Balibar-Antinomies of Citizenship

0 Cassal Lecture in French Culture: 'Antinomies of Citizenship' 12 May 2009, 17:00 - 19:30 Event Type: University Event Speakers Etienne BALIBAR, born in 1942, graduated in France and the Netherlands. He is currently Professor Emeritus of Political and Moral Philosophy at the University of Paris-Nanterre, and Distinguished Professor of Humanities at the University of California, Irvine. He is also a Fellow of the Birkbeck Institute for Humanities, London. Among his recent publications are 'Politics and the Other Scene', and 'We, The People of Europe? Reflections on Transnational Citizenship'. Description Ever since the origins in ancient societies, the concept of the citizen and the corresponding "community of citizens" (the Greek politeia, the Roman civitas) have moved in polarities which accounted for a permanent tension: between rights and duties, membership and exclusion, participation and representation, etc. In periods of crisis of the political institution such as the current 'trans-nationalization' of the Law and the global Economy, the constitutive tensions can become genuine antinomies, which confront individuals and collectives with radical choices. This Lecture will try to clarify their formulation and show what is at stake in their uncertain perspectives. Venue : Room 274/275 (ST) Stewart House is at the corner of Russell Square entrance. Take the lift to the 2nd floor, turn left.

Transcript of Balibar-Antinomies of Citizenship

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Cassal Lecture in French Culture: 'Antinomies of Citizenship'

12 May 2009, 17:00 - 19:30

Event Type: University Event


Etienne BALIBAR, born in 1942, graduated in France and the Netherlands. He is currently

Professor Emeritus of Political and Moral Philosophy at the University of Paris-Nanterre, and

Distinguished Professor of Humanities at the University of California, Irvine. He is also a

Fellow of the Birkbeck Institute for Humanities, London. Among his recent publications are

'Politics and the Other Scene', and 'We, The People of Europe? Reflections on Transnational



Ever since the origins in ancient societies, the concept of the citizen and the corresponding

"community of citizens" (the Greek politeia, the Roman civitas) have moved in polarities

which accounted for a permanent tension: between rights and duties, membership and

exclusion, participation and representation, etc. In periods of crisis of the political institution

such as the current 'trans-nationalization' of the Law and the global Economy, the constitutive

tensions can become genuine antinomies, which confront individuals and collectives with

radical choices. This Lecture will try to clarify their formulation and show what is at stake in

their uncertain perspectives.

Venue : Room 274/275 (ST)

Stewart House is at the corner of Russell Square entrance. Take the lift to the 2nd floor, turn left.

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It is a great honor for me to have been invited to deliver this year’s Cassal Lecture at

the Institute for German and Romance Studies of the University of London in collaboration

with Royal Holloway College, and I would like to express my gratitude to these institutions,

as well as to the friends, colleagues, and administrators who made the event possible and

helped me prepare my visit. In addition to the honor, there is the pleasure and the interest of

finding a perfect circumstance to try and push further some reflections, stretching over a long

period now, which concern the intrinsic relationships between the categories of citizenship

and democracy.

I called the lecture “Antinomies of Citizenship” providing a very general and short

abstract which, as you certainly realize, was written before I had a perfectly clear idea of

which material I would include and how I would try to organize it. The funny detail is that,

when reading it again, I realized that the word “democracy” itself was missing. This might

suggest a preference or a hierarchy, whereby citizenship would appear as the dominant

concept, either from the juridical, the political or the historical point of view, whereas

democracy would feature only as a qualification or an attribute of citizenship, whether

essential or secondary. This is by no means a merely verbal consideration, not only because

such ideological issues as the opposition between “republican” (or neo-republican) discourse

and “democratic” traditions (whether liberal or not) are often presented in terms of such

preferences and hierarchies, but because in a sense the very understanding of “political

philosophy” depends on this kind of choice, as contemporary critiques such as Jacques

Rancière have rightly insisted. But in fact my position is not to grant “citizenship” a dominant

position with respect to “democracy”, it is rather to explain that the “democratic paradox”, to

borrow Chantal Mouffe’s felicitous expression, forms the intrinsically problematic aspect of

citizenship, therefore its most determining aspect. What I believe is that citizenship’s

problem, in its various historical figures, with all their enormous differences, lies in its

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antinomic relationship to democracy. I would gladly submit that – conversely – democracy as

a historical – even a “material” – reality (which is not to say a regime, rather a tendency or a

process of transformation), can be defined, precisely, as the antinomic element of citizenship,

in the complex sense in which the philosophical tradition has elaborated this category: namely

this element that brings in contradiction, and a permanent tension between destruction and

construction, crystallizing at the same time a problem which cannot – or can never be

completely – solved, and a problem which cannot become ignored or completely suppressed.

I will submit that there lies at the heart of the institution of citizenship (for citizenship is an

institution, it has no sense outside an institutional cadre) a crucial contradiction which is due

to its intrinsically antinomic relationship to democracy. And I have remained enough of a

dialectician, even a materialist dialectician, to believe that this kind of intrinsic antinomy

forms the essential driving force of historical transformations, indicating the point of

articulation of theory and practice.

In other terms there is nothing “natural” in the relationship between citizenship and

democracy, even if we must retrieve and retain something essential from those philosophers

who, like Aristotle, Spinoza, or Marx, argued that democracy should be considered “the

natural” or “most natural” form of citizenship. In fact what I believe is such a formula ought

to be interpreted, or it should be pushed dialectically to meaning precisely what I said a

moment ago: historically it is the democratic antinomy that forms the driving force of the

transformations of citizenship as a political institution. Therefore democratic citizenship is a

problem, a stake, an enigma, an invention, a lost object or treasure to be sought for and

conquered again. Such considerations which certainly involve a definite conception of

political philosophy (which I am not going to discuss explicitly today, I prefer to try and

illustrate it as well as I can, are anything but entirely speculative. There are circumstances in

which the antinomy becomes particularly apparent, where the double impossibility to pure

