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The States of the Earth: An Ecological and Racial History of Secularization by Mohamed Amer Meziane

France imagines itself to be the cradle of secular republicanism from which modernity was launched in 1789. But as Mohammed Amer Meziane shows in his new book, The States of the Earth: An Ecological and Racial History of Secularizationthe Republic has been infused with colonial empire since Napoleon Bonaparte. Etienne Balibar argues that with this concept of "imperiality," Meziane has ruptured France's national myths.

Etienne Balibar 9 April 2024

The States of the Earth: An Ecological and Racial History of Secularization by Mohamed Amer Meziane

The first thing I would like to say, although it may seem somewhat conventional, is that The States of the Earth by Mohamed Amer Meziane is a very important book. It is impressive in its erudition and knowledge, but also in its impetus, strength, and commitment. It is a considerable work, which is not content simply to assemble knowledge and refine concepts but intends to defend a thesis and thus open up a discussion. This discussion has already begun, in France and in the United States, and it will continue.[1] This book is impressive, provocative in the best sense of the word, but it is also, from my point of view, debatable and problematic. Readers will understand that, for me, this category is not a restrictive one, but an affirmative one. Being problematic is what is truly philosophical work calls for. Philosophical work does not settle a question once and for all; on the contrary, it provides a means of refounding and shifting problems.


After the decolonial

What strikes one in the wake of rereading and reflection is that this book is not purely and simply a continuation of postcolonial or decolonial studies. Some of the references come, naturally, from these fields of study. Also, one of the book’s main inventions, the concept of imperiality, has an essential bearing on all the questions raised by these over the last few decades. Amer Meziane has sought both to revive this discussion and to take this field of research in a new direction by displacing it. In his book, this shift draws on two explicit and central points of support. The first concerns the specificity – but also the role of driving force and model – of French colonisation in the general history of modern imperialism. While it is absurd to assert that postcolonial studies are purely and simply the product of an Anglo-American (or Anglo-Hispano-American) point of view on the world, there are, nonetheless, a number of questions that were initially posed from this origin. National singularities were then introduced within a framework that had already been drawn up. I know of no one within this school of thought who has given such importance to Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition and its long-term consequences. Mohamed Amer Meziane is the first, or at least one of the very first, to study it in such a systematic way. No one has asked the question he poses, not only about the racialisation of religion but also about the prior construction of the category of ‘religion’ as one of the paths of racialisation in the history of modernity.


Rethinking the Anthropocene

The discussion between Mohamed Amer Meziane and myself began some time ago, not on the basis of an earlier version of the book, but on the basis of writings, texts and analyses that have evolved considerably since then. This was when I came across questions of imperiality, the influence of Saint-Simonianism in the formation of French universalist and republican ideology, and the term ‘religion’ as a specific means of racialisation in addition to colour, culture, or biology. These are extraordinary dimensions of this book and of Amer Meziane’s work. But there were no fossil fuels, no fossil states, no discussion of the Anthropocene in this development, and even less of the Secularocene. My initial reaction to these new elements was one of surprise and scepticism. Although I tend to adopt the position of advocates of the Capitalocene, I don’t think we can do without the category of Anthropocene, which has the longest historical reach. But I do agree that we need to question not human civilisation or human action in general, but, more specifically, the effects of the capitalist mode of production and, in particular, its destructive effects linked to the dynamics of resource exploitation. The other reason is political, but equally important: discourse on the Anthropocene does not lead to any effective measures in the immediate political sphere. If we fail to target capitalism, it is clear that nothing will resolve the environmental crisis or change the course of current ‘development’ based on extractivism. At the same time, we have to agree that capitalism is far too general a category, and I think that this is partly what Amer Meziane is saying. Basically, he argues that capitalism cannot function without ideology, that nothing can be explained by capitalism unless we are able to bring in the ideology that helps to drive the enterprises of capitalists and colonisers. And he calls this ideology ‘secularisation’.

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From this point of view, the example of the Saint-Simonians is particularly interesting and revealing, as is that of all the steamboat and railway builders that Meziane focuses on. In so doing, he draws attention to the very particular type of rationalist ideology that drove colonisation and the mining industry. The material ‘underworld’ goes together with a project of demystification, disenchantment and the fight against obscurantism. It’s in the hidden corners of the earth that we need to look for the battlefields in the fight against obscurantism! I think we have to accept this new thesis as true. It has illustrious precedents. I am thinking of Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism which, transposed into the language of Mohamed Amer Meziane, becomes ‘The Politics of Secularisation and the Power of Capitalism’.


