Étienne Balibar. La proposition de l’égaliberté. Presses Universitaires de France, April 2010.

Étienne Balibar. Violence et civilité. Éditions Galilée, March 2010.

Étienne Balibar. Citoyen sujet. Presses Universitaires de France, September 2011.

At a debate in southern California in 2007, the French philosopher Alain Badiou informed the French philosopher Étienne Balibar that he, Balibar, was a reformist. “And you, monsieur,” Balibar replied, “are a theologian.”

Both of these epithets have more than a grain of truth to them. Both also say something, alas, about why Badiou, Rancière, Žižek, and Hardt and Negri all sell better in America than Balibar. Reform sounds like a chore. But left-wing theology! That has an occult, revolutionary ring to it. In fact much of what passes for left-wing thinking in a country without an organized left is daydreams of the end of the world featuring mysterious, all-powerful messiahs — think of Hardt and Negri’s “multitude.” Žižek and Badiou operate at a higher level, but they too are drawn to scenarios in which Everything Is Suddenly and Utterly Changed. “Customers who bought these items have also bought Left Behind.”

In most American circles “reformist” is not the fatal put-down it once was in the vicinity of France’s Communist Party, where Balibar did two decades of activism. (Membership in the CP of course created problems for his entry into the US, where he has nevertheless worked off and on for the past two decades.) But in any case it’s not an epithet Balibar applies to himself. If the shoe fits, it’s mostly at the level of style. Badiou, like many of his comrades, is a stylistic theologian: in his Ethics he does not hesitate to describe “Man” as “Immortal.” Balibar can write a forceful manifesto (see last summer’s declaration of solidarity with Greece, which Badiou also signed), but his irresistible attraction to parentheses and qualifications makes his philosophical writing sound reformist. His sentences are forever stopping to give credit to every thinker who might have had some hand in shaping his argument, especially thinkers who are not his ideological allies. Like a crosstown bus, he brakes at every conceptual intersection. Not for him the high road of careening, prophetic self-assertion. And how could it be, given his undisguised belief that existing political institutions are legitimate enough to be worth making demands on — not legitimate, but legitimate enough?

Enoughness of this sort is probably a more useful way of laying out the stakes in this argument than “revolution.” An article in Le Nouvel Observateur in October 2011, marking the French publication of Citoyen sujet, one of three new books by Balibar that are about to appear in English, underlined his precise position in its subhead: revolution and democracy require each other. Democracy may seem uninspiring and even discredited, having failed so spectacularly to rein in capitalism’s entirely predictable disasters. But we have yet to see it revolutionized. And the going alternative seems to be Heidegger’s “only a god can save us.” Among the questions posed by the back-and-forth between Badiou and Balibar is whether revolution has a secular equivalent, or how to make do without its mystic splendor.

As a student of Althusser in the 1960s, Balibar took to heart his master’s desire to detach Marxism from Hegel. Hegel was seen (a bit tendentiously) by Althusser and his disciples as a confident oracle of the End of History; and their aim was, through a close and even reverent reading of Marx’s texts, to expose a mature Marx who had been through an “epistemological rupture,” breaking with his early Hegelian faith, and who by the time he wrote Capital had embraced a more complex and open-ended model of history. History had to be interpreted the way Freud interpreted dreams — as motivated and structured, but with a quotient of randomness and openness to reinterpretation. Seeing history as analogous to dreams risked conceding that Marxism had something in common with wishful fantasy, but Althusser thought it made Marxism more scientific. In at least one sense it did: genuine science accepts the limits of its own knowledge. Balibar, not much interested in scientificity, was clearly enticed from the beginning by modesty about the limits of knowledge. Neither he nor Althusser put it this way, but their shared project might be described as a secularizing of Marxism.

