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Out of the interregnum

The old national order is dead, but the new post-national union of states, whether called a federation or not, is unable to take shape. French philosopher Etienne Balibar calls for European action.

During a May Day protest in Athens. Demotix/Savvas Karmaniolas. All rights reserved.During a May Day protest in Athens. Demotix/Savvas Karmaniolas. All rights reserved.

These notes formed my initial statement at a panel discussion on Europe as a Philosophical Project, with Seyla Benhabib and Francis Fukuyama, part of the Conference “The European Project Beyond Eurocentrism”, given at the Transatlantic Academy, Washington D.C., on 2 May 2013. I express my gratitude to the Academy for allowing me to reproduce them here.

(1) From a recent essay by Zygmunt Bauman I borrow the Gramscian category of the interregnum to characterize the critical situation in which European construction finds itself: the old national order is dead, but the new post-national union of states, whether called a federation or not, is unable to take shape, on the contrary it is being increasingly dismantled and substantially distorted.

The first aspect it is important to understand is that a failure of construction will not lead to a simple return to independent nation-states with more or less intense relations of alliance and interdependency (which is the dream of the nationalists, called in France souverainistes). But the second aspect to grasp is the “pathological phenomena” that the disintegration is producing (to borrow again from the Gramscian model). This is the case, in particular, with the paralysis of political systems that is illustrated by recent developments in Italy and France, with foreseeable effects on Europe itself. Not only is the formal continuity broken with the inaugural project designed by the Rome treaty and its founding fathers after the end of World War II, but the question of the collapse of the Union or its continuous degradation is posed, unless a genuine new foundation begins on different bases.

Ironically, this existential crisis, which in spite of widely differing causes may evoke the crisis of another supranational European project of the twentieth century ( namely the Soviet project), takes place only 25 years after the latter’s collapse elicited triumphant prophecies concerning the future of the post-national democratic constellation in Europe. Strange vicissitudes of history…

(2) Among the “pathological effects” of the crisis, I want to particularly insist on two of them, again schematically. It is their permanent interaction which, I believe, is destroying the very possibility of developing feelings of a common European membership and destiny among its peoples, not to mention the creation of a European 'demos'.

The first is the rise of nationalism in Europe. Indeed we may discuss the extent to which this is something really new or if we are only becoming aware of a force that always existed and is now again coming to the fore. But this would also mean that it is becoming a new political phenomenon, with explicit anti-European dimensions. We would need here to carefully distinguish between an active and a reactive nationalism, a nationalism whereby administrations and power structures seek to preserve their established privileges (including the privilege of representation) and a nationalism through which so-called “populist” movements seek to mobilize the electorate against official representation. Therefore we should also discuss the extent to which a “nationalism from the left” remains distinct from a “nationalism of the right” or does overlap and potentially merge with it.

But in any case it is important to realize that the new nationalist wave in Europe is affecting the “strong” nations as well as the “weak” ones, the “dominant” as well as the “dominated”. Its causes are complex, referring to cultural differences that the European “superstructure” had an obvious tendency to neglect, and above all I presume to the fact that the solidarities and securities of everyday life that are now being progressively dismantled – in other terms the welfare state whose quasi-constitutionalization in western Europe accompanied the formulation of the initial European project – were implemented as a genuine “social citizenship” (T.H. Marshall) with a view to consolidating national unity (in the framework of what in previous essays I called the “national and social state”). And it seems clear to me that an evolution in European construction (especially after 1989) in the direction of a monetary union that was conceived as the instrument of a purely competitive economic order, has unleashed in Europe a quasi-Hobbesian “war of all against all”, in which the strongest momentarily crush the weakest, but all react in nationalist terms.

This leads me to the second aspect. As is widely acknowledged now, at least among academics, it is a fact that in recent decades social inequalities have dramatically increased in Europe as in other places of the world, and that they are still on the rise. These inequalities concern income and wealth, of course, but also education, opportunities or social recognition. They are affected massively by gender and ethnicity, but in particular they are distributed along generational lines and this is aggravated by the wrong remedies applied to the crisis in the interest of some sectors of society.

To provoke discussion and reflection on this, with due regard to the magnitude and the historical meaning of mass precariousness and insecurity among the young poor - or not so poor - in places like Greece, Spain, the French banlieues, etc. I used to say that they produce a brutalization of European society (George Mosse’s category) which could be compared to the generational destruction of World War I. It is important here to insist not only on the growing inequalities and insecurities in general, and not only on their polarizing effect, discussed by some of us yesterday night, but on the fact that the inequalities are themselves unequally distributed, from a regional and ultimately national point of view: thus forming a second degree of inequality, or inequality within inequality, which again has been dramatically increased by a management of the financial and monetary crisis inspired by neo-liberal dogmas. It has destructive effects on the legitimacy both of the national and the supranational institutions.

