consensus reigned on Palestine, Iran, Afghanistan 

(where French forces are fighting), Lebanon (ditto), Africa (swarming 

with French military ‘administrators’). Public discussion of alternatives 

on these issues was on neither party’s agenda. 

This is an edited extract from De quoi Sarkozy est-il le nom?, Circonstances, 4, 

Nouvelles Editions Lignes, Paris 2007; to be published in English by Verso as What 

Do We Mean When We Say ‘Sarkozy’? in 2008. 

badiou: After Sarkozy 31 

 

The conflict between the primary fear and the ‘fear of the fear’ was set- 

tled in favour of the former. There was a visceral reflex in play here, very 

apparent in the faces of those partying over Sarkozy’s victory. For those 

in the grip of the ‘fear of the fear’ there was a corresponding negative 

reflex, flinching from the result: this was the third component of 2007’s 

depressive disorientation. We should not underestimate the role of what 

Althusser called the ‘ideological state apparatus’—increasingly through 

the media, with the press now playing a more sophisticated part than tv 

and radio—in formulating and mobilizing such collective sentiments. 

Within the electoral process there has, it seems, been a weakening of 

the real; a process even further advanced with regard to the secondary 

‘fear of the fear’ than with the primitive, reactionary one. We react, after 

all, to a real situation, whereas the ‘fear of the fear’ merely takes fright at 

the scale of that reaction, and is thus at a still further remove from real- 

ity. The vacuity of this position manifested itself perfectly in the empty 

exaltations of Ségolène Royal. 

 

Electoralism and the state 

 

If we posit a definition of politics as ‘collective action, organized by cer- 

tain principles, that aims to unfold the consequences of a new possibility 

which is currently repressed by the dominant order’, then we would 

have to conclude that the electoral mechanism is an essentially apoliti- 

cal procedure. This can be seen in the gulf between the massive formal 

imperative to vote and the free-floating, if not non-existent nature of 

political or ideological convictions. It is good to vote, to give a form to my 

fears; but it is hard to believe that what I am voting for is a good thing in 

itself. This is not to say that the electoral-democratic system is repressive 

per se; rather, that the electoral process is incorporated into a state form, 

that of capitalo-parliamentarianism, appropriate for the maintenance of 

the established order, and consequently serves a conservative function. 

This creates a further feeling of powerlessness: if ordinary citizens have 

no handle on state decision-making save the vote, it is hard to see what 

way forward there could be for an emancipatory politics. 

 

If the electoral mechanism is not a political but a state procedure, what 

does it achieve? Drawing on the lessons of 2007, one effect is to incor- 

porate both the fear and the ‘fear of the fear’ into the state—to invest 

the state with these mass-subjective elements, the better to legitimate 

it as an object of fear in its own right, equipped for terror and coercion. 

For the world horizon of democracy is increasingly defined by war. The 

West is engaged on an expanding number of fronts: the maintenance of 

the existing order with its gigantic disparities has an irreducible military 

component; the duality of the worlds of rich and poor can only be sus- 

tained by force. This creates a particular dialectic of war and fear. Our 

governments explain that they are waging war abroad in order to protect 

us from it at home. If Western troops do not hunt down the terrorists 

in Afghanistan or Chechnya, they will come over here to organize the 

resentful rabble outcasts. 

 

Strategic neo-Pétainism 

 

In France, this alliance of fear and war has classically gone by the 

name of Pétainism. The mass ideology of Pétainism—responsible for 

its widespread success between 1940 and 1944—rested in part on the 

fear generated by the First World War: Marshal Pétain would protect 

France from the disastrous effects of the Second, by keeping well out 

of it. In the Marshal’s own words, it was necessary to be more afraid of 

war than of defeat. The vast majority of the French accepted the rela- 

tive tranquillity of a consensual defeat and most got off fairly lightly 

during the War, compared to the Russians or even the English. The 

analogous project today is based on the belief that the French need sim- 

ply to accept the laws of the us-led world model and all will be well: 

