As Europe is provincialized: a reply to Etienne Balibar

Europe can make sense only insofar as it becomes a space which makes it easier to get rid of the fear that the crisis is disseminating within the social fabric, a space where it is more viable to struggle against poverty, exploitation, and discrimination.

Yes, Étienne Balibar is right: we need “immediately, to contemplate a restructuring of the Union for the purpose of building another Europe”. We should be grateful to him both for the emphasis on “immediate” and for the emphasis on “restructuring”. There is a need to act now in Europe, and this action cannot take for granted the existence of the political forces that need to be mobilized, the social coalitions capable of supporting such a mobilization, intellectual energies to be activated, the institutional channels and frameworks to be addressed.

What is needed on each of these levels is a founding campaign, capable of transforming existing forces and institutions, creating new ones, channeling social struggles and “indignation” towards “this purpose of building another Europe” – one capable of producing new political languages and cultural imaginaries. A founding or constituent campaign, as I say: which is not the same thing as a campaign for a “constituent assembly” in Europe, for which all the conditions are so far absent. What I have in mind is a decade-long project, capable of radically reinventing at the same time the European space, its place in a tumultuously changing world, its institutions, and its citizenship on the basis of a new conjunction of freedom and equality. Should I add that such a reinvention must at the same time include a reinvention of the left in Europe? If the left has a future in this part of the world, I am convinced that this future needs to be constructed on the continental scale.

We should be aware of the global dimension of the challenges which currently confront us here in Europe. We can be sure that the shattering of old spatial hierarchies and the emergence of new geographies of capitalist development and accumulation figure prominently among the tendencies underlying the global economic crisis. New regionalisms and new patterns of multilateralism are taking shape in many parts of the world, a kind of “continental drift” (to use the geological image employed by Russell Banks in his famous 1985 novel of the same title) is redrawing the world. Within these processes, Europe is becoming more and more provincialized, although not necessarily in the sense suggested by Dipesh Chakrabarty in his important book of 2000.

This is not a bad thing in itself. Quite the opposite: but to glean the political opportunities inherent in this provincialization of Europe we need political action and government on a continental scale. We need a political Europe. Without this we can only look forward to some islands of wealth and riches within a sea of poverty and destitution – something we are already starting to experience in the south of our continent. Moreover it is only on such a continental scale that it is possible to imagine the construction of a favourable force relationship with financial capital, whose predominance within contemporary capitalism is at the root of the crisis in political mediation (in democracy, if you prefer to put it this way) that is so apparent in Europe nowadays.

This is not the place to fully explore the implications of this kind of “geopolitical” gaze on the European question (which must for instance lead to the discussion of a new basis for relations between Europe and the US). But it is important to keep in mind the relevance of the topics briefly evoked here for any critical investigation of the current European predicament. In the remainder of this short response, however, I want to focus on something else. Speaking of a founding campaign means taking into account the necessity of a rupture, in order to pave the way to “another Europe”.

I think it is important to be aware of the extent to which in the wake of the global crisis a rupture has already been produced within the core framework of the European institutions. I belong to those people who since the mid-1990s have tried to work “within and against” the emerging concept of European citizenship, specifically where the movements and struggles of migration were concerned. While I do not want to dismiss that experience, which also had its theoretical moments in an attempt to challenge the borders of the traditional notion of citizenship, it is impossible not to take stock of the dramatic transformations European citizenship has undergone in recent years. Both from the point of view of “belonging” and from the point of view of its institutional architecture we are confronted with a deep crisis in European citizenship itself.

To put it bluntly, this concept has been stripped of any “positive” and “progressive” meaning in the eyes of a vast majority of the European population, particularly in the south of the continent, where it is widely identified with the continued application of austerity measures. At the same time, as many of its jurists have noted, the whole project of “integration through law”, the trademark of European integration, has been confronted with its own limits and contradictions in recent years. The balance between a legal supra-nationalism and the political bargaining processes underlying that project has been destabilized: legal processes have steadily developed an autonomous dynamics, entering into new alliances with European bureaucratic machineries and interest groups.

