The limits of liberalism: otherness and the crisis of Europe

The intrinsic necessity of a subordinated, non-European, other to the making of a moral and political economy is not just built into Europe, but into the very idea of liberal citizenship in the modern nation state.

Iain Chambers
18 March 2013

The question of Europe and otherness is clearly at the centre of “What’s wrong with Europe?”. Critically unpacking the first term allows us to come closer to understanding better the question posed by the second.

I wish to address this by simply considering two interwoven dimensions: that of the centrality of liberalism to the making of the modern European nation state, and then of its intrinsic historical and cultural relationship to colonialism and the racialised subordination of the rest of the planet to its political understanding of freedom and progress.

What I want to suggest is that rather than only talk about the contemporary polity, the retraction of European identities into old confines, and the increasingly aggressive policies towards the non-European world in harsh anti-immigrant legislation and an emerging state of global policing and warfare, we need to consider, for a moment, a more radical archaeology in excavating our terms of reference.

To return to the archive of Europe and consider the terms of liberalism, its agendas, shifts and condensation in modern Europe, is also to understand the centrality of colonialism and empire to its making. Liberalism is here not considered as an autonomous or autochthonous political doctrine, but is rather the conceptual field for considering hegemonic processes and procedures of governmentality that emerged from the historical moment in which Europe seized the world and transformed it into what we call modernity.

If we begin with this second, planetary framing of the liberal discourse, rooted in the sovereign authority of the individual with his (sic) political rights guaranteed by property and the freedoms of the (world) market, we can perhaps better understand the intrinsic necessity of a subordinated, non-European, other to the making of a moral and political economy we are used to considering in exclusively provincial, that is, European terms.  This is built into the very idea of liberal citizenship in the modern nation state.

Europe at the centre of the world

Few today would contest the hierarchies that established Europe at the centre of the world stage from the Sixteenth century onwards, producing the measure of ‘progress’ that transformed the provincial into the universal. The underbelly of this provincial power passing for universal law in both juridical and economical terms are the racialising categories that constitute modernity. Such procedures are implicit in the anthropologising philosophy of Kant that excluded the native of Tierra del Fuego from the category of the human, as in Hegel’s noted cancellation of Africa from the path of history.

Central to the process of establishing Europe at the centre of the world is the intertwining of the powers of capital, whereby all is reducible to the universal abstraction of exchange, and the racialised hierarchisation of the non-European world, reduced to objects of its power and knowledge. In other words, the category of race, and the othering and subordination of the world through the perspectives and practices of racism, is central to the violent and unilateral constitution of modernity and its political economy (Quentin Tarantino’s recent film Django Unchained resonates deeply with this particular counter narrative.) My suggestion is that this particular matrix of economical, political and cultural powers has not passed. It is very much part of what we might call the colonial present.

Political economy and the colonial present

The present undoing of the Welfare State is undoubtedly tied into this history. The insistence on individualism and property as the site and sine qua non of political rights cleaves the world a priori into insiders and outsiders, us and them, citizens and the dispossessed. From Robinson Crusoe onwards, collective concerns and responsibilities can only emerge in a second moment subsequent to the aggregation of individual interests. The social and political sphere is not considered the outcome of historical forces and cultural processes, but rather the agglomeration of individual actors and autonomous achievements. So if freedom is tied to individual capacities and wealth, then political rights are intrinsically part of the economy; that is precisely why it is a political economy. Freedom couched in these terms is always freedom for personal gain and accumulation, rather than freedom from poverty, injustice and oppression. This is the connected interplay between classical liberalism, where social justice and freedom was denied to populations in the colonial world, and contemporary neoliberalism where justice is increasingly denied at home. In this sense, we might consider neoliberalism as liberalism ‘after empire’.

The conjunctural specificities, transformations and turns are, of course, significant; but so, too, are the underlying structural continuities that support and permit the variations. Within the long history of liberalism, for example, anti-statism has been persistently central: from John Locke and the Constitution of the United States anxious to guard against the potential tyranny of the state ‘enslaving’ individuals (while at the same sanctioning slavery) to the present-day right in the USA to bear arms and, increasingly also in Europe, to purchase your education, health and welfare.

Liberalism after empire

If today, the racialising mechanisms that reduced certain bodies to objects and commodities, to things, is seemingly more muted, its mechanisms remain a structural feature, and not simply a temporal or historical phase of the liberal order. The brutal exposure of the deep-seated principles of liberalism within the specificities of recent neo-liberalism is a further turn of the screw: as a contemporary response it is neither a novelty nor of recent invention.

In this light, the social compact and compromise of the post-1945 Welfare State is an exceptional moment, forged as a response to the rise of mass democracy and the socio-economic catastrophe of the 1930s, while seeking to bandage the wound of European slaughter, fascism and genocide in two world wars. It lasted a mere 30 years. The neo-liberal agenda is actually part of an altogether deeper historical swell.