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and simply maintain in its established construction a certain figure of citizenship takes the

form, precisely, of an acute crisis of democracy, of the democratic practices and rules, of the

common understanding of the meaning of the word democracy itself, of the consequences of

its dominant use, be it intentionally perverted or naively traditional. This seems to be

eminently the case today, not only for what concerns certain qualifications of the notion of

citizenship whose historical dominance was more or less unchallenged for a whole period,

such as “national citizenship” or “social citizenship”, but more profoundly for the category as

such, whose capacity to transform itself, to pursue on the route of its historical

transformations, seems to have been brutally annihilated. I take it in particular that the

interpretation of the effects of the emergence of the so-called “neo-liberal” paradigm of

governmentality as a process of “de-democratization”, that our colleague Wendy Brown in

particular has introduced in the critical debate along Foucauldian lines, and to which I will

return, is best understood as an extreme expression of the destructive side of the antinomies of

citizenship in the contemporary moment, which also means that it indicates the challenges

that any project of rethinking and re-inventing citizenship - little different in my opinion from

a project of rethinking and re-asserting politics itself -, should meet. It is some aspects of this

complex of contradictions and challenges that I would like to try and discuss tonight.

I am going to present now four successive arguments – or rather to sketch, describing

from a cavalier point a view what seems to me to form a virtual (and partial) dialectic of the

antinomies of citizenship. They concern respectively: 1) what I call the political “trace” of

equaliberty in the construction and the contradictions of modern citizenship (therefore

essentially modern national citizenship), which I identify with a recurrent differential of

insurrection and constitution; 2) what I consider to be the effective democratic albeit limited

character of “social citizenship”, as it was instituted in the form of the (mainly European)

national and social State (an expression which I prefer, for materialistic reasons, to that of

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Welfare State), and the aporia of the progression of this most progressive and progressivist

historical figure; 3) the extent to which what has been labeled the “neo-liberal” response to

this crisis – or the neo-liberal contribution to this crisis – in the form of the absolutization of

utilitarian individualism, not only represents a moment of lethal danger for democracy, but

could also raise again the possibility of democratic transformations beyond its

“representative” institution; 4) finally, and most allusively I am afraid, the determinations

which could become associated with the representation of the agents or actors of this virtual

process of the democratization of democracy itself (a term which, for reasons that I shall

indicate in passing, I tend to prefer to that of subject, although it clearly refers to some of the

issues currently debated in terms of political or post-political subjectivation). Many of these

themes are already present in the analyses, both conceptual and conjunctural, that I have

carried on over the past twenty years, which some of you may know. But although I am

relying on and some times alluding to them, I try not to pure and simply repeat, but also

simplify and rectify them in the hope of reaching a better clarity.

Let me start, then, with the trace of equaliberty. In other places I have sketched a

genealogy of the Roman formulas aequa libertas and aequum ius which Cicero in particular

would present as essential definitions of the regime he calls res publica and I would call a

community of citizens in the ancient sense, and I have coined the portmanteau expression

equaliberty that I am again using now to encapsulate the unities of opposites lying at the heart

of the “universalistic” notion of citizenship invented by the series of revolutions of the

bourgeois era which open and define political modernity: the unity of “man” and “citizen”,

now considered correlative notions in spite of all the practical restrictions which affect the

actual distribution of political rights and powers, and above all the unity of the abstract

notions themselves, equality and liberty, which are now seen as components of the same

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constituent power, in spite of the permanent tensions among them and the tendency of

bourgeois political ideologies to grant one of them a primacy or an ontological privilege over

the other, presenting it as the “natural right” par excellence. Tonight I want to insist

particularly on the conflictual element which is inherent in this “fusion” of opposite notions,

which accounts for the revolutionary character of simultaneous claims of equality and liberty

whenever they are raised to achieve an extension of the powers of the people or emancipation

from domination taking the form of a conquest of rights. It is this combination of conflict and

institution that I call the trace of equaliberty, or the continuous reiteration of its enunciation.

It is true that revolutionary moments where the power inherent in the exercise of rights

is reclaimed in the form of a regime change (e.g. from monarchy to republic) or the demise of

a dominant class or caste whose privileges need to be abolished, give this reiteration an

exceptionally visible and symbolic expression. But the “insurrectional” element which

accounts for the emancipatory effects of the claim of rights (petitio iuris) can and must take

many other forms which have a different phenomenology in terms of movements, campaigns,

party mobilization, temporal condensation or distension, violent or non-violent relationship of

forces, rejection or use of the existing institutions and juridical forms, etc. Think of the

various histories of the conquest of civil, political and social rights in Europe, which in fact

are not processes isolated from one another, or the various forms of decolonizing processes,

or the articulation of the episodes of civil war and civil rights campaign in the century-long

history of the emancipation of the Black population in the US, etc. However I maintain that

the conflictual element is always determining because there is no such thing as an originary

distribution of equaliberty, and no such thing as a voluntary surrendering of privileges and

dominant positions of power (in spite of such symbolic moments of “fraternity” as the Nuit du

4 août…). As a consequence struggles are always necessary, and more than that a principle of

legitimacy has to be asserted which Jacques Rancière felicitously called la part des sans-part,

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or the claim of the share of those who are deprived of a share in the common good. It

manifests the essential incompleteness of the “people” as a body politic, and aims at

universalizing it through the development of a conflict in which an exclusion from

recognition, or dignity, or rights, or property, or security, or speech, or decision-making, is

“negated” in a relationship of forces. The insurrectional moment, whose past event forms the

immanent foundation of any popular constitution which is not deriving either from tradition,

or a transcendent justification, or a simple “bureaucratic” efficacy, however these various

sources of legitimacy can contribute to the representation of the political, and whose future

return forms a constant possibility in the face of the limitations and the denials which affect

the realization of democracy in the constitution, is ineludible. The consequences are obviously


I want to emphasize two interrelated dimensions in this respect. One of them concerns

the intrinsically problematic character of the political community which derives from the

articulation of citizenship with different forms of insurrection whose horizon is a genuine

universality of rights. Such a community is neither achievable as a homogeneous unity nor

representable as a perfect totality, but it can also not become dissolved in a purely

individualistic notion of juxtaposed subjects brought together by the invisible hand of their

common utility, or their mutual dependency, or in the radically antagonistic picture of civil

“enemies” who have nothing in common but the opposition of their interests. We are very

close here to the description that Mouffe has proposed of the “democratic paradox”, but we

are also approaching the antinomic character of the institution of citizenship which takes

continuously new forms, in particular as the name, the extension, the historical and

ideological bases of its recognition by citizen-subjects who identify with its existence and

somehow appropriate it in their own way vary. This instable and problematic character of the

civic community has been long concealed or, better said, it has been displaced because of the

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strong degree of identification of the notions of citizenship and nationality - what in other

places I have called the constitutive equation of the modern republican State, which derives

its apparently eternal and indisputable character from the permanent strengthening of this

State, but also, as we know, from many mythical, or imaginary, or cultural justifications.

