Can Europe Make It?

Nomads and migrants: Deleuze, Braidotti and the European Union in 2014

If European society at large is applying an exclusionary logic to certain groups, it is only encouraging the retention and expansion of a sedentary identity formation in these groups. A rise in reactionary politics should come as no surprise.

Eva Aldea
10 September 2014

The May 2014 European elections yet again raised the issue of migration in the EU, sparking heated political debates. Interestingly, discussions revolved not merely around how migration should be managed, but about the very state and nature of the Union. Migration has become one of the foremost issues, perhaps the central point bar the economy, in the discussion about the viability of the European Union itself.

It is quite telling that the idea of nationality and population movement across borders is so enmeshed with the idea of the EU itself. Paradoxically, the members of the European Union are born out of the tradition of the sovereign nation state, while the EU as an entity rests on principles that challenge that tradition. The very idea of the European Union is thus one that necessitates quite a drastic rethinking of a number of givens regarding nationality, citizenship and borders. Despite a political programme that has initiated widespread demographic changes, such a rethinking has been quite neglected on a social, cultural and philosophical level. The backlash against the Union itself is to a large extent, I believe, due to this neglect, and the resulting mismatch between the idea and reality of what it means to live in Europe today.

As Rosi Braidotti points out in her work on the EU, the political and practical reality of living in the European Union is one that challenges the traditional notions of national belonging, both due to the direction the political union is taking and due to global trends. We inhabit a world where a simple relationship to the place we live in no longer exists, not either for ourselves or for our neighbours. We are exposed daily to people that cross national boundaries, defy language barriers and unsettle cultural traditions. In order to fully inhabit this world, we need to shift our own sense of identity, according to Braidotti. However, such a shift is not without its perils. As she argues in “The Becoming Minoritarian of Europe” in Deleuze and the Contemporary World, “Fear, anxiety and nostalgia are clear examples of the negative emotions involved in the project of detaching ourselves from familiar forms of identity. Achieving a post-national sense of European identity requires the dis-identification from established, nation-bound points of reference.”

Braidotti suggests that the European Union is theoretically aligned with a strain of twentieth century continental philosophy of deconstruction that aims to undo the “grand narratives” of traditional ideas of the self and identity. It is thus the perfect laboratory for the thinking up of a new “nomadic subject”. Such a subject is one that embraces the demographic changes entailed in living in the European Union today, and “actively constructs itself in a complex and internally contradictory set of social relations”.

In her theorizing of this idea, Braidotti draws on one of the big names of continental philosophy, Gilles Deleuze. It is useful to examine Deleuze’s work in order to fully explore what the term ‘nomadic’ means in this context, and how this idea can help us in the task of becoming these new, complex subjects.

Deleuze and Guattari in their seminal work A Thousand Plateaus, differentiate between ‘migrants’ and ‘nomads’. These are not discrete and distinct entities but represent two poles of a spectrum that informs all of Deleuze’s work. It is a spectrum which Deleuze, in particular in his work with Guattari, uses to describe everything from political systems to psychology, with the aid of a range of different terms. What Deleuze and Guattari call the molar, major, macropolitical, or territorialized is that which is determined, ordered, categorized and clearly differentiated. In contrast, the molecular, minor, micropolitical or deterritorialized is that which is free, unlimited, chaotic and unspecified.

‘Sedentary’ and ‘nomadic' are the respective terms engaged by Deleuze and Guattari to consider the use of space and people’s relationship to the land they inhabit. The sedentary and nomadic orders of land distribution can be illustrated by imagining two satellite images, one of agricultural land and one of a desert.

Under the sedentary order, exemplified by the image of agricultural land, distinct parcels of land are distributed to determined groups of people. Areas of land are divided and demarcated, in order that the ownership of the land is clear. Any movement across sedentary land is defined by borders and boundaries: as you move from one distinct place to another, from field A to field B, roads and walls determine the route you have to take.

In contrast, under the nomadic order, exemplified by the image of the desert, a number of people are scattered across an expanse of land, without clear borders or exclusive ownership. The route from point A to point B is not determined in the same way as under the sedentary order. Rather, stopping places are subordinated to the journey itself: meeting places, encampments, watering holes instead of fields, cities, castles.

The nomadic is thus an inverse of the sedentary model: land is not distributed to people, rather people are distributed on the land. However, the nomadic also implies a profound difference in the relationship to the place that one occupies at any given time. Under the sedentary model people belong in a place, and a piece of land belongs to a people. The default relation to place is, as the name implies, a static one. Movement is what happens in between residing in specific places. There is thus a difference between those who stay in one place and those who do not. Those who move under the sedentary order are different from the norm, engaged in an activity that is exceptional and expected to have a finite duration. They are called migrants, in order to differentiate them from those who do not move.

