Empire Strikes Back

Posted on by Pastabagel and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

We have to make a stand against the grain, and demonstrate that the real target of Western bombers and soldiers is in no way the wretched Gaddafi, a former client of those who are now getting rid of him as someone in the way of their higher interests. For the target of the bombers is definitely the popular uprising in Egypt and the revolution in Tunisia, it is their unexpected and intolerable character, their political autonomy, in a word: their independence.

So writes radical left wing philosopher Alain Badiou in a recent open letter responding to fellow left-wing philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy’s article in support of the NATO bombings. (Some background on the economic relationships between Europe and “old” Libya are provided in this article from the Irish Left Review.)

Badiou’s article points out some interesting facts about the images of the early protests in Libya. For example, “One very striking fact about the Libyan ‘rebels’, which I’m surprised you didn’t note, is that you don’t see a single woman, whereas in Tunisia and Egypt women are very visible” and “bands of young people immediately began firing volleys in the air, something inconceivable elsewhere.”

But much more interesting is that Badiou’s letter reflects a growing rift in the left between those who would use the power of the nation state for good (like Nancy), and those who are perpetually suspicious of the power of the nation state generally. Badiou is among the latter. And while it isn’t a new idea–it’s superficially like Marx’s worldwide proletariat–it differs in a key way. The new left recognizes that there is a possibility, through technology and its instantaneous circulation of ideas, to achieve a new transnational multitude to stand in opposition to the transnational entity formed by the “friendships” among national governments and their patrons among the global corporate elite. Philosophers Hardt and Negri referred to this entity as Empire.

What is fascinating to watch is how postmodern philosophical ideas like these and others are being put into practical use today. The social networking phenomenon that enabled the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings are quite literally textbook responses to Empire, provided that the textbook your are reading is in fact Empire. This suggests a couple of things. First, that the inability of Western media and certain western presidents to understand what was happening and the role that social networking played in it suggests that their collective comprehension of philosophy ends with Duchamp’s “Fountain.” (The exception is the network Al Jazeera, which has a nightly roundtable show called “Empire”.) Second it suggests that young people in other parts of the world still take philosophy very seriously, which is a good thing for philosophy and human civilization generally.

But most importantly it suggests that in the here and now, and in a very real and practical sense, philosophy may be the most powerful tool people have for casting off oppression. What you don’t understand, you can’t change or replace.

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13 Responses to Empire Strikes Back

  1. vprime says:

    ” . . . young people in other parts of the world still take philosophy very seriously, which is a good thing for philosophy and human civilization generally.

    But most importantly it suggests that in the here and now, and in a very real and practical sense, philosophy may be the most powerful tool people have for casting off oppression. What you don’t understand, you can’t change or replace.”

    It’s interesting to see the American media’s response. They portray the revolutions both as “They want democracy, that’s good.” but also “They might want Islamic Theocracy, that’s bad.” The Empire angle is largely ignored because someone would have to convince Americans that such an entity might exist and by and large, Americans are too busy consuming to care. We want it boiled down to “who do we want to see bombed.” In my experience, most Americans are unwilling to critically examine the hegemony that keeps us in cheap gas and new gadgets. I’m reminded here of Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” We’ll be eating Doritos and watching reality tv vaguely wondering why things never seem to change in America. Or to put it in the terms of the title of this post; if Luke Skywalker had had ipods, internet porn and delivery pizza he would have had no interest in leaving Tattooine.

  2. Dave Pinsen says:

    I was waiting for the mention of Bernard-Henri Lévy in this post.

  3. octo says:

    1) Does participation in the “technology and its instantaneous circulation of ideas” require an understanding of philosophy? I don’t think Badiou’s ability to place recent events in X philosophical framework implies those carrying them out are quite so aware of it. They might in fact be, I just don’t see the direct implication. Am I missing it?

    2) I’m not sure those involved understand Empire — I certainly don’t. But they’re changing it, so I’m not sure I get your last paragraph.

    • vprime says:

      “I don’t think Badiou’s ability to place recent events in X philosophical framework implies those carrying them out are quite so aware of it. They might in fact be, I just don’t see the direct implication.”

      I think it’s in the strategies of rebellion, which correspond to the book “Empire.” The people are aware enough of the existence of Empire to resist it in ways the book recommends? I admit I haven’t read this book, but that’s what the wording of the post made me think.

  4. eqv says:

    The social networking phenomenon that enabled the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings [...]

    I’m not sure Facebook and Twitter ‘enabled’ the uprising in Egypt. People organised these sorts of things just fine before the advent of the internet and social networking. But, sure: social networking definitely raised the profile of the Egyptian uprising outside Egypt.

  5. cat says:

    One very striking fact about the Libyan ‘rebels’, which I’m surprised you didn’t note, is that you don’t see a single woman, whereas in Tunisia and Egypt women are very visible”

    What’s fascinating (and depressing) is that people in the West are apparently so surprised that Middle Eastern countries aren’t all the same. Expecting Egypt to be like Libya just shows how vast the gap is between what people in the West imagine about the East, and what it’s really like.

    That, and ordinary people in places like Cairo don’t think “Let’s rise up against the Empire, that network of nation states that is oppressing us”, the way that French intellectuals like to theorize.