A new concept: imperiality

But I have not yet stated what seems to me to be indisputable and even extraordinary. I think that imperiality is a category we will no longer be able to do without. Naturally, it will give rise to all sorts of discussions about the legacy of the Roman Empire: what is the spectre of empire? What kind of sovereignty does it imply? Does it work in the same way in all empires, French, American and so on? All this is open to discussion, but only if we start by agreeing to take seriously the category that Amer Meziane introduces, and to see that imperiality is not the same thing as empire. This is the second element I would like to mention.

This element also exercises an enormous influence, at least so I hope. It is set out in Chapter 3 of Meziane’s book: ‘Race and the Unconvertible’. This concerns the importance of Saint-Simonianism, the change in direction of French colonisation in Algeria, but also the application in West Africa of methods which had been envisaged by the Saint-Simonian colonists for Algeria. All this is a matter for discussion and exchange of information with historians. But, whatever the possible empirical objections, the root of the problem lies elsewhere.

And on this point too, not only do I give credit to Mohamed Amer Meziane, but I am quite convinced by his argument. This is his questioning of the way in which we have become accustomed, in France in particular, through the teaching of history that we have received, to representing to ourselves the relationship between the political regimes of French modernity, because what we have been inculcated with is part of republican ideology and has, of course, the greatest relationship with secularism. These things are almost indissociable. It’s the version that was manufactured by the triumphant republic after 1870. It was also, not by chance, the great moment of the second French colonisation, the moment of Jules Ferry, secular education and colonisation. We have been taught that political normality, from the point of view of human rights and citizens’ rights, is nothing other than the Republic. And the Republic has enemies or adversaries who periodically raise their heads (as between 1940 and 1945), and who, in the final analysis, are equivalent even if they do not have the same ‘popular’ basis or the same historical genealogy: namely the Ancien Régime, the monarchy and the Empire.

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Marx is an interesting predecessor from this point of view. In the aftermath of the Commune, Marx wrote in black and white that what the Republic actually instituted was the continuation of the Bonapartist Second Empire in another form. This Republic was imperial, and it did nothing to abolish the political institutions that had been put in place by the successive imperial regimes: state centralisation, militarism, the functioning of the state apparatus that the revolution would have to dismantle. But colonisation does not play an explicit role in Marx’s diagnosis. This is where Meziane’s originality lies: in asserting that what the Empire fundamentally passed on to the Republic was precisely colonialism and colonisation. Naturally, ideologies evolve, and institutions are reshaped. But what comes from the Empire does not disappear, precisely because it comes from the Empire before the Empire, that is to say before Napoleon III and already from the time of Bonaparte and the Egyptian expedition. In other words, the Republic has always been imperial. It still is, and more than ever. This is a crucial point. It means rewriting, from top to bottom, the pedagogical principles according to which we still teach the history of the 19th and 20th centuries, including that of De Gaulle. Mohamed Amer Meziane is right to bring back to centre stage what had been marginalised in this history. The link between French republican secularism, on the one hand, and its colonial policy towards indigenous peoples, on the other, fruitfully suggests that the common thread running through this history is by no means the Republic resisting its ‘enemies’ from within. Rather, it is the French colonial nation that oscillates, according to a number of historical vicissitudes and tragedies, between two possible forms of political regime. They have both reigned: sometimes the Empire, sometimes the Republic. The French state is, therefore, always a form of mixture or interpenetration of Empire and Republic. This is the thesis set out in the book. It is highly topical at a time when republican attempts are once again being made to preserve the increasingly fragile ‘garden’ of Françafrique. I argued with Immanuel Wallerstein in Race, Nation, Class and in Citizen Subject that we could not understand how French citizenship was constructed if we did not at the same time ask ourselves what status was conferred on the indigenous subjects of the colonial empire. The two institutions are correlated. I have maintained ever since that the French nation, like other Western nations though in a different way, is constructed as an imperial or colonising nation. But I had never been led to maintain what I believe Amer Meziane is suggesting to his reader: the idea that the (colonial) Empire and the Republic are two sides of the same story.


Translated by David Fernbach


[1] Note the review of the book by Jean Baubérot, a specialist in secularism in France, in La Vie des idées, and that of Sylvain Piron in En Attendant Nadeau. There was also a discussion of the book at Columbia University with Ann Laura Stoler, Souleymane Bachir Diagne and myself. This piece was originally published here:

The States of the Earth

The States of the Earth

While industrial states competed to colonize Asia and Africa in the nineteenth century, conversion to Christianity was replaced by a civilizing mission. This new secular impetus strode hand in hand...

Filed under: anthropocene, anti-imperialism, article-author-etienne-balibar, author-balibar-etienne, decolonization, ecology, imperialism