Ukraine and Egypt – the background of the 2022 war

Image: Tuur Tisseghem


Session of the seminar “Immanence of truths” on March 12, 2014

Today I would like to take the example of Ukraine, the way in which historical events in Ukraine serve the propagandist consensus that both constitutes and surrounds it. What impresses me about the Ukrainian situation, considering what we learn from reading the press, listening to the radio, etc., is that it is captured and understood according to an operation that I would call the complete stagnation of the contemporary world. The banal narrative is to say that Ukraine wants to join free Europe, breaking with Putin's despotism. There is a democratic and liberal uprising whose aim is to unite our beloved Europe – the homeland of the freedom in question – while the sordid and archaic maneuvers of the man of the Kremlin, the terrible Putin, are directed against this natural desire.

What is striking about all this is that it is all framed in terms of a static contradiction. Long before the Ukraine case, there was a fundamental scheme constantly at work, distinguishing the free West from all the rest. The free West has only one mission, and that is to intervene wherever it can to defend those who want to join it. And this static contradiction has no past and no future.

It has no past because – and this is particularly typical in the Ukrainian case – nothing about Ukraine's actual history is considered, named or described. Who cared about Ukraine before last week? Many people had no idea where it was… Ukraine, champion of European freedom, suddenly takes the stage of history; and this is possible because what is happening there can be described in terms of the static contradiction between Europe, the homeland of freedom, democracy, free enterprise and other such splendours, against everything else, including Putin's barbarism and the despotism that accompanies you.

It has no past because we don't know where all this comes from, for example, the fact that Ukraine is an integral part of what for centuries was called Russia; that an independent Ukraine was formed only very recently, within the framework of a very particular historical process: the collapse of the Soviet Union. Likewise, the fact that Ukraine has always had separatist tendencies and that these were constantly reactive: that is, supported by strongly reactionary powers and worse. The Ukrainian Orthodox clergy, whose holy city is Kiev, played a decisive role in all of this, and needless to say, they are the most reactionary on Earth, a megalomaniac center of imperial Orthodoxy. That separatism at certain times reached extremes that no one could forget, especially the Russian people, knowing that the vast mass of the armies armed and organized by Nazis coming from Russian territory were Ukrainians. The Vlasov army was a Ukrainian army.

Today we can even read the story of Ukrainians turning entire villages to blood and fire, including French ones. Much of the crackdown on maquis in central France it was held by Ukrainians. We are not identity, we are not going to say: “What bastards, these Ukrainians!”, but all of this constitutes a story, the story of a certain number of political subjects in Ukraine.

Moreover, the contradiction has no future, because the future is pre-constituted: the Ukrainians' desire will be to join the good old Europe, an already existing citadel of freedom. The operations that impose this finitude here affect time itself. If time is up, it's because it was stopped. Advertising time is immobile time. It is very difficult to advertise for a time to come: we can advertise for what is, but not for what is to come. And here we have the propaganda that the Ukrainian revolt is static, in that it came out of nowhere and moves towards something that already existed, a free democratic Europe.

In France there is an essential embodiment of all this, namely Bernard-Henri Lévy. Every time finitude needs to be imposed, he appears to deliver it. We could say that when BHL takes the helm, he does so to beat the drums of finitude. But the fundamental operation does not concern Ukraine: the French propagandists in this case do not care about the fate of Ukraine, believe me. What interests them is good old Europe, wanting everyone to see the actions of Ukrainians as clear proof of the enormous value we have for all of humanity.

If even the Ukrainians, about whom nobody knows anything and who are presented as rather distant and slightly obscure figures, want to enter Europe with such force, to the point of risking their lives – and indeed there were deaths on Maidan Square – it is because Europe democracy, after all, is nothing. It is an apology for the West that creates a kind of desire for the West – in part real, a point to which I will return – thus consolidating our own ideological, political, institutional, etc. positions.

