Can Europe Make It?

Europe: a concrete idea

The rise of the far-right parties and more generally of the anti-European or euro-sceptic ones, such as the British UKIP, is a clear sign that moderate solutions to the current crisis are not enough any more. A reply to Etienne Balibar.

Teresa Pullano
23 May 2014
Living conditions of Brussels' undocumented migrants, 2009

Living conditions of Brussels' undocumented migrants, 2009. Demotix/Julie Franchet. All rights reserved.In his recent interventions on Europe, here and here, Etienne Balibar puts forward the necessity of a new revolutionary foundation of the integration process. Among the various discourses on the EU in this time of elections, his call is specific and does not leave room for any ambiguity.

This is given precisely by the use of the two interrelated concepts of ‘foundation’ and of ‘revolutionary’. Calling for a new foundation means that the current EU policies are not legitimate any more, and this represents a clear judgment on the present state of affairs, as well as on the political elites who have been taking the major decisions so far. As Balibar has made clear, the new foundation needs to come from below, that is from the popular classes, and not from the ruling elites.

But, more important, this new foundation needs to be revolutionary, that is, it needs to operate a rupture with the political principles and with the internal relations of force that have been dominant so far in the process of integration. As Balibar puts it, it is not possible any more to call for a ‘rationalization’ of the current EU institutions, as it is still defended by the liberals and by those in the centre-left. This is why, I would add, the position represented by the Party of European Socialist (PES) and by Martin Schulz, the candidate of the PES to the European Commission, is totally inadequate, precisely because it does not call for a radical revision of the current economic and political norms governing the EU.

This point is also made with clarity by the call launched by Barbara Spinelli, among others. If Schulz is elected the next president of the European Commission, most probably a grand coalition will take place between the PES and the EPP (European People’s Party). The inadequacy of such an answer is demonstrated by the rise of anti-european parties and movements, such as Golden Dawn in Greece, the Front National of Marine Le Pen in France, the Alternative für Deutschland in Germany. These forces spell out the limits of every approach that only attempts to regulate the current EU crisis, without taking into account the deep dissatisfaction with the way in which the EU is currently organized.

Golden Dawn, an ultranationalist and neo-nazi political formation, is likely to have at least two seats in the new European Parliament, and Jobbik, a racist party, calling for the segregation of Roma and Jewish people, should win four seats (in 2009 they had 3 seats). Marine Le Pen’s Front National will gain around twenty seats in the next European Parliament. Even if explicitly neo-nazi and anti-semitic parties, such as Golden Dawn and Jobbik, are in a minority, the rise of the far-right parties and more generally of the anti-European or euro-sceptic ones, such as the British UKIP, is a clear sign that moderate solutions to the current crisis are not enough any more.

Balibar’s call needs to be understood in a double sense, that is political and, at the same time, philosophical, as he himself writes. Here, I develop his proposition further in both respects. In particular, I would like to address the question of the revolutionary refoundation of Europe, of its possibility and of its strategy, through two arguments: one, regarding the space of Europe as a battleground, with Europe itself as the very object of the fight among opposing political projects; two, tackling the problem of the whole notion of a revolutionary refoundation of Europe.

Europe as the battleground: which is the space of revolution? 

Europe and revolution seem to be antithetical terms. Europe, intended as the project of European integration, has always been a project of the elites, and it has never mobilized the people.

The EU was born out of the ashes of the Second World War, and as such it represented the need for peace among European nations and for protection against Nazi and fascist temptations. As such, the EU can be seen, to some extent at least, as a project for the neutralization of the political, defined as a process of mass mobilization.

In addition to this, the legal and the economic aspects of government are central to the reconfiguration of the European space as a political space - more central than, for example, the classical tools of political participation such as parties or trade unions. The specificities of the modalities through which the EU took shape make it especially difficult to mobilize citizens and non-citizens, such as immigrants, in a political struggle to change it. This is why a growing section of the political forces is not calling for a different Europe, but for a dismantling of it, in particular through the abolition of the eurozone.

This debate is particularly relevant to the radical left of the spectrum of political forces: they are the ones against the current austerity policies and in favour of a larger redistribution of resources as well as for a more open access to the political community, for example granting political and social rights to migrants. The first key question for these forces is: which is the relevant political and geographical scale for an effective revolutionary action? Is it the space of the nation-state or the European Union? Is it the space of the eurozone, or is this instead an obstacle to any such action?

There are two main positions in the radical left concerning Europe. The first one is exemplified by the French economist Cedric Durand, a member of the Economistes Atterrés. Durand writes that: “the European Union, and especially the monetary and economic union, are instruments of power that are hostile to the interests of the majority of the European population and thus need to be recognized and fought against by the left as such.” The issue of the euro was also a polarizing question at the last congress of the German party Die Linke, with a part of its membership sharing the same position as the one articulated by Durand.

According to Durand, who is also the author of the edited book En finir avec l’Europe, the main issue for the left is not Europe, but mass unemployment. Since workers, by contrast with ruling classes and capitalist interests, are fragmented at the European level, they are under-organized. Since they are not a powerful actor at the international level, there is a need to come back to the national level. Moreover, this is the scale at which it is possible to give answers to the economic crisis and to mass unemployment, because it is at the level of the nation state that workers have a political structure and have some, even if minimal, power.

The second position, in contradistinction, sees the European space and the framework of the EU as the main battleground. This is summarized by the slogan, “another Europe”, expressing the need to change the current functioning of EU policies and institutions. For Alexis Tsipras, candidate to the European Commission of the Greek left-wing party Syriza, the EU and even the eurozone are the most suitable political space in order to put into place economic policies for growth, redistribution and full employment.