What has emerged from this is the crystallization of a new assemblage of power capable of dictating standards and norms that increasingly restrict the field of action of any politics. With the Fiscal Compact and the European Stability Mechanism - the straitjacket of monetary stability, fiscal discipline and austerity programmes became further entrenched, consolidating the position (and the independence) of the European Central Bank within this assemblage of power.

It is difficult to imagine another political Europe without emphasizing at the same time the necessity to break with this straitjacket and this assemblage of power. Such phrases as “democratic default” (G.D. Majone), “preemption of democracy” (F. Scharpf), the sharpening of the “elitist” and “post-democratic” nature of the EU (W. Streeck), are widely circulating in the debate about the European crisis as Europeans attempt to grasp its political implications.

If a dialectics between the “insurrectional” and “constitutional” dimensions of politics, to couch it in the terms of a famous essay by Étienne Balibar, is inscribed within the very concept of modern democracy, what can be said is that in Europe today (both at the national and at the EU level), this dialectics seems to be interrupted. What results from this interruption is a division that runs through the concepts of politics and democracy. Their contentious and “insurrectional” moments persist within social struggles and movements, but they do not find any kind of “feedback” in the governmental and “constitutional” instances. What remains at the national level of the “contentious democracy” (again citing Balibar) underlying the development of the democratic welfare state is currently being dismantled or placed under duress, while no substitute of it is in sight at the European level. Whereas many scholars and commentators were convinced that the Maastricht Treaty would lay the basis precisely for the reconstruction of welfare systems, it is a matter of political realism to state that nothing like this has in fact happened.

Needless to say, this topic should figure prominently in the “founding campaign” that I was evoking at the beginning of this article. And it is not possible to imagine a reconstruction of welfare systems at the European level according to the blueprint of the “historical” welfare state. Too much has changed, and radically changed, in the structure of capitalism and in the composition of what we can call with Marx - contemporary “living labour”. Think only of the debates surrounding the issue of precarity, of the new patterns of migration, of the transformation of the family structure for that matter. Social struggles and movements around these and related issues are spread across the continent. Any campaign for “another Europe” is not conceivable without their intensification and increasing coordination.

“It is the scandalous failure of the European left that it has neglected to identify and define European solidarity”, Bo Stråth writes, commenting upon Balibar’s article. I couldn’t agree more. What I would like to add is that this “failure” is deeply connected with the myopia of the left in the face of the deep transformations undergone by labour, accompanied by the emerging claims of a new social composition. Europe can make sense only insofar as it becomes a space within which these claims can be articulated in a political project capable of being at the same time radical and effective. If it becomes a space where it is more viable to struggle against poverty, exploitation, and discrimination – which makes it easier to get rid of the fear that the crisis is disseminating within the social fabric. To struggle against the “resurgence of nationalism” and the rise of new forms of fascism in Europe is first and foremost to struggle to eradicate this fear.

When I speak of a “founding campaign” I am not thinking of a single, centrally organized campaign. What is needed is rather the building up of a “foundational spirit” through a multiplicity of initiatives, articulated on different levels and played out in different locations and forums (from the street to the European Parliament, if you wish). This is why, optimistically maybe, I am writing about a decade-long project. I am perfectly aware of the fact that the prospects for such a project do not look particularly encouraging at this moment in time. It relies, again to cite Balibar, on a “whole series of ‘ifs’, each one of which is difficult, and overall success highly improbable”. This is only a reminder of the difficulty of the task which confronts us: but nothing that can be said detracts from its realistic necessity. At the end of the day we might somehow ironically remember that it was Max Weber, the political realist, who wrote that throughout history, without “reaching out for the impossible” the possible would never have been attained.

About the author

Sandro Mezzadra teaches political theory at the University of Bologna.