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Conflictual Universalism(s) – Part 3 of 3

Katrine Bregengaard in discussion with Etienne Balibar- Part 3 of 3
(Illustration of Etienne Balibar by Zahid Mayo)

(The interview is a revised version of a conversation that took place in November 2014 at Professor Balibar’s office at Columbia University’s French Department.)


KATRINE BREGENGAARD: I want to turn to the question of human rights – a discourse that dominates contemporary emancipatory discourse and that you’ve also adopted. Speaking of Marx and his critique of the civic bourgeois notion of rights, you have dared to invoke or reread the French Declaration of Rights of Man and the Citizen as a response to this critique and you also adopted concepts such as democracy, internationalism, that have often had within left wing circles a guilt by association: ‘It is not us who talk about human rights and democracy its the liberals.’ It seems to me that you’re caught in a conflictual situation yourself among two different traditions?

ETIENNE BALIBAR: Yes, and no — I’m no better than you or many others. I permanently find myself in a situation in which I would love to be able to propose a third discourse. Not in what is famously called the third way in politics that practically means ‘let’s find a compromise’. Perhaps a sort of dialectical overcoming is not a silly idea because returning to the very beginning, if we adopt a more historical, critical and deconstructive approach, we may understand that the debate as it remains framed today between advocates and opponents of human rights as universalistic discourse is a debate that has been framed by the understanding and conditions of use of all these categories in historical periods that roughly coincides with the absolute primacy of the nation-state. So even if you don’t refer to state, but speak of cultures or collective identities, essentially what you’re very often reenacting is the dilemma: are there values — rational, scientific, moral, juridical — that range over the particular sovereignties, or is it only from inside such sovereign communities that you can claim and institutionalize rights. I’m almost certain that we’ll have to deal with the nation state for generations. That is not necessarily a bad thing in all aspects as there are things to be done with nations, or to put it negatively: when you embark on ignoring the nation or the fact that people belong to nations you sometimes produce catastrophic effects that are not the realization of the beautiful cosmopolitan dream. I nevertheless believe that this historical period is behind us now. So there is an increasing number of vital issues, whether intellectual, cultural, or social, that are not reducible to the representation of what is inside the nation or culture and what is outside. That is why our contemporaries are so interested in everything that has to do with the trends such as border, identity, hybrid, and with the multiplicity of identities that increasingly characterize individuals. There are resistances, but there are also very powerful transformations at stake, and that at some point form a basis on which we can try to build another discourse that isn’t fought in the dilemmas or dichotomies you were describing.

KB: Historically, human rights appear to have become a viable universalism by the end of the Cold War where prior dreams and grand narratives were left in ruins. Before then, human rights were not really part of social movements in the same way as we witness today. When and why did you adopt the language of human rights? Did they appear as a moral alternative to the blind alleys of politics?

EB: I believe that the conjuncture of the late 1980s and early 1990s marked a turning point in my relationship to a certain tradition of discourses on human rights. At the time, the critique of totalitarianism preceding the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of Soviet system was increasingly influential, but also practically connected with forms of resistance to oppression that you could not ignore even if you were a Marxist — except perhaps Badiou who is extremely dogmatic in this respect. This was the fact that dissidents struggling from the inside of Soviet types regimes including China, not to revolutionize the revolution, but simply to dismantle the state police, the single party system, and the imposition of one single ideology, had to express their objectives in terms of human rights. So either you were for or against. I didn’t think I could be against. Interestingly, dissidents had different political views on the future. Some of them were becoming advocates of not only dismantling the Soviet, but of the alignment on Western forms of liberalism — practically meaning capitalist democracy. Others were thinking precisely of a third discourse: a different kind of socialism. But on the specific issue of liberties the discourse had to be one of rights. It has always been one of my interests, which came from Althusser and others, to read the classical political philosophers who are the founding figures of this discourse. From this point, Spinoza is not very different from Locke. They are both very different from Hobbes who argues not only for a strong state, but an omnipotent state, whereas Spinoza and Locke with all their differences are liberals in that sense. To me, it was totally uninteresting to try and retranslate a discourse of human rights, particularly the claim of individual freedom, into a different language because you should avoid the bourgeois language of human rights since you were a Marxist and didn’t want to drop the idea of class struggle, socialism and communism. I think this takes me away from Lenin and closer to Rosa Luxemburg, who in the middle of the Soviet revolution very clearly indicated exactly that. Another thought I had was accelerated by philosophical and political discussions at the time in France, which essentially took the form of a controversy between two anti-totalitarian figures with very different backgrounds. On the one side Claude Lefort — the disciple of Merleau Ponty with a Trotsky background — who had written a famous critique of bureaucracy titled “The Invention of Democracy”. On the other side, you had someone less well known, Marcel Gauchet, who is now increasingly becoming a nationalist, but at the time was a liberal anti-totalitarian. They both returned to an eighteenth century problem: is human rights a politics? Gauchet would say human rights is an ethics and moral, but not a discourse of politics. It is a system of values, but not a politics in the institutional, strategic or practical sense of the term. So you must claim human rights, but then you have to adopt a political project to add something practical, which in his case would be the liberal democracy of the Western type. Lefort argued the opposite. Human rights are politics. One has to remember here that the dispute over humanitarian intervention and humanitarianism as a political implementation of the idea of human rights was not yet the center of the debate. It became so a little bit after. Lefort had two things in mind, which I completely sided with and forgot my Althusser. First, the claim of rights — and that is not something to be viewed in a linear historical progression. The problem with individual rights and freedom that emerged at the very center of the political stage and framed it in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries bourgeois revolutions is not, as Marxists believe, something of the past. It remains something of the present, even if we don’t believe that these are the only rights, because we will continue to deal with regimes, which for one reason or another— religious, political, or even security as war against terror — are limiting or suppressing different types of individual freedoms, including free speech, expression, and communication over the internet. Therefore, to claim these rights and to organize collectively that is where the political enters the play. I’ve always believed that rights applied to individuals and that they’re reclaimed, vindicated and imposed collectively. Then Lefort had another idea that his title “Invention of Democracy” also encapsulated, which is not only the idea of the internal return of the question of rights, but the idea that the list of fundamental rights is not a closed one. Of course that is an element both of continuity and critique with respect to the eighteenth century declarations, because they say that rights are first individual; second, equality; third, property; fourth, resistance to oppression, and of course property is especially problematic. But the important idea is that this is not a finite closed list of rights, so therefore an emancipatory politics of human rights is one that invents new rights or discovers that other rights are also fundamental. So it remains in a sense the same inspiration and it can and probably must clash with the liberal interpretation of fundamental rights. I tried to argue in my idea of equal liberty that you can read the French Declaration in such manner, that there is no real disjunction between human rights on one side and civic rights or forms of empowerment on the other side. All this to say that I would side with the idea that human rights are a politics, because I maintain that the human rights are also civic or linked to a certain idea and practice of citizenship, which is the most general term for political participation, and that in a sense gives a guiding thread to enter the debate that you were asking me about: How to be caught or not to be caught in the dilemma.