After Stalin, many thinkers were ready to abandon Marxism altogether. For those who wanted to save it — that was the grand but also defensive goal that Althusser announced to his students, Balibar among them, on the first day of the 1965 seminar that was to become Reading Capital — one option was to return to the founding texts of historical materialism and read them afresh, liberated from their decades of service to Party dogma. Like the Protestants of the Reformation, Marxists would get out from under the authority of the Church by appealing to the authority of Scripture. This of course would involve a resacralizing of Marx’s texts — something of an irony for a secularizing project. The secular always seems to need more secularizing.

In this sense, Balibar’s series of studies from the 1980s (some of them collected in English under the title Masses, Classes and Ideas) was indeed secular and even detheologizing, a sort of Nietzschean–Rortyan experiment in thinking Marxism without its god-terms. For example, the concept of ideology went unmentioned in Marx’s Capital, Balibar observed, and this was because Capital had no need of it: if the fetishism of the commodity is working, it will do the job, mistakenly assigned to ideology, of making exploitation look like the breaks of the game. Balibar thus gently encouraged Marxists to make better use of their time than accusing others of false consciousness.

Like ideology, the concept of the proletariat, so prominent in The Communist Manifesto, could also be jettisoned. According to the predictions of the mature Marx, the only class that would come to full political selfhood under the capitalist system is the bourgeoisie. The proletariat names a political potential that could well remain unfulfilled (as it has). This argument had the fortunate result of rendering unnecessary the proletariat’s predicted emergence as a self-conscious revolutionary subject; the usefulness of Marx’s analysis of capital could be demonstrated without it (as it has). Balibar was proposing in effect that Marx offered no providential assurance that things would work out in the end. This was Marxism without a Book of Revelation.

It was a sober perspective, suited to the times. By the 1980s, the center of radical activity had moved away from working-class organizations and toward what came to be called the “new social movements.” Problems of race, gender, and sexuality were generating the most self-conscious, committed, and consequential political subjects. Though economic exploitation remained pretty much what it had been, even its most egregious victims now often thought of themselves first as members of some other category than exploited workers. This story has been told many times, but in very different tones of voice. Democratic pluralists like Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe celebrated the shift: We are finally free from the tyranny of “economic determination in the final instance”! Others were more skeptical. Walter Benn Michaels, for example, accused the celebrants of a conspiracy to aid and abet ever-worsening economic inequality. Balibar placed himself between the two extremes: he was hospitable to the new movements, but in Marxism’s name and in Marxist terms. Or to put this another way, the conceptual work he set about doing in these years was a renovation of the house of Marxism so that it could accommodate those who demanded recognition as well as those who demanded redistribution. This double fidelity was not unique, but it continues to set him apart from many of his peers, Žižek and Badiou among them.

Take Balibar’s much-praised analysis of modern racism. In his half of the volume Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities, a 1988 collaboration with Immanuel Wallerstein, he argued that the causes of racism as a world-scale phenomenon do not lie in class structure but in nationalism, and that in order to understand nationalism, especially in its neo-imperial modes, a Marxist framework remains indispensable. After showing the ways in which nationalism and racism require each other, and that both emerge, with the nation-state, from the inescapable competitiveness of the capitalist world-economy, Balibar glances at where this seemingly implacable argument is heading and hits the “off” switch. The world-economy as we know it is the result of a particular history; it’s not where capitalism had or has to go. It’s not an all-determining deity. Class struggle, in its old sense of the “motor of history,” has “disappeared from the scene”—today, the concept must refer to “a process of transformation without pre-established end.” So what’s a Marxist to do? Plenty. When class antagonisms refuse to arrive at their predicted apocalyptic simplification, we can and must get back to doing politics again. The state has to be seen not as the tool of an already-existing class but rather as a site where class and racial identities are continually being produced — in the schools, for example, and in barriers to immigration.

As with any crossover success, Balibar’s offered grounds on which purists might complain of betrayal. Civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights activists all spoke the language of rights. (This has also been true, though more obliquely, of the antiwar and environmental movements.) By demanding legislative action, these movements acknowledged the legitimacy of the state to make laws and guarantee rights. In the eyes of some, such an acknowledgment, even a tacit one, could only be a right-wing deviation. It’s the liberals, not us, who talk about democracy and human rights. We’re the ones who know that the state is a tool of the capitalist class, right? How is it possible that Balibar lets himself be seen shamelessly keeping company with bourgeois concepts and institutions?