    And yes, Facebook and Twitter did not ‘enable’ uprisings in these countries. They made it possible for people outside to know about them, and because news items with Facebook and Twitter in them are popular (because we are obsessed with ourselves) it ensured that people were more interested in these uprisings than they would otherwise have been.

    Why are so many news items about these events using Facebook and Twitter as a hook? Why are they making FB and Twitter the story? The news couches these events in terms that people want to hear about.

  6. JohnJ says:

    “Why are so many news items about these events using Facebook and Twitter as a hook? Why are they making FB and Twitter the story? The news couches these events in terms that people want to hear about.”

    That’s an excellent point. I think the idea that social media is enabling these uprisings is overstated. Just look at all the countries with social media that should be engaging in uprisings but aren’t. Why is it only Middle Eastern countries? “Social media” doesn’t answer that question. It seems to me that framing the story in terms of social media does two things: it distracts from the real causes and it supports a false argument for supporting social media as a freedom-fighting tool.

    • Pastabagel says:

      The difference between enabling and causing. Enabling simply means helped to make it possible, which these technologies did. But they obviously are not the cause.

      Also, I don’t really agree with Badiou. As someone pointed out, there were women on the streets in the early protests. But I do think he has a point that the western powers feel that they had something at stake in the old regimes (namely cushy oil and resource exploitation contracts) that would naturally come under more scrutiny and some aggressive re-negotiation post-revolution. So in Libya, they are putting some (very little) skin in the game to secure a place at the table. I think that is what he is saying (based on other things of his I’ve read.)

  7. Adrian says:

    “I’m surprised you didn’t note, is that you don’t see a single woman”

    That’s simply not true. You could see women demonstrating in Benghazi, we also saw the woman who said was raped by the Gaddafi’s goons, yes, you won’t see too many women on the front line.

  8. Dan Dravot says:

    it suggests that young people in other parts of the world still take philosophy very seriously

    That is one of the most surreally clueless remarks I have ever read, even on the Internet.

    The “philosophy” is ex-post-facto. Mass movements happen. They always have. The intellectual left likes to imagine that if they play their cards right, they can ride the tiger and put chains on it when it gets tired. Lenin and Mao did it, right?

    The intellectual left is a vast machine devoted to a) generating insanely involved “theories” which perfectly applicable to the specific special cases that inspired them, b) fighting and schisming endlessly about how those theories can be applied to all the other cases that they don’t apply to, and finally c) once in a great while, declaring themselves all prophets because the law of large numbers paid off and an event took place which appears to resemble the predictions made by one (1) of thousands of obscure treatises.

    Oh, and some cable news network has a talk show called “Empire”, which proves the validity of the book by that name (did he coin the term and trademark it?), because once it’s on TV, that makes it real.

    If Hardt and Negri could ever dream of achieving their goals and being the next Lenin , they would ban Twitter before they even got around to planning their first reeducation camp. Bet on it.

  9. Pastabagel says:

    You realize you entire comment is one, long, gigantic ad hominem attack, right? Everything you say could be 100% true, and that doesn’t affect the insight or usefulness of the theories. Does it matter who these people are, or what their intent is? Let’s say you are correct that if Hardt and Negri had the power to do so, they would ban Twitter. So what? They will never ever have that power. So in what way does that change what they wrote?

    And there is a weird train of thought running through this statement: The “philosophy” is ex-post-facto. Mass movements happen. They always have. .

    What does that mean “happen”, and “they always have.” As a statement of fact, it is patently obvious. It’s a weirdly anti-intellectual sentence. It doesn’t suggest that the explanations proffered by “the intellectual left” for why they happen are wrong or stupid or silly. Your statement instead suggests that it is wrong or stupid or silly to try to explain at all. I’ll lump this in with all the other “you’re overthinking it” comments, and remind everyone that it is impossible to think exactly the right amount about anything, so statements like this are really a reactionary anti-intelelctual demand to “underthink” it.

    • dataduck says:

      While I think you’re spot on to call out the ad hominems PB, Dan does have a point in there if I’ve understood correctly. A theory is only useful if it succinctly predicts the behaviour of whatever system it describes. Specifically, only if it tells you something you’d be unlikely to be able predict without the theory. What I’m referring to of course is Occam’s Razor.

      The point is that if it takes thousands of words of philosophy to explain what is going on, but the only evidence that the explanation is correct is that social media exist (which we knew) and that uprisings happen (which we also knew), then it’s anti-intellectual to pretend that such nonsense is of intellectual value at all – nothing has been added. Overcomplicating is just as intellectually bankrupt as oversimplifying, perhaps more so; it can act as a vehicle for the author’s own authority or prejudices to be validated at the expense of genuine insight.

      While I’m not familiar with Empire or its core assertions, and can’t comment on whether DD is actually correct in this instance, his criticism of needless (and by implication politically motivated) convolution of the subject hasn’t been addressed in the article or comments and I’d like to see a response to this.

      Secondary point: the assertion in the article that events unfolding as a philosopher has described implies that those caught up in the events must have read and understood that philosophy is unsound. I’d imagine many of the readers of this site could construct a theory of mind which would accurately predict the behaviours of a set of children, or psychiatric patients, or even perfectly normal people in certain circumstances; that does not imply that the subjects are even aware of the theory, just that the creator of the theory is pretty smart.

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