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writing in the conjuncture Arrowvol 3 no 1 contents
About borderlands Volume 3 NUmber 1, 2004


Writing in the Conjuncture

Étienne Balibar, We, the People of Europe? Reflections on Transnational Citizenship (Princeton UP, 2004)

Jason Read
University of Southern Maine


1. As a collection of essays, presentations and articles, Etienne Balibar's We, the People of Europe? covers a wide variety of political and social questions: the unification of Europe, sovereignty and citizenship in the age of globalization, the politics of violence in an age of ethnic cleansing, and the (at the time impending) war in Iraq. Even a passing glance at this apparent diversity, however, reveals a unity in that these are very much topics of the present, bound together by an immediate relevance or even pressing urgency. Of course the contemporary nature of these reflections may pass without notice, or simply be summed up by such phrases as "a noted French philosopher and theorist reflects upon current events." But given that Balibar, like Louis Althusser, stresses the fact that all philosophical writing is "never independent of specific conjunctures," which is to say that all philosophy, whatever its claim to universality or consideration of eternal questions is determined in part by its political, economic, and cultural conditions, the discussion of current events is not an aside, a temporary digression from eternal questions, but essential to philosophical activity (1995: 144). Thus, prior to any consideration of the thematic concerns and arguments that link and relate these different essays, it makes sense to begin any consideration of Balibar's book from this specific question of how it engages, and thus defines, the existing conjuncture. Which is to say that it is a matter of first addressing it as a specific kind of "philosophical practice," of a way of doing philosophy, before engaging its specific philosophical assertions and arguments. (Although it should be noted that the terms "before" and "after" are out of place here, since they suggest a strict division, and demarcation, as if it would be possible to separate "practice" and "statement" along the lines of form and content.)

2. The terms "conjuncture" and "philosophical" or "theoretical" "practice," if they are recognized at all, will be recognized as belonging to the heyday of "Althusserian" or "structuralist" Marxism of the late '60s and early '70s. Such terms would appear to be out of sync with a book that is oriented towards the present. Two conclusions follow from this, one clarifying what is meant by conjuncture, the other revealing something of Balibar's philosophical practice. A conjuncture is not a zeitgeist, "spirit," dominant ideology or even episteme . It is not homogenous or self-identical, but rather is riddled with contradictions and conflicts that reflect its historical tension. This perhaps especially true for political philosophy, which is more or less explicitly concerned with relating concepts and interpretations such as citizen, democracy or even sovereignty, which date from a long series of historical transformations to current conditions. Political philosophy is a reflection of any period's non-identity to itself: as it relates ancient concepts burdened with unrealized possibilities to an ever-changing present. Second, Balibar's own effort to respond to the pressing demands of the present is not to be confused with that of his contemporaries who in response to events recent (9/11) and not so recent (the collapse of the Soviet Union) have abandoned all vocabularies and discourses other than that of liberal markets and liberal democracies or of the apocalyptic battle of good versus evil. Thinking in a conjuncture is not the same as utilizing the catch phrases and buzzwords of a given moment. In fact, the concepts that are perhaps most useful in making sense of the moment are those that are considered to be out of sync with it. We, the People of Europe? could be productively read as a reinvestigation of some overlooked concepts and schools of thought: the list would include not only the idea of "conjuncture," and "structural causality," but also the work of Carl Schmitt. (Although it is beyond the scope of this review to consider the latter.)

3. In the writings of Althusser, Balibar and others associated with the terms of "Structural Marxism," the idea of the conjuncture plays a role that would appear at first glance to be primarily exegetical. The idea of the conjuncture, of the historical and political conditions, informs Althusser and Balibar's interpretations of Marx, Montesquieu, Spinoza, Machiavelli, etc., in which the traces of historical conflict are revealed to be at work in the very articulation of their writing. Given the fact that every philosopher writes in relation to a conjuncture, those who wrestle with "eternal questions" as much as those who respond to a revolutionary instance, the question that remains is "What happens when the insistence on the conjuncture becomes not just the basic condition for the interpretation of texts but the explicit goal of writing?" (Which is another way of asking "What it that makes "materialist philosophy" materialist?") In the late seventies Althusser argued that this insistence on the "heteronomy" of philosophical practice, the recognition that philosophy struggles with questions that are provoked and determined by economic, social, and political conflict is the ultimate philosophical lesson of Marx's famous topography of base and superstructure. "The measure of Marx's materialism is less the materialist content of his theory that the acute, practical consciousness of the conditions, forms and limits within which these ideas can become active" (1990: 275). For Althusser (at least in this phase of his career) Marxism did not offer a new philosophy, a new way of understanding the world, based upon the laws of the dialectic, the concepts of labor, or praxis, but a new practice of philosophy, a new way of doing philosophy that reflects its heteronomy. Balibar's recent work can be understood as an attempt to put to practice this idea, which Althusser called for but did not demonstrate. As Balibar argues in the opening lines of We, the People of Europe? with respect to the underlying method of the book:

This method could be called "clinical": it combines the combines the epistemological interrogation of the speculative categories that we use in political philosophy (such as borders and territories, state, community and "public" structures, citizenship and sovereignty, rights and norms, violence and civility) with a consistent affirmation that only singular forces, unpredictable events, and dialectic evolutions actually shape history (2004: viii)

The terms and concepts of political thought are no longer "proper" to philosophy which is left to squabble over their proper normative content and then wait for the world to act accordingly, nor are they reduced to merely descriptive categories, which can be empirically verified. Rather, political philosophy is situated between the normative and the descriptive, between the "ought" and the "is," drawing its vision of a better world from the existing tensions and possibilities of the present.

