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Two roads for Europe: an interview with Étienne Balibar

Miri Davidson10 August 2015

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Étienne Balibar reflects on two "radically incompatible" possibilities for Europe's future: neoliberalism and inevitable disintegration, or a democratic alternative that "gives a new meaning to European federalism". This interview was originally published in the July 2015 issue of ContreTemps. Translated by David Broder

ContreTemps: In an article in Le Monde diplomatique [1] a little
over a year ago you said that Europe is at ‘a fork in the road, and the end point is still yet to be determined’. Today the situation revolving around the Greek question has fully confirmed this prognostic. Does this current state of affairs allow us to specify the terms of this alternative?

Étienne Balibar: the word bifurcation is a way of saying that Europe has two possible paths before it, on the economic, political and social levels. They are two European roads, in the sense that beyond all the different specificities this is a choice that concerns Europe as a whole, and not just this or that country. Indeed that’s what Alexis Tsipras said in his piece published in Le Monde [2].

These are two radically incompatible paths. One of them, the neoliberal road, is the dominant one, the triumphant, institutionalised one. The other, that of the alternative to neoliberalism, is in large measure a virtual one. Moreover, it is difficult to define it: we can’t call it socialist, and we are forced to define it in a negative sense, as resistance to neoliberalism, seeking to protect, defend or reconstitute the European social model – and without doubt there’s a lot to be said on that score, but neoliberalism is devoted to dismantling it. Hence the idea that committing to this second road would mean a leap into the unknown – the utopian option…

But if it’s a matter of looking for the positive characteristics of this second road, then I see two essential ones. Firstly, that this is a question of a democratic Europe. As against the current Europe, which is profoundly anti-democratic, on the social, representative and institutional terrains. Habermas coined the expression post-democratischer Executiv-Foederalismus, that is, a federalism not of the legislature and of the people, but of the executive and of the technocracy – hence its post-democratic character. And also that it is an alternative Europe. It would be difficult to call it alterglobalist, which would mean pre-empting the watchwords and the strategy of the World Social Forums – which, as it happens, I do sympathise with.

So I would call it alterglobalising, in order to indicate that the possibility of rebuilding a social model cannot be realised independently of the power relations and the orientations of the world economy. And as such, that we have to find the means to bear influence at this level, and stop weakly being dragged along by the onrush of liberal globalisation.

When we present things like that, isn’t the game already lost in advance?

To say that this road is today a virtual one does not mean to say that no one is thinking about it, or that no force is susceptible to taking it forward, but to note that these bases of support are atomised at the national level. This is a situation that demands indispensible reflection on what it is that makes it so difficult for progressive interests to converge across Europe’s national borders. Of course, the whole European construction is designed to facilitate the transnationalisation of the dominant interests and to prevent the transnationalisation of popular resistances. There are handicaps from the outset – questions of language, of different cultural and political traditions – combined with questions of programmes and priorities; and for these to be clarified there have to be in-depth discussions, which these realities inherited from the past make more difficult.

But even so, we should not be absolutely pessimistic. Situations of this type can evolve rapidly. From this point of view the signals coming from Southern Europe are very important. That is, on condition – and this is one of the keys to the situation – that they spread to the North!

I am convinced – and I know that not everyone shares this belief – that paradoxically this second road, even if it is a virtual one, is the road by which it will be possible to build a European ensemble. This is the road of European unity, of European Union itself, so to say, as long as we are not identifying this with any single institutional system. After all, the other road – neoliberalism – will lead to the disaggregation of Europe’s current political and cultural system.

The most evident failure, which everyone can see, whether they are gladdened or saddened by it, is the imbalance between the social conditions and prospects of Southern and Northern Europe. In the Le Monde diplomatique article I slightly provocatively advanced the idea that from the viewpoint of the broad sweep of European history, from the end of the Second World War to today, we get the feeling that we have passed from a division between a capitalist Western Europe and a socialist East to a Europe divided along a longitudinal line, running between North and South. Of course, the reality is more complex, on account of the relations of clientelism and dependency that exist, and above all because throughout Europe a fierce competition among regions, territories and nations is mounting. The European project, which was meant to produce a rapprochement in the historic goals and interests of the peoples of Europe, is now fragmenting them and setting them against each other. We see nationalism regaining strength everywhere, sometimes in violent forms. This, in any event, is incompatible with the imperatives of European construction.