Something like this was no doubt going through Badiou’s mind when he called Balibar a reformist.

Balibar’s putative reformism is well represented in the three books due out this year in English translation: Violence and Civility, Citizen Subject, and The Proposition of Equaliberty. The first expresses an unsurprising preference for civility over violence, though it also does a great deal more. The second tries to recover a full-blooded left-wing concept of political subjecthood from a philosophical history that doesn’t seem to be about politics at all. The third redefines human rights and, in doing so, explains why the rights project is a legitimate concern of the left. All try to reformulate Marxism as an egalitarian impulse without theological guarantees. And yes, all have nice things to say about concepts that are positively valued by mainstream liberalism.

I suspect the problem here for American readers may not be the concepts of democracy and human rights as such, or even the word liberal (which is not yet so firmly established in the US as to be obligatorily shunned by the pure of heart). Skepticism will more likely come from a natural repugnance for the triumphal narrative of America’s unique moral and political greatness. As materials out of which this self-congratulatory narrative is frequently constructed, human rights and democracy will naturally suffer a sort of guilt by association, as will the idea of progress. The rules of this game are familiar: I prove my independence of mind by seeing through the complacent Whiggery all around me. You naively tell me that something somewhere is no longer quite so awful as it used to be. I shake my head in gentle disbelief and reveal to you all the bad stuff you have somehow forgotten about.

There is never any shortage of bad stuff. And yet it doesn’t follow that the job of the left is always and everywhere to harp on it. That would not be an independent thing to do (on the contrary). Nor would it be the authentically left thing to do. The fact that progressive narrative is claimed, exaggerated, and disfigured by liberals does not mean it can be abandoned to them. You have to believe progress is possible in order to get up and try to make some. That’s why they used to call us progressive.

Violence and Civility puts the issue of progress to the test. Violence today, Balibar argues, is as predictable a result of capitalist globalization as inequality. But capitalism is not the only source of violence. Balibar takes upon himself a sort of anthropological responsibility to view violence in human history as a whole, a perspective from which it would be absurd to assume (though it’s been done) that racism and domestic violence and the many other cruelties to which mankind is prone are all effects of a single cause. Focusing on that single cause, Marxism has been incapable of conceiving of an alternative to violence besides wishy-washy liberalism or revolutionary utopia. And this incapacity has meant that whatever steps society has taken to diminish and protect people from racist or sexist attacks are not registered by Marxism. At the risk of sounding like Steven Pinker, author of the myopic The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Balibar puts forward the term “civility” to mark at least the theoretical possibility that collective struggle can subtract from the world some quantity of violence. You cannot be serious in your objections to violence, he argues, unless you recognize that not all violence can be eliminated or converted into something else, and yet still find some way to acknowledge such elimination or conversion when faced with evidence that it has happened.

For many, respect for human rights would of course count as such evidence. Balibar does not join their chorus. The awkward neologism (in French, égaliberté) that gives The Proposition of Equaliberty its title defines a crucial right we do not possess. During the cold war, human rights were largely a weapon of the so-called “free world”: it was assumed that what rights protect is freedom, and freedom is something that “we” have and “they” do not. This was — and has remained — the justification for innumerable wars, covert and not, by “us” on “their” behalf (against some other “them”). So equality has become irrelevant. Balibar’s riposte is that if rights are not serving the cause of equality, both within the nation and among nations, they are not worth getting excited about. But the implication is that rights can in fact be made to serve that cause — and so are very much worth getting excited about. This corollary is not universally admitted.