Whether all this puts us, as some argue, in a “pre-totalitarian” situation, is a matter of interpretation and prediction, which is hazardous indeed. But at a more immediate level I would argue, first, that the construction of a federal or quasi-federal Europe is impossible on such bases, which institutionalize divergence instead of the convergence reiterated in all successive versions of the European project (even after the rejection of the “Constitutional Treaty” in 2005); and second I argue that destructive effects on the internal governability of the European nations themselves are inevitable.

Of course what matters here is to carefully analyze the differences between the regions, which nonetheless affect the ensemble. Emblematic are the gaps, or the abyss now emerging between different types of peripheries or semi-peripheries, and the centre itself. While Germany becomes dominant, or hegemonic, in Europe, because of its sheer economic weight, partly due to intelligently playing on the opportunities to sell on the global market from within the Eurozone, and its close coordination with the ECB, Greece suffers devastation and is subjected to an authoritarian monitoring of its policies which resurrects a Schmittian “state of exception” and leads to forms of internal colonization. But colonization produces revolt or in any case rejection of the political model, and hegemony (whether “reluctant” or not, to quote from an ongoing debate among political scientists, which is also increasingly becoming public) is not necessarily producing stability.

To take but one example, which however is crucial because it affects the young generation in the first place, a circulation of the skilled labour force across internal borders of the EU, as is now beginning to take place between Spain, Greece, Portugal, etc., and Germany, could be considered in abstracto an extremely positive factor of continental integration: but it may produce more antagonisms when it appears essentially as a coercive effect of the unbalance of power among the members of the “union”, and a drain of the energy of the youth from the impoverished periphery in favour of the hegemonic centre.

(3) Having argued that the situation in Europe is one of suspended decomposition of the post-national project without the possibility of returning to a “traditional” system of isolated nation-states, I find myself obliged to reflect on alternatives, which is also what I desperately want to do with others as a European citizen (and I completely agree with Seyla that this is a political obligation, an intellectual duty and a matter of life and death in the face of the persistent mantra “There Is No Alternative”, especially when it leads to catastrophe).

I think that we cannot simply stick to the idea that the European project has been distorted or was badly implemented, because some of the causes of the crisis lie in the very conception of the project, or at least in the correlation between the project and changing geopolitical and geo-economic conditions of its implementation (but from a “realistic” point of view a project means nothing apart from its conditions). It is not enough therefore to return to the “origins”, to the philosophical idea of our founding fathers - alternatively this should be done in the Machiavellian sense of a new foundation, which includes a critical reflection on the effects of the foundation itself, and therefore breaks consciously with some of its implications.

Although I am convinced that any effective path out of the interregnum must include measures and actions which are revolutionary, I distinguish the idea of a new foundation from what is usually called a “revolution”,  because the dominant representation of a “revolution” is too much linked to an idea of “liberating” from the chains of the encrusted past something that already exists virtually, “in the wombs of the old society” as the famous allegory goes, and it does not enough indicate the necessity of inventing an alternative. What is at stake is introducing a bifurcation with respect to an ongoing process of transformation, in the framework of what is anyway a situation of radical changes. And I completely admit that all my speculations in this respect remain completely aporetic because they rely on the crystallization of tendencies which are still embryonic, and above all perhaps not spontaneously convergent. This is the reason why I try to present the issue in terms of couples of antithetic imperatives.

Among these, I will skip the discussion on the possibility of reconciling the imperative of a unitary European citizenship and the imperative of the representation of national memberships within a single constitutional order, on which Jürgen Habermas would have probably insisted, not because I find it unimportant or easy to resolve, but because I believe that any constitution depends on political conditions for its very possibility, and it is these political dimensions (rather than the juridical or meta-juridical formulae) that must be addressed primarily in the current conjuncture. Or course a certain purely liberal discourse will maintain that the main vector of politics is juridical. This is a philosophical idea if you like, or a philosophical choice on my side.

I suggest that we should organize the conceptualization of politics for the new foundation of Europe, or the foundation of a new Europe, around two crucial dilemmas. One of them is socio-economic, or rather it illustrates the irreversible interpenetration of the political and the socio-economic in today’s history. I call it the dilemma of protection and regulation. On the side of protection I would put not only the restoration of social securities which have been brutally assaulted by neo-liberal politics in Europe, depriving it progressively of what was considered its specific historical model, but also the invention of a successor to the welfare state at the continental level. This was supposed to be the counterpart of the creation of the single currency in Delors’ scheme, but it is precisely the one that was sacrificed, probably not by chance. And the stakes are now higher: not only the social rights of labour, but employment, mass education in the age of the internet, industrial and regional development… On the side of regulation I would put the idea, widely accepted even by non-socialist thinkers, that the hyper power of the global financial system, which includes both its visible and its invisible or shadow activities, and which generates systemic risk of crises and increasingly distorted distributions of wealth, what some analysts now call the “debt economy” as distinct from previous forms of capitalism, must be counteracted through coercive measures of regulation internationally adopted. Something that can be done only under the joint pressure of the most powerful nations or groups of nations in today’s world-system, backed by something like a global public opinion.