Is there not a tendency on the Left – including on the radical Left – to underestimate the threat posed by the rise of nationalism in Europe?

The question of nationalism is a very complex one. I did some work on it at the end of the 1980s, in a longue durée perspective, and this led me to publish the book Race, Nation, Class together with Immanuel Wallerstein. My concern, here, was to make a necessary contribution to unblocking this question, drawing on the theoretical imaginary of the Marxist tradition. I was driven by the conviction that there is a very profound connection between the question of nationalism and the question of racism, if not an equals sign. I think that this is more of a burning question than ever – and it’s far from becoming simpler.

So it is worth placing this problem at the forefront of our concerns, with a view to finding the language and the dialectical approach that will allow us to escape the false alternative between, on the one hand, a demand to dissolve nations in a European or global cosmopolitanism, and, on the other hand, the presentation of national identities as poles of resistance to globalisation and the technocratic construction of Europe. I wouldn’t go as far as proposing the term alternationalism, which is rather too crude to be useful, but I do think that we have to address Europe’s national questions in a simultaneously realistic and intelligent manner.

In Greece, Syriza made an alliance with a nationalist party of the Right, ANEL, in order to build a parliamentary majority. I’ll admit that I found that troubling, and even regrettable, at the same time as I understood that it doubtless wouldn’t have been possible to do otherwise. It remains the case that Syriza is certainly right to draw on Greek patriotic sentiment, which is one of the bases of the unity of public opinion behind the government, because Greeks are being besieged by the Troika and the neoliberal system. Without doubt, on this question Syriza is not only acting tactically, but also out of conviction. At the same time, Alexis Tsipras and Syriza are confirming their desire to avoid isolationism, and presenting their policy as responding to not only the interest of the Greek people, but also that of all the peoples of Europe. That is the right position. Even if it is inevitable that there will be some excesses, we can’t say that there is any ambiguity on their part. However, we should note that these ambiguities do exist on the radical Left in other countries. Among other examples, we need only mention the debate around Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s recent book [on Germany].

For my part, I am convinced that it is mistaken to think that there is any possibility of building a democratic force in Europe on the basis of nationalism, even if it is an anti-capitalist one. Trying to compete with far-Right populism on its own terrain is a dangerous trap. What we need to create is a new internationalism!

The situation demands that we seek to explain the causes of the rebirth of nationalism among the popular classes of Europe. This is a very serious problem, and in France, with the Front National, we are well placed to see just how much that is the case.

Without thinking that the battle is already lost, we have to admit that there are deep roots to the split that has emerged among the French popular classes. The working class – not the ‘French’ working class in the sense of its ethnic origins, but such as it emerged from industrialisation and the social conquests of the twentieth century – is faced with a continual degradation of its living standards and of its younger generation’s future prospects, and it also feels that its dignity is under attack. The workers in deindustrialised regions have the feeling that they are now considered useless: a sentiment that cannot but produce great bitterness. That does not automatically lead to seeing immigrants as enemies, since we still have the effect of very strong class solidarities linked to a labour movement mode of organisation; but even this latter is today losing its footing, as neoliberal capitalism works to systematically dismantle these solidarities. Suddenly the French people – in the sense of the popular classes – is divided and riven by internal conflicts that tend to concern the terrain of identity, culture, or even religion, in a very approximate sense. It is a slope that it will be difficult to climb back up again.

The current situation in Greece is driving debates on the Eurozone, and they revolve around the possibility of it leaving the Euro, which some see as inevitable, or even indispensible, for opening up a path other than that of austerity and social retreat…

The problem is not posed in Greece the same way as in other countries. The countries of the Eurozone are faced with a vicious circle: leaving the Eurozone would mean a more fragile position, more exposed to the globalised financial system, and there is nothing to say that such an exit would provide a better position for confronting this. Better a common solidarity, of course on the condition that there is a collective policy of concerted development.

We have to ask what the deeper logic is of austerity policies in the Eurozone. People tell us that these are being imposed by Germany and correspond to the interests of its new economic power. That is doubtless partly true. But we have to ask if there isn’t a part of European capitalism as a whole that, having profited from European construction, is currently detaching itself from it in order to use Europe as a captive market but without taking an interest in its concerted development. 

