The Political : Adi Ophir
The Political / Adi Ophir
Half way through his argument in “The Proposition of Equaliberty,” precisely in the middle of the text, Balibar writes:
In what follows I argue that this tension, so central to Balibar’s conception of the various kinds of politics driven by the proposition of eqauliberty, is not unique to this kind politics. I argue that if equaliberty is a binding principle of modern politics, it has found its rival and Other in a no less powerful binding principle, one that consists of an explicit and systematic negation of the universalist dimension of equality and liberty. This other principle binds what I propose to call “a politics of purity.” I show that it has a structural similarity to the principle of equaliberty and look for the common ground that accounts for this resemblance. Juxtaposing these two antagonistic forms of politics and explicating their common ground helps articulate (albeit briefly and schematically2) an outline for a concept of the political that does not exclude one type of politics in favor of the other but is rather realized equally in both. The two types (and their opposite binding principles), I try to show, are symmetrical in certain respects that make them equally (and especially well) equipped to demonstrate basic aspects of the political event, and of the political as an event.
1. A Structural Tension
There are several aspects to the tension Balibar underlines in the opening quote, but the most basic, I believe, and the one I will be mostly interested in is the following: on the one hand, the “statement leaves the task of producing a politics of the right of man entirely up to practice, to struggle, to social conflict.” On the other hand, the very act of institutionalization—with respect to the governed community and the ruling power alike—sets limits on both liberty and equality, and even with the best of intentions it exerts a toll that gradually accumulates. Balibar is occupied with the history and logic of these constraints. He reconstructs the institutionalization of equality and liberty as mediated by property right and a political community, each setting its own boundaries and structural constraints and embodying conditions that constrain the ability to realize equaliberty, even under the most fortunate circumstances. This institutionalization, Balibar seems to believe, must also confront two irreducible differences, of gender and mental competence, which are responsible—both historically and logically—for renewed forms of inequality.
Hence the repeated abstract claim implied in the proposition exceeds any concrete institutionalization and must be constantly renewed as well. The proposition of equaliberty is not merely a descriptive assertion regarding the nature of politics but a principle and an imperative that must be reinserted into the political struggle by those committed to “revolutionary politics” (or “a politics of emancipation”). The immanent tension between the concrete conditions and institutionalization of equaliberty and the hyperbolic universality of its proclamation should not be taken as a given. It should be enacted and performed, and repeatedly so. Otherwise “no revolutionary politics” would become possible.
“Revolutionary politics” is a term Balibar gradually abandoned. In an important essay first published in 1996, Balibar distinguishes and discusses three kinds of politics: of emancipation, of transformation, and of civility.3 The aim, he says was to confront
Even before introducing the last concept, “revolutionary politics” had been replaced by two of its moments, emancipation and transformation, which are carefully distinguished, and transcended. “The progressive tradition,” it is safe to assume, is the one committed to equaliberty, while the urgency of confronting extreme violence may come from two opposite directions of the struggle for equaliberty. On the one hand, civility, which is the political response to extreme violence, implies a struggle for making politics—any kind of politics—possible. This includes a recognition that the struggle for equaliberty has to give way, temporarily at least, to the exigencies of the efforts to curb extreme violence, and do that in coalition with forces that may not be committed to equaliberty, to one’s interpretation of equaliberty, or to one’s means of achieving it. On the other hand, extreme violence may originate from an over-zealous revolutionary struggle to achieve equaliberty.5 In both cases, violence must be tamed at the expense of the revolutionary struggle, adding another crucial reason for the need to repeat, perform anew, the hyperbolic, universal claim of equaliberty. The proposition itself, however, and the claim and imperative it encapsulates, will be articulated anew according to the terms of either one of the three kinds of politics. The tension between the enunciation of the statement and its institutionalization pervades all three of them. Each kind of politics is engrained in the same structural tension between concrete institutionalization and a surpassing, hyperbolic, universal proposition that serves as a binding principle, a guide and a moral-political imperative.
