The era of excesses

On how a century that began in prolific and meaningful advancement in the arts and literature became an enigma with violence and estrangement in the following decades.

Published : Sep 30, 2015 12:30 IST

For Alain Badiou, one of Europe’s foremost academics today, philosophy is about everyday life and the enquiries we make about it. Philosophy’s moral and radical intercession is indispensable in determining the nature of questions we are asking as well as in facing up to the fact that we are sometimes positing mistaken questions. Is communism a bad idea? What is the character of the Left in France? What lies ahead for civilisation? To respond to these questions, Badiou, the hero of France’s intellectual Left, takes philosophy to mean: “Never accept the world as it is.” A philosopher is always a critic and it is not his nature to accept an opinion because it is integral to the governing discourse.

In his book The Century , Badiou sets out to philosophically observe the last century and question not what took place but what was thought in it. What did the people of this century think beyond what already existed? As an example, Badiou looks at the Nazi extermination of Jews and maintains that historians must go beyond the liquidation to “what they thought, or imagined they were thinking, in doing what they did”. Not dwelling on their thought disables us from the real politics that becomes imperative to ensure that such merciless acts are not repeated in the future.

To merely say that their act was inconceivable, overlooks the reality of the extreme specifics that the Nazi machinery observed to administer the Holocaust with utmost resolve. Philosophically viewed, the argument throws up the binary of politics versus barbarism in which the discourse of politics stands as “thought” and barbarism as “non-thought”.

The corollary from this would be to claim that politics is always right. Such a claim would legitimise the policies of all political systems, as is clear from the capitalist parliamentarianism that poses itself to be public-spirited as well as liberal, a stratagem that absolves it from its cold-blooded and aggressive economics.

Such movements as Stalinism or Nazism, or the present fascism of neoliberalism, must be regarded as forms of thought so as to disallow the recurrent catastrophes in human history. The 20th century is indeed an enigma. Why else would a century that begins in the prolific and meaningful advancement in the arts and in literature in the two decades preceding the First World War result in “a totalitarian century, the Soviet century and the liberal century”?

As specified by Badiou, the years between 1890 and 1914 serve as the preamble to a century marked by a “polymorphous creativity that can only be compared to the Florentine Renaissance” when Stephane Mallarme wrote the manifesto of modern writing or Albert Einstein came up with the theory of relativity and the quantum theory of light; Sigmund Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams ; Arnold Schoenberg established “the possibility of an atonal music”; Vladimir Lenin “created modern politics in his What is to be Done ?; Joseph Conrad, James Joyce and Marcel Proust wrote their great works; Ludwig Wittgenstein brought about a revolution in the philosophy of language; and Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque destabilised the rationality of painting.

If such is the interminable list of accomplishments, the century becomes an enigma indeed in view of the violence and estrangement that follow.

How then should we elucidate this paradox? Badiou explains it by tracing the marks of violence in the white race and its 19th century colonial project with its hand in the genocides of the natives in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

One correspondingly sees the crime of nations ready to go into Syria or Iraq in the name of democracy but tolerating “the extermination of millions of Africans by AIDS, a disease that can and is effectively brought under control in Europe and America”. It is simply for the reasons of “commercial law and the priority of investments” that such humanitarian steps are circumvented. Badiou is of the opinion that this strengthening of the binaries of democracy and barbarism needs to be considered so as to go beyond the mathematical or empirical calculations to “a certain pertinence for thinking” that is imperative in our progression towards some semblance of a civil and a more humane society. It is a fact that democracies that were allied against Germany did little to suspend the extermination of Jews. The concern was rather to bring to an end the expansionist dreams of Hitler and his Nazi ideology.

Yet a single incident, argues Bossuet—the strongest voice in French history—can obliterate a century, or even a thousand years. Badiou elaborates on this observation: “Must we ask which is the instant of exception that effaces the twentieth century? The fall of the Berlin wall? The mapping of the genome? The launch of the euro?” The last century, argues Badiou, can be regarded as a unified “short history” of 75 years of revolution and war, a revolution of 1917 that gave a kick-start to the rise of communism, followed by the two wars leading to the Cold War, and culminating in the collapse of the Soviet Union.

From another perspective, the previous century could be regarded as a century of crimes, of Stalinism and Nazism that through their state apparatuses of “camps, gas chambers, massacres, tortures and organised crime” assured extreme forms of pain and suffering. The century of crime thus begins with “the rise of Lenin in 1917, reaching its apex with Stalin in 1937, and with the horror of Hitler and the Holocaust tragedy from 1942 to 1945. To all intents and purposes the century comes to an end with Mao Zedong’s death in 1976.” Badiou does not stop here as looming large on the global stage is the rise of Islamist fundamentalism, a nightmare that haunts us today, especially with the spine-chilling killings of innocent people at the hands of the Islamic State.

This unleashing of violence and crime remains unabated in the scourge of neoliberalism, almost producing another perspective that views it as the century of capitalism and the global market that spans the closing three decades of the last century and continues into the 21st. However, the purpose behind writing this book is not to put the century under trial or to condemn it as the century of totalitarian terror, of utopian and criminal ideologies, of genocide and aggressive sectarianism and false avant-gardes, but to argue that the century also gave birth to worldwide outbursts of resistance and emancipatory politics.

In the crimes of the 20th century, the project was visibly the birth of a new man. In the hands of Stalin and Hitler, it went haywire. Environmental psychology could do little to manufacture the desired individual. The criminal now does not carry the name of a tyrant but goes by the label of the stock market and its ideology of profit that dictates the birth of the new man. We have finally replaced fascism of one kind with a fascism of another kind where science and “automatism” rule the world. Only this time the culprit is not Hitler or Stalin but the anonymous agents of free unbridled market economy.

Slavoj Zizek, commenting on Badiou’s book, sees in it the moral of “remaining faithful to the twentieth century”. It becomes important, he argues, to think things through and to step back perhaps and say the right thing about a century that has been something of an enigma. Solutions do not lie in spending billions on bailouts of sinking conglomerates, or in waging meaningless and failed wars against terror but in reflecting on how such destructive forces were unleashed in the first place.

The utopian idea of the end of history died many years ago and was replaced by resistance movements around the world, heralding an era of new walls appearing between Wall Street and the Main Street, between the North and the South, between Mexico and the United States. In such a divided world, the philosopher returns once again, like Hegel or Marx, ready to interrogate history, viewing it as both monstrous and redeeming in many ways. Such is the dialectical approach of Badiou, who goes beyond the empirical view to a radically philosophical one that sees the paradox of ingenuity and devastation lying at the heart of the century of excesses.

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