However, in the end of a certain historical cycle (probably the period in which we find

ourselves nowadays, at least in certain parts of the world), the contingent character of this

equation becomes also apparent, which means at the same time its historical grounding and its

fragility, or its exposure to decomposition and mutation. This is also the moment (or perhaps

it is once again the moment) in which it becomes apparent that the national interest is never a

factor of absolute unity of the civic community.

But, from the theoretical point of view, this is only one aspect of the discussion, since

the nation, or the national identity, however effective it has been in modern history, is only

one of the possible institutional forms of the community of citizens, and does neither

encapsulate all of its functions, nor completely neutralize its contradictions. The main point,

therefore, is to understand that citizenship as a political principle, cannot exist without a

community, but that this community cannot be completely unified, that its essence cannot be

the consensus of its members. This makes all the equivocity but also the strategic function of

such terms as res publica, central in the European tradition of defining and instituting

citizenship, which was considered as the Latin equivalent of Greek politeia, or “constitution

of the citizen”, and whose translation in classical English, we may remember, was common-

wealth. Citizens as such do not exist outside a community, whether territorial or not, whether

seen as a natural or cultural legacy, or as a contractual or historical construct, for a

fundamental reason which was already expressed by Aristotle, namely that the principle of

citizenship, or perhaps we should better say co-citizenship, coincides with the idea of a

reciprocity of rights and duties which, as such, binds together the co-citizens, inasmuch as it is

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effectively implemented and obeyed. Perhaps we should say, in a slightly more complicated

manner, that it coincides with the idea that the reciprocity of rights and duties involves a

limitation of power of the rulers and a discipline of the ruled, in particular in the form of the

accountability of the magistrates before their constituencies, and the obedience of the citizens

to the rule of law. But the necessity of the community is not identical with its absolute unity

or homogeneity, far from, because, as I recalled a moment ago, the rights have to be

conquered, i.e. imposed against the resistance of vested power interests and existing

dominations: they have to be “invented” (in the words of Lefort) in the modality of a

conquest, and the content of the duties, or the responsibilities, has to be redefined according to

the logic of this agonistic relationship.

With this idea we come to the second aspect of the dialectic of citizenship. The idea of

a community that is neither dissolved nor unified is hardly reconcilable with a purely juridical

or constitutional definition of the community, therefore of citizenship itself. But it is

conceivable as a historical process and a principle of permanent reproduction and

transformation. And in fact this is the only way to understand the temporality, therefore the

historicity of citizenship as an institution. It is not only that citizenship is permanently

traversed by crises and tensions, that it is a fragile institution that over the long run has been

destroyed and reconstituted several times on new bases, within a different institutional

framework, from the city-state to the nation-state and perhaps beyond the nation state, if

transnational and post-national federations become realities. But it is that citizenship as a

constitution is threatened and destabilized, and delegitimized by the very democratic power

that forms its constituent power (or whose constituted power it represents), namely the

“insurrectional” power of universalistic civic movements claiming inexistent rights, or

broader rights, or an effective realization of equaliberty. This is what in the beginning I have

called the differential of insurrection and constitution, which no purely formal or juridical

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representation of the political can account for, and precisely for that reason essentially

belongs to the concept of the political, as a concept which is embedded in history and

collective practice. Otherwise we would be reduced to imagining that the inventions and

conquests of rights, the new definitions of duties or responsibilities which correspond to

broader and more substantial conceptions of rights derive from an “idea” that is always

already given, either as a pre-historical origin or as a post-historical destination, or, even more

paradoxically, to advocating a notion of citizenship that is purely conservative, resisting its

own democratization and probably for that reason – I will return to this – unable to counteract

its own “de-democratization”. This would be, not a political concept of citizenship, but an

anti-political one, inasmuch as politics means the transformation of given realities and the

adaptation to their changing conditions. With the help of concrete historical analyses, against

any deductive or normative or prescriptive concept of politics, we should be able to

demonstrate that citizenship was a permanent oscillation between destruction and

reconstruction, where the insurrectional moment at the same time was feared by and

necessary to the institutions. As a consequence, if we admit that citizenship as a more or less

partial realization of the principle of equaliberty is also one of the material embodiments of

universality in the field of politics, we will have to admit that there is no such thing as

possessing or inhabiting for ever the realm of universality, in the manner in which classical

philosophers imagined the achievement of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, or defined the

human subject (in fact the modern citizen) as a representative of the universality of the human

species, or its eternal destination. To borrow an expression used by Deleuze, particularly in

his analysis of the function of the movie art in colonial countries during the process of their

own emancipation, this universality should rather become conceptualize in the modality of a

“missing people” (un peuple manquant), which it is a question of producing out of its own

absence or negation.