In contrast, the nomadic distribution is in itself undertaken through movement. This means that travelling is the default mode of relating to space. Some people may well stay in one place for a long time, or even forever. However, their relationship to the place they occupy is always intermediate, or secondary to the principle of movement. They do not become defined by place, and do not differ in their relation to the land from those around them who do travel. Under the nomadic order everyone is a nomad, whether they move or not.

The ‘migrant’, then, is someone who moves across and according to a sedentary model of distribution of land. He or she is different from the non-migrant, who stays put in their respective territory. A ‘nomad’ on the other hand is anyone that lives in an area where the population is distributed according to the nomadic principle, whether he or she is actually moving anywhere or not. Being a nomad is a matter of relating to space and land in an entirely different way than either the migrant or the non-migrant. This is precisely why it is an idea that is useful for debates about migration in Europe.

The way Deleuze and Guattari use the word ‘nomadic’ is related to the peculiar way they deliberately unpick the etymology of the word. They trace the word back to the ancient Greek nemo or ‘I distribute’, which is the root of nomás, meaning “roaming, roving, wandering (to find pastures for flocks or herds)” and thus a precursor to the modern word ‘nomad’ and indicative of the way Deleuze and Guattari use the term in their work.


Satellite image of the Ogallala aquifer. NASA/Wikimedia. Public domain.However, nemo is also the root of the ancient Greek nomós. Here Deleuze and Guattari start playing with meanings. On the one hand, nomós refers to the action of distribution or allotment, and is commonly translated as ‘law’ or ‘custom’. In this form, the term is usually opposed to physis or nature, which is without laws or rules. On the other hand, the term nómos refers to the physical result of distribution and can be translated as ‘pasture’, but also as ‘district’ or ‘province’, which Deleuze and Guattari directly oppose to the ancient Greek polis or ‘city’.

With this somewhat liberal wordplay Deleuze and Guattari indicate two things. Firstly, that the nomadic, as a method of distribution, is not somehow a more ‘natural’ or ‘primitive’ relation to the land as is often implied in the modern use of the word nomadic. Secondly, the nomadic is to Deleuze and Guattari an alternative system of land distribution to that of the static city with its fortifications: “The nomos is the consistency of a fuzzy aggregate: it is in this sense that it stands in opposition to the law or the polis, as the backcountry, a mountainside, or the vague expanse around a city.”[1]

The ancient Greek idea of the polis is at the foundation of a long tradition of sedentary distribution and determination, culminating in the nineteenth century European nation state. It is also an example of a way of thinking very much connected with western Europe: that of reason and science. At its heart lies a logic that comes from the ancient Greeks of the polis. The syllogism, the polis and the nation state share a logical essence: belonging and non-belonging. The classic syllogism is: All humans are mortal. – Socrates is human. – Therefore, Socrates is mortal. This famous statement dealing with the certainty of death, lends its indisputable truth value to the syllogic form itself. However, the form is as much about a sedentary distribution as it is about truth: All Thebans are drunks. – Laius is a Theban. – Therefore, Laius is a drunk. Or, two thousand years later: All Romanians are thieves. – Bogdan is a Romanian. – Therefore, Bogdan is a thief.

Rosi Braidotti makes the connection between this long tradition of western thought, the idea of nationhood and the idea of Europe itself. The sedentary, us-and-them logic has been at the heart of European identity for centuries, reaching its heyday during imperialist times (Only Europe is civilized. – Africa is not European. – Therefore, Africa needs civilizing). It is the logic behind the idea of the nation state as well as the idea of Europeanness as such. The European Union, however, Braidotti argues, is a departure from this very logic, following the twentieth century shift in continental thought: Europe as a “postnationalist project […] rejects the idea of Europe as a world power driven by a form of universalism that has implied the exclusion and consumption of others”. In consequence, the idea of the European Union “no longer coincides with European identity, but rather constitutes a rupture from it and a transformation”.[2]

In Deleuze and Guattari’s terms, then, the old idea of European identity, based on belonging and exclusion to sovereign nation states operates a sedentary distribution. The European Union, however, is a move towards a nomadic distribution, and thus profoundly changes the relationship between the people and the space they occupy. Crucially, the change from a sedentary to nomadic order affects the subjectivity and identity not only of those who move, but of all the inhabitants of an area. This is what makes it such a difficult shift for society as a whole. It is particularly difficult for those who have been in an established, sedentary position for a long time. However, it is a change that is absolutely crucial if the European project is to succeed in its present form.

So, what does becoming a “nomadic subject” entail? As we saw above, Braidotti speaks of the complexity and contradictory nature of such an identity formation. Deleuze and Guattari describe the nómos, the expanse outside the city, as “vague” and “the consistency of a fuzzy aggregate”. Again, in their own idiosyncratic way, Deleuze and Guattari are hinting at an alternative to the syllogistic logic of belonging and non-belonging: fuzzy logic.