Neo-Keynesian economists who are critical of dogmatic neoliberalism, such as Piketty, Aglietta, Krugman and Stiglitz, have explained that the single currency cannot be viable without a common European budget and a common social and economic policy. Which would suppose that countries agree to a leap toward greater federalism. The popular classes would certainly reject this; and the ruling classes do not want it either, since that would suppose the prospect of a social Europe, which was buried when the euro was established.

So we must simultaneously change economic direction and challenge the post-democratic federalism that I have just mentioned. Hence the unforeseeable consequences that we have been speaking about: the current policy leads us into a brick wall, and we can fear very severe clashes if the nationalisms that have effectively been encouraged run untamed. On the other hand, the alternative is the unknown, in terms of who would be the leading powers and what stages we would have to go through.  

The perspectives that you propose include an advance toward greater federalism, but they give it a very specific content….

I, like others, have evolved my thinking on this question. I have always thought that this is not a matter of applying the recipes from the existing federalisms – of the United States, of Switzerland, of Belgium… – on a larger scale. Not only because we’re dealing with different political systems, but more fundamentally because unlike these federalisms, which are the federalisms of nation-states whose internal constitutions have a federal form, the European construction is not that of a super nation-state. From this point of view, I am interested in the reflections of the juridical field, for example that by Olivier Beaud and others, who go back to the source of the nineteenth-century differentiation between the idea of federalism and that of national sovereignty in the classical sense of the term.

So it is not a matter of applying federal recipes, since we have to invent a form of federalism that has no real historical precedents, one that could correspond to this new stage in the evolution of our societies: the passage from the more or less complete independence of nation-states to an interdependence and a shared sovereignty. The possible contents could be different.

The right approach – though this alone is insufficient – would be one where democratic representation exists at all the levels where there are powers on which the population’s fate depends. There is – to differing degrees of development in each country – a local and a national level of power, of the crystallisation of power relations in society. There is also a supranational level, which for us fundamentally means the European one. Far beyond the current limited prerogatives of the European Parliament, there needs to be an expression and a constituent power of a democratic type at this supra-national level. That amounts to saying that we have to envisage not a confederation of states, but a complete political construction – that of the peoples of Europe and their citizens. 

That in turn compels us to reflect on the limits of democracy within nation-states. I have used a very general formula: there is no possibility of building a federal Europe unless it is more democratic than nation-states, and not less than what we have at the moment. Effectively it needs popular backing, which would presuppose that citizens saw the common institutions as offering an increase in their power to intervene and influence their conditions of existence, rather than, to paraphrase Marx and Rousseau before him, a delegation of this power to people who get elected every five or six years to trample on the interests of those who gave them a mandate.

Of course, that is anything but easy. But to me it seems to be of uncontestable logic.

The other aspect of the national question goes beyond institutions and traditions, and concerns cultural identities. People have instrumentalised this idea of identity in a reactionary manner, with a continuum running from the Front National to Manuel Valls via Sarkozy’s initiatives when he was president. Given that fact, we have come to think of it as a conservative or even fascistic theme.

Even if it means venturing onto some rather shaky ground, I would say that this is too simple a way of thinking about this question. Some sociologists have proposed the term identitarian insecurity or cultural insecurity. Right away we see the coded character of the language that some people might use to whip up the ideas of a European civilisation under threat, the danger of a counter-colonisation, and of an invasion (we could remark in passing that this last term provides an implicit recognition that colonialism meant the invasion of Africa by Europeans!)… So many nauseating and dangerous themes that do not correspond to any honest analysis. But we might think that there does exist a serious question behind all this, relating to what we could call a cultural ecology, on account of the way in which today’s globalisation is impoverishing, flattening out, and homogenising populations’ cultural traditions. I don’t draw from this that we have to hark back to the past and mobilise to preserve the essentialised cultural identities that are supposedly meant to be endangered species. But we have to admit that cultural diversity is itself an important value, which leads us to think that Europe does have to take into account these problems associated with globalisation. Not in order to respond to it – as is today the case in the technocratic initiatives in defence of heritage – independently of addressing the problems linked to modern communication and education systems, but in order to reflect on the means that would allow nations great and small to hold together.