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To finish on this first point, I would like also to draw the attention to the fact that such

a differential of insurrection and constitution, combined with the disharmony of the

community that it seeks to transform, is not a purely speculative notion of contradiction, but

involves conflicts that can be very violent. I am thinking here in particular of conflicts on the

side of the state and conflicts which affect the history and the figure of emancipatory

movements. Until now I have used a fairly generic notion of institution, describing citizenship

as an institution and also suggesting that equaliberty inscribes a trace within institutions, but

also a trace whose reactivation confronts their specific resistance. But I have avoided the term

“State”, not because I would consider that the question of the state is irrelevant, but on the

contrary because I wanted to keep the possibility of indicating now how the identification of

political institutions with the form of a State construction, where the political practice of

agents is strictly predetermined by their relation to a bureaucratic apparatus of power,

intensifies the antinomic character inherent in the figure of citizenship. It may be useful in this

respect to recall that the notion of the “constitution”, or the “constitution of citizenship”, has

been profoundly transformed along the path of historical development, in a direct relationship

to the growing importance of the state, itself intensified by the hegemony of the capitalist

market and relationships of production. Ancient constitutions, centered on the direct

distribution of rights, the rules of exclusion and inclusion, and the organization of the

accountability of the magistrates, were essentially what we can call “material constitutions”,

i.e. constructions of an equilibrium of competing powers, lacking the sovereign neutrality of

the legal form. Modern constitutions are “formal constitutions”, couched in the universality of

the legal form, which corresponds to the autonomization and the monopoly of representation

of the community by the state. Modern constitutionalism which performatively declares the

universality of rights and protects them from violations is therefore hardly to be separated

from a principle which, in her commentary of the Weberian distinction of types of political

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legitimacy and his thesis of the increasing domination of the rational bureaucratic type,

Catherine Colliot-Thélène has called the principle of the “ignorance of the people”, or the

“ignorant people”, which we could also rephrase as principle of the incompetence of the


This shows how acute the contradiction becomes between participation and

representation in modern citizenship and why the differential of insurrection and constitution

crystallizes in particular in the development of systems of education. Many of us, myself

included, would consider that the development of a public system of mass education,

whatever its imperfections, is an essentially democratic result and precondition for the

effective democratization of citizenship. We also know that democracy and meritocracy

compete here in a very versatile manner. The articulation of the representative state with

systems of mass education contributes to enable the “commoner” or the “average citizen” to

participate in political discussions and contestations of the power monopoly of the State

apparatus, as it contributes to the inclusion of social categories formerly excluded from the

public sphere. Borrow the famous Arendtian expression, it constitutes a basic form of the

“right to have rights”, which is not a bad expression for the objectives of what I call the

insurrectional moment of citizenship. But the meritocratic principle of the same systems of

education (and what would be a non-meritocratic system of mass education? This is

profoundly enigmatic) is also a mechanism of selection and exclusion of the mass from the

possibility of really controlling the action of the magistrates and participating in the

administration of the public affairs. It excludes the possibility of collective self-government

by creating a hierarchy of knowledge which is also a hierarchy of power, even without taking

into account the class character (or the oligarchic mechanisms) that, more than ever,

characterizes our contemporary school systems. By recalling the class dimension of

contemporary constitutions of citizenship, however, I want not only to describe a tension

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between official democratic principles and oligarchic realities, but also, more disturbingly, to

point at another kind of contradictions affecting modern constitutions of citizenship, this time

on the side of the insurrectional movements themselves.

I will not justify at length the idea that the class struggles have played – and still play –

an essentially democratic role in the history of modern citizenship, notwithstanding their

totalitarian deviations. This was the case not only because class struggles, especially the

organized class struggles of the working class in the whole spectrum of their reformist and

revolutionary tendencies, were an essential agent in the definition and the recognition of basic

social rights, rendered at the same time more necessary and more difficult by the rise of

industrial capitalism, decisively contributing to the emergence of what I will discuss in a

minute under the heading of “social citizenship”, but – more directly relating to my current

concern – because they illustrated in a typical manner the articulation of the individual and

the collective which is essential to the very notion of insurrection. As I have argued

elsewhere, it is an crucial aspect of modern citizenship that the rights of the citizen are borne

by the individual subject but conquered by collective movements and campaigns which each

time invent new forms and languages of solidarity. The reciprocal thesis is indeed that, within

the forms and institutions of solidarity and collective inventions of equaliberty in the form of

extended rights, there takes place an essential process of subject-formation or autonomization

of the individual. This is indeed what the dominant ideology stubbornly denies, suggesting

that collective political activity is alienating by its very nature. We must resist this prejudice,

but we cannot all the same believe that the class struggles represented an unlimited or

unconditional principle of universality. It is not by chance that the mainstream of the class

organizations of the labor movement – in spite of many efforts and acute conflicts which

formed so to speak an insurrection within the insurrection – have remained largely blind to

the problems of colonial, cultural, or domestic oppression, both theoretically and practically,

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when they were not directly nationalist, racist and sexist. This was due to the fact the

resistance and the protest against definite forms of domination created or relied on counter-

communities which included their own principles of exclusion and hierarchy. Our attention is

therefore drawn to the fact that there is no such thing as absolute universalities or

emancipations, but only finite or limited moments of insurrection, and that the internal

contradictions of the politics of emancipation are transferred and reflected within the most

democratic constitutions of citizenship, contributing at least passively to its de-


Given the amount of time that I have already spent discussing my first point, which is

also the most theoretical, I will now cut through the three other points which indeed form a

dialectical progression, in order to give an idea of how I see their articulation from the point

of view of the current conjuncture. Allow me to be rather brief on the issue of “social

citizenship” and its relation to the transformation of the representative function of the state

and the modes of organization of politics itself, in spite of the rather fascinating complexity

that this subject has acquired in discussions about the dramatic change that it has suffered in

the last three decades. Whether the notion of “social citizenship” entirely belongs to the past,

and to what extent, is a question that is anything but easily resolved, especially now that the

financial crisis has brought the attention to the importance of the capacities of resistance of

social systems to what Robert Castel called the negative forms of individuality. But, let us

note in passing, this is a moment when our descriptions and judgments are heavily dependent

on the “geo-political” place – I would prefer to say the “cosmopolitical” place, in the

etymological sense – where our discourse is constructed and enunciated. The extent to which

“social citizenship”, as it was developed in Western Europe in the 20th century, and to as

lesser extent in the US, i.e. in the dominant capitalist society of the period, represents a

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general form or a virtually universalistic invention in the history of citizenship, is a fairly

open question, whose answer depends at the same time from how we understand its

dependency on imperialist global structures, and how we analyze its own contradictions. It is

on this second aspect that I want to propose some remarks to open the possibility of a

reflection on the consequences of its current crisis.