4. For Balibar the formation of the European Union is a moment laden with such possibilities and dangers. It is a historical moment situated between two tendencies: on the one is what Balibar calls a new form of "apartheid," a massive division between the rights granted to nationals of member countries and those of non-member countries, the ethnic minorities, immigrés, extracommunatari, and Ausläunders , who are included economically, but are excluded politically, and, on the other, the possibility of a reinvention the very idea of sovereignty, citizenship, and political belonging. As Balibar argues, Europe must either become "more democratic" by confronting and resolving such issues as the question of borders, which remains a "non-democratic condition" of democracy, or risk losing its legitimacy and its ability to address social conflict. While such a formulation is based upon verifiable facts and tendencies: the rise of far right parties in Europe, the question of sans-papiers, anxiety over cultural and religious identity, not to mention the fact of the European Union itself, which embodies a new form of constitution, political identity, and sovereignty, it does not follow self-evidently from them. Left to themselves the various facts, events, and conditions which support the book's central theses are just that, a series of facts and events that could be used to support a variety of theses (everything from the decline of the nation in the age of globalization to the "clash of civilizations"). A philosophical intervention into this conjuncture, one which is aimed at realizing one tendency, in this case the "democratization" of Europe, cannot simply enumerate the existing conditions and possibilities but must articulate a new understanding of the present and of politics.

5. At the center of this new conception is Balibar's argument regarding the relationship between the economic and social transformations (such as the often noted globalization) and changes in ideologies and concepts of political community. This is in some way the classic problem of the base and superstructure, as well as the less well-known but equally pertinent problem of "structural causality." As Balibar writes:

But the economic and administrative functions of nation-states, as they are defined in an unequal world market, only represent half of what is necessary for understanding the nation as social "form" or "formation". But understanding halfway is the same as not understanding at all, if it is true, as I would like to suggest here, that the "law" of history is indirect action or action at a distance. The determining factor, the cause is always at work on the other scene - that is, it intervenes through the mediation of its opposite. Such is the general form of the "ruse of reason" (which is every bit as much the ruse of unreason): economic effects never themselves have economic causes, no more than symbolic effects have symbolic or ideological causes. But the cause, or the determination of the efficacy of the ideological causes, on account of the fact that a given ideological force, a given symbolic structure doe not remain without historical effects, can only be economic, just as only ideological "causes" or "structures" can account for the fact that economic forces or interests have a given social effect (2004: 19).

As much as this problem revisits and rearticulates methods of historical explanation that are generally considered to be out of date (tying together in one dense paragraph Hegel's "ruse of reason", Marx's base and superstructure, and Althusser's "absent cause") it also contains a kernel of a theory of the nation and of nationalism that is articulated throughout Balibar's book. The nation, and with it nationalism, has either been overlooked by various forms of critical thinking - most notably by Marxism, which as Balibar argues, reflecting on the history of communism in Europe, "[in f]ailing to comprehend nationalism … found itself 'nationalized,' from one end of the continent to the other" (2004: 91) - or not taken seriously as a dimension of political and social life.

6. As Balibar argues nations and nationalism are generally grasped along a continuum that posits "good" nations, which have transcended their excessive attachment to place or ethnic belonging to become only specific instances of universal ideas of "freedom" or "liberty", to "bad" nations, which are burdened by particularistic identities (1991: 47). Not only is the dividing line between good and bad, or irrationalism, notoriously difficult to draw in any coherent way (that is, beyond any ideology in which same feelings, ideals, or actions such as dying for one's country are labeled either "nationalism" or "patriotism" depending on who expresses them), but the very idea that one's own nation has transcended nationalism is itself a kind of nationalism (2004: 15). (Although Balibar does not say so in his book, which includes a final essay written on the Iraq war, the contemporary situation in the U.S., in which the United States is presented as the exemplar of the universal values of freedom and democracy, would fit this latter model.) Against this thoroughly ambiguous moralizing discourse which is continually dividing between "good" and "bad" nations, Balibar argues for a strong interpretation of the "nation form" taking seriously the extent to which it structures all of our categories of thought and action, our comprehension of ourselves as individuals, and thus considering to what extent we are a "national being" (homo nationalis) as well as a social being (animale sociale) or economic being (homo oeconomicus) (2004: 12).

