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Étienne Balibar: The relations Greece and Europe need (Part II)

Miri Davidson 2 July 2015

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Below is the second part of Grèce Hebdo’s exclusive interview with Étienne Balibar (read the first part here), May 2015. Translated by David Broder.

You adopt Badiou’s term ‘zoning’ [zonage], in order to talk about one part of Europe that’s transforming another part into an internal post-colony. What form does this zoning currently take?

I have a lot of political disagreements with Badiou, because he doesn’t understand an awful lot about politics. Though he is truly brilliant, from a political point of view he lives in a world that isn’t the real world: he lives in the world of communist ideas. We agree on a lot of things, for example the need to organise a movement in solidarity with Greece. That’s something that’s much too weak at the moment, and that’s why two years ago we worked together in an initiative called ‘Sauvons le peuple grec’ [‘Let’s save the Greek people’]. Then Badiou brought out this idea of ‘zoning’, and I thought that it was a good one. What’s interesting about this notion is its insight that in Europe at the moment we can see phenomena of domination and exploitation that are at root the same as those that have developed elsewhere in the world, and that have a lot of affinity with neocolonialism, a new form of colonial or semi-colonial dependency in the world today. And that is something shocking, because the idea of Europe is that we have colonised others, but not ourselves. That said, we need to be cautious on that score: I think that there are people in Greece who believe that German imperialism is currently trying to colonise Greece. I wouldn’t describe it in those terms, I think that’s very dangerous ideologically. Even if I think that Germany is on the side of domination and Greece is on the other side, not all Greeks are: the Greek arms manufacturers aren’t on the other side, and I don’t know where the Church fits in. So there is a relation of domination that features quasi-colonial aspects. And like all quasi-colonial phenomena, there are zones of prosperity and poverty, zones of construction and of destruction. There are zones where the unemployment rate goes beyond a certain level – and not just in Greece, but also in Spain and parts of France etc. – in which the living conditions for a whole section of the population are being destroyed. The liquidation of public services and certain assets in the form of forced privatisations at ridiculously low prices takes on dimensions of both destruction and dispossession, and these have neocolonial aspects. It is also worth noting that Germany has demographic problems and it absolutely needs young – and if possible skilled – labour power, and now that means Spaniards and Greeks rather than Turks. In principle I think the fact that young people, workers and students, are circulating around the European countries is an excellent thing, something we’d wish for and which is a factor that could help build Europe. But if that only means a one-way ‘brain drain’ from the peripheral regions toward the central ones, then what we have is a para-colonial framework. That’s what ‘zoning’ is. So vive Badiou – here we’ve got something from him that’s worth hanging on to.

Why hasn’t there been a ‘Syriza effect’ on Europe?

Because the conditions are different. I’d love the Greeks to tell me how the Greeks see Syriza’s origins and, above all, its potential: that’s the question, if Syriza will last, if its gamble will pay off. Whether it will govern the country – turning around how things are developing domestically – and thus establish a power relation with Europe’s ruling structures. Nothing has been won, and that’s the law of politics, nothing is ever achieved in advance. Syriza’s existence is a great thing, and not only for Europe, but it’s not in the starting blocks, ready to set off; rather, it’s already backed into a corner. That’s why the discussions here are so marvellous. The Greek government’s fate does not only hang on the question of whether the Commission will agree to hand over the rest of its loan or not, but also on the question of whether the bourgeois and the capitalists are going to place their money in Greek banks any more. After the elections, the Greek population thought that class and national interests converged. But there is another side to the problem. […]

Social democracy is a political corpse in Europe today, it doesn’t exist any more… Of course, it does exist in the Nordic countries, but that’s a whole different story. François Hollande is a representative of what I call the grand coalition leading Europe today. ‘Grand coalition’ is a German term, with a long history in contemporary Federal Germany, and indeed at the moment the country is governed by a collation of the conservatives and the social democrats. And more generally, at the level of political forces, Europe itself is led by a grand coalition of this kind. The problem in France, as compared to Greece where you have Golden Dawn and also ANEL – which some of us find troubling – is that we have the Front National, and also, while it’s not the same thing, there’s the neo-fascists in Italy […] so we’re turning toward a far-right populism.

In 2010 you said that ‘Europe is a dead political project' and you said that ‘we need something like a European populism’. Could you elaborate on this concept, in light of the Greek government’s negotiations with the European institutions?

Well, I said that a long time ago, it was intended as a provocation that was needed in order to wake people up. When I said that ‘Europe is a dead political project’ I also meant that we urgently need to revive it. I made a few corrections after I said that. ‘European populism’ was a sort of provocation, an antinomic notion that combined two things that don’t easily go hand-in-hand, and indeed clash with one another. Why? Because ‘populism’ is charged with all sorts of different meanings. And the history of this term is very different from one place to the next: it isn’t the same thing in America as it is in Europe. If for example Obama announced that he wanted to regulate the banking system, he would then become a populist (there are people to his left, for example, who call him a populist), but it’s not the same as Chávez in Venezuela, Kirchner in Argentina or Le Pen in France. Its dominant meaning in Europe today, the one that I was referring to, is the one that associates populism with nationalism. And again, I wouldn’t put all nationalisms in the same basket. What I want to explain at the conference tomorrow [5 May 2015] is that there is an internal tension between its democratic aspect – simply the idea that ordinary people, the people mainly made up of workers, the poor etc. must have their say on their own political affairs, which is less and less the case in contemporary politics – and, on the other hand, the idea that national sovereignty is an absolute, or, even worse than that, that it has some sort of purity, that it is the people’s supreme value. So there is a choice between approaches that prioritise either the democratic or the national dimension. Those are the stakes when we talk about populism in Europe today. That’s why we can’t only talk about populism on the extremes of the political chessboard. I want to stress that the political centre is itself very populist. So to get back to your question, when I say that ‘we need something like a European populism’, I mean that we need a radical democratic impulse, opposed to the informal control of the political system by finance and technocrats, and opposed to any post-democratic federalism that peoples and leaders can merely hold in check. As against such tendencies, we need a strong democratic push. Of course this has national roots, but these must be conceived more as a way of radically democratising the construction of Europe itself. That would mean a ‘populism’ that’s different to what is generally called ‘populism’. And when I realised that there was some ambiguity surrounding what I’d said, I tried to correct myself, saying that this would be a ‘counter-populism’. I don’t know how to put that in Greek, because the term ‘anti-populism’ suggests that populism is negative, whereas ‘counter-populism’ is an alternative to populism. But even if we call it a European ‘populism’ or ‘counter-populism’, ultimately it means more democracy and more popular participation in Europe’s political debates. It means more citizenship, with citizens more actively involved than ever.

Filed under: greece, interviews