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Of Ambivalent Insurrections: Interview with Etienne Balibar

14 January 2021

Of Ambivalent Insurrections: Interview with Etienne Balibar

Etienne Balibar; Image credit: FRANCE 24, http://cas.uniri.hrand Verso Books

Etienne Balibar is the most important Marxist philosopher today. He continues to present sensitive critiques of Marxist models. Balibar has challenged and shaken many hardened myths of our time, including the nation-state. This interview with Balibar for Philosophy World Democracy was conducted by Ivica Mladenović and Zona Zarić. The conversation ranges from the meaning of political engagement and intellectual engagement amidst the transformations of world powers; the limits of Althusser's project; the insurgent politics unfolding; xenophobia and national identities; and the “war on migration”.

First of all (1), we will start with the issue you will address in this conference, namely the issue of commitment. Several researchers have mentioned the fact that the term has different meanings in different languages. You speak of commitment in the Pascalian and Sartrean sense. What inspires this idea of engagement in your own experiences and your own philosophical references?

EB: It was Sartre who reused Pascal’s vocabulary in what is considered to be the “founding” text of his theory of engagement (the 1945 “Presentation of Modern Times”), citing the famous formula: “you are embarked” (vous êtes embarqués). (2) This initiates a dialectic of opposites: you have to choose (wager; il faut parier) (3) but in a situation that you do not choose. I think that the Pascal reference is fundamental, because it shows that in commitment it is not a simple decision of choosing between one way of life or work and another, but rather of what determines all life and all thought. It is therefore a question of transforming a contingency into a necessity. But the Pascal reference suggests that what is at stake there is redemption or damnation in a future life (a “beyond”), whereas it is the meaning of the present life, or what Marx called “the here below” (Diesseitigkeit). This raises the question of the consequences of commitment, which I think is the fundamental question. What do we do about the errors that commitment inevitably entails? From a Sartrean point of view, which is that of a freedom that is always “transcendent”, one can “free oneself” and sometimes this is what one must do. I think that the higher form of commitment consists in ‘obstinacy’ (as Negt and Kluge say in History and Obstinacy), which does not mean blindly defending the same mistakes, but seeking the means to understand and rectify them for oneself and especially for the ‘we’ to which a commitment binds you. For commitment means to get outside of oneself. This is what I have tried to do in my dealings with the communist commitment - without being certain of having succeeded, of course.

The idea of the end, or at least the decline of intellectuals, is defended in a significant number of theoretical texts published over the last thirty years. Do you agree with this thesis and what is, in your opinion, the role and place of the commitment of intellectuals in contemporary societies and in social struggles?

EB: This question is meaningless without an investigation into and an effort to define what “intellectuals” mean. Two ideas seem to me to be important in this respect in the tradition to which I belong. On the one hand, that of Marx, who included the “division of manual and intellectual labour” among the great structures of domination throughout history, even if its modalities are constantly changing. On the other hand, that of Gramsci, who makes “intellectuals” (or at least some of them, with an “organic” capacity for intervention in social struggles) the builders of hegemony, power relations and subordination (or counter-powers defying the established order), but who also affirms the existence of an “intellectual function” that goes beyond the dominant institutional intellectuality and can be assumed by individuals from all social classes, particularly through their activitism. Today's ‘globalised’ capitalist society (which I call with others a society of ‘absolute capitalism’) is completely transforming the facts of this problem, using the resources of new technologies and communication by shifting the locus of real power in society. In fact, it no longer needs intellectuals in the “bourgeois” sense of the term (which includes academics, “independent” artists, even scholars dedicated to “pure” research, etc.). It is a non-bourgeois or post-bourgeois capitalist society. Hence, it is a paradoxical and perilous situation at the same time: intellectuals who want to be “critical” (the “traitors” to the existing order, as Marx said) must also, and perhaps first of all, defend their right to exist and the institutions that allow them to work. But they have no chance of doing so if they stick to a backward-looking definition of the intellectual (even if “committed”) and take a defensive position. The articulation with social struggles (which doesn’t mean only class struggle, but ecology, feminism, anti-racism and decolonialism, etc.) is therefore both an ethical-political choice and a way of bringing the “intellectual function” to life in society.

Insurgencies are the driving force behind political change in today’s world, but ambivalence is their fundamental characteristic, and therefore the political problem they face.