The notion of “social citizenship” was proposed initially by Thomas Humphrey

Marshall in the wake of the great transformations prompted by World War II in the rights of

organized labor and the protection of individuals against the risks considered typical of the

proletarian condition (but more or less associated with every form of social life not

guaranteed by the revenues of property). It has been recently the focus of intense scrutiny and

redefinition that has highlighted both its political and its anthropological dimensions (by

Sandro Mezzadra, Robert Castel, and Margaret Somers among others). Of primary

importance in my view is first the fact that – after heated debates which trace back to the

controversies of the Industrial revolution on the connection between charity, philanthropy and

the disciplining of the workforce - it was not conceived as a simple mechanism of insurance

or compensation for the most degraded forms of poverty or the exclusion from the very

possibility of a decent family life for the paupers, but as a universal mechanism of social

solidarity that concerned virtually all citizens and encompassed all social strata (the rich were

entitled to this protection as were the poor, which symbolically means not so much that the

poor be treated like the rich than the reverse: the rich be treated like the poor, especially given

the fact that most of the new social rights are linked to the actual engagement in a profession,

in other terms a formal universalization of the anthropological category of labor as a defining

character of the human. Note here once again that this poses a sharp problem of gender

equality, especially in a historical moment in which most women were still incorporated in

social life mainly as wives of “active” men, subjected to them). Equally important is the fact

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that the negative element of the protection from and prevention of insecurity (in fact a typical

“negation of the negation”) was also, for very powerful economic and ideological reasons, at

least indirectly associated with an agenda of the reduction of inequalities, to which no

political party could not at least formally adhere. It included in particular a maximization of

the chances of upward mobility through the opening of educational institutions to any citizen

or future citizen, or the ideal dismantling of the cultural monopoly of the bourgeoisie (its

exclusive access to the famous capacités or capabilities), and the progressive taxation of the

revenues of capital, which had been completely ignored from classical capitalism (and is

today again increasingly neglected). For these reasons the political system tendencially

instituted or aimed at in the form of “social citizenship” (largely anticipated in the name of a

“social-democratic” program) was not reducible to a collection of separated social rights,

especially not a collection of social rights granted from above to “weak” individuals who

should be seen as passive beneficiaries, whose entitlements should be scrutinized in

permanence and adjusted by the State, as liberal ideologists were never tired of claiming.

More precisely it made these social rights a fluctuating reality whose movements of increase

and decrease, in the face of persisting inequalities and a structural dissymmetry of the social

powers of capital and labor which was never really challenged, completely depended on a

permanent relationship of forces.

It is important to remark here that in no social-democratic regime of Western Europe

the complete system of social rights was incorporated into the formal constitution or the

superior norm (Grundnorm) of public law - Britain being in this respect a special and perhaps

an emblematic case because lacking a unified formal constitution. In fact the relevant notion

here is again that of a “material constitution” of citizenship, no doubt sanctioned by law at

various levels, but essentially made of the equilibrium of powers among social classes, the

contingent reciprocity of rights and struggles, therefore social movements. There is no doubt

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to me that the idea - broadly shared among Marxists - that the so-called “Keynesian

compromise” trading the recognition of social rights and an institutional representation of

labor in politics against the moderation of salaries and the practical abandonment of the

revolutionary perspective of the overthrowing of capitalism on the side of the working class,

therefore in a sense the end of the “proletariat” in the classical sense (according to Marx “a

class whose project of emancipation is radical because its chains are themselves radical”) and

as a consequence the relative neutralization of the violence of social conflict, contains an

essential element of truth. This neutralization was sought in permanence, but it was one side

of the medal. The other side was the permanence of the struggle, as became clear a contrario

when the imbalance of forces at the global level combined with the ossification of the system

itself to launch a new cycle of proletarianization (which Castel calls the emergence of the

precarious class, or “précariat”). It produced also the displacement of social violence towards

other fields than the direct political confrontation: the colonial and post-colonial arena to be

sure, the periodic outburst of warfare among nations, but also the whole range of what the

Durkheimian school of sociology called “anomy”, namely the individual and collective forms

of interiorized “irrational” violence, or violence without a utilitarian goal. It was correlative of

the imposition of social norms of morality and rationality, the essential form taken by the

category of “duty” when the rights of the individuals are not only civil and civic, but also


I want to conclude this very schematic attempt of a definition of social citizenship by

emphasizing once again the crucial character of the tension between conflict and institution,

in other terms the persistence of the political dimension which continues in other ways the

dialectics of insurrection and constitution. It is insufficient in my view, as well as historically

wrong, to think of the emergence of social citizenship either as a unilateral concession granted

by the bourgeois state in the name of its integrative function, or a logical consequence of the

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necessity of a regulation of the free play of the market due to the fact that market capitalism

tended to threaten the integrity of the workforce on whose utilization it relied. These factors

existed, no doubt, but a third conflictual element was needed in order to have them work in

the same direction. Historically this element was “socialism”, in the variety of its

formulations and implementations. In other places I have insisted on the idea that the State

which implemented social citizenship to a greater or lesser degree was to be defined as a

“national and social state”: not only in this sense that the social agenda of reforms was by

definition carried on within national boundaries under the aegis of national sovereignty,

which also required a sufficient degree of autonomy and economic control for the nation, but

in this sense that – especially in periods of acute crisis, such as the modern total wars- it was

only on the condition of universalizing social rights that the nation-state could survive.

Therefore the two attributes of the State, the “national” and the “social”, were knit together in

a system of reciprocity, or mutual presupposition. But this description ought to be carried one

step further. In fact the “socialist” element, which belongs at least momentarily to the

insurrectional side of citizenship, or embodies for a certain historical period some of the

radical sides of democracy, became embedded in the national horizon but was never simply

identical with nationalism, except – let us not forget – when in conjunctures of acute crisis

they become merged in a totalitarian discourse and practice. It has powerfully contributed to

granting reality and relative autonomy to a political public sphere that was reducible neither

to the bureaucratic operations of the State nor to the private contractual dimensions of civil

society. Socialism in this sense was never achieved, it was a contested project or an agenda of

reforms that continuously reignited conflict in the middle of the institutional articulation of

capital and labor, property and solidarity, market logics and state rationality, therefore

maintaining a political character for the public sphere. This was the case in certain limits only,

however, due to the articulation of social citizenship with a reproduction of capitalist social

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relations on the one side, and to the exigencies of the relative neutralization of antagonism, or

violent antagonism within the public realm on the other side: in other terms the construction

of apparatuses of political consensus which prevented adversaries from becoming enemies,

but also tended to freeze existing relationships of social forces and achieved compromises.

