Etienne Balibar's political philosophy is dense with ideas, and more inventive than he seems to get credit for in some of the discussions that I’ve seen of his work online. Granted, online discussions about political philosophy either get incoherent and horrifying really fast, or else devolve into dogmatic idiocy (read the comment thread) even faster.
|From a protest for migrants' rights at the fences of the Calais|
border fence of France and Britain, December 2014. News
of a reinforced British border wall has inflamed a lot of
public opinion, both for and against. Looking at the racism
that's consumed Europe in the last few years, it looks as
though there's no hope that any non-white person can
live a peaceful life in Europe anymore.
Thats the tendency anyway.
I hope when I talk about it, I at least seem reasonably intelligent, because a lot of this blog is discussing research for a book that I’m not yet sure how I’m going to publish. Most philosophy books are published through academic presses, given very high prices, and marketed only to university libraries.
That was the case with Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity, despite my ambition to craft more accessible prose. That book suffers a little from a tension of style – I wrote it as my doctoral dissertation, but published it to reach a mass market. So its argument is very sequential, but filled with borderline necessary secondary literature citations to have proven my ability to do intense research.
I'm taking a very different approach to Utopias. I described its style to my friend The Mac once as influenced by Walter Benjamin – drawing concepts from primary philosophical, historical, anthropological, and fictional sources to a complex examination of what it really means to change society.
That theme is where Etienne Balibar and I have much in common. The particular purpose of the essays in We, The People of Europe? is examining different aspects of the crossroads European politics and culture faced at the turn of the 21st century. It spoke to the problems and struggles of its time.
Nationalism, cosmopolitanism, and European identity. The problem of refugees, migrants, and the Europeans rejected from Europe like Russians and Serbs. How to understand and adapt to the legacies of the Cold War. The possibilities of a pan-European social movement. All these are the specific philosophical issues facing Europe at the time.
|Nigel Farage, the face of modern British nationalism,|
whose campaign helped push British people into voting
for leaving the European Union to keep foreign people out.
As I've written elsewhere, it can be a very depressing experience reading this book. At the time, all the worst tendencies of Europe’s development as a Union – nationalism, the erosion of the social democratic contract, the exclusion of migrants – were all in a very nascent form.
It was possible, when Balibar was writing this book, to stop these destructive movements and build a new model of democracy that can overcome the institutional violence of the nation-state. That’s markedly less likely now.
But Balibar and I share a common conception of what politics can do, when it’s acting at its greatest intensity of power. Throughout these essays, Balibar talks about how Europe of the 21st century needs a social movement that can constitute a new European identity.
This isn't an identity in the sense of a nationhood for all of Europe. I mean a new way for European people to think about who and what they are – a social movement that can constitute a wholly new model of subjectivity. It would transform every aspect of European people’s personalities. Just as the bourgeois revolution did in that continent, as the ongoing democratic revolutions of the United States did for Americans.
I wrote at the end of Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity, long before I had even read Balibar, that the environmentalist movement could only succeed wholly when its society could develop a new way for people to conceive of who and what they were.
When humanity figured out how to live in the world as an ecological subjectivity, we would think more systematically, better understand how our individual perspective, our ego, fit into the larger systems and processes that we were part of. And how this self-conception and knowledge framework would be just as instinctual and natural to everyday thinking as our ordinary egotism is today.
|Lord Alfred Dubs, a child refugee to Britain from the|
war-torn lands of continental Europe, has become one
of the few voices of conscience and justice, speaking of
the ethical necessity of providing sanctuary to those
fleeing war across Africa and the Middle East.
I looked at the global ecological crisis and saw that this radical regeneration of human subjectivity was required for the task. Balibar looked at the social conflicts of nascent nationalism and the resurgence of racism that, within two decades, would set Europe into turmoil again. Radical regeneration of human subjectivity is the solution here too.
There are no easy answers. What kind of solidarity could arise that could remain authentic from the UK to Finland to Poland to Germany to Greece to Portugal – and even to Russia? Given the current scale of the migration and refugee crisis, we need to bring Turkey, Libya, and Syria into that fold as well.
No community of solidarity exists across all these cultures and polities. The new subjectivity has to emerge from such a community. But just because the community doesn’t exist, that doesn’t mean it can’t exist.
Communities are constituted through common life, and the most intense cultural departures are constituted through common struggles. Forging democratic civilization in Europe today means redefining community and sovereignty itself.
Over the next few posts, I want to explore some of what will be needed for that new vision of humanity to emerge and overcome the horrors we’re inflicting on ourselves.