It is worth comparing these remarks with the much more famous reflections on rights by Jacques Rancière. Rancière appears to be experiencing the same sort of boomlet as Badiou (a recent panel proposed that we “forget Foucault” and “read Rancière”), and one reason for this fashion is clearly his horror of complacency in any form. Though he was one of Balibar’s comrades in Althusser’s seminars, he turned away from Althusser early, embracing a left populism. On Europe Balibar too has come out for populism. Nevertheless their differences remain instructive. Consider Rancière’s now classic 2004 essay “Who Is the Subject of the Rights of Man?” which takes on triumphalism about human rights. Rights, for Rancière, are never a possession; they exist only insofar as they are asserted and actively claimed. This sounds properly bracing. However, it’s self-contradictory. While Rancière stresses the urgency of action, he undermines that action in advance by denying that it will have any lasting effects. If the active claim of rights by one generation can never be passed down to the next generation, if the next generation must always start from nothing, then what is the point of acting in the first place? Rancière sounds like a defender of democracy when he attacks democracy’s attackers, but he asserts (in Hatred of Democracies) that “We do not live in democracies,” and if he means it, then what does he think there is to defend? In spite of Rancière’s indignation, his position is in effect that no successful moves toward equality have ever been made, no territory has ever been occupied, no structural advantage has ever been conferred on those who come after. From his perspective no progress can ever be claimed without a fatal fall into the abyss of complacency. In a kind of frenzy of voluntarism or presentism, the urgency of doing something now makes anything done before disappear, including the establishment of rights, however limited and fragile.

The contrast is clear in Citizen Subject, where Balibar discusses the meaning of anti-imperialism in France during the Algerian struggle for national liberation, which was an early version of metropolitan antiwar militancy. As originally drafted (by Blanchot), the “Manifesto of the 121” supporting French draft resisters was titled “Déclaration sur le droit à l’insoumission,” or “Declaration on the Right of Insubordination.” Balibar underlines the fact that declaration evokes the French Revolution’s “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen” and the tradition that comes out of it. He obviously shares Rancière’s misgivings about triumphalism, but for Balibar these misgivings must be weighed against the demonstrated efficacy of the tradition, “the permanence of a revolution that has already been made.” The Declaration was a resource that French protesters against French colonial brutality could and did appeal to. The revolutionary act of declaring rights, Balibar observes elsewhere, “was the anchoring point for the series of claims that, from the morrow of the Declaration, begin to base upon it their claims for the rights of women, of workers, of colonized ‘races’ to be incorporated into citizenship.” There are always good reasons for thinking of rights as yet to be conquered, and that it’s foolish for people to stick only to defending the rights they already possess. Still, it is equally foolish to imagine that like Sisyphus we are forever damned to begin at the beginning, that in the domain of rights there is no such thing as what the French call an acquis — something attained.

In Citizen Subject, Balibar sets out to secularize the concept of the subject. The philosophical critique of the subject had been underway for some time when, at a conference in the late 1980s, Jean-Luc Nancy addressed a strange, perhaps unfair question to Balibar, Blanchot, Derrida, Deleuze, Lyotard, and Rancière: Who comes after the subject? Not what comes after the subject, as one might have expected, but who, as if there already were a character in the wings. Balibar’s instinctive answer, he tells us, was that after the subject comes the citizen. It has taken more than two decades for him to figure out what he meant: what the relation is between the citizen, or the subject seen from the perspective of political theory, and the subject as it was then roundly repudiated by his fellow posthumanist philosophers. To flesh out his answer, Balibar eventually found himself obliged to rewrite a central tradition of Western philosophy from Descartes through Locke, Rousseau, Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche. In this revised history of philosophy, he shows in case after case that the writers most invoked as originators or critics of a godlike, transcendental subject in fact were engaged in a common enterprise of thinking a social, nontranscendent self, the democratic citizen under the contradictory conditions of modernity.