Hence what I have called in anticipation the aporia of progress to which the history of

social citizenship provides an almost perfect realization. It is only in the name of unlimited

progress, or the possibility of pushing the movement toward equal capacities in society, as an

ideal and a collective desire, that the transformation of vested forms of domination and the

conquest of an enlarged horizon of liberties for the mass can be pushed ahead. But the limits

of the progression are structurally inscribed in the material constitution (we might also say, in

the traditional way, the “mixed constitution”) that combines the national and the social, the

reproduction of capitalism and the effective generalization of equal rights. So that the very

real achievements of democracy in the National Social State, or the progressive moments in

its construction, are inseparable from a periodically renewed imposition of its limits, which

may take the form of counter-reforms or more violent reactions. It is a crucial question for our

analysis of the contemporary crisis of the idea of social citizenship and the progressive

dismantling of its realizations, which is also a deep crisis of the democratic principle, to

decide whether this crisis which affects the contents of social rights in the fields of job

security or medicare or access to superior education as well as the legitimacy of political

representation, is due only to the “external” assault of a liberal or neo-liberal form of

capitalism empowered by the transnational scale at which it now massively operates, or also

due to the “internal” contradictions and limits of social citizenship itself. In that sense the

perspective of continuous progress towards greater and bolder enunciations of rights, and

more intensive articulations of the autonomy of the individual and the importance of

solidarity, which we might want to call “Bernstein’s theorem” – remembering Eduard

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Bernstein’s famous formula: “the final goal is nothing, it is the movement that is everything”

– would be prevented not only because of the interests it confronts, but because of its intrinsic


I believe that this second hypothesis is the correct one. It is more dialectical than the

idea of a conspiracy of nasty capitalists and it is also more political, since it allows it to think

practical possibilities, as it does not represent the popular classes, once beneficiaries of

relatively important social conquests and now progressively deprived of their security and

collective hopes, as simple victims: they are genuine actors, whose capacities of influencing

their own history depend on the transformations of external and internal conditions, but also

on their own representations of the system in which they act. It is on this basis, however

allusive and incomplete, that I will now consider some aspects of the current discussion on the

meaning and effects of so-called “neo-liberalism”. I will rely at least partially on the

presentation of the issue that has been offered by Wendy Brown in her essay on “Neo-

liberalism and the end of liberal democracy” (2003, now reproduced in Edgework, 2005),

which has been widely discussed and is becoming increasing influential in critical theory


As you probably know Brown argues that neo-liberalism is essentially different from

classical liberalism, as it removes the distinction between political liberalism and economic

liberalism, more precisely the relative autonomy of the economic and the political sphere that

was so crucial for the classical representation of the State as an agency external to the field of

economy, whose interventions should become reduced to a minimum. This crucial change

makes it possible to combine the deregulation of the market with permanent interventions of

the State throughout the field of civil society (and even the intimate life of subjects) in order

to facilitate the emergence of citizens whose general concern is the utilitarian calculus. This

allows Brown to give a very convincing account of the apparently contradictory mixtures of

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libertarian discourses and coercive moralizing or religious programs that have be so

influential since the “Reagan-Thatcher revolution” of the 80’s. I completely agree with this

side of her analysis, which other critics have complemented in their own way. It includes a

description of the unlimited extension of market criteria such as the individual or aggregate

calculus of ratios of inversions (costs) and results (profits) to private and public activities

which, in the classical model or bourgeois capitalism (and even more in what I have called the

National-Social State), were in principle considered irreducible to the principle of commodity

production and the law of value, such as education and scientific research, the quality of

public services and administration, public health and judiciary processes, national security,

etc. (the list is arguably not complete). I will take this description for granted, and I want to

concentrate on Brown’s more philosophical idea that neo-liberalism is indeed a powerful form

of political agency whose actors are in fact spread throughout society. However it is a

political agency or political formation which could be called also anti-political, since it not

only neutralizes the element of conflict inherent in the classical Machiavellian picture of

politics (not to mention the idea of a constitutive “insurrection” without which there would be

no collective assertion and constitution of rights), but renders it a priori meaningless, by

creating the conditions of a society (or civilization) in which the actions of the individuals and

the groups – including their possible violence – are measured against a single criterion of

utility. It is in order to describe this preventive neutralization or suppression of social and

political antagonisms that Brown would retrieve Foucault’s notion of governmentality and

draw its political consequences.

Governmentality as defined by Foucault, we remember, encompasses the whole set of

practices which allow it to modify the “spontaneous” behavior of individuals or exercise

power over their own power of resistance and action, either through the use of coercive,

disciplinary, methods, or through the diffusion of cultural and ethical models, or a

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combination of both. Why is there a challenge of neo-liberalism so lethal to the traditional

definition of politics, including class politics or the kind of liberal politics which made it

possible to develop an internal critique of existing dominations, which she calls “de-

democratization” but which is also clearly a disqualification of the very notion of active

citizenship? This is apparently because neo-liberalism does not simply advocate a retreat

from the political, but has embarked on a new definition of its “subjective” motivation as well

as its institutional instruments. This new definition is also what Brown calls a new rationality,

because it simultaneously modifies the subjective and objective conditions of the political

experience, the material constraints under which increasingly numerous individuals of all

classes find themselves situated, and the values or conceptions of the “good” (and the “bad”)

to which they submit the evaluation of their own actions, ultimately their possibilities of

valorizing their own life and prizing themselves. Allow me to simply and quickly indicate

which problems in particular I believe are involved in such a theorization (each of which of

course would deserve a long and careful discussion).

A first problem it seems to me concerns the very diagnosis of a crisis of traditional

political systems, be they liberal or authoritarian, that is involved in this description.

