This is my review of The Rebirth of History: Times of Riots and Uprisings by Alain Badiou.
Attracted by the apparent brevity of "The rebirth of history" (119 pages), I was interested in reading an analysis of recent uprisings such as the Arab Spring by the famous French political philosopher Badiou. I understand his desire to adopt an academic approach, and was prepared to rise to the intellectual challenge of grasping his ideas. This was made harder by what I found to be a very tortuous style, although this may have suffered in translation.
Badiou cannot be blamed for wishing to be one of the first in the field to comment on the Egyptian uprising which triggered such optimism in the early days of Tahrir Square and the fall of Mubarak. His conviction that this is a clear example of the rebirth of history has suffered a setback from the re-establishment of a repressive military regime, but it is still too early to judge the longer term outcome of the Arab Spring. However, I came to the conclusion that the essence of Badiou's thoughts on riots as such could have been summarised in an essay. He also complicates his case by straying into the vast and complex topics of nation states, communism and liberalism, citing the books he has already written on these.
He makes some interesting observations, such as that contemporary capitalism has all the features of traditional capitalism as described by Marx although he did not live to see it: concentration of capital in the hands of the global "gangsters of finance"; government leaders of all persuasions reduced to the role of "capital executives". Another example is Badiou's definition of "intervallic periods" following the collapse of a significant new "Idea" e.g. 1980-2011 when classic capitalism revived because communism had failed which he compares with 1815-50 when dissatisfaction with the French Revolution led to a revival of monarchism.
In essence, I understood him to say is that a mass uprising of a diverse group of people, although they may only be a numerical minority, occupying a clear site, may generate the enthusiasm and energy necessary to force change, improving the lot of those neglected or oppressed by the state. He remains an idealist, arguing that, in such a riot, it is enough "to want to want" subordinating "the results of action to the value of the intellectual activity itself".
My basic problem with Badiou is that I find him over-theoretical and unrealistic. He enabled me to understand better what is meant by "the withering of the state" and the rejection of representative democracy as a form of exploitation. However, his thesis that a viable, peaceful society could emerge through the power of the "Idea" taking root – his language is quasi-religious at times – seems woolly and Utopian, a luxury for an academic in his Parisian ivory tower.