We could also say that Ukraine is not at all apprehended in a genuine gift, but only a fake one. As will soon become clear, a fundamental theme of my seminar “Images of the Present Time” is that every genuine present is constituted by the past being twisted towards the future. The present is not what is inscribed as a homogeneous block between the past and the future, but what is declared, thus implying a repetition coming from the past, as well as the curve, the tension, projected into the future, in such a way that the present is the bearer of an infinity of potentials. If the present of the Ukrainian uprising is a false present, that means that it has no past and that its future has already arrived.

This is why there is no genuine declaration, this being the marker of any genuine gift. Put another way, the imposition of finitude makes it appear that the Ukrainian uprising really did not declare anything new. And when nothing new is declared, nothing is declared after all. What Mallarmé said was very relevant: one gift is missing unless the crowd declares itself.

What the Ukrainians say is exactly what any propagandist here might say, meaning: (i). I want to enter wonderful Europe; (ii) Putin is a dark despot. But saying that, they are not saying much, and nothing with any historical connection with Ukraine, with the real life of its people and their thinking, etc. They do nothing but say what others want them to say, just playing their part in the difficult and disharmonious relations between Europe – which is nothing more than the local institutional mediation of globalized capitalism – and Putin, who they say no to. being very democratic (which is not something he really wants to be himself, is none of his business). It is a play whose script has already been written.

What we can say is the following: the contemporary instance of the declaration is the taking over of a public square. This isn't always the case. There are cases where the statement is surrounding a public building, a large protest march, etc. But, for quite some time now, the historical form of popular collectivity has been the prolonged occupation of a square (Tahrir Square, Taksim Square, Maidan Square…). And these occupations constitute their own private time; time and space are profoundly unified, as in Parsifal: 'here time becomes space'. It is a time that allows the occupation not to have to speak of its own end. A demonstration begins and ends, an insurrection succeeds or fails, and so on.

When you occupy a public square, you really don't know: it could last, maybe for a long time. Everything seems as if a new form of declaration was born, or at least a new form of possibility of declaration, which consists of occupying an open space in the city. I think this has a lot to do with the fact that we are living in the absolute era of urban sovereignty. There is not jacqueries peasant women, long marches, and so on. The city is the predominant collective mode of existence, even in very poor countries, in the form of monstrous megacities. The occupation of the city, in the restricted form of the occupation of the central square, its urban heart, is increasingly the concentrated form of the possibility of declaration – and nobody invented it; it is a historical creation. On the other hand – and I will insist on this point – this is just the formal, tentative and unclear condition of the statement. What happens in the square is a negative statement. People who gather in the square, when they have something to say in common, shout 'Mubarak, resign!' or 'Ben Ali out!' or, in Ukraine, 'We don't want this government anymore!'

There is, then, a new type of collective positivity in a given space, the occupation of the central squares of large cities, whose most significant substratum is in fact its own prolonged organization, since it is here that the unity of the people is sealed (to survive in the square for an extended period it is necessary to organize food, toilets and so on). But, simply put, the declaration does not go beyond its purely negative form, as the assembly that occupies the square is divided along a modernity-tradition axis.

Egypt is the canonical example. As you know, there was no genuine, positive unity between the faction that no longer wanted Mubarak because he was their historic enemy – the Muslim Brotherhood – and those that no longer wanted Mubarak because they, too, had come to harbor a certain desire for the West, and they wanted neither religious nor military oppression, but a certain series of freedoms fetishized as “European freedoms”.

What is happening in cases like this? The result of the declaration is totally precarious because here we only have a half declaration. To be victorious, a strictly negative statement presupposes the absolute unity of those who declare it. That was, that is to say, Lenin's great idea. He said that without iron discipline we will not succeed, because if we don't have a positive and organized unit, the negative unit will soon begin to break up, divide and disperse. We are not dealing here with Leninism, but we can see quite clearly in Maidan Square or in any of the other squares we are talking about, that beyond the simple declaration that 'we don't want any more…' we stumble upon an irredeemable divide. This is exactly what is happening in Ukraine now.

