How can the aporia of the ‘European people’ be resolved?

Dossier: The Greek Symptom: Debt, Crisis and the Crisis of the Left

RP 181 () / Article, Dossier, The Greek Symptom

The question that I deal with here is by no means a purely speculative one. It certainly evokes theoretical notions from different disciplines and from philosophy, but it does so because of a specific economy of circumstances, a crisis of economics, in a particular place (Greece), which happens to be at the origin of the whole apparatus of ‘concepts of politics’ by means of which modernity thinks its own history, but which seemingly, today, no longer knows what to do with it. By examining this question, we can hope to achieve a radical rethinking of this apparatus, which, in turn, might become one of the instruments (but not the only one) of the political invention required to find a solution to the crisis of European construction.

I shall make three preliminary remarks, reduced of necessity to a minimum. The first concerns the meaning of the word ‘people’ (the French word peuple in particular), or rather the organization of the semantic complex to which it refers.1 The latter, of course (referring in particular to the relations between ‘people’, ‘nation’, ‘population’) exists only in a history that subjects it to incessant transformations. Let it suffice here to indicate a topic that is merely an instrument of analysis and a guide to the interpretation of current debates. This topic is suggested to us by the insistence, in the recent discussion regarding the ‘European people’ (but also in the different conceptions of the ‘nation’ which contrasts European peoples and therefore their states), of a dilemma that was initially expressed by anthropologists and that was taken up again by political analysts, then by philosophers (including Habermas): that of the ‘ethnic nation’ and the ‘civic nation’, referring back to two conceptions of the people for which we borrow the words ethnos and demos from Ancient Greek. I am not disputing the pertinence of the analyses which prevail, but the way in which this is set forth is, at best, incomplete. Two other notions of people, sometimes competing, sometimes combined, must be added to it, and for which it is also useful to use the Greek.

They are, on the one hand, the léthos (mass, multitude, number), and, on the other hand, the laos (a word that is used today to refer officially to the ‘Greek people’ in its institutional reality, but that comes, after an archaic Greek source, from the translation of the Septuagint of the Hebrew Bible ha’am, referring to the ‘chosen people’ of Israel in contrast with the goyim, the other people or other nations, translated into Greek by ethne, and into Latin by gentes or nationes).

In our Western history, in which the foundation and then the generalization of the bourgeois nation-states marked a separation that creates problems today, the reference to ‘the people’ has always covered different ways of managing the antitheses and combinations of the following four notions: the people as ‘community of citizens’; the people as ‘nation’ (supposedly unified by a lineage, a culture, or generally in modern times a language); the people as the ‘mass’ of its own population (which generally, from a sociological perspective concerned with inequalities, means the ‘folk’ or ‘people of the people’ who are the majority; that is, if not the poor, at least those who are not the privileged in rank or fortune – it is therefore an essentially conflicting notion); and lastly, the people as a collective ideality, with a mission or a destiny. In the debates in Europe regarding the existence of a ‘constituent power’ that might be able to legitimate the emergence of a supranational political power, it is generally the demos that is targeted, but the ethnos, the laos and the plethos are also at least implicitly concerned.

This leads to a second remark: on the constitutional level, the question of the ‘European people’ is aporetic because analysts believe that they cannot identify a demos that pre-existed the construction of a federation, just as they believe that they see in the building of nations into states the expression of a ‘constitutive power’ which, historically, found the political institution that allowed it to claim its sovereignty. However, beside the fact that such reasoning is circular, and perhaps even contradictory, since it supposes that the construction of a post-national federation must repeat the nation’s constitution plan, it evades what is essential about the current difficulty. This has rather to do with the fact that the roads that European construction has progressively taken are neither federal nor national. Nor can we speak of a ‘mixed’ regime, for the two components tend to destroy rather than complement one another. European nations have lost much more of their autonomy and their sovereignty than the majority of their citizens believe, but it is only a pseudo-federation, not only because its ‘government’ rests on the competition between institutions whose ways are in opposition to one another – which becomes untenable in a time of crisis – but because its foundation is a ‘common’ political economy whose result today is to pitch the interests of the territories against each other and to highlight the inequalities of power between member states.

A third remark is necessary, then. Rather than postulating the existence of a pre-existing demos, it would be better to question – since demos in fact refers to the constitution of a ‘community of citizens’ – the conditions of the exercising of citizenship in Europe: more precisely, to question the conditions of an active citizenship synonymous with a participation in political life and an influence on the decisions upon which depend the present existence and future of the populations. The latter (despite, or even because of, the existence of a ‘European Parliament’ with extremely limited powers) is reduced to a minimum that we do not see increasing. The current crisis, which favours the increase of powers of a techno-structure without any direct legitimacy and of a minority of heads of state, with more or less diverging interests, negotiating with each other for compromises that are almost never submitted to the judgement of the mass of the population, has merely reinforced this characteristic. Not only is there no ‘active citizenship’ in Europe that might be a European citizenship, but, correlatively, we see the decline of national citizenship, for it obviously has nothing to do with a system of interconnected vessels. This exclusion of participation is (largely for cultural, sociological and institutional reasons) for the mass of European nationals, and a fortiori of European residents. This means that in addition to the problem of the inconsistency of the demos there is the problem of exclusion of the plethos. The question has always been addressed with a view to knowing which ‘democracy’ could exist and resist the anti-democratic tendencies of the government without the participation of the mass, in other words without there being anything of the ‘popular’ within the ‘people’.

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