France will be protected from the disastrous effects of war and global 

disparity. This form of neo-Pétainism as a mass ideology is effectively 

on offer from both parties today. In what follows, I will argue that it is 

a key analytical element in understanding the disorientation that goes 

by the name of ‘Sarkozy’; to grasp the latter in its overall dimension, its 

historicity and intelligibility, requires us to go back to what I will call its 

Pétainist ‘transcendental’.2 

I am not saying, of course, that circumstances today resemble the 

defeat of 1940, or that Sarkozy resembles Pétain. The point is a more 

formal one: that the unconscious national-historical roots of that which 

goes by the name of Sarkozy are to be found in this Pétainist configu- 

ration, in which the disorientation itself is solemnly enacted from the 

 

See my Logiques des mondes, Paris 2006 for a full development of the concept of 

‘transcendentals’ and their function, which is to govern the order of appearance of 

multiplicities within a world.

 

summit of the state, and presented as a historical turning-point. This 

matrix has been a recurring pattern in French history. It goes back to the 

Restoration of 1815 when a post-Revolutionary government, eagerly sup- 

ported by émigrés and opportunists, was brought back in the foreigners’ 

baggage-train and declared, with the consent of a worn-out population, 

that it would restore public morality and order. In 1940, military defeat 

once again served as the context for the disorientating reversal of the real 

content of state action: the Vichy government spoke incessantly of the 

‘nation’, yet was installed by the German Occupation; the most corrupt 

of oligarchs were to lead the country out of moral crisis; Pétain himself, 

an ageing general in the service of property, would be the embodiment 

of national rebirth. 

 

Numerous aspects of this neo-Pétainist tradition are in evidence today. 

Typically, capitulation and servility are presented as invention and regen- 

eration. These were central themes of Sarkozy’s campaign: the Mayor of 

Neuilly would transform the French economy and put the country back 

to work. The real content, of course, is a politics of continuous obedi- 

ence to the demands of high finance, in the name of national renewal. A 

second characteristic is that of decline and ‘moral crisis’, which justifies 

the repressive measures taken in the name of regeneration. Morality is 

invoked, as so often, in place of politics and against any popular mobi- 

lization. Appeal is made instead to the virtues of hard work, discipline, 

the family: ‘merit should be rewarded’. This typical displacement of poli- 

tics by morality has been prepared, from the 1970s ‘new philosophers’ 

onwards, by all who have laboured to ‘moralize’ historical judgement. 

The object is in reality political: to maintain that national decline has 

nothing to do with the high servants of capital but is the fault of certain 

ill-intentioned elements of the population—currently, foreign workers 

and young people from the banlieue. 

 

A third characteristic of neo-Pétainism is the paradigmatic function 

of foreign experience. The example of correction always comes from 

abroad, from countries that have long overcome their moral crises. For 

Pétain, the shining examples were Mussolini’s Italy, Hitler’s Germany 

and Franco’s Spain: leaders who had put their countries back on their 

feet. The political aesthetic is that of imitation: like Plato’s demiurge, the 

state must shape society with its eyes fixed on foreign models. Today, of 

course, the examples are Bush’s America and Blair’s Britain. 

 

A fourth characteristic is the notion that the source of the current cri- 

sis lies in a disastrous past event. For the proto-Pétainism of the 1815 

Restoration, this was of course the Revolution and the beheading of the 

King. For Pétain himself in 1940 it was the Popular Front, the Blum 

government and above all the great strikes and factory occupations of 

1936. The possessing classes far preferred the German Occupation to 

the fear which these disorders had provoked. For Sarkozy, the evils of 

May 68—forty years ago—have been constantly invoked as the cause 

of the current ‘crisis of values’. Neo-Pétainism provides a usefully sim- 

plified reading of history that links a negative event, generally with a 

working-class or popular structure, and a positive one, with a military 

or state structure, as a solution to the first. The arc between 1968 and 

2007 can thus be offered as a source of legitimacy for the Sarkozy gov- 

ernment, as the historic actor that will finally embark on the correction 

needed in the wake of the inaugural damaging event. Finally, there is the 

element of racism. Under Pétain this was brutally explicit: getting rid of 

the Jews. Today it is voiced in a more insinuating fashion: ‘we are not an 

inferior race’—the implication being, ‘unlike others’; ‘the true French 

need not doubt the legitimacy of their country’s actions’—in Algeria 

and elsewhere. In the light of these criteria, we can therefore point: the 

disorientation that goes by the name of ‘Sarkozy’ may be analysed as the 

latest manifestation of the Pétainist transcendental. 