Your teacher and someone who fundamentally influenced your thought, Louis Althusser, published in June 1970 in the journal La Pensée one of his masterly texts, entitled “Ideology and Ideological Apparatus of the State”. In this text, the philosopher distinguishes between two state apparatuses: the repressive apparatus and the ideological apparatus of the state. The latter is less visible and is composed of all the institutions whose ideology it transmitted to the to the whole society by the classes that run the state. What is the difference between the ideological apparatus of the state of the 1970s of which Althusser spoke and the ideological apparatus of the state today?

EB: That would be a very long discussion... I learned a lot from Althusser, both through his texts and in the form of a long friendship and personal collaboration. I am very happy to observe that some of his texts, often incomplete and aporetic, because they were elaborated under conditions of great personal and collective tension, continue to make people think or even act today. The opposition between “repressive apparatuses” and “ideological apparatuses”, which has often been criticised (notably by Foucault), shouldn’t be understood in a typological way (even if Althusser indulges in classifying large institutions into one or the other category) but rather in a dynamic or strategic way, as a sign of the fact that power relations oscillate between two poles and combine them in unequal proportions. But the most delicate and potentially the most fruitful problem concerns the reference made here to the state. This is obviously inherited from the notion of indirecta postestas, which belongs to the tradition of political theology (Bellarmin, Hobbes) and which in the 19th century led to the concept of ‘spiritual power’ in Auguste Comte. By combining it with the Marxist idea of “the dominant ideology as the ideology of the ruling class”, Althusser is able to take up the Gramscian program of an "enlargement of the concept of the state" which places the state in an occult way in the unconscious infrastructure of individual subjectivity itself.

Louis Althusser in his study, Paris, April 26, 1978, Photo credit: Alain Mingam/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

But one may wonder whether this structural construction is still adequate (at least without variation) to the way in which subjectivities are formatted in current capitalism (which from this point of view is well characterized as ‘neo-liberalism’). A young Greek philosopher, Maria Kakogianni, proposed the concept of ‘ideological market apparatuses’ to record the novelty of the mechanisms of interpellation of individuals as ‘subjects’ in a society where ideological domination happens not so much through the imaginary of sovereignty as through that of competition and profitability to which one must 'adapt' (Barbara Stiegler). I’m tempted to think that we have here another indication of the emergence of a capitalism without bourgeoisie in the classical sense. It is clear from the current crisis engendered by the Covid-19 pandemic, a crisis whose moral dimensions are as fundamental as the economic ones, that collective confusion and even despair result as much, if not more, from the feeling of the failure of the market than from the feeling of the failure of the state... Or rather the state is part of it, because states today are being instrumentalized by the market to a degree that is unprecedented.

At the time when the Yellow Vests movement was at its zenith, you said that through this movement - which presents many contradictions - one notices the process where “the excluded include themselves”. How do you see this movement in the context of new class struggles in France?

EB: As a “movement” which is not organized but individualized, the Yellow Vests have probably completed their trajectory. But the revolt against the effects of exclusion (deprivation of active citizenship at the same time as deprivation of recognition and social protection) of which it was an expression is not going to disappear. On the contrary, it may be thought that the extraordinarily unequal and authoritarian conditions in which society’s efforts to control the pandemic (which itself affects individuals and social groups in an extraordinarily unequal way, deepening what I have called the “anthropological differences”, that is, the differences that fracture the human species as such) are major new insurrectionary phenomena. But the question of what political direction they will take will be raised in an acute way. In the Yellow Vests movement, wherein many thought they could read a French form of the “populism” that was also developing elsewhere at the same time (think of Trump, Bolsonaro, etc.), it is remarkable that xenophobic and authoritarian tendencies were marginalized and eventually overcome by the participants themselves. There is no guarantee that this will always be the case. Insurgencies are the driving force behind political change in the world today, but ambivalence is their fundamental characteristic, and therefore the political problem they face.

The articulation with social struggles (which doesn’t mean only class struggle, but ecology, feminism, anti-racism and decolonialism, etc.) is therefore both an ethical-political choice and a way of bringing the “intellectual function” to life in society.

The last chapter of your latest book, Histoire interminable : d'un siècle l'autre, (Ecrits I), is a strategic plea for a socialist project for the 21st century. We have a question: if previous socialisms - those that materialized in the National Social State as you call it - thought politics in terms of pure power relations, what is the interpretative framework of the policy you propose for 21st century socialism?

