Friday, 18 September 2009

The Riots 3: Badiou

Let me jump back to France 2005. A number of interpretations exist of the riots in the cités and banlieus. Alain Badiou’s is one of the most convincing I’ve encountered so far. He states something which upon reading it sounds very self-evident:
It is above all against the ideology of security [sécuritaire] and against the incessant police harassment that these kids are rising up, against the cops in the estates who everywhere and at all times exert their control, with insults and intimidations, even of kids of 13 or 14. (Badiou 2005a).
This is the gist of his analysis. They are rising against the police, against harassment and against daily humiliation. To illustrate these humiliations, he gives a vivid account of his adopted black son’s life:
I can’t even count the number of times he’s been stopped by the police. Innumerable - there is no other word. Arrested: six times! In 18 months. What I mean by arrested is when you are taken, in handcuffs, to the police station, when you are insulted, latched to a bench, left there for hours, sometimes kept for a day or two. For nothing. (Badiou 2005b)
Surely it’s easy for anyone with even the slightest darker skin than the average European to empathize with Badiou here and to share his indignation at the “omnipresent checking/questioning and the interruptions of their normal lives” which many immigrants have to endure.

A noteworthy point is the total and absolute support he gives the young rioters, unlike the Socialist or Communist parties and many others on the Left, whom he accuses of paralysis.
The youth must not be left to face the police alone. It is necessary to rise up against the police harassment of which they are the object. Parents must stand side by side with them.(Badiou 2005a)
We should note that he is far from romanticizing the riot. Burning cars and pelting the police with stones is not the way to stop the power of financial capital or “the politics of Sarkozy, Villepin and Chirac”. But far from arguing, as many others on the Left, that the riots are therefore confused and lacking in political awareness, he gives them his full support. No matter how misguided the riots may be when it comes to combating neoliberalism, the pure and simply anger at the endless daily insults and humiliations and the desire to get back at the police is enough to justifiy them. This anger is just, and parents should be with their children in the face of the police, not against them.

The reason that I sympathize with Badiou’s argument is not only emotional. Another reason is that, as far as I can judge, he is attentive to what the young rioters say themselves – that they are tired of police harassment – and he treats them with enough respect and fairness to take them at their word. How refreshing, compared to the stereotypical explanations we’ve been used to hearing – that the rioters are fighting a cultural war or even some form of jihad (commentators on the Right) or that they are fighting for economic reasons or a more welfare (commentators on the Left)!

A second reason is that Badiou helps us to recognize pride as a legitimate source of protest. Burning cars makes much more sense if seen as motivated by pride – by a desire to get back at the police, demonstrate one’s power and restore respect – than if motivated by economic victimization or cultural fanaticism. To burn one’s own neighborhood is reckless and irresponsible from the point of view both of economic utility and traditional ethics, but it makes better sense as a manifestation of pride – as a way of saying, “We are not victims, we are masters of this area, and we do as we please”. Whereas many commentators on the Left by reflex regard the immigrants as victims, this is a label which the rioters themselves would probably reject with scorn, at least to the extent that they are driven by pride (that in turn may be a reason why pride is not a very popular explanation of the riots among well-meaning politicians). I seldom find myself in agreement with Baudrillard, but I like this passage:
All the excluded, the disaffiliated, whether from the banlieues, immigrants or ‘native-born’, at one point or another turn their disaffiliation into defiance and go onto the offensive. It is their only way to stop being humiliated, discarded or taken in hand. In the wake of the November fires, mainstream political sociology spoke of integration, employment, security. I am not so sure that the rioters want to be reintegrated on these lines. Perhaps they consider the French way of life with the same condescension or indifference with which it views theirs. Perhaps they prefer to see cars burning than to dream of one day driving them. (Baudrillard 2006:7)
As I mention here and elsewhere a curious blindness seems to persist about what motivated the riots, which are sometimes portrayed as a kind of riddle. Take for instance Negri's statement: "This movement does not yet know what it wants". But as Badiou points out, it seems to know very well what it wants. The riots are acts of vengeance, animated by moral indignation. The riots in France 2005 were triggered by the death of two teenagers who tried to escape the police. Deaths resulting from perceived police injustice or police brutality also triggered the riots in Watts 1965, Detroit 1967, Tottenham 1985, Vaux-en-Velin 1990, Bristol 1992, L.A. 1992, and Greece 2008 – to mention only some of the most well-known cases (for more on the history of these riots, see Lapeyronnie 2006 or Wacquant 2006). This is a repeated pattern. We can turn to the riot in Kamagasaki last year for a similar example in Japan: although no-one died, this riot too was triggered by police brutality. In other words, Badiou's interpretation is not the least far-fetched. It's almost embarrassingly self-evident. He didn't need to think to arrive at it. He only needed to listen.


Badiou, Alain (2005a) “On Riots that Come After Pain”, Infinite Thought (tr. of the first part of Badiou's piece from Le Monde 15 November 2005)

Badiou, Alain (2005b) “Daily Humiliation” (tr. of piece from Le Monde),

Baudrillard, Jean (2006) “The Pyres of Autumn”, pp 5-7, New Left Review 37, January-February;; accessed 2009-09-16.

Lapeyronnie, Didier (2006) “Primitive Revolt in the French Banlieues: Essay on the Fall 2005 Riots

Wacquant, Loïc J.D. (2006) “The Return of the Repressed: Riots, ‘Race’ and Dualization in three advanced societies”, pp 18-31, Monu: Magazine on Urbanism Vol. 5 July

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