Admittedly this crisis ought to be considered not a simple episode of tension and doubt, but a

deep and irreversible phenomenon, precluding any return to the previous paradigms of social

action in an unmodified form. We can agree on that, but there remain two opposite

possibilities: one which would view this transformation of the figure of the social subject as

essentially a negative symptom of the decomposition of traditional structures, which were

both structures of domination and structures of resistance to domination, but leading per se to

no sustainable regime of social life, therefore corresponding to an extremely unstable

situation in which many different and largely unpredictable evolutions become possible (this

is very much, for example, Wallerstein’s view); the other one – it seems to me the one that, in

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agreement with Foucault’s notion of the productivity or positivity of power, Brown herself

would endorse – would see it not as a dissolution, or not mainly, but precisely as an invention

or an alternative solution to the problems of the adaptation of the individual’s behavior to the

necessities of capitalism and its political organization. This is indeed where the idea that the

current crisis of the model of “social citizenship” (wherever it was sufficiently developed)

was due not only to the increasing power of its adversaries, “the revenge of the capitalists” as

it were, but also to the development of its internal contradictions, could play a significant role.

But we must be aware also of what such a thesis ultimately means, namely that a social and

political regime is historically possible that is not so much anti-democratic, as are various

forms of authoritarian, dictatorial or fascist regimes, than a-democratic, in the sense that

democratic demands, movements and values (such as equaliberty) no longer play any

significant role in its development (which could be ironically one of the reasons why the

discourse of democracy (and “the spread of democracy”) has been so banalized and

officialized, therefore deprived of discriminating function in the contemporary language of

administration and power, that it partakes completely of the processes of dissolution of

citizenship. This would be a real change of the forces of historical change, or a way of

transiting from history to something like a “post-history”, that we must take very seriously.

Much more seriously in any case than the lenient visions of Francis Fukuyama at the time of

the collapse of the Soviet system in Europe.

However I don’t think that the story can stop here. On the one hand (but I will set this

aside for today), it seems to me that one should discuss the extent to which Brown’s view of

the processes of de-democratization and similar analyses are dependent on the particularity of

the US history and society (which, to say it in passing, was not the typical site of the

development of social citizenship and the national-social state, for reasons both geopolitical:

the US hegemony in the capitalist world, and cultural: tracing back to its ideology of the

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frontier). It would be utterly unfair, of course, to reproach Brown for not taking into account

six years ago what the current financial crisis is suddenly revealing, namely that the neo-

liberal model has its own internal instability and lethal contradictions, or that it is in any case

rather a model of permanent crisis than a new model of relative stabilization of contemporary

capitalism. It will be most interesting to observe the ways in which she includes in her

analyses the typically north-American dimensions of the neo-capitalist model revealed by the

crisis, and also the meaning of the political reactions that, as to now, it has elicited in the US

society. Nothing has taken a final shape in this respect. But I have another question, which

concerns the latent apocalyptic consequences of the idea of de-democratization as it is

constructed here.

This question, I must admit, is prompted by both the analogies and the differences

which I perceive between this description and what I would call Karl Marx’s nightmare. By

this formula, I refer to the model of the so-called “real subsumption”, which Marx elaborated

in an additional chapter of Capital Book I (the so-called “unpublished chapter”, published

posthumously). Clearly Marx left this chapter aside in the end because its implications were

devastating for the very idea of proletarian or revolutionary politics, which it would condemn

to the alternative of withering away or messianic reconstitution out of its conditions of

impossibility. The idea of real subsumption is the idea of a capitalism that does not only use

(or “consume”) the labor force of the workers and pushes to a maximum its production of

surplus labor or its capacities of exploitation, it is the idea of a capitalism that in the end

produces (or reproduces) the labor force itself as a commodity, by determining in advance

and imposing on it “useful” and “manageable” qualities, through the modeling of human

needs and desires (Marcuse will combine this view with post-Freudian concepts in One-

Dimensional Man). The Marxian apocalyptic vision sees the extinction of politics qua

constitutive dimension of history as a result of an extreme, pure economic logic, whereas the

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post-Foucauldian discourse sees it as a result of power logic and the invention of a new

rationality. But both representations are clearly haunted – and rightly so - by the problem of

the production of voluntary servitude in modern societies, which would not be so much the

result of the imaginary fascination for a personal sovereign (as in La Boétie), than the

combined effect of multiple mass practices, micro-powers and everyday behaviors. I am

aware that Brown is very cautious in her anticipations and diagnoses, but others are less, and

in fact there are various forms under which we see the return of the apocalyptic in

contemporary critical theory: ranging from the idea of a transformation of history into

simulacrum or a “virtual” process, to the idea of self-destructive “bio-politics” reducing social

life to “bare life”.

More rapidly, I will indicate two other problems that seem to me worth discussing

extensively within the perspective of a process or moment of “de-democratization” provoking

the crisis of the national-social state, exploiting it, or resulting from it. Such a de-

democratization is clearly linked with an intensification and increasing technological

sophistication of procedures for controlling the life, movements, opinions, and attitudes to

others of the individuals and the groups, which are territorial and mobile, national and

transnational. One thinks of the technologies of electronic and biological identification and

registration, which Agamben among others has denounced. But there is also the psychiatric

and behaviorist classifications of individuals since early childhood, onto the measurements of

alleged dangerous character of adults, which are even much more destructive from the point

of view of the suppression of freedom and self-ownership. However the “positive”

counterpart of these procedures of control, namely the development of a new ethics and care

of the self, in which individuals are called to “moralize” their own conduct according to the

universal principle of maximizing one’s own utility or productivity, has in fact a dark side that

does not stop in the production of voluntary servitude. I am thinking in particular of the