EB: In this final chapter of my book, I take care to underline the hypothetical nature of the descriptions and proposals that I put forward. All this is a matter for discussion and therefore an object of reflection. I have taken the risk of using a broad and even extremely broad (I have been reproached) concept of “socialism.” In it I turned Friedrich von Hayek’s thesis, which opposed liberalism as absolute market deregulation to all forms of state intervention in the economy, against itself; and I have included both the authoritarian and single-party planning models of “real socialism” as well as the social democratic formations of Western Europe and the United States (thus the New Deal), and the “development” policies of the Third World. In particular, it was a question of inscribing all these policies and the corresponding institutional innovations in the history of class struggles, to underline (after Keynes and Negri) the decisive function of the Russian Revolution of 1917 which inspired in capitalism the sense of urgency of social policies (which it has lost today...), and to understand that the capitalism in which we live today is not, according to the classic formula, an “antechamber of socialism”, but a postsocialist regime, which was built by deconstructing socialism in its different forms.

Lenin in Paris Soviet poster ; Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

I also stressed, as you recall, that these socialist experiences (very heterogeneous) have the common feature of having dealt with the social question in a national framework, which is also a result of their statism and explains the difficulty of rethinking the question of social transformation in a transnational way, by mobilizing the corresponding forces at this scale. Yet this is what is required by both the more or less reversible effects of “globalization” and the decidedly irreversible effects of the ecological disaster. A “socialism” of the 21st century (I have put the term in scare quotes, to show that it isn’t necessarily the best or the definitive term) should combine, in an open manner, objectives and forms of political action that are very heterogeneous and on very different scales: I have said, hypothetically international regulations (of labour, finance, environmental standards, armaments...), utopias (i.e. small- or large-scale experiments in new ways of living together, therefore of consumption, property, etc.), and finally insurrections (in the broadest sense, preferably non-violent at that).

Last June, you co-signed an appeal alerting the public sphere to the fact that Emmanuel Macron is not fighting against racism, but against anti-racism in France. How do you see Emmanuel Macron's presidency as a whole? Is there something fundamentally new that he has brought to French political life compared to his predecessors? And how do you feel knowing that the French president has indicated that he was "very inspired" by your work and even wanted to do his thesis with you?

EB: I think these statements by the then candidate Emmanuel Macron were part of a communication campaign, as were his even more insistent references to working with Paul Ricoeur. But after all, I have no reason and no way of determining the degree of his sincerity. So, I have nothing more to say on this. As for the combination in the discourse and action of a French political leader of modernizing and reforming rhetoric, possibly including a social component, with an instrumentalization of the xenophobic and, in fact, racist theme of ‘French identity’, it is absolutely nothing new. What is very worrying is that the President is making this shift to the right, and even to the extreme right (he is not the only one in French politics, but he is in power) at a time when a whole series of factors (including terrorism) may push public opinion towards an “active” form of institutional racism. This is the phenomenon which, a few years ago, I called “the impotence of the almighty”, one of the matrices of fascism in European history.

The reception of wanderers in “human” conditions, that is, in accordance with international law, may pose problems of policing like any movement of peoples in exceptional situations. But it does not constitute a danger to the “security” of European countries or their communities. Its amalgamation with the issue of ‘terror’ is purely and simply racist (especially through its Islamophobic component).

Three years ago, in an article in Le Monde, the European Union, threatened by technocratic authoritarianism and the rise of neo-fascism, was in danger of exploding. In that article, you called for a historical refoundation of Europe based on a new type of federation. In the meantime, the situation is only getting visibly worse. In your opinion, what is the most likely solution for the EU in the current situation: dissolution or re-foundation? And, can it be said that the destruction of former Yugoslavia can be seen as an indicator of Europe’s inability to face its own destiny?

EB: My answer – forgive the evasion – is that I don't know. The destruction of Yugoslavia (I never use the expression “ex-Yugoslavia”...) is of course, among other things (because there are also internal causes, but we are here by definition in a topology where the internal and external constantly exchange places) a mark of this incapacity of Europe that you evoke. But there are many others. Brexit is another, of course, and above all the criminal management of the issue of migrants and refugees in the Mediterranean, before, during and after Merkel's initiative in 2015 (whose sabotage was carried out jointly by Hungary and France).