I think that it is important that we recognise this structural inheritance. It means not simply tinkering with the existing mechanisms, nor entertaining utopic alternatives seemingly unsullied by this history. We have to engage in a critical appropriation, carried out in a clear-eyed fashion. This means to consider the category of race, the practices of racism, and the othering and subjection of ‘foreign’ bodies, as central to the making of the modern, liberal world. We are used to considering the enslavement and extermination of dark-skinned bodies as something that occurred far away in the periphery of the world: in the plantations, plains and deserts of North America, in the Congo and the Caribbean, in Latin America and around the Indian Ocean, in mythical Wests and Orients.

Understanding the centrality of slavery and slaughter to the moral economy of Occidental modernity means not simply to seek to confront and undo the liberal polity that was central to the bio-politics of empire and understandings of ‘progress’. There is now the need to change the narrative, both to uncouple it from its institutional site in the nation and accompanying trans-national bodies such as the European Union and the International Monetary Fund and re-connect it to an emerging commons willing to promote a diverse lexicon of rights and belonging.

The city and the emerging commons

Perhaps, as Jacques Derrida once suggested, it is the embedded, lived-in, place of the city, rather than the abstract space of the nation or Europe, that provides the laboratory for a more extensive and constantly negotiated becoming of democracy. The blocking mechanisms of state and European legislation often come to be blunted and diverted in the textures and issues of daily urban life. If the racialising procedures of power are exercised by the law, the realities of street life and cultural proximities often lead to gaps, negotiations and compromise. It is precisely here that the capitalist organisation and disarticulation of the ‘social’ is most effectively challenged. It is here that the structural and structuring logic of the neo-liberal political economy, seeking to colonise not simply the present but also the future, is most sharply exposed in its daily details and dangers. It is also here that oppositional counter narratives, refusals, revolts and deviations acquire substance, a life, and flesh. And it is here that the historical and cultural interruption proposed by the stranger, the migrant and the regularly negated and despised ‘other’ acquires critical force, reminding us of a mutable and multiple modernity that is never merely ‘ours’ to administer and define.

The game is on

All of this suggests an altogether more complicated understanding of European ‘identity’. The return of negated voices and bodies from the historical and colonial archive cracks open today’s politics of cultural belonging that sees in the question of identity an object to be claimed, defended or else negated and destroyed. Considered in terms of a continual interleaving of historical processes that stretch from the local to the planetary, we are confronted with an altogether more open, fluid and inconclusive scenario. The game is still on, and the history that was thought to have concluded and been safely relegated to the past can return in any moment to undo the pretensions of the present.

The homogeneity sought by a Romantic understanding of the ‘people’, and subsequently disseminated in the pedagogical and political practices of modern nationalism, is continually challenged by the refusal to conform to a single measure of the world, by those who refuse or fail to ‘fit in’.  The tyranny of a fixed, stable identity is promoted and policed by a liberal politics that requires the individualised promotion of property and wealth in order to participate in the polis; otherwise you are to be othered and subordinated to the universal legislation of this Occidental syntax.  From the direct cruelty of crude racism to sophisticated property rights and patent laws, Frantz Fanon’s words still ring true: ‘what divides this world is first and foremost what species, what race one belongs to… You are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich’ (The Wretched of the Earth).

Moving Europe elsewhere

One last example of this dangerous foreclosure, of this refusal to engage with the negated past that comes to meet us from the future. The contemporary migrant, invariably declared illegal (despite Article 13 of the Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 that guaranteed the right to migrate: a right not recognised by any actual European state) is far more than a socio-economical phenomenon. He and she expose the wound of a colonial past that is disseminated in the cities, streets, sights and sounds of the ex-imperial metropolis. This interruption in the theology of ‘progress’, this cut across the time of modernity by other times, by the times of others, transforms a European space into an altogether deeper and more extensive series of possible places.

Irreducible to a single narration or authority, this constellation invades the present with a new historical urgency. Here inherited understandings of belonging – to what, where, and how? – are exposed to negotiation. The usual choice is to retreat into the old faiths, close the doors, turn one’s back on the storm. However, to choose a sense of understanding in terms of a historical process that has to be negotiated again and again forces us to move beyond tired political formulae and the dead weight of consensual histories.

One of the histories that the contemporary migrant often carries with him or her is that of Islam and the so-called return of religion in the seemingly secular west. That this secularism is itself the liberal version of Christian theology and redemption, transformed into market terms, opens up an avenue that I have no time to explore here. Islam, however, is also about the return of a religion that is consistently part of Europe’s history for at least twelve centuries: from Portugal, Spain and Sicily to the Balkans. If Islam (like Judaism) has largely been denied, marginalised and ‘othered’, this perhaps also reveals the singularity of Christianity as another name for Occidental modernity.

To recognise, and then unpack, this past – the ambivalence of its liberalism and its purported secularism, the negated centrality of racism, slavery and the structural subordination of the non-European world to a property owning democracy – is not to cancel the present but is precisely to re-narrate it in order to propose a very different Europe. It is not simply a question of moving on, but rather of moving elsewhere. 


This article forms part of the dossier, “Albanian Reflections on Europe and Otherness”. It was first presented in an international debate in Tirana, Albania, on February 19, 2013, organized by the Albanian Media Institute and Soros Foundation, in partnership with the Erste Foundation, openDemocracy, and the Forum of Concerned Citizens of Europe.    

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