“Badiou using very simple reasoning wants to shed the myth of living in the moment (Nihilism) or seizing the moment (Capitalism),” Ashu writes.
Youth. It is the prime age when we start to think about life. We ponder over its purpose, analyse our existence, set out our goals in life and start working towards them. Youth is the age of crisis and contemplation, the product of which shapes our character.
It is to the people of this age, Alain Badiou starts his passionate plea with the statement “‘I’m 79 years old. So why on earth should I concern myself with speaking about youth?” He then provides his reasons for the same in the next para.
“Am I here to give lessons of wisdom, like an old man who knows life’s dangers and teaches the young to be careful, keep quiet, and just leave the world the way it is?
You’ll perhaps see, that it’s quite the opposite. That I’m speaking to young people about what life has to offer, about why it is absolutely necessary to change the world, about why, precisely for that reason, risks must be taken.”
Young people today are on the brink of a new world. A world where all the old traditions are collapsing and which has offered the youth a set of choices which were never available to them. They have greater freedom today than the generations before. So, what should be the young’s approach to life?
This book is primarily dedicated to the help the youth realise and reflect upon the same question, to give a thought on the fact that they do not have to go on the paths predetermined for them. The book has a very provocative and effective way of doing this. In only 80 pages, Badiou sums up the way forward for the young in very loud and clear arguments.
To achieve this goal, he calls upon Socrates, who was condemned to death on charges of “Corrupting Youth”. Borrowing from the same phrase, he declares “My aim is to corrupt youth”.”
Contrary to the popular perception of the word “Corruption”, Badiou explains further that it is not the corruption of money, power or sex which he intends to achieve. He wants to ideologically corrupt the youth, which will give them abilities to start asking the right question, about life under capitalism, about the existing status-quo, about the purpose and discipline of life.
He explains “If there is the corruption of the youth, it’s not for the sake of money, pleasure or power but to show the young that there is something better than all those things: the true life. Something worthwhile living for, which far outstrips money, pleasure and power.
The philosopher corrupts the young, in that he attempts to show them that there is a false life, a devastated life, which is a life conceived of and lived as fierce struggle for power and money. A life reduced in every possible way to pure and simple gratification of immediate impulses.”
Badiou borrows the term “The true life” from Rimbaud, who according to him was the true poet of the youth: one who made poetry out of his whole experience of life as it was beginning, one who in the moment of despair writes “The true life is absent.”
One can easily take a cue from few initial pages that the philosopher’s aim is to corrupt the youth and provoke them to challenge the status-quo and focus on the search of “the true life”, by which further conclusions can be drawn making us think that we live in a false reality and the kind of life the system want us to live doesn’t represent a healthy way of living. Therefore, a series of question flood our mind, which is the basic existential dilemma of the age. One can simplify these questions into following categories:
What is this false life we are living? What makes this life false? Is our whole life a series of perpetual lies? How do we deal with this dilemma? What is to be done?
“What philosophy teaches us, or at any rate tries to teach us, is that, although the true life isn’t always present, it is never completely absent either.” So, what is this partially true and partially false life? In a review written of the same book on the blog Marx and Philosophy (UK) by Hans G Despain, he summarises it as “a reality that is full of illusions and ideology.” He further adds “The philosopher’s job is to identify the illusions and falseness, help articulate the Ideas of truth, and then participate in the political struggles for emancipation and Truth.”
The illusions (of the true life) which Badiou is referring to is the life of “simple gratification of immediate impulses” i.e. hedonism of some sort which is the main characteristic of modern day capitalism. Modern day capitalism conspires to deviate the youth from the true life using two enemies (inner enemies, as Socrates call them) which are ideologically carved into the social conventions by the capitalist traditions and social norms.
The first enemy is what could be called as a kind of nihilism, a kind of conception of life with no unified meaning. This kind of life is represented by extreme passion for immediate life, for amusement, pleasure, the moment, some song or other, a fling, a joint, or some stupid game or what in popular term we call “Living in the moment!” which seems to be a cult nowadays. Here, Badiou borrows from Plato and says
“this vision is one in which the life drive is secretly inhabited by the death drive. At an unconscious level, death takes hold of life, undermining it and detaching it from its potential meaning.” He further adds, “Philosophy’s aim is not to deny this living experience of inner death but to overcome it.”
