gall and gumption

Friday, January 09, 2009

Bottom Line

I am making an effort to clear my browser of web pages that have been sitting there open for weeks that I always meant to blog about but didn't get to.

I think this piece by Alain Badiou is still timely. As the economic horrors pile up it may be getting even more timely.

The return to the real cannot be a movement leading from bad "irrational" speculation back to healthy production. It is the return to the immediate and reflective life of all those who inhabit this world. It is from that vantage-point that one can observe capitalism without flinching, including the disaster movie that it is currently inflicting upon us. The real is not this movie, but its audience.

So what do we see, if we turn things around in this way? We see, and this is what it means to see, simple things that we've known for a long time: capitalism is nothing but robbery, irrational in its essence and devastating in its development. Its few short decades of savagely unequal prosperity have always been at the cost of crises in which astronomical quantities of value disappear, bloody punitive expeditions into every zone that capitalism judges either strategically important or threatening, and world wars that brought it back to health.

Here lies the didactic force in looking at this crisis-film. Faced with the life of the people watching it, do we still dare to pride ourselves in a system which delegates the organisation of collective life to the basest of drives – greed, rivalry, unthinking selfishness? Can we sing the praises of a "democracy" whose leaders do the bidding of private financial appropriation with such impunity that they would shock Marx himself, who nevertheless already defined governments, a hundred and sixty years ago, as "the agents of capital"? The ordinary citizen must ‘understand’ that it is impossible to make up the shortfall in social security, but that it is imperative to stuff untold billions into the banks’ financial hole? We must sombrely accept that no one imagines any longer that it’s possible to nationalise a factory hounded by competition, a factory employing thousands of workers, but that it is obvious to do so for a bank made penniless by speculation?

In this business, the real is to be found on the hither side of the crisis. For where does this entire financial phantasmagoria come from? Simply from the fact that, by dangling miraculous credits before their eyes, people devoid of the means to afford them were browbeaten into buying flashy houses. These people’s IOUs were then sold on, mixing them, as one does with sophisticated drugs, with financial securities whose composition was rendered as scientific as it is opaque by battalions of mathematicians. All of this then circulated, from sale to sale, its value increasing, in ever more distant banks. Yes, the material measure for this circulation was to be found in the houses. But it was enough for the real estate market to go bust and, as this measure became less valuable and the creditors demanded more, for the buyers to be less and less able to pay their debts. And when finally they couldn’t pay them at all, the drug injected into the financial securities poisoned them all: they were no longer worth anything. But this only seems to be a zero-sum game: the speculator loses his wager and the buyers their homes, from which they are politely evicted. But the real of this zero-sum game is as always on the side of the collective, of ordinary life: in the end, everything stems from the fact that there exist millions of people whose wages, or absence thereof, means that they are absolutely unable to house themselves. The real essence of the financial crisis is a housing crisis. And those who can’t find a home are by no means the bankers. It is always necessary to go back to ordinary existence.

Most likely I found it via Wood's Lot.

Update: I probably should have said this before, but in case I didn't make it clear, this is just a taste, not the whole piece. The whole piece is here. I do recommend the whole thing, too.


At 8:06 PM, Anonymous atheist said...


Wow, that's really interesting. I think that I'll need to read more of Badiou's writings to completely understand what he means, though. What is 'the Real', and why is it 'on the other side of the crisis'? Also, wouldn't this whole situation be more accurately described as 'negative-sum'?

At 11:56 PM, Blogger Kia said...


The only thing of his that I've read is this piece. He's a French philosopher, according to his Wikipedia page, notable for being anti-pomo. There has been plenty of anti-pomo in France and it seems to get more respect there. My curiosity is piqued as well. I actually like the sensation of reading something when I find I'm not sure if I understand it but still want more. And there seems to be more available in English.

...wouldn't this whole situation be more accurately described as 'negative-sum'?

If that means finding out that we're worse off than we had imagined, then I suppose yes.

At 7:44 PM, Blogger L7 said...

. . . capitalism is nothing but robbery, irrational in its essence and devastating in its development.


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