Satellite image of the Tirari desert. NASA/Wikimedia. Some rights reserved.In classical set theory the membership of a set is determined in a bivalent fashion. You are either a member of a set or you are not. By contrast, fuzzy set theory allows a gradual and partial membership of a set. You can be a little bit of this and some portion of that. This logic enables the complexity of a nomadic identity. A nomadic relationship to the place one inhabits is one that is shifting, multiple and overlapping. The place one finds oneself in, short or long term, does not determine one’s identity. Neither, however, is one indifferent to or unaffected by one’s place.

Braidotti stresses the importance of awareness of and responsibility for one’s location and its partiality.[3] I read ‘partiality’ here both in the sense of fragmentary and the sense of bias. A nomadic subject’s location is always partial, always fuzzy, but crucially it is never static or exclusive. “The life of the nomad is the intermezzo” as Deleuze and Guattari proclaim.[4]

A nomadic European Union is one where there are neither migrants nor permanent inhabitants. Everyone’s relationship to place is contingent, and able to shift, admit overlaps and even contradictions, engendered both by the movement of the subject itself and the movement of others around it.

Crucially, as Braidotti suggests, Europe is an experiment in post-national citizenship on a global scale. The shift to thinking of nomads instead of migrants may begin intra-Europe, but needs to extend to an extra-European population movement. Building a ‘Fortress Europe’ accessible only to those within would simply reiterate a sedentary logic on a larger scale, and would be as much of a failure of the European project as a dissolution of the Union.

To return to the practical situation facing us in the European Union following the 2014 elections, it is clear that although the political reality has moved us all towards the nomadic way of inhabiting the place in which we live, a large part of the population is still thinking in a sedentary way. Braidotti argues that what “we are lacking is a social imaginary that adequately reflects the social realities we already experience of a postnationalist sense of European identity”. But such a sense of identity, “requires extra effort in order to come into being, as it raises the question of how to change deeply embedded habits of our imagination.”[5]

One inadequate social imaginary

The question remains how such an adequate social imaginary is brought into being. While the possible answers are doubtless many, I want to conclude by observing an inadequate social imaginary, one that hinders the transition to a nomadic subjectivity for those for whom it is the most difficult task: those who have long been used to determine, and have had determined by others, their identity in a sedentary fashion.

It has been observed again and again that the reactionary politics that emerged in the recent election have tended to take root in indigenous working-class communities, not least in Great Britain with the rise of UKIP.[6] This is in itself indicative of a social imaginary that categorizes a certain set of people in a determined way, part of an us-and-them logic. In fact, the discourse that identifies the white working class as responsible for the increase in xenophobic politics is part of the same discourse that on the one hand labels immigrants benefit tourists and on the other labels the working class poor as benefits cheats.

Such a discourse is one that perpetuates a sedentary logic, and one that still permeates our media today. A Europe-wide study of six working-class communities by the Open Society Foundation, while acknowledging anti-immigration sentiment in these populations, stressed a willingness to negotiate differences with newcomers and examples of integration. Interestingly the study made the following observation:

“Different communities across Europe that we spoke to felt they are being blamed for their own marginalization. Blame has been shifted to individuals as wider social and economic factors are often downplayed. This is certainly true of media portrayals in the UK, and it also applies in the Netherlands—where the ‘antisocial television’ genre focuses on poor Dutch families with behavioral or social problems—and Germany. This creates powerful stereotypes that can reinforce a community’s sense of exclusion.”[7]

This clearly indicates a problem with the social imaginary of Europe. If society at large is applying an exclusionary logic to certain groups, it is only encouraging the retention and expansion of a sedentary identity formation in these groups. A rise in reactionary politics should come as no surprise.

This kind of social imaginary is directly counterproductive to the project of the European Union and needs to be addressed. Media producers, often elite, and media consumers from all strata of society are responsible for creating a social imaginary that reflects and enables nomadic thinking rather than a sedentary one. Only by means of a collective effort to create representations adequate to the European Union that we already inhabit, can the sense of fear, anxiety and loss of identity that a move from a sedentary to a nomadic relationship to place entails be counteracted. This effort may yet prove crucial to the project of the European Union as whole.

[1] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi, (London: Athlone Press, 1986), p380.

[2] Braidotti, Nomadic Theory: The Portable Rosi Braidotti, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 243.

[3] Braidotti, “Becoming Minoritarian”, 86 (my emphasis).

[4] Deleuze & Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 380

[5] Braidotti, Nomadic Theory, 261

[6] For example, see: Mark Leonard, “Rage against the machine: the rise of anti-politics across Europe”, New Statesman, 5 June 2014.

[7] Nazia Hussain & Daniel Silver, Open Source Foundation, “Understanding Europe’s White Working Class Communities”,

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Europe: the very idea, an openDemocracy editorial partnership supported by Social Science in the City, a public engagement initiative at the University of the West of England

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