Balibar has never claimed to exhaust the spectrum of possible kinds of politics. He sometimes speaks of politics in general as a sphere of action and institutions dedicated to “community building, regulating social conflict[s], defending the public interest, taking and exercising power, governing the multitude, transforming social relations, [and] adapting to change.”6 But all the kinds of politics he studies are those committed to equaliberty; they are different versions of the struggle to realize it, or at least (in the case of civility) create the conditions for such politics. Balibar focuses on those not only because this is the politics to which he is committed, but because it is a politics of a special kind. Its uniqueness is at once conceptual and historical: conceptual, because the intricate and multi-dimensional dialectics of equaliberty could be extended to cover the entire history of politics, and of politics tout court, and suggest its general outlines and inner logic;7 historical, because the modern event of equaliberty has become “irreversible.” It is irreversible not because the proposition has been universally accepted and its history completed, but rather because it has set the terms of the political debate, such that even “its opponents found themselves obliged to criticize . . . [it] in its own language, based on its own implications.”8
The irreversibility of the proposition of equaliberty is a historical claim that should be questioned today on historical grounds. I am afraid that the answer would be mixed, at best. It seems to me quite obvious that not all the opponents of equaliberty find themselves today “obliged to criticize . . . [it] in its own language, based on its own implications.” The reverse may also be true; there are enough cases, I believe, to show how the advocates of equaliberty work hard to criticize their opponents but find themselves obliged to use the latter’s language and follow the implications of their political proposition. This does not mean, of course, that one should be less committed to the principle and the imperative, only that the terms of the struggle have shifted. My point is not only that the effect of the event of equaliberty has not eclipsed altogether other, regressive or counter-progressive, and explicitly anti-universalist forms of politics, but rather that some of those forms are structured by the same structural tension that generates the recurrent renewal of radical politics, a politics guided by, articulated in terms of, and legitimized and judged by an appeal to a hyperbolic proposition of its own. In what follows I would like to examine one such hyperbolic proposition that consists of an explicit negation of universalism in politics and an active struggle to inverse the advance of equality and liberty for the sake of equaliberty’s radical other. This is a politics guided by a proposition that does not simply negate liberty or equality under particular circumstances, but calls to overrule universal principles of any kind in the name of hyperbolic particularity.
The opposition is symmetrical, however, at least with respect to the tension produced by the attempt to transform or invent political institutions so as to realize a hyperbolic particularist proposition. Whether this other hyperbolic statement gives rise to another revolutionary politics or is only responsible for its simulation, even to the extent that it is no longer possible to distinguish the true revolutionary politics from its counterfeit, matters little in this context. What matters is that the political materialization of this principle has already changed the contemporary conditions of the struggle for equaliberty and seems no less “irreversible” than the proposition of equaliberty. This struggle is shaped today not only by the aporia of equaliberty, its mediation through property rights and political communities, and the irreducible differences responsible for the introduction of inequality. The struggle is also, if not especially shaped by the presence of active counterforces that seek to exalt a certain principle of particularity, the particularity, exceptionality, or chosenness of one political entity at stake—be it one people, one state, a Republic, an Empire, or a race—and subsume all their politics under the reign of that principle. The condition of equaliberty as an ongoing project, like the very concept of the political, must be reinterpreted in light of the recurrent event—and the new advent—of this politics of particularity, which I would like to name and interpret here as a politics of purity.
2. The Politics of Purity
Balibar was not oblivious, of course, to the counterforces I have in mind here. A little more than a year before the presentation of the first version of “The Proposition of Equaliberty,”9 as part of his collaboration and constructive dialogue with Immanuel Wallerstein, Balibar published his now classic analysis of “Racism and Nationalism.”10 With the “progressive domination of the system of nation-states over other social formations, racism has been intimately linked to nationalism, “constantly emerging out of [it], not only towards the exterior but towards the interior,” functioning as its internal “supplement . . . always in excess of it, but always indispensable to its constitution and yet always still insufficient to achieve its project.”11 The forces at stake have been formidable and persistent, starting long before the biological racism of the 19th century and lasting long after the Second World War, “since the time of the Reconquista in Spain” down to contemporary Europe where “‘the dangerous classes’ of the international proletariat tend to be subsumed under the category of ‘immigration’, which becomes main name given to race within the crisis-torn nations of the post-colonial era.”12 This racism, which “first presented itself as a super-nationalism,” has been “a supplement of particularity,”13 that has repeatedly undermined any institutionalization of the nation (through the nation-state and its universalist conception of nationalism, including the recognition of the equal national status of other nations). Notwithstanding the universal aspect of nationalism, racism, its indispensable excess, pushed other groups of humans, both internal and external, to positions of radical inferiority, as sub-national and sub-humans.
This inferiority has been nothing but the other side of the “excessive particularity” of the nation. The institutionalization of the nation cannot be separated from “the excess of purism” and “the obsessional quest for a ‘core’ of authenticity that cannot be found,” and this dialectic “shrinks the category of nationality and de-stabilizes the historical nation” or forces phantasmatic history, vocation, and destiny, as well as the engineering of its population so as to create it in line with that phantasmic model.14 One can hardly fail to notice the structural similarity between this dialectic of excess and institutionalization (“every historical racism is both institutional and sociological”15) and the one Balibar developed soon after with respect to the principle of equaliberty. But as far as I am aware, the analogy has never been drawn explicitly, and the notable differences between the two have not been drawn. These differences are significant. Neither racism, nor the idea of “excessive particularity” have never been associated with an event that has become “irreversible,” and, more importantly, perhaps, the excessive element that racism introduces into every form of nationalism, as “a necessary tendency” and an “indispensable, internal supplement” has not been studied, or even articulated as a binding principle of politics.
