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A French Philosopher Considers the Kids

In “The True Life,” Alain Badiou addresses a new generation facing the fall of liberalism, the rise of fascism, and the end of gender.

Eric Fougere / Corbis/Getty

French philosopher Alain Badiou is, by his own admission, a strange voice to be addressing the youth. “Let’s start with the realities:” he begins his new pamphlet The True Life, “I am 79 years old.” Badiou is also a Maoist of May ’68 vintage, an ontologist who uses set theory, and an advocate for a resurrection of “communism.” Now, skateboard over his shoulder, he has a message for the kids. And some of it is pretty good.

THE TRUE LIFE By Alain Badiou
Polity, 80 pp., $12

The True Life is broken into three sections, the first of which, “To be young today: sense and nonsense,” is by far the weakest and least necessary. For a book of just under 100 pages, True Life has a lot of chaff. From the beginning, Badiou misunderstands his burden: Instead of trying to explain why the young would want to listen to him, he feels the need to think out why he wants to address them. It’s a question that I don’t imagine would trouble many young readers; an elderly person wanting to lecture the youth about youth is not quite as uncommon as the philosopher might imagine. Badiou answers himself later when he writes about how people of all ages are obsessed with the young.

Badiou wants to corrupt the youth like Socrates did: not sexually, or for money or power, but by planting another way of living in their minds. The youth are corrupted—in a good way—by a vision of the “true life,” or at least the pursuit thereof. But despite himself, Badiou can’t help adopting a chiding tone, writing off the efforts of Occupy for unclear, grouchy-sounding reasons. His read on the political-economic-generational situation is spotty: At one point he applauds Occupy Oakland as an exception for reaching down the class ladder to the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which is silly because one of the thing occupiers were angry about is the small likelihood that they’ll ever have access to the kind of unionized jobs where workers feel empowered to take collective action. It’s the ILWU he should be applauding for reaching out.

The author is much better off working with large binaries and conflicts, both true and false. Capitalism, Badiou writes (following Marx), has broken down traditional relationships and modes of living. By way of response, we are presented with a choice that should seem familiar by now. Badiou calls the first option “the desire for the West,” which he describes as “never-ending defense of capitalism and its empty ‘freedoms,’ undermined as they are by the sterile neutrality of market determination alone.” It sounds bad, but in the binary, this is our easy pick. Call it the Clinton or Macron option. The alternative is “the reactive desire for a return to traditional—that is, hierarchical—symbolization.” This is the Trump/Le Pen/ISIS/Peter Thiel choice—not market conservatives so much as would-be tyrants. “In my view, both these alternatives are extremely dangerous dead-ends,” he writes, “and the increasingly bloody contradiction between them is pushing humanity into an endless cycle of wars.” It’s hard to argue with that.

Binaries sometimes get a bad rap on the left, but Badiou shows how they can be a useful tool to proceed through arguments. Once he establishes the false binary between liberalism and fascism, Badiou contrasts it (binarily) with the true binary between “two visions of the inevitable abandonment of the hierarchizing symbolic tradition ... : Western capitalism’s a-symbolic vision, which produces monstrous inequalities and pathogenic disorientation, and the vision commonly known as ‘communism.’” Since the collapse of the USSR and the marketization of the People’s Republic of China, the true opposition has been obscured, and fascism has stepped in to fill the gap as liberalism’s sparring partner. There are certainly liberals who prefer risking the false conflict to handling the true one. Maybe even most of them. But properly considered, the false conflict between liberalism and fascism collapses into a single term (hierarchy, or inequality), whose opposite is the egalitarian symbolic order of communism. The underlying idea isn’t new or unique, but Badiou’s formulation has—at times—a sparkling mathematical clarity.

In his latter two sections, Badiou divides his focus according to another binary: gender. First he addresses “the contemporary fate of boys,” and it doesn’t look great. One of the traditions that Badiou sees evaporating into thin air is the initiation ritual whereby boys become men. Without a clear transition, we are condemned to infinite adolescence in three different forms: the piercings, tattoos, and drugs of the deadened “perverted” body; the extreme discipline and self-renunciation of the “sacrificed” body; and the normie career-and-music-festivals pursuit of the meritocrat “deserving” body. The critique is almost a synthesis of the opposition between MTV and Jerry Falwell: careerism is the “hole-plugger of meaninglessness,” but pornographic sexuality is “the marking of the body in the repetition of inertia.” Thinking beyond these impoverished forms of life is a challenge.

