Badiou on the World’s Destitute

By | July 6, 2017

In his latest offering, Our Wound is not so Recent, Badiou rightly insists that there is a salient, explanatory history to ‘terrorist attacks’ such as that in Paris on 13 November 2015. He writes:

‘… there are some fundamental figures that everyone should know, that everyone should have at hand, figures that underlie what we must indeed call a class logic – an extremely strict, extremely trenchant one which renders even the most formal democratic norm fatuous and impracticable. At a certain degree of inequality, to speak of democracy or of the democratic norm no longer makes any sense at all.’

He then presents some stunning statistics that I can find no reason to question:

  • 1% of the global population possess 46% of the available resources. 1% – 46%: that’s almost half.
  • 10% of the global population possess 86% of the available resources.
  • 50% of the global population possess nothing.

What conclusions does Badiou draw? We have, he suggests, a ‘planetray oligarchy’ represented by approximately 10% of the population. This is not so far removed from the aristocracy of the ancien regime.

So there exists now an oligarchy of 10%, accounting for 86% of the world’s resources. Then there is a ‘destitute mass of almost half of the global population … the overwhelming majority of the African and Asian masses; they possess nothing.’ The remaining 40% are the middle classes who share out between them the remaining 14% of the world’s resources.

The middle classes are concentrated in putative ‘developed’ or ‘advanced’ societies, so they are predominantly Western. They comprise the ‘mass support for local democratic power, parliamentary power.’ An important aim is not to fall back into the immense mass of the destitute. This is why these classes are prone to racism, xenophobia, to hatred of the destitute. ‘We know very well that the Western middle class is the vector of the conviction that the West, in the end, is the place of the civilised.’ We must resist, ‘other’, wage war on, the barbarians. In reality, Badiou argues, this defence of ‘our values’ amounts to a defence of the Western way of life, ‘that is to say the civilised sharing out of the 14% of global resources between 40% of the ‘median’ population.’

But here comes the most dramatic proposition. In today’s world there are a little over two billion people who, it seems, count for nothing. It is not just that they constitute the mass of the destitute. ‘It’s worse: they are counted for nothing by capital, meaning that from the point of view of the structural development of the world, they are nothing, and that therefore, strictly speaking, they should not exist. They should not be there. It would be better for them not to be there. But they are there all the same.’ Why do they count for nothing? Because they are neither consumers nor a labour force.

‘Because there are only two modes of existence for capital, if you don’t belong to the oligarchy: you must be an employee, making a bit of money; and then you must spend this money by consuming products that are manufactured by the same capital. Your identity in the eyes of the dominant tendency of today’s world is the double identity, structured by money, of employee and consumer.’

Two billion or so adults cannot access either of these identities. According to capitalism’s logic, they are therefore ‘non-existent’. Referring to the Paris attack, Badiou makes the point that these non-existents are now perceived as a – barbaric – threat to our civilised Western way of life. Worse, they are migrating our way, and there is often little surplus value to extract from them.

I’ll leave it there. Badiou’s stunning and terrifying message: in many respects it would suit the West’s wealthy and powerful, and its middle classes too, if half the global population ‘disappeared’, or at least didn’t make a nuisance of itself.

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