Refugee from Syria holding a poster of Angela Merkel; Image credit: Deutsche Welle

Some commentators welcomed the European Commission’s “recovery” program (including a very limited debt pooling component) in the face of the current crisis as a “Hamiltonian moment” – therefore federalist – for Europe. Let’s admit the comparison, although it covers all sorts of difficulties as to the nature of state construction in America in the 18th century and in Europe in the 21st century... In fact, nothing is at stake because, on the one hand, the question now being asked is what is a currency in the world of generalized indebtedness (or, in which monetary regime will Europe have to commit itself, given the international balance of power); and, on the other hand, the possibility of managing a common budget without enhanced democratic legitimacy for the European institutions is more dubious than ever (and this legitimacy is almost non-existent). So, we are left with the situation I have described: there will be no policy for the peoples of Europe if European federalism does not reinvent itself (let us think of what we said above about regulations). But the opponents of this federalism (for reasons that are often opposed to each other, but whose negativity is combined) have all the means to block it. I don't have the means to say anything else. Like others, I am thinking of 'Sleepwalkers' (in the sense of Hermann Broch, since taken up again).

In a conference you gave on 22 October 2018 in Montreal, you said that after the “war on terror”, we are now talking about the “war on migration”. We can see that the issue of migration deepens the divide not only between the left and the right, but also within the left itself, between those who advocate a so-called security solution and those who advocate the humanitarian position. You yourself support the thesis that the right to movement and hospitality are fundamental rights. How do you think the issue of migration should be understood in the context of contemporary capitalism and what is the appropriate strategy for a progressive left on this issue?

the capitalism in which we live today is not, according to the classic formula, an “antechamber of socialism”, but a postsocialist regime, which was built by deconstructing socialism in its different forms.

EB: As I cannot sum up all my arguments in a few words, as they are moreover constantly evolving, except on the core point which is the recognition of the political and moral centrality of this question, I will content myself with three remarks.

First, we must cease isolating ourselves within this dichotomy of “security” and “humanitarian”, which is itself a component of the rhetoric of war against migration, or rather against migrants and refugees – which taken together I call the “wanderers” (les errants). The reception of wanderers in “human” conditions, that is, in accordance with international law, may pose problems of policing like any movement of peoples in exceptional situations. But it does not constitute a danger to the “security” of European countries or their communities. Its amalgamation with the issue of ‘terror’ is purely and simply racist (especially through its Islamophobic component). Secondly, the analysis of international migration in today's world, with all the complexity of the concrete determinations that accompany it (orientation of migration from South to South, from South to North, the combination of legal and illegal forms; the correlation, or not, with the transformation of the international division of labour, etc.) is not a simple matter. Rosa Luxemburg (and her successors, analyzing the “world-system” of historical capitalism) rethought it as an articulation between the capitalist “centers” and their “peripheries”. Today the centers are in Europe or America, but also in China, in South-East Asia, in the Persian Gulf... and the “peripheries” from where proletarianized overpopulation arises.

Finally thirdly, the regulation of population movements and above all the recognition of the “right to rights” (Arendt) for all categories of human beings on the surface of the earth, territorialized and deterritorialized, nationalized and denationalized, is the heart of a new cosmopolitan law and a new international order, to which all the conservative forces (including those on the ‘left’ here and there in the world) are opposed, but which are inevitably being put on the agenda by the entry of humanity into the age of climatic and demographic upheavals (to which we now see that health upheavals will now be added). I don’t know how long it will take for the majority of our peoples to become aware of this, nor what kind of violence will be the condition for this (I do not believe, unfortunately, that it will exclude genocidal practices); nor, a fortiori, [how long it will take] for governments and international institutions to take charge of the problem. But I don't see how this can be avoided.

Translated by

Sophie Galabru



1. This interview was conducted on December 11, 2020 on the occasion of the award of the annual “Miladin Životić” prize to Etienne Balibar at the Institute of Philosophy and Social Theory, University of Belgrade.

2. Blaise Pascal, Pensées, Trans. A. J. Krailsheimer, London : Penguin, 1995, p.123 ; Pascal, Les Pensées, Paris, E. Mignot, 1913, p. 123.

3. Pascal, ibid.

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