Democracy and corruption: a philosophy of equality, by Alain Badiou


In the latest issue of Les Lettres Françaises, Alain Badiou polemically argues that corruption should not be taken to task as a deviant threat to democracy, but as its very essence. Against the grain of the current political crisis, Alain Badiou defends radical equality before the « political Idea » and a much-nedded « resurrection of communism.

Democracy and corruption: a philosophy of equality

Without doubt, one of the reasons motivating those who did not want to see people like Sarkozy at the helm of the state, and do not want them to return, is the deleterious atmosphere of wheeler-dealing which surrounded their activity between 2007 and 2012 [Sarkozy’s presidential term]. However, since the beginning of the Socialists’ return to office, the Cahuzac affair and the dubious links between government personnel and the world of business have again been on the order of the day. And, indeed, Hollande seems to have made the men of the CAC 40 [Paris stock market] his privileged interlocutors.

In fact, corruption had become a recurrent theme of French politics as early as the 1980s, with the onrush of neoliberal capitalism’s counter-revolutionary wave under Mitterrand, following Thatcher in the UK and Reagan in the US – Mitterrand being delivered, as he saw it, from his only real historic adversaries, namely the communists of all tendencies.

Is this question a new one? A current one? What role does corruption play in the perils that democracy faces? In 2002, it was tempting to counterpose Jospin-the-virtuous to Chirac-the-(supposedly)-corrupt. Neither the praise nor the denunciations could prevent each of this pair suffering some heavy discomfort at the first round of the presidential election.

But without doubt, we must consider this question from further back – and higher up.

Let’s start in 1793, with the Revolution imperilled. Saint-Just asked: ‘what do they want, those who accept neither Terror nor virtue?’ An intimidating question, though the Thermidorians gave a clear enough answer: they wanted corruption. They wanted a healthy dose of personal enrichment, currency speculation and prevarication to be accepted as normal. As against the revolutionary dictatorship, they wanted ‘liberty’, meaning the right to carry on with their business and to mix up this business with the affairs of state. They thus took a firm stance against the ‘terrorist’ and ‘liberticidal’ repression of louche combinations, and against the virtuous obligation to consider only the public good.

Montesquieu already noted that in according everyone a small piece of authority, democracy was exposed to a permanent confusion between private interests and the public good. He upheld virtue as the necessary disposition for governments of this type. Mandated with no guarantees other than suffrage, the men in government somehow had to forget themselves and repress as much as possible their penchant to exercise power only in function of their personal jouissance, or the jouissance of the ruling circles (meaning, as a general rule, the rich).

Indeed, this idea goes back to Plato. In his radical critique of the democratic system, Plato noted that such a régime has to adapt to the anarchy of material desires. In consequence, a democratic government is inadequate to serving any true idea, because if the public authority works in service of desires and their satisfaction, ultimately serving the economy (in the widest sense of the term), then it will obey two criteria only: wealth, giving the abstract mean the most stable satisfaction of this desire; and opinion, which determines the objects of desire and the powerful belief that one must be able to appropriate them for oneself.

The French revolutionaries were not democrats, but republicans – in the active, brash sense of this term, and not the consensual, doubt-filled sense that it has today, as expressed by the ‘republican pact’ from far right to far left, brandishing a term which is now devoid of meaning. The revolutionaries used the word ‘corruption’ to denote the practice of government power being enslaved to the demands of business and to opinion which served particular interests. We are today – all the more so now that we have the economic crisis – so convinced that the principal objectives of a government are economic growth, living standards, market abundance, rising share prices, the flow of capital and the perpetual prosperity of the rich, that we do not really understand what the revolutionaries meant by the word ‘corruption’. It referred not so much to the fact that this or that person enriched himself, taking advantage of his position of authority, but rather to the general conception or opinion that the natural goal of political action is enrichment, whether collective or private. The most simple version of what the revolutionaries of 1792-1794 called ‘corruption’  was, without doubt, provided later on, during the Restoration, when the bourgeois leader Guizot could see no acceptable slogan other than his famous ‘Enrichissez-vous!

But do we have a different watchword today? Are we not today experiencing the formidable, globalised restoration of the purest, harshest capitalism? Isn’t it obvious across almost the entire world that the state of the economy determines the electoral mood, and therefore everything revolves around the capacity at least to make the ordinary citizen believe that things will go better for the world of business, from small to large, if they vote or vote again for you? To raise expectations of the chimerical ‘return to growth’? And thus to assume that politics is never anything other than that which meets subjects’ interests?

Corruption, from this perspective, is not a threat to democracy, such as it functions. It is its very essence. Whether or not individual politicians are personally corrupt, in the everyday sense of the term, bears almost no influence on this essential corruption. So Jospin and Chirac were just the same in this sense, and it seems that today, also, we ought to make the same comparison between Sarkozy and Hollande.

Marx remarked, at the dawn of European representative democracy, that the governments thus elected were merely – as he put it – ‘based on the power of capital’. But that is far truer now, than it was back then! If democracy is representation, then it takes its form first and foremost from the general system. To put it another way, electoral democracy is not representative so much as it is a consensual representation of capitalism, today renamed the ‘market system’. This is its foundational corruption, and it was not without reason that the humanist thinker Marx, this Enlightened philosopher, thought that the only thing that could be opposed to such ‘democracy’ would be a transitional dictatorship, which he called the dictatorship of the proletariat. A strong term, but one that clarified the complications of the dialectic between representation and corruption. Moreover, still to this day it has never been proven that the renunciation of the expression ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ did any good for the communists of whatever tendency. It may be the case that my teacher, the great philosopher Louis Althusser, and his disciple Étienne Balibar, were not mistaken in opposing this renunciation. After all, historically it has been seen as proof of the communists’ weakness, or even as heralding their disappearance, rather than a sincere conversion to democracy.

In truth, the problem lies in the definition of democracy. If we were convinced, like the Thermidorians and their liberal descendants, that democracy resides in the unlimited rights of private property and the free activity of determinate group and individual interests, then we would see democracy more or less rapidly, across the ages, fall into the abyss of the most hopeless corruption. But genuine democracy is something entirely different. It is equality before the Idea, the political Idea. For example, for a long time this meant the revolutionary or communist Idea. The Idea that a disinterested vision of humanity can be incarnated in an emancipatory politics. This is the ruin of the Idea that identifies democracy with general corruption.

The despotism of a single party (badly misnamed as totalitarianism) was not the enemy of democracy, so much as it finished off the first sequence of the communist Idea. The only real question at issue is to open up the second sequence of this Idea, making it prevail over the interplay of interests by some means other than bureaucratic terrorism, without however thus rallying to the democracy based on the power of capital. A new definition and a new practice, then, of what was termed dictatorship (of the proletariat). Or even – and it is the same thing – a new political usage of the word ‘virtue’.

I will be addressing these themes, and a few others, in a book due to be published this year entitled ‘The Resurrection of Communism’. For precisely this, I am convinced, is the planetary event – in thought and action – for which we must prepare, the event which alone will pull the history of humanity and democracy-above-the-market out of the quagmire of corruption.


Les Lettres Françaises N°112 –  FEBRUARY 2014

Translated by David Broder

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