The Global Philosophical Stakes of the Student Conflict

Alain Badiou interviewed by François Gauvin

Translated from the French by Nathan Crompton and Sydney Hart. Original interview published here

What do you think of the student conflict in Quebec?

What interests me from the outset is the amplitude and determination of the phenomenon. Basically, what is taking place there is a brutal and widespread resistance to a global phenomenon that wants to apply the model of the company to all human activities, whichever they may be. Like the company, the university must self-finance, when historically it has been built according to quite different rules. Obviously the conflict takes the particular and highly localized form of a fight against the program to increase university fees, which has now been extended to an opposition against the government’s handling of the crisis. But at the heart of this uprising we clearly feel a subjectivity in revolt against the idea that the paradigm of all things must be the company. And this point of resistance mobilises, for the time being, a debate of great magnitude, which concerns us all and whose end is not predictable.

Would you make a comparison with the student revolt of May 68, in which as a Maoist you called for revolution?

Yes, through its ways of acting, its appearance and its inventiveness. This is the first evocation of May 68, the first great echo of an active subjectivity that is cheerful and not reluctant to fight when necessary. And clearly benefiting from a wide sympathy within the population. Even while it divides Québécois society. Just like in 1968. The students brought themselves sympathy, but we saw clearly that with the legislative elections of June 1968, favourable to General de Gaulle’s party, French society was completely divided.

Your encounter with Quebec goes back to those years.

Indeed. Just after May 68, I was charged with going to Montreal as a human rights observer in the trial of Pierre Vallières and Charles Gagnon of the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ). It was my first direct contact, my first immersion into the singularity of Quebec, which deeply struck me.

Since then, you have dedicated a complete chapter in your magnum opus Logics of Worlds to Québécois society. Does Quebec serve as a stimulant for your thinking of the world? 

In the general demonstration of the book, Quebec firstly acts as an example. But you are right to speak of stimulant. The history of Quebec has for centuries been summarizing several traits of world history: an ancient European colonization, the exceptional presence of two great world powers, the English and French, etc. There is no equivalent elsewhere. And this has created a society, a subjectivity, which has combined terms which aren’t normally combined. And it is therefore what I call a “world”, truly. The history of Quebec is marked by phenomena that are at once irreducibly particular and yet possess a universal innovative aspect. This is still the case today. I would say: let’s continue to keep an eye on Quebec.

You say that Quebec is a “becoming-world” [«devenir-monde»]. But what is a world, for you?

In a very general manner, a world is a regime of relations of identities and differences. To speak of what is singularly this or that given world, to simplify, let’s take a human world, which needs identities – national, linguistic, the common conscience of belonging to this world, etc. – and differences. In the case of Quebec, of course, the French language is an element of identity, but it is necessarily placed in relation to the omnipresence of English and to the fact that there have been and still are First Nations, who are not immediately of that identity, and so on. From this point of view, Quebec has an absolutely singular history. I speak of it as a “world-making” [«faire monde»] which is still open. Because I am not sure that Quebec has yet really resolved the problem of the world it is in the process of becoming. The current episode of revolt is a part of this, of the Québécois world-making, and of its interest for all.

But aren’t all societies a world-making? France, for example.

Identities are more fixed here. It is a country in latent crisis, a former great world power, holding a particular universality, not knowing what to do with its lost greatness. From that point of view, France is as much a world that undoes itself as a world-making. My thesis is that we must end France.

Excuse me?

I have thought for a long time that France must merge with Germany. I am also quite happy that others, such as Michel Serres, today share my view. France alone has no future. Europe is a team crashing along, we have seen it with Greece, and everyone recognises that France and Germany form the core of Europe. A merge would enable facing up to other great economic powers, which today neither France, Germany nor Europe are capable of. The French and German economies are already intertwined, if only this core were realised politically! It could be in the flexible form of a federal State, as is already the case in Germany.

And in Canada… But the separatists hope that the solidarity demonstrations sparked by the crisis will serve their cause. Start of a new story?

I certainly don’t know enough about the situation of Quebec from the inside to say. But I have a certain mistrust of separatisms. For twenty or thirty years we’ve witnessed the breaking up of national entities, and sometimes their pulverization. Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo… We must be very vigilant about the real scope of the disintegration of states. They are negative phenomena of contemporary historicity, often responsible for tragic human situations. So, you will tell me: “but Quebec is not like that!”

You took the words right out of my mouth…

I would not be spontaneously for a separation of Quebec, without any very powerful arguments. I am not sure that the path of the Québécois world-making absolutely requires a statist separation. I think we can negotiate consequential federalisms, and that this is a better formula.

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Alain Badiou teaches at Université Paris-VIII Saint-Denis and is the author of Being and Event and Logics of Worlds.

François Gauvin is a philosopher and journalist. He contributes regularly to the magazine Le Point.