 

The spectre 

 

At first sight there may seem something strange about the new President’s 

insistence that the solution to the country’s moral crisis, the goal of his 

‘renewal’ process, was ‘to do away with May 68, once and for all’. Most 

of us were under the impression that it was long gone anyway. What is 

haunting the regime, under the name of May 68? We can only assume 

that it is the ‘spectre of communism’, in one of its last real manifesta- 

tions. He would say (to give a Sarkozian prosopopoeia): ‘We refuse to be 

haunted by anything at all. It is not enough that empirical communism 

has disappeared. We want all possible forms of it banished. Even the 

hypothesis of communism—generic name of our defeat—must become 

unmentionable.’ 

 

What is the communist hypothesis? In its generic sense, given in its 

canonic Manifesto, ‘communist’ means, first, that the logic of class— 

the fundamental subordination of labour to a dominant class, the 

arrangement that has persisted since Antiquity—is not inevitable; it 

can be overcome. The communist hypothesis is that a different collec- 

tive organization is practicable, one that will eliminate the inequality of 

wealth and even the division of labour. The private appropriation of mas- 

sive fortunes and their transmission by inheritance will disappear. The 

existence of a coercive state, separate from civil society, will no longer 

appear a necessity: a long process of reorganization based on a free asso- 

ciation of producers will see it withering away. 

 

‘Communism’ as such denotes only this very general set of intellectual 

representations. It is what Kant called an Idea, with a regulatory func- 

tion, rather than a programme. It is foolish to call such communist 

principles utopian; in the sense that I have defined them here they are 

intellectual patterns, always actualized in a different fashion. As a pure 

Idea of equality, the communist hypothesis has no doubt existed since 

the beginnings of the state. As soon as mass action opposes state coer- 

cion in the name of egalitarian justice, rudiments or fragments of the 

hypothesis start to appear. Popular revolts—the slaves led by Spartacus, 

the peasants led by Müntzer—might be identified as practical examples 

of this ‘communist invariant’. With the French Revolution, the commu- 

nist hypothesis then inaugurates the epoch of political modernity. 

What remains is to determine the point at which we now find ourselves 

in the history of the communist hypothesis. A fresco of the modern 

period would show two great sequences in its development, with a 

forty-year gap between them. The first is that of the setting in place of 

the communist hypothesis; the second, of preliminary attempts at its 

realization. The first sequence runs from the French Revolution to the 

Paris Commune; let us say, 1792 to 1871. It links the popular mass move- 

ment to the seizure of power, through the insurrectional overthrow of 

the existing order; this revolution will abolish the old forms of society 

and install ‘the community of equals’. In the course of the century, the 

formless popular movement made up of townsfolk, artisans and stu- 

dents came increasingly under the leadership of the working class. The 

sequence culminated in the striking novelty—and radical defeat—of the 

Paris Commune. For the Commune demonstrated both the extraordi- 

nary energy of this combination of popular movement, working-class 

leadership and armed insurrection, and its limits: the communards 

could neither establish the revolution on a national footing nor defend it 

against the foreign-backed forces of the counter-revolution.

 

The second sequence of the communist hypothesis runs from 1917 

to 1976: from the Bolshevik Revolution to the end of the Cultural 

Revolution and the militant upsurge throughout the world during the 

years 1966–75. It was dominated by the question: how to win? How to 

hold out—unlike the Paris Commune—against the armed reaction of 

the possessing classes; how to organize the new power so as to protect it 

against the onslaught of its enemies? It was no longer a question of for- 

mulating and testing the communist hypothesis, but of realizing it: what 

the 19th century had dreamt, the 20th would accomplish. The obses- 

sion with victory, centred around questions of organization, found its 

principal expression in the ‘iron discipline’ of the communist party—the 

characteristic construction of the second sequence of the hypothesis. The 

party effectively solved the question inherited from the first sequence: 

the revolution prevailed, either through insurrection or prolonged popu- 

lar war, in Russia, China, Czechoslovakia, Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, and 

succeeded in establishing a new order. 