In Balibar’s telling, it is Kant who “discovers” the transcendental subject, then projects it back into Descartes, a mistake that two centuries of subsequent thinkers gladly compounded. This mistake is facilitated by all those who foreground the Cogito ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am” formula of the Discourse on Method at the expense of the Ego sum, ego existo, “I am, I exist” of the Meditations, which does not need thinking in order to ground its certainty of existence. Connecting Descartes’s lesser-known formulation to the Latin translation of the Bible and to the words sum qui sum, ‘“I am that I am,” in the burning-bush episode of Exodus, Balibar underlines the paradox of a communication of the self that is also an enigmatic withdrawal. This does not mean that Descartes takes himself for God, as it might seem; rather, he is accentuating the difference between human existence and God’s existence.. The conclusion is thus the contrary: “I” am (or is) not a God. In other words, “the subject” is not a God, nor is it like one. Balibar is happy to concede that secularism was built out of sacred texts and that a founder of Enlightenment thought like Descartes was a believer. But he does so in order to earn the right to say that in the end religion and Enlightenment are (or can be) different things, demanding different sorts of self.

Taking a second route, Balibar spends a certain amount of time on the translation of key terms among the European philosophical languages, a topic on which he did fascinating detective work for Barbara Cassin’s Dictionary of Untranslatables (forthcoming in English from Princeton). He breaks down “the subject” into the grammatical subject (subjectum) and the political subject (the subjectus, the subject of sovereignty), and traces the confusions between the two. Looking at the French translation of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, he notes the addition of the French “sujet” to expressions that in German were only vague “somethings.” So the (grammatical, everyday) subject acquires an unwarranted (political) claim to sovereignty — a claim then criticized by Lacan, Althusser, and Foucault, among others. The underlying problem Balibar faces here is that if the European Enlightenment believed in a transcendental, godlike subject, as Balibar’s philosophical allies have often suggested, then there’s no substantive difference between secularism and the Christianity it defined itself against. This is exactly the conclusion that has been drawn by thinkers who identify themselves as “postsecular,” a club to which even left-wing atheists like Žižek and Badiou sometimes seem to be applying. Postsecularism plays to an easygoing American relativism: Everything is belief. You respect mine, I’ll respect yours, and no one will ask anyone hard questions. On the other hand — and here is where Žižek and Badiou come in — it also plays to the underlying American fear that all these beliefs are really crap and the One True Annunciation will reveal them as such. Sublunary life is so lost, corrupt, and depraved that redemption or revolution — the two merge into one — must be otherworldly. Again: only a god can save us. Balibar does not enter into direct polemics with this position, but almost everything he writes can be seen as an effort to stop it from taking over common sense.

In the section on Hegel — one moment in a long rapprochement with Hegel, and in a sense the heart of the book — Balibar offers some of his most acute formulations of the idea that you cannot become yourself without becoming part of a We. If We are going to be saved, we will have to do it ourselves, by making ourselves into a We that does not yet exist. Whereas Althusser, like Bataille, sees Hegel as disguising the fact that the Subject-King is in fact a slave, his freedom really a kind of servitude on the model of servitude to God, Balibar’s Hegel remains a hero of rational self-emancipation, though a collective rather than an individualist version. Hegel is also the author of a fabulous one-liner: Ich, das Wir, und Wir, das Ich ist. Another untranslatable, the phrase seems to need articles, definite or indefinite, that are not there in German: “An I that is a We, a We that is an I.” Here again, as with Descartes, Balibar finds a secular philosopher imitating the words of the Bible — in Hegel, the Gospel of John (14:3): Where I am, you shall be.

This is as close as Balibar comes to a secularization of theology. The creation of the right sort of We can offer Me, or Us, something of the self-transcendence that used to be sought in religion. But the We still has to be created, and Balibar offers no guarantee this will happen; it’s something We have to figure out. What he offers is a historical leg up, the reassurance that We are not starting from scratch.

Balibar’s new books will appear in an intellectual landscape where a revolutionary Marxism — at least from a glance at bookstores and syllabi — is still in vogue. Ambivalent as they are about revolution, what kind of reception will these books receive? Why do people read Marxist philosophers anyway?

