In “True and False Contradictions of the Crisis,” Alain Badiou develops Marx’s insight into the way the bourgeois capitalist mode of production eradicates all traditional social hierarchies in order to identify what he considers to be the true contradiction and task for today’s intellectuals and activist. Following Marx, Badiou writes:
The most important binaries, like old and young, men and women, inside and outside of my family, poor and powerful, my trade and others, foreigners and compatriots, heretics and the faithful, commoners and nobles, town and countryside, those who work by hand and by brain—were all addressed (in language, in mythologies, in ideologies, and in the established religious models) by recourse to ordered structures setting everyone’s place in a set of overlapping hierarchical systems. So a noble woman was inferior to her husband but superior to a common man; a rich bourgeois had to bow down to a duke, but his servants had to bow down to him; just as a squaw from this or that Indian tribe was almost nothing in the eyes of a warrior from his own tribe, but almost all-powerful in the eyes of a prisoner from another tribe, whom he might be deciding how to torture. And a poor follower of the Catholic Church mattered very little compared to his bishop, but could consider himself one of the elect as compared to a Protestant heretic, just as even the son of a freedman, wholly dependent on his father, could have a black man at the head of a vast family as his own personal slave.
According to this reading, modernity is a fundamentally negative development – the negation of all traditional social hierarchies, and the “opening up of a gigantic crisis of humanity’s symbolic organization.” Badiou continues:
The whole traditional symbolisation thus rested on an ordered structure that determined individuals’ places in society and thus the relations between these places. The break with tradition, such as capitalism as a general system of production realises, does not in fact propose any active new symbolisation, but only the brutal and independent play of the economy: the neutral, a-symbolic reign of what Marx called “the icy water of egotistical calculation”.
The development of capitalism as a general system of production thus entails the liquidation of all traditional social ties under the “brutal and independent play of the economy.” Human activity is no longer governed by symbolic social ritual, but by the capricious fluctuations of the market, “brutal and independent.” If many would have us believe that our only alternatives are the “liberal ‘democratic’ model of freedoms weighed down by the neutrality of market calculations; or else the reactive desire to return to the traditional—that is, hierarchical—symbolisation,” Badiou identifies the true contradiction, “one that opposes two different visions of the unavoidable break with the hierarchising symbolic tradition. That is, the opposition between Western capitalism’s a-symbolic vision, which creates monstrous inequalities and pathogenic upheavals, and the vision that is generally called “communism”, which ever since Marx and his contemporaries has proposed to invent an egalitarian symbolisation.” Living in a world devoid of meaningful symbolic hierarchy, the “true contradiction” we are faced with is thus that between the a-symbolic vision of Western capitalism and its liberal-democratic freedoms, and the vision of an egalitarian symbolisation which would redeem the failures of 20th century Marxism.
But is the transition from the world of traditional social hierarchies to our own, governed by the “brutal and independent play of the economy,” really so simple? Do we really lack any mode of symbolic orientation in the world? What if, on the contrary, we are more fixated than ever on social hierarchies, if only for the fact that we are unaware of them? If, for Badiou, te spontaneous subjectivity of the commodity consumerist individual is that of the utilitarian-hedonist, the “human animal,” how does the human animal relate to social hierarchy? What social hierarchies remain for it to relate to? If Badiou opposes today’s “neutral, a-symbolic” market to traditional social hierarchies, what immediately emerges is the hierarchical structure of the market itself. Contrary to Badiou’s characterization of the global market as “independent” and “neutral” in its opposition to social hierarchies, the corporate structure of the global market is itself constituted through rigid hierarchies. Transnational corporations consists of hierarchical structures with the upper-most echelon, the CEO level, itself accountable to the demands of stock holders. Non-transparent free trade agreements such as the TPP demonstrate the extent to which transnational corporations are situated within global hierarchies of their own, taking their positions in chains of command which make demands even of national governments.
In addition to the corporate hierarchical structure of today’s capitalism, there is the naturalistic hierarchy which, through its interplay with the former, perpetuates the status quo. For simple demonstration of this ideological structure, we need look no further than popular science, unanimous in its affirmation of the exceptional nature of the human species. We are the dominant species on the planet which we are now in danger of destroying. We must take responsibility for our remarkable intelligence and save the planet, and so on. As always, the situation is more complex. Just as we are continually assaulted with signs of our exceptional nature, we are also pressured to accept the fundamental impossibility of change. While popular science may provide perspectives on our evolutionary shortcomings (cognitive biases, appetite for greasy, salty foods, and so on) so that we might change them, the basic sense most of these perspectives leave us with is that change is futile. We are simply wired this way.
The point, for now, is that our current crisis is not simply one of the liquidation of symbolic hierarchy, but of the very appearance of its liquidation. In other words, it is not simply that symbolic hierarchies have been liquidated, leaving intellectuals and activists the task of re-creating some coherent symbolic order with which to orientate ourselves in the world, or, as Badiou put it: “devote our subjectivity to an entirely new task: the invention, on a two-front struggle—as against the ruin of the symbolic in the icy waters of capitalist calculation, and against the reactive fascism that intends on restoring the old order—of an egalitarian symbolisation that restructures differences by making common rules into the prevalent ones, based on a total sharing of resources.” While this may well be a worthwhile task, the more problematic crisis is the very fact that we believe all social hierarchies have been liquidated, that Western capitalism is “a-symbolic.” Socio-symbolic hierarchies abound, whether military, religious (the Vatican, for instance), or naturalist (the human species as crowning glory of evolutionary history), and especially political-economic. Symbolic hierarchies haven’t disappeared. They are simply being concealed to a greater and greater degree. More and more they are being appropriated by the transnational corporate conglomerates in pursuit of their own ends.
It seems clear to me that one of our tasks is the continual articulation (as Foucault put it, we are always at the point of beginning again) of our symbolic vision for alternative modes of social, political, and economic organization. If, however, we neglect the negative task of unconcealing and attacking those structures whose habits and assumptions govern us today, we run the risk of carrying them with us into the future. As I’ve suggested, two points of interest here would be the socio-symbolic hierarchies of corporation-government relationships, with all of their rationalities, techniques, and procedures, and the naturalist hierarchies perpetuated by popular scientific thinking which simultaneously commend our abilities and neutralize our potentials (or vice versa?).
So when Badiou calls for “the mass abandonment of this “Western” identity,” we should raise the question of the self-evidence of that in which this identity consists. What are the concealed socio-symbolic hierarchies of our time? Which of those truths that we take to be self-evident must go?
Alain Badiou, “True and False Contradictions of the Crisis.” http://www.versobooks.com/blogs/2014-alain-badiou-true-and-false-contradictions-of-the-crisis