In Metapolitics, Badiou outlines a subjectivity he calls Thermidorian, which, among other things, reveals the revulsion he shares with liberals and progressives at “material and legislative” corruption. The Thermidorian, like the Bushist, is treasonous, a self-interested profiteer, a pillager, an embezzler, and an imperialist, all of which betray revolutionary virtues and republican ideals. In this way, the Thermidorian and the Bushist are judged by their fidelity to the national interest.
For Badiou, however, “this material and legislative corruption is merely secondary.” What primarily interests him is the Thermidorian’s relationship to politics, most specifically to emancipatory politics. He writes, “A Thermidorian is essentially politically corrupt,” which he defines as “exploit[ing] the precariousness of political convictions.” Such exploitation is determinative because “in politics, there are only convictions (and wills).” The Thermidorian, then, preys on its opponents’ hesitations, indecisions, and fissures. This follows from the subjectivity’s very existence, which Badiou describes as being “constituted through the termination of a political sequence.” The Thermidor is a vulture that feeds off the weaknesses of a revolutionary political era.
The negative, decisive move the reaction undertakes is to detach what Badiou calls virtue (or “unconditioned subjective prescription”) from politics. This maneuver, however, is made possible by a positive program with two essential aims: statification, or the subsumption of all politics to parliamentary politics; and the coupling of the state to interest, which specifically refers to protecting property but generally means a situation in which “an interest lies at the heart of every subjective demand.” Thermidorian political corruption, in sum, amounts to a counterrevolutionary depoliticization of the social field, a subsumption of politics to economics (interest) and the state.
There’s some to like in the Badiou’s theory of political corruption and its reactionary subjectivity, particularly his outlining of the necessity of the Thermidorian drive to statification and its need to institute a regime that secures interest. But there’s much to object as well, particularly the normative implication that a Thermidorian subjectivity would not take root if there were not divisions (“weaknesses”) in the political sequence.
The point, however, is not to spot error but to put the theory to use. In that spirit, it’s best to say that Badiou’s concept of Thermidorian subjectivity is not so much wrong as it is not very useful. While the concept’s immediate purpose is to attack the “new philosophers,” Badiou also wants to create what can be called a philosophical archetype, a sort of transhistorical figuration of reaction. It’s this attempt at universal representation that causes problems for the concept.
For Badiou, the crux of Thermidorian subjectivity is its disconnecting of virtue, or unconditioned subjective prescription, from politics. In the immediate aftermath of both the first years after the French Revolution and May 1968, this probably was a goal of the reaction. But in the current conjuncture — which I’ll call neoliberalism since it seems to be the most comprehensive term available — it might be said that the opposite is the case: Neoliberalism actually requires the coupling of virtue/prescription and politics. If the neoliberal subjective axiomatic leaves the individual unmoored from and unassisted by the state and requires the individual to become its own virtual economy — the entrepreneurial political subject — then virtue/prescription is free to be productive itself, as long as its product can be captured. Put another way, neoliberalism’s innovation is that it is able to incorporate virtue/will/convictions into its sphere. Badiou’s theory of the Thermidorian can’t account for this, because in his prescription virtue is always autonomous.