Effectively, you have, on the one hand, democrats and liberals driven by a certain desire for the West (those that our own press calls “the Ukrainians”) and, on the other, very different people, organized in armed shock groups in the historical tradition of Ukrainian separatism, and whose view of the world is more or less overtly – but unmistakably – fascist. They are happy to say that they are for Europe, on condition that it frees them from the Russians; it is an absolutely identitary element made up of old-school Ukrainian nationalists who do not see their future in terms of “European freedoms”. The problem is that, from the point of view of square activism, it is their forces that dominate; all the rest may well be nice people, but in reality they are largely disorganized (and insofar as they are organized at all, it is to win electoral votes).

Finally, we could say the following: in all these contemporary situations of square assemblies making their declarations, there are three rather than two sides involved. You have, on the one hand, governments, institutional authorities, parties, army factions, police, etc. that make up established state power and usually have some foreign partner: for example, for decades Mubarak's foreign partner was the United States and, to tell the truth, the West as a whole. Then, united in the square by a common negative statement, two other forces, not one: an identity element (the Muslim Brotherhood, Ukrainian nationalists) and then the 'democrats', that is, those inspired by the desire for Western modernity.

That is, we have a tradition-modernity polarity, understanding that modernity today means modernity under the aegis of globalized capitalism, modernity not being represented in any other way, especially if it is not profitable to do so. This three-sided confrontation cannot be reduced to a two-sided confrontation unless finitude is being imposed on the situation.

We must reflect on the whole history of Egypt, which is a fascinating story. In Egypt, too, there was a three-sided confrontation: first Mubarak, the Egyptian military apparatus and its networks of clients and sponsors, and then the two elements in Tahrir Square: the component aimed at western capitalist modernity, on the one hand, and on the other hand, the Muslim Brotherhood – which, it must be said, was in the vast majority – representing a uniquely traditional force. Their unity was negative ('Mubarak, resign!'), but when they saw things start to open up, they had to come up with something.

That something was the elections, elections that served as a false scenario, arbitrating the relationship between two elements whose unity was purely negative. And what happened? Well, the Muslim Brotherhood easily won the elections, and the western, democratic, educated element was left behind. The Egyptian petty bourgeoisie found that its connection with the mass of the Egyptian people was tenuous indeed. Justly irritated, as if it had risen up for nothing, this modernizing sector of Egyptian society has returned to the streets: hence the demonstrations of last June, where it rose again, but this time alone. And by itself it didn't count for much. Thus, he favorably welcomed the intervention of… who? Well, the military.

Petty-bourgeois irresponsibility – sorry for such coarse language – has produced this extraordinary phenomenon: the same people who a few months earlier were shouting “Mubarak, resign!” now they were shouting “Mubarak, come back!” His name was Al-Sisi, the name had changed, but it was exactly the same: it was the Mubarak regime, second term. It began by committing itself to some quite remarkable operations, we might say: that is, arresting all the personnel of a government elected by a large majority (during this period, the press hesitated to speak of a coup d'état, because, you must understand, if the Muslim Brotherhood was put in prison, this is not truly a coup d'état...) and when his supporters protested, they were shot.

The army fired into the unscrupulous crowd, on the model of crushing the Paris Commune; to understand, in a single day about 1.200 people were killed, according to western observers. The sterilization-by-finitude in the Egyptian situation was extraordinary because it ultimately represented a circularity: the three-sided struggle was a circular process. The contradiction between the rising educated petty bourgeoisie and the Muslim Brotherhood with its mass clientele was such that it was the third side that won.

You can see well what was at stake here: is there a real future, a declaration, in the form we have known for many years, namely the composite or even contradictory mobilization that unites negatively, in opposition to the existing despotic government? Should we still – to pose this question simply – start by reducing everything to a pre-constituted finitude that reduces everything, in the last analysis, to the historic struggle between democrats and dictators? Especially if some are happy – if I may put it that way – not worrying too much about the return of dictators, as in the Egyptian case.

