Our European incapacity

Published on openDemocreacy, by Etienne Balibar, May 16, 2011.

If we are to articulate a ‘politics of hope’ in contemporary Europe, then we must revisit such problematic concepts as ‘populism’, ‘democracy’ and ‘Europe’, formulating a new language that can register the fact that the coexistence of an antidemocratic Europe, and an anti-European exploitation of fears and frustrations, are two sides of the same coin.

To write about xenophobia in contemporary Europe – and especially to try and uncover the enigmatic path that would take us from the desolate shores of an ‘intolerant Europe’, whose tendencies appear increasingly self-destructive, to the more encouraging suggestions of a “new politics of hope” (as our editors formulate it in their letter of invitation) is not exactly an easy task in the current conjuncture. 

This is not because we lack the necessary imagination or intellectual resolve, but because the more we think about it, the more we become aware that the path is intrinsically difficult to find: it could be effective only if we could bring together contradictory exigencies. This is more than utopian, since a ‘utopia’ is precisely what a ‘politics of hope’ is about and what it requires, in the sense of delineating the objectives and values which “concerned citizens” are striving to promote. We may find this in the Open Letter to Europe of Ash Amin and his colleagues: “Living with Diversity” (which I completely endorse). This certainly does not prevent us from thinking about conditions, forces, material and cultural interests. The difficulty becomes infinitely greater, however, when we try and define a “politics of hope” in the very terms of the figures, tendencies, conflicts, movements of the situation that it should bring to an end. Because we are not even sure that we know or understand the realities that we want to transform, in spite of the fact that we are part of it. We rely on analogies, and these analogies are in fact highly problematic.

Let me take one example, which indeed I do not choose at random. Increasingly in Europe one hears it said (not only on the Left, or among intellectual militants) that the current situation is reminiscent of the great political and moral crisis of the 1930’s. This is more than a way of adding pathos or dramatizing the discourse: there must be an element of intelligibility, or at least a question impossible to ignore in the fact that a major disruption of the financial and economic system, precipitating masses into joblessness and insecurity (albeit not equally across nations, even in the European space), is accompanied by the increasing disrepute of political institutions throughout Europe, and a growing influence of xenophobic ideas, feelings, and parties. Respectable political analysts argue for the heuristic function of this analogy, and they also, obviously, mean it as a serious warning not to underestimate the tragic evolution that would become possible if the genuine causes and dimensions of these phenomena (and their conjunction) were not taken into account. I agree, especially because I am alarmed by the naiveté of such mantras as “history does not repeat itself” or “Europe has learnt the lessons of its tragic past” (witness the construction of the European Union…) … //

… Contrary to their own myth ‘nations’ are not eternal substances or entities which subsist by inertia. They are fragile constructions which must be permanently recreated through the achievement of institutional equilibria, therefore the setting of new relations of forces between their ‘classes’, or ‘organic parties’. And they are also periodically threatened with losing this condition of possibility, either from inside or from outside, through wars and civil wars in the broadest sense. Now my hypothesis would be the following: inasmuch as European construction has essentially become an instrument of neo-liberal globalization, in which financial imperatives of short-term profitability have the upper hand, and as a consequence, increasingly using its own framework as a field of competition among territories and populations – the State has shifted from a protective function to a function of destruction of its own civil society: not in the ‘totalitarian’ form, but in the ‘utilitarian’ form, which is hardly less violent. I am tempted to call this in Derridian terms a shift to “auto-immunity”. Pushed to an extreme, this would mean that the State increasingly works within society not as a set of institutions representing and mediating (even in a coercive or inegalitarian manner) communications and processes of recognition among citizens, but as a ‘foreign body’ which destroys the social bonds that it is supposed to protect – something which at a fantastic level at least must not be without its relationship to the obsession with an invasion by ‘foreign bodies’ that riddles the current ideologies of the nation.

The state function of protection is indeed never an absolute guarantee. Furthermore it is never without its coercive, normative, and exclusionary aspects, since it is performed by what, in other places, I have called a national-social state, where ‘social citizenship’ and ‘social rights’ are collectively conquered, but also bureaucratically administered and riddled with all sorts of discrimination. But still, there is a dramatic contrast between such a bureaucratic administration of citizenship and a situation in which – while still pretending to be the protector of its citizens in the old sense that legitimized its sovereignty, but also claiming that this protection is transferred to the European Union itself, or to even more global and transnational instances of ‘governance’ – the nation state works to privatize public services, or subject them to the rules of management and accountability which hold for capitalist corporations, or actively contributes to dismantling the educational system by imposing market imperatives on learning and transferring the cultural missions of schools and colleges to massively commercialized television networks – a process which again cannot be entirely divorced from the development of populism and xenophobia, since the cultivation of ethnic stereotypes is a central orientation of these networks, together with the injection of standardized products of commercial entertainment.

I am aware that this description, if it is one, is in itself extremely brutal. The reality is one of conflicts between opposite tendencies unequally developed in different countries, but with an increasing disadvantage for the institutions of solidarity facing the forces of utilitarianism, which can count on the double support of the market and the state, or become pushed toward privatization from within the public sphere itself. There is an extremely perverse game at work here, for which Europe appears as a justification and an objective, which, for many Europeans, seems to leave them with only one choice: either call for the suppression or the exclusion of every foreigner, every ‘body’ that is ‘foreign’ or alien, or different, in order to compensate imaginarily for the cruelty of the protector, or idealize the protector’s function in the hope of exclusively benefiting from the inclusiveness of its restored services.

This “hope”, it seems to me, is indeed a despair. I would therefore agree that we need a politics of hope, in a more authentic, less self-destructive sense – based on a conjunction of forces within and across borders. But such a politics must construct its forces, its goals, its language, entirely anew – taking as a negative criterion the reality of the contradictions which are revealed by the coexistence of an antidemocratic Europe, and an anti-European exploitation of fears and frustrations, which are largely two sides of the same culture. It must therefore reconstruct Europe as a federation of original and diverse nations, leaving aside the myth of their State-sovereignty, but mutually enhancing their power to create and collaborate. I say “it”, in an impersonal manner: but this is our responsibility, before it becomes “hopefully” our capacity. (full long text).

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