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 …