 

But the second sequence in turn created a further problem, which it 

could not solve using the methods it had developed in response to the 

problems of the first. The party had been an appropriate tool for the 

overthrow of weakened reactionary regimes, but it proved ill-adapted 

for the construction of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ in the sense 

that Marx had intended—that is, a temporary state, organizing the 

transition to the non-state: its dialectical ‘withering away’. Instead, the 

party-state developed into a new form of authoritarianism. Some of these 

regimes made real strides in education, public health, the valorization 

of labour, and so on; and they provided an international constraint on 

the arrogance of the imperialist powers. However, the statist principle 

in itself proved corrupt and, in the long run, ineffective. Police coercion 

could not save the ‘socialist’ state from internal bureaucratic inertia; 

and within fifty years it was clear that it would never prevail in the fero- 

cious competition imposed by its capitalist adversaries. The last great 

convulsions of the second sequence—the Cultural Revolution and May 

68, in its broadest sense—can be understood as attempts to deal with 

the inadequacy of the party. 

 

Interludes 

 

Between the end of the first sequence and the beginning of the second 

there was a forty-year interval during which the communist hypothesis 

was declared to be untenable: the decades from 1871 to 1914 saw impe- 

rialism triumphant across the globe. Since the second sequence came 

to an end in the 1970s we have been in another such interval, with the 

adversary in the ascendant once more. What is at stake in these circum- 

stances is the eventual opening of a new sequence of the communist 

hypothesis. But it is clear that this will not be—cannot be—the con- 

tinuation of the second one. Marxism, the workers’ movement, mass 

democracy, Leninism, the party of the proletariat, the socialist state—all 

the inventions of the 20th century—are not really useful to us any more. 

At the theoretical level they certainly deserve further study and consider- 

ation; but at the level of practical politics they have become unworkable. 

The second sequence is over and it is pointless to try to restore it. 

At this point, during an interval dominated by the enemy, when new 

experiments are tightly circumscribed, it is not possible to say with cer- 

tainty what the character of the third sequence will be. But the general 

direction seems discernible: it will involve a new relation between the 

political movement and the level of the ideological—one that was prefig- 

ured in the expression ‘cultural revolution’ or in the May 68 notion of a 

‘revolution of the mind’. We will still retain the theoretical and historical 

lessons that issued from the first sequence, and the centrality of victory 

that issued from the second. But the solution will be neither the form- 

less, or multi-form, popular movement inspired by the intelligence of the 

multitude—as Negri and the alter-globalists believe—nor the renewed 

and democratized mass communist party, as some of the Trotskyists 

and Maoists hope. The (19th-century) movement and the (20th-century) 

party were specific modes of the communist hypothesis; it is no longer 

possible to return to them. Instead, after the negative experiences of the 

‘socialist’ states and the ambiguous lessons of the Cultural Revolution 

and May 68, our task is to bring the communist hypothesis into exist- 

ence in another mode, to help it emerge within new forms of political 

experience. This is why our work is so complicated, so experimental. 

We must focus on its conditions of existence, rather than just improv- 

ing its methods. We need to re-install the communist hypothesis—the 

proposition that the subordination of labour to the dominant class is not 

inevitable—within the ideological sphere. 

 

What might this involve? Experimentally, we might conceive of finding 

a point that would stand outside the temporality of the dominant order 

and what Lacan once called ‘the service of wealth’. Any point, so long  

as it is in formal opposition to such service, and offers the discipline 

of a universal truth. One such might be the declaration: ‘There is only 

one world’. What would this imply? Contemporary capitalism boasts, 

of course, that it has created a global order; its opponents too speak of 

‘alter-globalization’. Essentially, they propose a definition of politics as 

a practical means of moving from the world as it is to the world as we 

would wish it to be. But does a single world of human subjects exist? The 

‘one world’ of globalization is solely one of things—objects for sale—and 

monetary signs: the world market as foreseen by Marx. The overwhelm- 

ing majority of the population have at best restricted access to this world. 