That is how we could give new meaning to European federalism, in the sense of simultaneously more power and less centralisation than in the case of nation-states, and with a dimension that is not purely institutional but also cultural.

Do migration movements present Europe with a considerable new challenge?

It is indeed an important challenge. The character of this question is now changing.

In the period of the sans-papiers mobilisations, with their emblematic moment of [the occupation in 1996 of Paris’s Church of] St. Bernard, the question presented a dual dimension – a class and postcolonial dimension, with the two being intimately linked. At that time migrants were the new shape of French capitalism’s exploitation of the low-price labour power that the former colonial empire had provided it with. The dramatic circumstances that we saw in the second half of the twentieth century, in particular the Algerian war and all that followed – the military régime, the civil war, etc – offered French capitalism the possibility of using these postcolonial population movements in order to create a category of workers denied their rights, by making them either illegal or semi-citizens who could be exploited in a profitable matter. Then another phenomenon emerged on this basis, which the late Véronique De Rudder analysed as the ethnicisation of social relations and the racialisation of part of the French population on account of their genealogical stigma. Which led to a significant part of the French population being designated as immigrants, on account of their 'second-' or ‘third-generation’ immigrant background. Thus created the neoracism characteristic of the current French situation.

I said it before: racism is linked to nationalism. The thread running through the history of racism is the exploitation of genealogy, and individuals being shut off from the outside world – or even domestically – on the basis of their heredity. For example the fact that it calls people immigrants because their parents or grandparents came from Algeria or Senegal, which expresses one of the most classic mechanisms for constructing racial discrimination.

There is an ever-present relation to precarity in the measure that the rise of unemployment has been what I have characterised as preferential unemployment. We need only take a look at a map: we can’t be too astonished by the explosions that might sometimes take place when the unemployment rate hits 40 percent of the population or more, striking neighbourhoods where there is a concentration of so-called ‘immigrant’-origin youth.

Today the situation is changing. The factors that I just mentioned still exist, and they are cumulative, but the migrations across the Mediterranean are not of a postcolonial order: rather, they speak to the reality of war. During the first interventions in the Middle East the American strategists theorised this new type of wars in terms of low-intensity conflicts. With their tens or hundreds of thousands of dead, such a euphemism can only be a cruel joke!

These were not civil wars, or foreign wars, or wars among rival imperialisms, or religious wars, but a little of all of these things at once; and they are wars that leave an oil stain… and ones that are often overdetermined by other factors, like the degradation of the environment or the unbalancing of the climate… So we have thus entered into the régime of the violent destabilisation of an entire region of the world. And Europe is not isolated from this. Not only on account of its geographical proximity, but because for centuries – all the more so today – Europe has overflowed onto the southern shore of the Mediterranean, while the populations originating from that shore have long made their homes in Europe.

We’re invited to keep quiet about this, but we can’t ignore the moral question at issue, here. Europe – Schengen-area Europe, with France in the lead – is deploying a repressive arsenal to block the influx of migrants, at the same time as congratulating itself on the profitable deals allowing Rafales [fighter planes] and weapons to be sold to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, heralded as a means of getting the economy back in gear. So we directly feed the factors that are uprooting populations, and we can see no way of handling the migration question other than by shutting the borders. You can’t help but say that this situation is not only hypocritical, but downright revolting.

So we have to understand that while the old factors haven’t disappeared, new ones have emerged. For the first time since the Second World War, we find ourselves – at the world scale, and at the European level – faced with a problem that is simultaneously humanitarian, geopolitical, biopolitical (as some would say) and economic.

The European countries’ attitude, faced with this major problem, is to shut their eyes: let’s not talk about it, let’s not pose the question in all its breadth in front of public opinion… And let’s mobilise the old repressive arsenal, even though we know that it can never be enough: block the borders, send these luckless folk over to our neighbours, bomb the smugglers’ boats… A shortsighted policy, this! Once again, it is an ‘anti-European’ policy, in the sense that it damages the future interests of our continent.

Interview by Francis Sitel


[1] Étienne Balibar, ‘Un nouvel élan, mais pour quelle Europe?’, in Le Monde diplomatique, March 2014

[2] ‘Non à une zone euro à deux vitesses’, Le Monde, 2 June 2015, English translation at

- See more from Étienne Balibar here.

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