It would be hard to argue that the fashion for Marxism during the past decade or so has had anything to do with the perceived proximity of revolution or even the strength or militancy of working-class organizations. In the 1960s Marxist writers rode a wave of political energy and hope. That has mostly not been true for the generation that came of age around or after September 11, 2001, which saw inequality and unemployment rising but labor unions and left-wing parties falling. Interest in Marxism makes more sense as a response to the intensified financialization and globalization of capital, with its most revelatory moments in the bursting of the dot-com bubble in 2000–01 and more recently the 2008 financial crisis. It seems worth adding here that the digital revolution, which did for today’s generation something like what the Industrial Revolution did for Marx — prove that dramatic change was possible — helps explain some of the otherwise inexplicable enthusiasm for Hardt and Negri. As Balibar observes, their argument splits apart the Marxist concept of the material base, making much of (digital) technology, which has changed, but leaving out the relations of production, which have not, or at least not for the better. If you want to be a serious materialist, he says, you have to hold onto both.

One consequence of capitalism’s ever-firmer annexation of the global scale and ever-tighter squeezing of the majority’s living standards has been that ordinary domestic politics, especially electoral politics, have come to feel ever more trivial and irrelevant. One need only look at voter turnout, even for elections like 2008, to see that abstention is the one principle in the US that enjoys broad consensus. Under these circumstances, even hard-won battles in the name of race, gender, and sexuality could come to seem a bit beside the point. To Žižek, who routinely gets laughs at the expense of multiculturalism, Balibar no doubt looks too eager to please the “identity” constituencies. To Balibar, Žižek and Badiou no doubt seem to have given up on the idea of speaking to any constituencies — that is, to have given up on the project of politics.

Paradoxical as it may seem, giving up on politics has probably been part of Marxism’s seductiveness for a long time. No one in Balibar’s cohort (Balibar was born in 1942, Badiou in 1937, Rancière in 1940, Žižek in 1949) could have felt confident that as Marxists they came of age at a propitious time for plunging into the class struggle. If 1968 didn’t turn out to be the revolutionary conjuncture, no moment that has followed has come closer. In nonrevolutionary times, the most tempting and pervasive of revisionisms is to give up on changing the world and just interpret it. Nothing supplies serviceable analytic distance like the conviction that you don’t have a horse in this race. Witness the quietism of the New Left Review, the foremost organ of Marxism in the English-speaking world and yet a journal that you go to for searching analysis, not for uplifting news of movements and conflicts. For some years NLR, strongly influenced by Althusser, ostentatiously ignored thinkers in the messianic mode — and bless them for it. But isn’t there a sort of secret alliance between messianism and quietism? How can you stay so coolly detached unless you’re absolutely sure that in the end your day will come?

Balibar wants no part of this alliance. His unwillingness to maintain an authoritative detachment from ongoing political struggles, however insignificant posterity may judge those struggles to be, is of a piece with his lack of certainty that he knows where History is going or who will lead it there. For some readers, this will be frustrating. His distaste for political theology, his premise that even in situations of political urgency there is no excuse for pretending that Marxism has all the answers, has doubtless driven away some who, whether aware of it or not, preferred a system that did have all the answers while also preferring prophets who carry those answers down from the mountain and deliver them in thunder. This seems the most likely reason why, as radical social transformation has reappeared as a historical possibility, as Marxism has reappeared to analyze its chances, and as Americans in search of political enlightenment continue to eavesdrop on exchanges among left-wing French philosophers, many of them Althusser’s former students, Balibar has had less of a hearing than the aging superstars around him.

It is true that Balibar is personally mild, self-deprecating almost to a fault, and does not seek out occasions for newsworthy confrontation. David Rieff observes in a nasty but not inaccurate review of Claude Lanz-mann’s recent memoir that “self-deprecation has never been much prized in French intellectual life.” Things are not so different in the US. For whatever reasons, Balibar’s putative rivals have also largely avoided on-screen collisions with him. I note that Žižek calls Balibar out in two of his books, Revolution at the Gates and The Ticklish Subject — and then, seemingly forgetting he’s thrown down the gauntlet, devotes most of his pages to Badiou. Is Badiou an easier target? If so, what makes Balibar a harder one?