KB: Take the well-known question of humanitarian interventions, they are often done in the name of universal human rights…

EB: I never believed that a discourse of human rights only concerns values. I always believed it also concerns actions. But of course I do not believe that the actions are by definition progressive or emancipatory, so here my philosophical political pessimism returns. You can either liberate or oppress in the name of human rights. I’m not absolutely opposed to the idea of humanitarian intervention and would never refer to the kind of reasons that is invoked by nationalist — don’t break the sacred line of the national sovereignty! I’m bitterly aware of the fact that in practice humanitarian interventions, which always claim to be justified by immediate danger for categories of populations such as oppressed women of Afghanistan, victims of genocide etc, this is in the hands of the major military and economic powers of the world. The international organization that is supposed to be at the same time, justifying, legalizing and supervising such interventions, namely the United Nations, is increasingly either at the best impotent and at the worst an instrument that states manipulate. This shows to me that the very idea of intervention is problematic because it always already install a total dissymmetrical relationship of power in which there are victims and saviors. In some cases, you cannot hide behind the idea that you shouldn’t treat any population as simple victims, as they should be able to master their own destiny, and therefore don’t do anything because it would be oppression and imperialist. It remains the case, that the a priori categorization in terms of victims on one side and benefactors or rescuers on the other side is almost a contradiction in terms of universalist principles. Even if it is not a case of an imperialist intervention covering itself with humanitarian motives – such as presenting it as preventing genocide where in fact its question of preserving the access to oil or uranium, which is the case for almost all the French interventions in Africa these days – there is still a deep contradiction in presenting an intervention as a form of liberation, even if you don’t believe in the absolute character of nations. That leads me to the question which I believe is or should be at the heart of the contemporary reflections on postnational or transnational forms of citizenship, namely, cooperation. I’ve used the term co-citizenship — as much equality as possible between those who need help and those who bring help, when it comes to addressing humanitarian intervention.


KB: I want to direct our conversation towards Europe. Since the 1990s your work on universalism — both philosophically and politically — has been centered around Europe. You’ve called it a ‘province of the universal’ and seen great potential in Europe as a site for bottom up democratic practices that could inspire new transnational institutions and co citizenship, and counter the racist populism that is on the rise. Are you still as optimistic today in light of the European debt crisis and what seems to be an evergrowing problem of xenophobia and racism? Is Europe still a platform from where new emancipatory discourses can emerge?