For an invention of history to take place, a creation – that is, something endowed with true infinity – there needs to be a new form of declaration, establishing an alliance between the intellectuals and a large part of the masses. This new alliance was not present in public squares. The whole problem is to invent a modernity different from globalized capitalism, and to do it through a new politics. Until we have the first rudiments of this different modernity, we will have what we see now, that is, negative units that end up going around in circles. And, from the point of view of advertising, the repetition of the idea that it is the struggle of good against evil, put in terms that are a caricature of the real situation.

This three-way confrontation is falsified because the term “modernity” has already been captured. He frames the “aspiration” in terms of consumption and the western democratic regime, that is, the aspiration to integrate into the dominant order as it is now. After all, the 'West' is the polite name for the hegemony of globalized capitalism. If you want to join that, well, that's up to you, but you have to accept that it's not an invention or a new freedom or anything else. If you want something else, it's not enough to be anti-capitalist, which is to be based on an abstraction, but also to invent and propose a living form of modernity that is not under the aegis of globalized capitalism.

This is a task of extraordinary importance that has just begun to be resolved. Indeed, classical Marxism believed itself to be the historically legitimate heir of capitalist modernity. He saw very well that this capitalist modernity had led to, or already was, barbarism, but he believed that the general inward movement of this barbarism would produce a legacy of civilization, which revolutionaries would inherit. This approach to the problem is quite wrong. We can perfectly imagine that capitalist modernity is a modernity with no other inheritance than destruction. My point of view is – where is it going? The people who unknowingly unite under its banner actually aspire to organized nihilism. The “civilization malaise” that Freud spoke of went much deeper than Marxists understood. It was not just a question of distribution, division or access to the miraculous fruits of civilization; nor was it about education (the great idea of ​​people like Tolstoy or Victor Hugo was the universalization of education, providing civilization to all and, therefore, its reinvention in the hands of those who received it) – ideas that remained strong at the end of the last century.

It seems that this whole enterprise requires its own innovation, touching the symbolic: that is, inventing new parameters for civilization. That's what I saw in the squares where the crowds gathered. One gift is missing – unless the crowd declares. Perhaps we are at the stage where the crowd would like to declare itself, that is, what I have optimistically called the “awakening of history”. But this statement has no symbolic resources to fall back on. Politically, the issue is quite clear: capitalist modernity, in a sense, presupposes that all kinds of means are used to ensure that the educated fraction of the population (the urban petty bourgeoisie, the middle classes, etc.) remains profoundly disconnected from the mass. core of the population.

We can identify the propaganda mechanisms that serve this purpose, and I must say that, unfortunately, “secularism” is one of them. Politics consists of overcoming these mechanisms, going beyond them. This is what we call the intellectuals' connection with the masses, to use the old jargon. That is, the ability of intellectuals to demand not only for themselves, but also for others, in the name of a transformed modernity, the ability to say what the protest is doing in the square, and not cling to its monopoly and thus suddenly letting the other component, whether electorally or through violence, win in the end, even within the negative activity that brought them together. Egypt gives a universal lesson on this point, and Ukraine will see the same thing, albeit in variants I don't yet know.

The reductionist propaganda operations that are applied to certain historical situations should be called 'finitude', and the unveiling of finitude 'infinitization' – that is, the moment when the parameters of the declaration were finally assembled, the moment when you it can certainly declare 'Mubarak, resign!', but also something else. What then? Well… in any case, not the desire for the West – that's not what can plug the hole. We are living at an essential historical turning point, a moment that already existed in the XNUMXth century, when people were clear about negation but not about its affirmative counterpart. And in that vacuum, the old world reappeared because it had the virtue of already being there in its favour.

* Alain Badiou is a retired professor at the University of Paris-VIII. Author, among other books, of The adventure of French philosophy in the XNUMXth century (Authentic).

Ttranslation: Diogo Fagundes for the website PlowingWord [] .


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