Consider The Idea of Communism (2010), a collection of papers delivered with much fanfare at Birkbeck College in London in 2009, a year or so into the financial crisis, and coedited by the conference organizers, Žižek and Costas Douzinas. Balibar is not included in the collection (he was invited to the conference but was stuck teaching in California) and he is not cited in the index. His omission from the index is especially curious because he is in fact argued with, at least glancingly, in two places that I noticed: on the question, What is politics? and on the question, Should the left claim human rights? In both cases the underlying issue is whether it’s hopelessly naive to engage in politics at the level of the state. Balibar is taken, rightly, as assuming that politics at the level of the state, rights, and law remains a significant obligation. It’s clear that the other speakers disagree, but they don’t feel obliged to spell out why.

Badiou’s contribution to The Idea of Communism openly rejects the enterprise of “ordinary” politics. (Much might be said about the assumption that passing previously unimaginable legislation like the forty-hour workweek or the graduated income tax or the regulation of the financial industry would count as “ordinary.”) Badiou takes as his premise that “ordinary history” is “confined within the State.” By contrast, the kind of history he thinks we need, the kind that is not confined within the State, is history that is faithful to “the Idea.” Badiou takes his argument about “the Idea” from Plato, whose usefulness to the left he seems recklessly eager to promote. But there is something post-Hellenic about the idea of an Idea that floats above ordinary history and beams encouragingly down on those, wherever and whenever they are, who are distressed by life on the ground. This might be what Balibar had in mind when he called Badiou a theologian.

In the same volume Bruno Bosteels describes the disagreements among Badiou, Žižek, Rancière, and Balibar as the “fights of a dysfunctional family.” He doesn’t designate parents and children, but he admits that Lenin had a point when he described the dogmatic antistatism of the holier-than-thou Communists to his left as indicative of “an infantile disorder.” Rather than thinking of the family members as squabbling over who loves Marx most or who was Althusser’s favorite, it seems more generous to imagine them deciding whether to invest their nest egg in political ventures that may or may not pay off. Many of the issues that have filled the news over the past decades — ethnic cleansing, violence against immigrants, Palestinian self-determination, European unity — have not exactly cried out for a Marxist vocabulary. What about, say, Europe?

Europe is a subject that absorbed much of Balibar’s attention in the 1990s and has continued to preoccupy him since — see Politics and the Other Scene (2002) and We, the People of Europe? (2004) as well as a volume now out in France, Europe, crise et fin? His latest pronouncements have been extremely pessimistic. But they emerge against his expectation that the project of European unification, rather than a ploy of the bankers and/or a creative new version of apartheid, might become a site of bottom-up democratic zeal and give birth to a new set of transnational institutions. As Žižek notes disapprovingly, this hopefulness sets Balibar against both the antistatism of the New Left and current cynicism about an emergent transnational politics of any kind.

Balibar’s line on Europe is not that we should make the best of the European institutions we have, poor as their performance has been. Those institutions have failed, he says, definitively. Where he differs from his cohort is in his passionate will to see them replaced — in other words, his refusal to give up on Europe altogether. His critique of “statism without a State”—technocratic top-down solutions to the European crisis without encouragement of broad democratic participation — assumes (against Rancière’s argument in his own essay on French solidarity with Algeria) that democracy is possible not just on a national but a transnational scale. Balibar’s call for a left populism to counter the racist, xenophobic populism that threatens to become the only populism we can recognize in Europe also assumes (here he borrows from Rancière and diverges from Žižek) that racism is not a fixed psychic quantity that cannot be diminished by any conceivable rejiggering of social arrangements. And it assumes (arguing with both Žižek and Badiou) that democracy is a good in itself, and that, stretched and intensified, it might create the sort of European institutions that the victims of European integration (many of them, like the Greeks, still theoretically committed to the European Union) will like a lot better.

