Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Quote of the Day: Subtracting (from) the State

(((Alain Badiou; Karl Marx; dictatorship of the proletariat; the withering away of the state; negation and "subtraction")))

In an effort to explain the concept of subtraction, and to distinguish it from negation simply understood, or understood as primarily or only destruction, Badiou provides an example:

Marx insists on saying that the destruction of the bourgeois State is not in itself an achievement. The goal is communism, that is the end of the State as such, and the end of social classes, in favour of a purely egalitarian organization of the civil society. But to come to this, we must first substitute to the bourgeois State a new State, which is not the immediate result of the destruction of the first. In fact, it is a State as different of the bourgeois State as experimental music of today can be of an academic tonal piece of the 19th century, or a contemporary performance can be of an academic representation of Olympic Gods. For the new State - that Marx names "dictatorship of the proletariat" - is a State which organizes its own vanishing, a State which is in its very essence the process of the non-State. [ . . . ] So we can say that in the original thought of Marx, "dictatorship of the proletariat" was a name for a State which is subtracted from all classical laws of a "normal" State. For a classical State is a form of power; but the State named "dictatorship of proletariat" is the power of un-power, the power of the disappearance of the question of power. In any case we name subtraction this part of negation which is oriented by the possibility of something which exists absolutely apart from what exists under the laws of what negation negates.

There are a number of interesting things about this passage, several of which may not be terribly accessible unless one is familiar with Badiou and perhaps Deleuze. I suppose what it amounts to is this, that the dictatorship of the proletariat—whatever it would actually look like, and a dictatorship of one is not a dictatorship of the proletariat, which is already a reworking of the very concept of dictatorship—the dictatorship of the proletariat is the form of the destruction of the bourgeois state, but it is also, at the same time and in the same way, the form of the creation of the non-state, of some radically new kind of state, such that even applying the name "state" is already deceptive, even more deceptive than the term "dictatorship" in the phrase, "dictatorship of the proletariat." It is not yet the non-state. It is perhaps the anti-state, the destructive part of the negation that operates together in tension with the affirmative or creative part of negation that results in something we probably are incapable of actually conceptualizing from within the context of the bourgeois state.

I don't yet think I have fully grasped the operation of subtraction in Badiou's thinking, but its application here may be very helpful in freeing Marx's thinking on the post-revolutionary "state" from the clutches both of liberals (who like to repudiate Marx and so mark themselves as "reasonable") and of "Marxists" (say, Stalin or even Lenin, and dare I say Mao? who seem content to dismember the liberal state, but then continue on with a mutilated form of it: the state is dead! Long live the state!). I am not even thinking of reactionaries and neolibs, who cannot help but think of Marx in cartoon form.

Badiou's talk is available with reasonable sound on YouTube, with the passage I quote beginning at about 8:40 of Part 1, and continuing at the very beginning of Part 2. There is a decent transcript available, which you might want to have available to refer to in tandem with the videos (the transcript seems to have been hastily done, and contains minor errors that do occasionally confuse).

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