EB: I’m very depressed. [Laughs] I could say that I did at somepoint share Habermas’ illusion of the European construction because it was putting the closure and narrow mindedness of national politics into question. It presented a possible breakthrough in the direction of a more cosmopolitan or universalistic policy. But at the time, I had a special interest in the question of migrants, so my illusion took the following form: I was completely on the side of those militants and activist in France who argues for civic rights for the migrants themselves and which are broader than local rights, which exist in some countries. The Netherlands, which is rapidly moving in the opposite direction unfortunately, proposed the idea that non-nationals could take part in local elections, and I was of the opinion that this should expand to national elections as well, and thought that the European construction would facilitate that. I thought it would become clearer that civic participation is something that exist on different levels than the national. So its local, its national, its transnational as well. I was completely wrong. What happened was not that the European construction progressively imposed that broader vision, but lead to a strong nationalist reaction. And EU itself became sort of a security super-state. The EU is not an intermediary stage between the national and a transnational institution of rights. It’s an additional layer of bureaucracy, as Lefort perhaps would say, of concentrated power. There are cases in which it has good effects, particularly because there is a constitutional tradition in Europe which includes a monitoring of states in terms of their implementation of certain individual rights. I’m sensitive to that because France was repeatedly warned and even condemned for its handling of minorities, particularly the Roma people. The Roma are very strongly discriminated – a story almost as long and tragic as the story of the jews in certain parts of Europe. But to the shame of France etc. in the recent period the discrimination and the prosecution still exist. So, the EU criticized that, which is good, but it is not a radically new situation. And especially returning to the question of migrants and the circulation of individuals, norms, and ideas the key issue is the status of the border as a state institution. For years I advocated for what I called the democratization of the border. On the one side, at the level of principle, that certain ideas which are in separate places in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights- such as the rights of circulation on the one side, rights of settlement or naturalization on other places are brought together and considered twin pillars of a different condition for persons. On the other I mean things, which are inspired by other examples of inventions of rights in the modern history. Especially in the field of labour rights, namely something that is not discretionary that is not imposed by the state — even if its in the name of rule of law in a completely discretionary manner — but that is discussed and negotiated and gives rights to the collective rights of the victims or the concerned people so that a migrant is not just a pawn in the hands of an old powerful administration whose decisions can not even be discussed. That is something that is extremely unlikely in today’s circumstances, in which Europe is becoming increasingly a sort of collective security mechanism against external threats. Regarding the crisis, I published a text titled “Europe’s final Crisis?” in which I was reacting to the crisis in Greece and expressing solidarity with the Greek population. I reacted to the extreme neoliberal forms of adjustments imposed on them not only to repay their debt but to make it possible for the banks to continue making a lot of money on those debts. The rules of the IMF that usually apply to loans to foreign countries were in this case applied by the EU to part of its own population. It was like saying: “OK you Greeks, and also Spaniards, you are for us (the majority of European countries) what the bad and failed states, such as Argentina, used to be for the community of wealthy nations. In fact you are not part of us, we have no duty towards you, or the only duty we have is to impose on you what will destroy you.” I have given up the idea of publishing something in that general form, because honestly I’m not able to follow the course of the events, but I remain convinced of the fact that the old mantra — what I’ve called the application of the Hegelian idea of the cunning of reason — that the idea that Europe is inevitable and therefore Europe rescues itself after each of its internal crisis, and even takes advantage of the crisis to introduce new elements of solidarity etc, doesn’t work in this moment. Being French, you cannot avoid to be extremely wary of the nationalism developing in all our countries. It is all the more worrying, because I can understand the reasons for why a French person who is now jobless — or any other European working class for that matter — because Europe as such does not address a person who is now jobless, because Europe itself does not address in a radical manner the economic crisis in which we are and keeps subsidizing the banks and subsidizing or supporting the core countries at the expense of the periphery trying to have some European firms – not only German — becoming competitive on the world market, whereas all the losers can be abandoned to their own fate. I can see why people blame Europe for that, and Europe has to be blamed because, at least negatively, it doesn’t do the right thing. I always said that Europe will become more legitimate if its offers to its population better opportunities than they would have had in their separate nations. What you see is the opposite. It is not more democratic than in the states, but less, and the national democracies are not in good shape. There is little democracy at the European level, if any, and there is also less democracy on the national level. This can be blamed on the European construction and the progressive dismantling of the welfare state, or on people who fear that it will be dismantled thinking that the right thing to do is to keep the outsiders away otherwise they’ll come and take our bread, our drugs, and our hospitals.


KB: You have expressed that the task for the philosopher with respect to universalism is to understand the logic of its contradictions and in a dialectical way investigate their dominant and subordinate elements, to uncover how they work and how they can be twisted through the interaction of theory and practice. Is this something you are committed to?

EB: Yes. A philosopher has to think about that in trying to keep the two extremes of the many — of the multiverse — and the very concrete issues of circulation and social cohesion. That’s something I’ve kept from Marxism. I think the philosopher is someone that travels more or less easily between the two poles: abstract reasoning and concrete issues.

KB: The famous 11th thesis on Feuerbach by Marx and Engels is interesting to return to here, as it talks about the role of the philosopher and the relationship between practice and theory…

EB: Yes, yes, yes…. this is very often read wrongly. Most people believe that it means leave philosophy aside and go to the place where politics is done to transform the world. But no, it doesn’t say leave speculation or interpretation aside. It says — in a somewhat teleological manner — to do it from the perspective of changing the world. That was a big word: Changing the world. [Both laugh]


This interview is from Naked Punch 17.  To order a print copy of the issue click here.

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