Of course there are domains in which ideas of protection and regulation clearly interfere, such as environmental policies. But generally speaking there is no pre-established harmony between the imperatives of protection and regulation: they can even be contradictory. We can imagine a united Europe that has some reasons and capacities to “mediate” between the two imperatives, but this requires that it is rebuilt on new bases. We are thus going around in circles.

The same is true in a sense for the second dilemma, more directly political. It is the dilemma of democratization and political initiative or leadership. I referred a moment ago to the well-known aporia of the “European demos”. In fact I am not convinced that this is a logical aporia, because I believe that what history shows is not that a demos preexists its own political mobilization (or, as I said in the classical language, “insurgency”): on the contrary, it is the ensemble of democratic movements within a social and political content, which really create or generate the demos, especially if they also include a resistance to multiple forms of de-democratization or expropriation of the people’s right to politics, which is precisely the case today. Therefore what we need to recreate in Europe is a proliferation of democratic movements, some of which are popular protests against relegations and discriminations, some of which are pressures to establish or reestablish a control from below on political representation and the initiatives of the political class, some of which are attempts at inventing various modalities of self-government and the administration by the people themselves of what Elinor Ostrom, Negri and others call “the commons”.

But clearly there is a risk here, not only because in a pathological situation there is no guarantee that popular protests are democratic and progressive rather than fascist, and internationalist rather than nationalist, but because although democratic insurgencies which progressively give shape and reality to the demos in the end produce legitimacy (the kind of paradoxical democratic legitimacy that Weber called illegitime Herrschaft), what they produce immediately in the first instance is an additional de-legitimization of the existing structures. And then, there is the fact that the imperative of democratic mobilization from below is not the same as the equally urgent imperative of a political leadership, or a political initiative in Europe, for which what we need is probably a Roosevelt rather than a Lenin, except that none of them showed us how to act at the level of the kind of dis-united union that is Europe today. Perhaps it should be a Roosevelt who is also a Bolivar…

A leadership with a programme (something like a European “New Deal”) is one of the means which could help orienting popular movements in a democratic direction, but where could it come from? There no such thing as a European “party of Europe” today, except virtually in the discussions of some intellectuals who have no political capacity. In a recent paper published by Libération on Friday, May 3 2013, with the title - given by the journal - “La refondation de l’Europe ne peut venir que d’en bas”[1], I suggested a negative condition: that such a leadership should come from Germany, not because Germany is now “the centre”, the “capital” of Europe, but because its first task would be to win the majority of the German people to the idea of rebuilding Europe along lines of solidarity rather than competition, in view of its own long term interests.

This probably adds another aporia to the previous ones. How to articulate protection and regulation, or a Europe that is inward-looking with a Europe that is a global player, and how to find a correlation of democracy from below and political initiative from above - some European “Prince” as it were - these are the dilemmas that I believe to be urgent – also philosophically. But above all historically, because what the interregnum actually means is that we must take the time and devote our efforts to creating the “party of Europe” when, probably, we no longer have much time in which to do it.

[1] The article was also published in English translation by openDemocracy, as part of the ongoing discussion : “Can Europe Make It?”, with the same title (“A new Europe can only come from the bottom up”), which indicated only one half of my thesis expressed in the text. I admit that this was all very quick.

About the author

Etienne Balibar is Emeritus Professor at Paris X Nanterre and Anniversary Chair of Modern European Philosophy at Kingston University, London. He has addressed such questions as European racism, the notion of the border, whether a European citizenship is possible or desirable, violence, identity and emancipation. His books include Reading Capital (with Louis Althusser, New Left Books 1970), Race, Nation, Class (with Immanuel Wallerstein, Verso, 1991), The Philosophy of Marx, Spinoza and Politics, Politics and the Other Scene (Verso, 2002), and We, the People of Europe? Reflections on Transnational Citizenship (Princeton UP, 2004). His latest publications are Equaliberty (Duke UP, 2014); Violence and Civility (Columbia UP, 2015), Citizenship (Polity, 2015) and Europe, crise et fin ? (Edition Le Bord de l’Eau, 2016).


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