The second enemy for a young person is in opposition to the first one. It is “the passion for success, the idea of becoming someone rich, powerful, and well established.” To pursue this kind of life, the young discards the idea of living in the moment and applies “tactics for becoming well established, even if it means that one has to be better than everyone else at submitting to the existing order so as to succeed in it.” It requires careful planning and discipline (in existing capitalist system) as opposed to the life of instant gratification.
Badiou then summarise the choices the young face into two categories: i) Passion for burning up the life, ii) Passion for building up the life. These existing two categories are basically the false way of life he is referring to. And there are two things common to both of them: i) the desire to consume, ii) the illusion of freedom. Badiou further goes on to imply that in capitalism, freedom is limited to freedom to consume. Thus one can easily conclude that modern capitalism wants to keep us in the illusion of this false life in order to survive. At this stage, one feels a kick in the gut and immediate questions arise: On what scales can youth be weighed in this scenario, in the face of diametrically opposite choices they face? And, what should be results of the two contradictions which tempt them?
Badiou finally suggests to the young a deviation from the popular, socially acceptable path. This idea of life is based on the resurrection of the idea of communism, but it is not to be mistaken with the call of returning to the idea of 20th century communism of USSR but to the “communism in generic sense” (as he calls himself, a communist in generic sense) which simply means that everyone is equal to everyone else within the multiplicity and diversity of social functions. It’s the idea of a society that will find a principle of existence that would be entirely “subtracted” from the crushing weight of the relations of power and wealth, and therefore another distribution of human activity.
Not only he calls on to bring in the idea of communism in popular discourse, but in the way of proposing the subtle dismissal of Francis Fukuyama’s popular theory “The End of History” and with it the slogan of neoliberal capital known as TINA i.e. There Is No Alternative with it. He makes us believe in Capitalism Is No Alternative i.e. CINA, a popular slogan of the forces opposing market domination and consumerism in broader sense. The essays included in the book dupes the contemporary way of living beneath the claws of market forces as a false life and provides a blue-print of what is to be done.
The book consists of three essays; the first of which is addressed to youth in general under the heading “To be young, today: sense and nonsense”. In other two essays our philosopher addresses boys and girls separately and are titled as “About the contemporary fate of boys/girls”. In the age of TV advertisements and propaganda like “Men will be Men” or “Why should boys have all the fun”, through which capitalism wants all of us to fall in line, the book is a joy to read. This book published in 2016 definitely is my personal recommendation to young people.
Badiou using very simple reasoning wants to shed the myth of living in the moment (Nihilism) or seizing the moment (Capitalism). Instead, he wants us to believe in what the German philosopher Heidegger calls “Being in the Moment”. Isn’t that what Badiou’s plea stands for? To be conscious of what is happening around us, to struggle against the false life, and to develop our own idea of the true life.
It will be foolish not to quote from the book on the idea of attaining the true life. It says
“to attain the true life we have to struggle against prejudices, preconceived ideas, blind obedience, arbitrary customs, and unrestricted competition. Essentially, to corrupt youth means only one thing: to try to ensure that young people don’t go down the paths already mapped out, that they are not just condemned to obey social customs, that they can create something new, propose a different direction as regards the true life.”
- The True Life by Alain Badiou
- The True Life Reviewed by Hans G Despain
- “We Need a Popular Discipline” Contemporary Politics and the Crisis of the Negative, Interview with Alain Badiou by Filippo del Luchesse and Jason Smith, Los Angeles, 02/07/07: Critical Inquiry; www.lacan.com
- Alain Badiou Wikipedia page; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alain_Badiou
- The true life by Alain Badiou, Theoryleaks.org; http://theoryleaks.org/text/books/alain-badiou/the-true-life/
Ashu, a resident of Ranchi, is an independent writer.