Racism, for Balibar, is “a social relation,” an ideological “configuration,” a fundamental operator of classification, a philosophy of history, or more accurately a historiosophy,” “one of the most insistent forms of historical memory of modern societies,” and a force endowed with “a structuring dimension.” This impressive reading of racism, its history, discursive structure, and ideological configuration is not wrong; it is simply and decisively symptomatic, and as such it fails to give an account to racism’s straightforward articulation as moral and political imperative, a principle of and guide for political action, or as a politics that deserves a place of its own in the typology of political formations Balibar will propose about a decade later.16
In what follows I would like to propose a fuller analogy between the proposition of equaliberty and a proposition encapsulated in racism, but one that goes far beyond it. This principle, I contend, enables a straightforward account as racism as politics, a lively mode of political belonging, irreducible to any given social structure, political institution, or phantasmatic subjectivity, but one that is actively involved in their formation. The principle is that of purity. As I mentioned briefly above, Balibar recognizes its operation at the heart of racism:
Obsessive or not, this imperative should be recognized as a principle of political action, whose logic is not limited to the formation of the nation and the nation-state, and whose operation precede that of modern racism, in much the same way that the principles of equality and liberty precede the event of the French Revolution. Like equality and liberty, purity too should be recognized as an affair of antiquity. In fact, the principle of purity it is as old as politics in the West. I will take my example from the Hebrew Bible. A typical formulation of a hyperbolic statement guiding a politics of purity is presented as a concise imperative in the book of Deuteronomy:
As old as is the book of Deuteronomy, I do not refer to it because it is an originary or founding moment but due to the context in which that imperative appears: a straightforward conjunction of hygiene and strategy, biopolitics and security. Cleanse your camp of the impure stuff your body discharges, the text says, so that God, which is also your sovereign, could reside in your midst and protect you from your enemies:
Purity is a means of survival when living too close to God. Closeness to God, and hence degrees of purity are also a status, authority, and capital distributed unequally among priests, Levites, and the rest of the Israelites. For all of them purification is an ongoing practice that needs to be resumed periodically and occasionally. The encounters with the impure cannot be exhausted by any final list of impurities, and hence the imperative anticipates and seeks to encompass what it cannot articulate, but it also calls for ongoing practice. Living bodies, people on the move, with their numerous and unpredictable forms of intercourse, constantly produce impurity. The line needs to be redrawn constantly. During the Second Temple, the question concerning what and who must be considered impure was up for grabs, and since then it has never ceased occupying Jewish sectarian politics, and later the rabbinic circles that revolutionized Jewish life in the early centuries CE. It is an open question that must be repeatedly posed, because the realm of the impure always exceeds what the imperative of purification can articulate, and nothing and nobody can be purified once and for all. More importantly, ever since the emergence of sectarian politics in the fifth or fourth century BC, the boundaries of the “camp” itself have been questioned. The boundaries were questioned, but not the basic idea of a separate camp actively separating itself from the realm of the impure: “the camp” has always designated the community—at once ethnic, religious, and political—that must purify itself.18 The politics of purity is, first and foremost, a politics of belonging, a way for articulating belonging, drawing its boundaries and setting its conditions. Whoever knows the secrets of purity and purification exerts political power; whoever is authorized to separate the pure from the impure enjoys a certain degree of sovereignty; whoever questions this authority and proposes alternative boundaries or principles of purity takes part in a politics of purity.
The Biblical imperative of purity has been repeatedly proclaimed in many languages and various political contexts, with considerable “truth effects.” Numerous repetitions and variations of the statement can be found throughout history and across different cultures. It is also in this form that the imperative produces the permanent tension Balibar describes between the hyperbolic statement and its institutionalization. With slight adaptation, this description (presented in the opening quote) may be paraphrased thus: There is a permanent tension between the conditions that historically determine the construction of institutions that conform to the proposition that constitutes the purity of the community and the excessive, hyperbolic purity (and exclusivity) the statement seeks to establish. Therefore, it will always have to be repeated, though repeated differently, with respect to the ever-changing mélange of the governed, in order to reproduce the truth effect without which there is no racist, nationalist, chauvinist or fundamentalist politics.