Because of its conspicuous failures of late, democracy itself, with its tedious institutions and “ordinary” politics, has been a tempting object of derision. Žižek succumbs to the temptation in The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, despite the fact that he speaks repeatedly of “Communism” and “the dictatorship of the proletariat” and applies these charged words to the Arab Spring, protests in Spain and Greece, Occupy, and other headline-grabbing political events of 2011. “Badiou hit the mark,” he writes in support of his great ally, “with his apparently weird claim that ‘Today, the enemy is not called Empire or Capital. It’s called ‘Democracy.’ It is the ‘democratic illusion,’ the acceptance of democratic procedures as the sole framework for any possible change, that blocks any radical transformation of capitalist relations.”

This sounds plausible until you start to think about it. Did anyone claim that existing political institutions offer the sole framework for change? And wait a moment — is Badiou really calling democracy “the enemy” rather than Capital? OK, what he probably means is not that capitalism is not the enemy but that it hides behind a mask of democracy, which it does. But it doesn’t follow that democratic procedures can never under any circumstance be used to call capitalism to account, or for that matter that a “dictatorship of the proletariat” would be better. Does Žižek really think that when he runs this rather tainted phrase up the flagpole, his readers are going to salute? It seems unlikely. This is not carelessness on Žižek’s part. He’s got to know that what it will most likely do is make people stay in their seats, fully entertained, enjoying the outrageousness rather than marching or leafletting or (God forbid) joining anything. When Žižek proclaims his communism, he is not recruiting. There’s no piety, and there are no strings — and having no strings is part of the magic formula that keeps his audiences so thoroughly entertained. It doesn’t seem coincidental that the phrase “dictatorship of the proletariat” (on which Balibar has also written provocatively, but in 1976) is resuscitated on the same page as an endorsement of Badiou’s argument “against participation in ‘democratic’ voting.”

Žižek says that “we do not get to vote on who owns what.” This too seems plausible, but it happens not to be true. When an earlier generation’s elected officials instituted a graduated income tax, they were deciding to decide what slice of the pie people should own. If we were to elect officials who would institute a much higher tax on capital gains, or a tax on financial transactions, or a 100 percent inheritance tax, that’s what we would have voted in. Ditto if we reinstituted a decent welfare system. Speaking of which, should we really be indifferent, as Žižek recommends, to “the ongoing dismantling of the Welfare State”? This dismantling is not, Žižek says, “the betrayal of a noble idea,” but “a failure that retroactively enables us to discern a fatal flaw of the very notion of the Welfare State.” The flaw is the idea that capitalism can be made “socially responsible.” I think this is wrong not because I’m sure that capitalism can be made socially responsible — can we know until we try?—but because it’s entirely about Ideas. The dismantling of the welfare state is worth fighting not because the welfare state was or is a noble Idea but because it’s a card we’ve been dealt and discarding it means wrecking a considerable number of lives. Better to be agnostic about the fate of capitalism in the long term: who can say that they know for sure? In the meantime, all we need is the assurance that some political efforts do have results. Žižek’s “fail again, fail better” motto ought to be taken literally: some failures really are better than others, and the welfare state is one of them.

Like Žižek, Balibar has spoken up for poor suffering Greece in the midst of its recent unpleasantness. Both Balibar and Žižek emphasize the failure of European leadership, the hegemony of the banks, and Greece’s loss of political sovereignty. Both express hopes for the rise of Syriza, the new Greek party of the left. Both make Greece exemplary of the tendencies shaping our planetary moment. The contrast between them comes out on the question of what is to be done. Žižek contents himself with calling the idea of the welfare state “moronic.” Balibar, undaunted by the certainty that he will fail to dazzle and amuse, espouses a sheaf of familiar policies that would have to be described as neo-Keynesian: an end to austerity, the protection of social services, a push for full employment to increase consumer demand. A little dull, perhaps, but also, things being the way they are, utopian. At any rate, here and now it’s hard to see how one could not push for these policies except on the theory that more social suffering will bring the system to the breaking point. The trouble with that theory is that while the suffering worsens, the system isn’t breaking. Maybe the best way to break it is to keep asking it for things it can provide, but won’t.

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