The reason for this, according to Tsipras’ manifesto for the presidency of the European Commission, is that “monetary union as a single entity enjoys more degrees of freedom in policymaking than each of its constituent member states separately, as it is less exposed to the volatility and instability of the external environment”. This is also the reason why enacting the space of the EU and making it the terrain of political struggle is neither reformist nor unrealistic: the scale of political, social and economic action is the continental one.

In order to win the battle and recuperate the advantage that neoliberal forces and dominant classes have in tackling both the continental and the international space, the challenge is to organize workers and the popular classes at that level.

If Durand and others of the radical left are correct when they say that the workers, at present, have power only at the national level, they nevertheless make the mistake of thinking that this will always be the case. But during recent years, it is perfectly possible to observe how the depletion of workers’ rights in western countries has precisely been determined by the decoupling of the worker and the citizen.

This aspect is fully grasped by the analysts Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson in their recent book Borders as Method. Or the Multiplication of Labor (Duke, 2014). The coupling that is the citizen-worker has now been dissolved by the disentanglement of workers, who are more often also migrants, from the framework of the nation state, which was also a welfare state.

But, according to the authors, this does not signify that the workers are now deterritorialized and that working conditions are freed from any frontiers. Quite the contrary. We live in the epoch of the multiplication of borders, on every level, regional, national or international. This is why what we are witnessing is the restructuring of political, social and economic space on all these scales. The national scale itself has been restructured, and thus it may be more utopian to think that we can get it back than it is trying to organize workers’ forces in the new configuration of space at the continental level (which however also implies the other levels).

Indeed, the nation state itself was, first and foremost, an instrument used by the interests of the bourgeoisie. Only after two centuries of struggles has it been transformed and also appropriated by the popular classes. Nothing prevents us from doing the same in the case of the restructured state and spatial structure that is Europe.

And who are the subjects of a European revolutionary new foundation?

The second key issue for concretely talking about a new foundation of Europe, is the question of the political subjects. The main problem is to identify the agency that can be the subject of a revolution that has, as its terrain, European political space. As I argue in my book La citoyenneté européenne, un espace quasi-étatique, there is already a European citizenship that is closely tied to the restructured state-space that we now inhabit at the continental level. But it is difficult to enact it, to use it in a revolutionary way. 

The Czech philosopher and political activist Jan Patočka strictly linked the question of the subject of Europe to the one of responsibility for its history. Responsibility is here intended as the injunction to respond (to the other and to explain oneself). The European question, as Derrida frames it in the Gift of Death, taking his inspiration from Patocka’s Heretical Essays in the Philosophy of History, is whether one can be responsible for the history of Europe, which means also knowing and understanding this history. More than that, for Derrida, the memory of European history is to be understood as a history of responsibility. There is therefore a close link between the subject, its capacity to respond to its history, and Europe.

But, at the same time, we could ask: who is the question of Europe as responsibility addressed to? It is addressed to those who ask themselves this question. The question of Europe is not limited to those who are, geographically or by nationality, the citizens of the current European nation states.

So, at present we experience some hardship in identifying those who belong to Europe as a political community. What does this mean? The term of citizen has an active connotation: it indicates the capacity to appropriate the political space of the community. As such, it is one possible understanding of the problem of responsibility. Until today, there are no political actors, that is groups of people – in the form of social movements, political parties or any other - that have been able to invest in a meaningful and powerful way in Europe as a political space. There is therefore a sense of powerlessness that is connected to European citizenship.

Often, in political debates, European citizenship - as both a formal status and a tool for political action - is seen as a rhetorical device, that is as something that has no concrete effect on our lives and on the political conditions in which we live. As such, European citizenship is often read - both in public controversies and in the academic literature on the subject - either as something abstract and unreal or as a normative ideal that, as such, is always about ‘to come’.

Indeed, not only the category of the workers as a political force bearing specific rights is linked to the space of the nation state, but also the people, as a revolutionary subject, has taken shape within the history of the nation state. Therefore, it can be problematic to separate these two terms. These issues are at the centre of the debate on statehood and citizenship between Nicos Poulantzas, a Greek philosopher active in France in the 70’s, who died in 1979, and Etienne Balibar.

They were both disciples of the French philosopher, Louis Althusser. Balibar resumes their discussion in the text “Communism and citizenship: On Nicos Poulantzas” (in Equaliberty: Political Essays, Duke , 2014) and the problem left open between them.

It is this: can the emancipatory power of citizenship, defined as the capacity to change the hierarchy within the political community (here identified with the state), survive beyond the nation state intended as the framework of production of the people as the collective subject of history. 

Poulantzas is skeptical about such a possibility. Indeed, one of his most interesting concepts is his idea of the materiality of the state. Such materiality, that he also calls the skeletal structure (or frame) of the state, is not separate from the struggles and the practices that define the state itself as a relational concept. The state, defined as such, is a condensation of power relations. It is the relationship between struggles and practices. Therefore, the people as collective subject is not separable from the concrete, historically defined, frame of the state. This means that it is not possible to detach the existence of a people from the concrete structures it has been able to create within the historically defined form of statehood which is the nation state.

According to Balibar, and I share his view, if we adopt a radically relational perspective, the concrete redefinition of statehood in Europe is already bringing with it the material conditions for a redefinition of a collective subject of history. The crisis of Europe is therefore the problem of a collective subject of history - the people - which is beyond the nation state.

At the same time, what Poulantzas shows us is that this problem needs to be solved starting from the material and concrete power relations that exist, and not from any abstract and formal ideals. This is the key point: the subject of Europe needs to be a historical subject, and has to be strictly linked to the continental scale as the space for meaningful political action. In the years to come, this is the challenge ahead for European social movements and political forces. 

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