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.