You can tell Badiou is getting somewhere because he arrives naturally at the fascist right’s appeal, before dismissing it as the true enemy. “Perhaps it’s through our sons,” he writes, “that we are faced more than ever with the strategic choice between two opposite forms of the withering away of the state: communism or barbarism.” Badiou’s call for a “new violence” —especially under the male sign—walks the line between the two. He’d like us to enjoy “a political life that would be capable of providing a strong, effective figure of disinterested discipline to counter the law of commodified representation and suicidal adolescent inertia,” but that desire can take egalitarian and inegalitarian forms. Badiou’s failure to consider the particular myth of whiteness makes the whole analysis dangerous, perhaps irresponsibly so. And yet, he is right: the “non-deadening discipline” of organized collective action is the only way out, and that process will be at very least symbolically violent.

“I am hesitant as I approach the issue,” Badiou begins his section on the contemporary fate of girls. He’s aware that, as awkward as it is for an old man to tell young people about youth, it’s doubly awkward for an old man to tell young women about being young women. But it doesn’t stop him, and that’s (surprisingly) a good thing. Like boys, Badiou sees girls as deprived of their traditional initiation ritual: specifically, marriage and motherhood. That isn’t to say women don’t get married or have children, but their lives are no longer automatically structured around men. Unlike boys, Badiou doesn’t see girls as stuck in childhood. Rather, they are always already adults. “Basically, the idea is that not only can women do everything men do, but, under the conditions of capitalism, they can do it better than men,” Badiou writes, “They’ll be more realistic than men, more relentless, more tenacious. Why? Precisely because girls no longer have to become the women that they already are, while boys don’t know how to become the men that they are not.” To our dialectical guide, this could go one of two ways.

The first possibility is on Wall Street, glaring at the Bull. “The girl-woman is being urged to provide a tough, mature, serious, legal, and punitive version of competitive, consumerist individualism,” Badiou writes, while the boys provide a “weak, adolescent, frivolous, lawless, or even borderline criminal” version. “Bourgeois, authoritarian feminism” calls for “the world as it is to be turned over to women power.” Badiou warns young women away from this offer, and the future vision of “a herd of stupid adolescent boys led by smart career women” shouldn’t sound appealing to anyone involved. Saying that women and girls have more to fear from capitalism’s seduction than from men (as he does) is, however, a bit of a reach.

It’s in its conclusion that The True Life demonstrates real insight. Reading the pamphlet’s 105 pages is worth it to see on the last one, from the philosophe, “I don’t know what women will invent, given the predicament they’re in. But I trust them absolutely.” It’s charming to watch this elderly Frenchman arrive, by way of dialectical reasoning and Freudian anthropology, at the hashtag #TRUSTWOMEN. (Based on the book, I trust that he’d take the comparison of his intellect to a mob of women on the internet as the compliment it is.) Badiou is politically excited at the idea of what the abolition of gender inequality would mean: “What is a woman philosopher?” he asks, jumping out of his shoes, “And, conversely, what do creative politics, poetry, music, cinema, mathematics, or love become—what does philosophy become—once the word ‘woman’ resonates in them in tune with the power of symbol-creating equality?” Nothing else in the book seems to excite the author like the idea of women’s collective self-determination beyond capitalism. The gender binary splits like an atom.

Badiou’s guess at what women could get up to if they refuse the Lean In challenge is far more promising than the microwaved Maoism he reflexively points to in the first section, and he knows it. They will invent a new girl, he writes, and she will universalize the symbolization of reproduction “so childbearing and childcare will never again mean being a servant.” Men and women will share in “a new universal symbolization of birth and all its consequences.” The book ends with “the girl, as yet unknown but who is coming” proclaiming to “the sky empty of God” in the words of Paul Valery: “Beautiful heaven, true heaven, look how I change!”

He is far from the first communist to place gender at the center of his analysis, but Badiou’s True Life is especially encouraging because he seems totally disconnected from contemporary culture. When I first read it, Badiou’s vision of a political alliance between the young and a nonconformist segment of the elderly seemed implausible, but by the end I felt almost optimistic. If that’s the best that philosophy can offer, it’s something.