7. To return to the schema of causality cited above, the "nation form" occupies a privileged place, given that "nations" are often situated with respect to both the administration of economic conditions and symbolic representations of belonging and identity. Moreover, it is through the nation that these causes intersect and transform each other, " a way for economic forces to determine symbolic effects and vice versa." (2004: 21). The "nation" is at once a particular social form - entailing particular conditions of labor, life, and health - and a political or ideological form - entailing a particular idea or ideal of the citizen as subject. The irreducibility and instability of these two dimensions, social and political, constitutes much of the difficulty history of the nation since at least the French revolution in Europe, which has struggled over the question of "social citizenship" (2004: 164). The nation is not, however, just the point of intersection, or articulation, between the two causalities, economic and ideological (or imaginary), which determine each other without ever becoming identical. Or, more to the point, such a formulation does not explain why the nation is to some extent constitutive of individual and collective identity. The nation also operates and legislates over the most basic dimensions of human existence: language, in the form of public education, and genealogy in terms of legislating particular forms of family, as well as the significant passages of life and death (2004: 20). These quotidian dimensions of existence form the basis of not only a particular "national community" but also the human community, or more precisely they explain the blurring between the national and the human in that they delineate the divisions beyond which it is difficult to consider the other as human. This is what Balibar calls "anthropological difference"; that is, as a difference without which humanity itself is unthinkable but which cannot be drawn in a stable or objective fashion, without remainder or residue: examples of this would include sexual difference, as well as the division of labor, and humanity between the ignorant and the educated or barbarous and civilized (2004: 240). Thus, Balibar carries out an analysis of the nation that is at once "structural" focusing on the overlapping effects of different relations (economic, political, and cultural) and "anthropological", emphasizing that these effects are actualized in so far as they become part of the quotidian dimensions of human existence, becoming intertwined with the very definition of the human. On a theoretical level, Balibar's understanding of the nation can be understood to not only expand the terrain of structural analysis, but to overcome the apparent gap thought to separate the analysis of structures from the lived experience of daily life.

8. While the theoretical and philosophical insights of We, the People of Europe? are strong, most notably in advancing and developing such concepts as "conjuncture" and "structural causality," it would be wrong to limit any discussion of the book to its philosophical dimension without discussing its political arguments. The most obvious of these concerns its argument, outlined above, regarding the particular tension in the present regarding the European Union. Given that the problem confronting the European Union, the conjunction of economic inclusion and political exclusion of migrant workers or "illegals" (to add the American terms) is by no means limited to Europe, Balibar's warning regarding a new form of Apartheid extends beyond Europe. It might be possible to say that the problems that Europe is facing, of how to rearticulate the relationship between social, economic, and political belonging beyond the nation, is a problem that is affecting the world. It is perhaps another way of considering, and shedding light on, what is meant by globalization (2004: 105). Moreover, given the extent to which the nation, or the nation form, determines our thought and understanding of the world, it is important to argue that this rearticulation cannot be taken lightly. It is not as if one can shake off hundreds of years of history which have interlaced ethnic, linguistic, cultural, and political belonging through the nation form overnight, and leap into some sort of global or cosmopolitan future. This rearticulation will have to take seriously these intersections, and in doing so situate itself within, rather than above, the unstable and ambiguous ground of ideological belonging. Thus, as much as the recognition that subjectivity is itself constituted through various structures -economic, political, and ideological - political action is only possible in and through subjectivity.

9. This brings us to a final point that is perhaps at once political and philosophical. Given the turn to the question of the constitution of political subjectivity in contemporary philosophy, a turn which either privileges the political over the social or economic, as the case of Jacques Rancière's discussion of "the people," or reduces the political to the social or economic, as is perhaps the case of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's concept of the "multitude" (which in many respects is directly deduced from transformations of labor), Balibar's structural consideration of the nation suggests that political subjectivities (whether repressive or revolutionary) are always constituted at the unstable point of intersection of economic conditions, ideological representations, and quotidian habits. This intersection is nothing other than the conjuncture, which is the unstable ground of both political action and philosophy. Ultimately, then for those of us far from the borders of Europe, We, the People of Europe? may be most productively read not as a statement about a given political problem (although it does have much to say about that), but as an advance in how to think and write in relation to the conjuncture.


Jason Read is an Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southern Maine. He is the author of The Micro-Politics of Capital: Marx and the Prehistory of the Present, as well as journal articles published in Rethinking Marxism, Pli, Crossings, and Borderlands. Email:


Althusser, Louis (1990). 'Is it Simple to be Marxist in Philosophy?', trans. Graham Lock, in Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists and Other Essays , London: Verso, 203-240.

Balibar, Étienne (1995). 'The Infinite Contradiction', trans. Jean-Marc Poisson with Jacques Lezra, in Lezra 1995, 142-164.

Balibar, Étienne (2004). We, the People of Europe? Reflections on Transnational Citizenship , trans. James Swenson, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Balibar, Étienne and Immanuel Wallerstein (1991). Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities , London: Verso.

Lezra, Jacques (1995). Depositions: Althusser, Balibar, Macherey, and the Labor of Reading , New Haven: Yale University Press (Yale French Studies, No. 88).

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