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description proposed by Robert Castel of what he calls a phenomenon of negative

individualism associated with the dismantling or the decay of the social institutions and the

forms of public solidarity and socialization which secured a more or less complete

incorporation, or to borrow Castel’s favorite category, an affiliation of individuals to a

community of other citizens over several generations, that could be experienced as local or

national or usually both (which is necessarily the case when it relies on the pervasiveness of

public services such as education and health). A de-affiliated individual – for example a

young jobless national or immigrant - is a subject to whom contradictory injunctions are

continuously addressed, such as to display the capacities of an entrepreneur of himself,

whereas all the collective conditions which make self-reliance possible are in fact denied to

him. This produces not only despair, sometimes self-destructive violence, it produces a

tendency towards the demand for compensatory communities based on the imaginary of

collective hyper-power (or “auto-immunity” as Derrida and Esposito would say), which are

negative or impossible communities in the same sense in which de-affiliated individuals are

negative or impossible individuals. They can be local, based on the development of gangs, but

they can also become tendencially global, based on a religious or a national and racial

imaginary. This raises the problem of the new function of “populism” in contemporary

politics. I agree with Ernesto Laclau that populism should not be demonized, because in a

sense there is no more a “people” in the political without a “populism” than there is a “nation”

without a “nationalism” or a “common” without a “communism”. Therefore some forms of

populism, in spite or because of their very ambivalence, are the necessary condition for the

formation of a universalistic political discourse which looks beyond the particularity of the

democratic demands of different groups or movements seeking emancipation from

heterogeneous forms of domination. In that sense we may have to admit that the specter of

populism, for better or worse, is always already haunting the dialectic of insurrection and

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constitution with which I started this presentation. But I also ask a reverse question: under

which conditions is a populist form of identification with the missing community, or the

imaginary community, a framework for the mobilization of democratic demands? And when

is it merely a screen on which imaginary compensations for the de-socialization of negative

individuals, therefore also a collective demand for the exclusion of stigmatized “others”,

becomes projected?

I would not, personally, completely separate the discussion of the violent tensions and

ambivalent effects of the articulation between affiliation and de-affiliation, or socialization

and internal exclusion of the autonomous individual, or positive and negative individualism

and communitarianism, from the discussion of the crisis of political representation that,

clearly, forms another aspect of the neo-liberal transformation of the structure of the political.

This has become quite a commonplace, which produces thousands of pages of more or less

interesting political theory a year. But the question of representation, in view of its defense as

a fundamental guarantee of liberal political systems – the one that totalitarian systems claimed

to overcome and in fact reversed in the name of the organic unity of their respective peoples –

or in view of its critique as a mechanism of expropriation of the citizen’s initiative and

competence, is too often simply identified with the question of parliamentary representation,

which represents only one of its aspects and one of its historical possible forms. The crisis of

parliamentary democracy is nothing new: some of its symptoms, such as the tendency towards

the corruption of the elected representatives of the people who then become intermediaries

between the economic corporate interests, the constituencies and the administrative and

legislative State machine, are contemporaneous with its very constitution. They present no

significant difference over three centuries between the era of the rotten boroughs and the era

of the private or public additional salaries or abusive financial compensations for MPs. What

is much more interesting from the point of view of a theory of the antinomies of citizenship is

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the crisis of representation itself, in its general concept, as a capacity for free and equal

citizens to delegate their power to representatives at whichever level in order to perform

public functions, acquiring power precisely inasmuch as they entrust it to others, as admirably

theorized by Hobbes in the framework of a complete identification of the public sphere or a

“commonwealth” with its legal and sovereign incarnation. Let us not forget, however, that in

the republican tradition a teacher or a judge as well as a politician is a “representative of the

people”, who was selected according to more or less direct procedures which presuppose a

democratic acceptance. There seems to be in the crisis of politics indicated by the term de-

democratization not only a disqualification of this or that form of representation but a

disqualification of the principle of representation itself: it is, on the one hand, supposedly

made unnecessary or even irrational in view of the calculable optimization of processes of

“governance” of social programs and social conflicts which would result of their essentially

utilitarian nature, and on the other hand impracticable and supposedly counterproductive

when the responsibility of the citizen-subject is essentially perceived in terms of his or her

potential deviancy from social norms.

Isn’t it here, however, that we might try and sketch what I would certainly not call a

hope, but an alternative way of reasoning? We can try and ground it on the interpretation of

some forms of resistance, solidarities, collective inventions, individual revolts that are

prompted or intensified by the very spread of the neo-liberal style of governance, which taken

together might some day delineate the figure of a new kind of insurrectional politics, therefore

also dialectically make it possible to imagine new modalities of the constitution of citizenship

(in formulating this I cannot avoid referring to the title, and the content, of the recent book

published by James Holston on the experience of the organization of illegal communal

structures in the favelas of the Brazilian big cities, with the significant title Insurgent

Citizenship). I am not abstractly choosing, however, between the two antithetic figures or

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symbolic modes of subjectivation that may correspond to the idea of insurgent citizenship.

One is the deviant subject, resisting procedures of control, moralization and normalization

imposed by the rationality of the neo-liberal order, which are even more coercive than that of

the National Social State, although they probably make no more than develop the germs

already given in the disciplines and punishments of the latter. A deviant “citizen-subject” is a

“minoritarian” one who invents what Foucault would have called heterotopias rather than

utopias, which are also self-imposed protections against the nihilistic forms of violent

negative individuality. The other figure that comes to mind is that of the militant or

“majoritarian” subject of collective political action, who joins campaigns for civic or

democratic causes which also have a moral dimension, such as the defense of the

environment, or the solidarity with illegal migrants hunted and dehumanized by the very

militarized society which pushed them into the realm of illegality, or the apparently more

traditional causes of the defense of labor rights and popular culture. I am not even sure that

the two figures, in fact pure ideal types, can be completely separated. They correspond to

heterogeneous political logics, however, and they are occasionally incarnated in separated

practices which do not originate in the same parts of the society, or the global world, and

above all do not speak the same political language. This is also the reason why they can form

only transitional unities or alliances. But these unities or alliances are also justified by the

discovery that multiple forms of inequalities and exclusions are combined in a single complex

system, or a network of political exigencies. It is on the basis of such remarks that, if I had

kept time for that, I would try and elaborate a little more on the idea of a public sphere that is

not already given, even if can make use of existing structures of communication and rights of

expression, but constructed, or “missing”, as the people itself, and the idea of a political actor

who is not the incarnation of a single empirical-transcendental type - such as “the Worker”, or

“the Proletarian”, or “the post-colonial subject”, or “the Woman” - but rather a collective and

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composed, or hybrid political actor, working and framing itself across internal and external

borderlines. Its permanent task is to overcome its own split interests as much as confronting

the power of its adversaries. But this should be for another occasion. You cannot condense

two lectures into one, and I have already considerably abused of your patience. I am very

grateful for your attention and I expect your critical remarks and questions with great interest.