They are locked out, often literally so. 

 

The fall of the Berlin Wall was supposed to signal the advent of the single 

world of freedom and democracy. Twenty years later, it is clear that the 

world’s wall has simply shifted: instead of separating East and West it 

now divides the rich capitalist North from the poor and devastated South. 

New walls are being constructed all over the world: between Palestinians 

and Israelis, between Mexico and the United States, between Africa and 

the Spanish enclaves, between the pleasures of wealth and the desires of 

the poor, whether they be peasants in villages or urban dwellers in fave- 

las, banlieues, estates, hostels, squats and shantytowns. The price of the 

supposedly unified world of capital is the brutal division of human exist- 

ence into regions separated by police dogs, bureaucratic controls, naval 

patrols, barbed wire and expulsions. The ‘problem of immigration’ is, 

in reality, the fact that the conditions faced by workers from other coun- 

tries provide living proof that—in human terms—the ‘unified world’ of 

globalization is a sham.

 

A performative unity 

 

The political problem, then, has to be reversed. We cannot start from 

an analytic agreement on the existence of the world and proceed to 

normative action with regard to its characteristics. The disagreement 

is not over qualities but over existence. Confronted with the artificial 

and murderous division of the world into two—a disjunction named 

by the very term, ‘the West’—we must affirm the existence of the single 

world right from the start, as axiom and principle. The simple phrase, 

‘there is only one world’, is not an objective conclusion. It is perfor- 

mative: we are deciding that this is how it is for us. Faithful to this 

point, it is then a question of elucidating the consequences that follow 

from this simple declaration. 

 

A first consequence is the recognition that all belong to the same world as 

myself: the African worker I see in the restaurant kitchen, the Moroccan 

I see digging a hole in the road, the veiled woman looking after children 

in a park. That is where we reverse the dominant idea of the world united 

by objects and signs, to make a unity in terms of living, acting beings, 

here and now. These people, different from me in terms of language, 

clothes, religion, food, education, exist exactly as I do myself; since they 

exist like me, I can discuss with them—and, as with anyone else, we can 

agree and disagree about things. But on the precondition that they and I 

exist in the same world. 

 

At this point, the objection about cultural difference will be raised: ‘our’ 

world is made up of those who accept ‘our’ values—democracy, respect 

for women, human rights. Those whose culture is contrary to this are 

not really part of the same world; if they want to join it they have to 

share our values, to ‘integrate’. As Sarkozy put it: ‘If foreigners want 

to remain in France, they have to love France; otherwise, they should 

leave.’ But to place conditions is already to have abandoned the princi- 

ple, ‘there is only one world of living men and women’. It may be said 

that we need to take the laws of each country into account. Indeed; but 

a law does not set a precondition for belonging to the world. It is simply 

a provisional rule that exists in a particular region of the single world. 

And no one is asked to love a law, simply to obey it. The single world 

of living women and men may well have laws; what it cannot have is 

subjective or ‘cultural’ preconditions for existence within it—to demand 

that you have to be like everyone else. The single world is precisely the 

place where an unlimited set of differences exist. Philosophically, far 

from casting doubt on the unity of the world, these differences are its 

principle of existence. 

 

The question then arises whether anything governs these unlimited dif- 

ferences. There may well be only one world, but does that mean that 

being French, or a Moroccan living in France, or Muslim in a country 

of Christian traditions, is nothing? Or should we see the persistence of 

such identities as an obstacle? The simplest definition of ‘identity’ is 

the series of characteristics and properties by which an individual or a 

group recognizes itself as its ‘self’. But what is this ‘self’? It is that which, 

across all the characteristic properties of identity, remains more or less 

invariant. It is possible, then, to say that an identity is the ensemble of 

properties that support an invariance. For example, the identity of an art- 

ist is that by which the invariance of his or her style can be recognized; 

homosexual identity is composed of everything bound up with the invar- 

iance of the possible object of desire; the identity of a foreign community 

in a country is that by which membership of this community can be 

recognized: language, gestures, dress, dietary habits, etc. 

 

Defined in this way, by invariants, identity is doubly related to dif- 

ference: on the one hand, identity is that which is different from the 

rest; on the other, it is that which does not become different, which 

is invariant. The affirmation of identity has two further aspects. The 

first form is negative. It consists of desperately maintaining that I am 

not the other. This is often indispensable, in the face of authoritar- 

ian demands for integration, for example. The Moroccan worker will 

forcefully affirm that his traditions and customs are not those of the 

petty-bourgeois European; he will even reinforce the characteristics of 

his religious or customary identity. The second involves the immanent 

development of identity within a new situation—rather like Nietzsche’s 

famous maxim, ‘become what you are’. The Moroccan worker does not 

abandon that which constitutes his individual identity, whether socially 

or in the family; but he will gradually adapt all this, in a creative fashion, 

to the place in which he finds himself. He will thus invent what he is—a 

Moroccan worker in Paris—not through any internal rupture, but by 

an expansion of identity. 

 

The political consequences of the axiom, ‘there is only one world’, will 

work to consolidate what is universal in identities. An example—a 

local experiment—would be a meeting held recently in Paris, where 

undocumented workers and French nationals came together to 

demand the abolition of persecutory laws, police raids and expulsions; 

to demand that foreign workers be recognized simply in terms of their 

presence: that no one is illegal; all demands that are very natural for 

people who are basically in the same existential situation—people of 

the same world.

 

Time and courage 

 

‘In such great misfortune, what remains to you?’ Corneille’s Medea is 

asked by her confidante. ‘Myself! Myself, I say, and it is enough’, comes 

the reply. What Medea retains is the courage to decide her own fate; 

and courage, I would suggest, is the principal virtue in face of the diso- 

rientation of our own times. Lacan also raises the issue in discussing 

the analytical cure for depressive debility: should this not end in grand 

dialectical discussions on courage and justice, on the model of Plato’s 

dialogues? In the famous ‘Dialogue on Courage’, General Laches, ques- 

tioned by Socrates, replies: ‘Courage is when I see the enemy and run 

towards him to engage him in a fight.’ Socrates is not particularly satis- 

fied with this, of course, and gently takes the General to task: ‘It’s a good 

example of courage, but an example is not a definition.’ Running the 

same risks as General Laches, I will give my definition. 

 

First, I would retain the status of courage as a virtue—that is, not an 

innate disposition, but something that constructs itself, and which one 

constructs, in practice. Courage, then, is the virtue which manifests 

itself through endurance in the impossible. This is not simply a matter 

of a momentary encounter with the impossible: that would be heroism, 

not courage. Heroism has always been represented not as a virtue but as 

a posture: as the moment when one turns to meet the impossible face to 

face. The virtue of courage constructs itself through endurance within 

the impossible; time is its raw material. What takes courage is to operate 

in terms of a different durée to that imposed by the law of the world. The 

point we are seeking must be one that can connect to another order of 

time. Those imprisoned within the temporality assigned us by the domi- 

nant order will always be prone to exclaim, as so many Socialist Party 

henchmen have done, ‘Twelve years of Chirac, and now we have to wait 

for another round of elections. Seventeen years; perhaps twenty-two; a 

whole lifetime!’ At best, they will become depressed and disorientated; 

at worst, rats. 

 

In many respects we are closer today to the questions of the 19th century 

than to the revolutionary history of the 20th. A wide variety of 19th- 

century phenomena are reappearing: vast zones of poverty, widening 

inequalities, politics dissolved into the ‘service of wealth’, the nihilism  

of large sections of the young, the servility of much of the intelligentsia; 

the cramped, besieged experimentalism of a few groups seeking ways 

to express the communist hypothesis . . . Which is no doubt why, as 

in the 19th century, it is not the victory of the hypothesis which is at 

stake today, but the conditions of its existence. This is our task, during 

the reactionary interlude that now prevails: through the combination 

of thought processes—always global, or universal, in character—and 

political experience, always local or singular, yet transmissible, to renew 

the existence of the communist hypothesis, in our consciousness and 

on the ground.

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