Clearly, the proposition of equaliberty and the imperative of purity are different in many respects, in both form and content, and involve very different regimes of truth. Most importantly, the extraordinary elenchus, or proof by double negation, which Balibar reconstructs with respect to equaliberty cannot be found in the imperative of purity. Obviously, the mediating role played by property and community has no equivalence here; the political community is the direct object of the imperative, and property is nothing but a set of objects, including land that may be impure and may or may not be “purifiable.” Concerning equaliberty Balibar writes, “there are no examples of restrictions or suppressions of freedoms without social inequalities, nor of inequalities without restrictions or suppressions of freedoms.”19
The case of purity is more simple and straightforward. It is assumed that purity is always violated, threatened, and undermined; impurity is both structural and occasional, and the only question is how to identify the impure elements and get rid of them, or at least separate from them. But this does not mean that the hyperbolic element is not at work here. The negation of purity is caught in an infinite regress—the means of purification need to be purified by people and this means that they themselves need to be purified, and so on. The imperative generates a project without end, a perpetual movement of exclusion. Thus, both claims, for equaliberty and for purity, exhibit a highly productive tension between the institutions that realize the proposition and the enunciation of the statement that sets their principle and grants their legitimacy.
The history of citizenship, Balibar reminds us, “is open, just as the history of equaliberty is open. They have a past before modernity and its bourgeois or socialist revolutions, declarations of rights, etc., [and] . . . certainly also have a future after modernity.”20 This history should include a politics of equality articulated in terms of a hegemonic regime of purity. There are many examples of this. I take mine, once again, from the Hebrew Bible. There we find the claim that the community of the pure must be a community of equals. This claim is raised by a rebel named Korah. Readers who remember Walter Benjamin’s single, paradigmatic example of divine violence may remember his story and fate. Korah’s claim was addressed to Moses, challenging his leadership:
This was the beginning and the end of a politics of equality in the Hebrew Bible. Korah was swallowed by the earth, and the politics of equality with him, but not without leaving a clear mark—equality pertains to those deemed holy; it can be formulated only on the basis of a prior principle that separates the holy congregation. A politics of purity may be inflected so as to produce a community of equals, as long as holiness—and the purity associated with it21—are equally distributed. A politics of purity may, but need not involve a proposition of equality.22 Its imperative to separate precedes and overrides other principles. Here is the most dramatic episode, played out by Ezra, a leader of the Judeans who, under the auspices of Cyrus, King of Persia, had returned to Jerusalem from their exile in Babylon:
The elite of “officials and leaders” is not condemned for ceasing power or property they do not deserve, but for being leaders in profaning “the holy seed.” The story of the expulsion of their foreign wives in the Books of Ezra–Nehemia has become a paradigm of segregationist, supremacist politics, and was used repeatedly from antiquity to our present, from Palestine to Nazi Germany, and to the American Bible Belt.23 It is widely used by Christian American fundamentalists to support white supremacism.24 Then and now, the call to purity seeks to limit the freedom to interact, intermarry, and co-habit the same piece of land, and undermine any claim to equality between indigenous residents and returning newcomers who quickly became colonizing settlers. Thus, when commanded to expel their wives and children, the people of the Judean community dared not question either the imperative to purify or the impurity of their wives. The terms of the imperative were taken for granted. Their strategy of resistance, in fact their politics of purity, was based on a series of postponements. Instead of resisting the expulsion they tried to postpone it, reaffirming the irreversibility of the imperative while undermining its efficacy.25 And when Third Isaiah, a prophet who was more or less Ezra’s contemporary and rejected his segregationist position, offered an inclusive understanding of YAHW’s worship, he was able to do so only be extending the boundaries of the sacred and including members of other nations among the priests and Levites (Isa 66: 18-23).
In light of this call and within the framework of its consequent institutionalization, whoever wished to ease restrictions on the freedom to intermarry, question the inequality of status between Israel and others, or open the gates of the Jewish community to newcomers, has had to do so by rearticulating purity and interpreting or manipulating its internal logic, extending its realm and relaxing the practices of purification. When doing so, however, the hyperbolic particularistic principle still reigns over any universal claim. Membership in the political community still implies purity, a radical distinction between members and non-members, institutionalized inequality and a slippery slope from denying non-members’ rights to forsaking their lives.
Biblical anecdotes cannot replace the historical study and conceptual analysis necessary here, and examples from past and contemporary Jewish politics might seem too esoteric to teach us any lesson of a wider scope. But such anecdotes and examples do indicate both the antiquity and the persistence, or at least recurrence, of a politics of purity. This politics has had many ideological variations—religious, sectarians, nationalists, racists, and racist-nationalists—and several institutional frameworks, including monarchial and tyrannical; imperialist, colonialist, and totalitarian; populist and democratic. The politics of purity does not die in democratic water, which it constantly pollutes (just as a politics of equaliberty can survive in autocratic regimes as long as a window for democratization is still open). Its principle is more basic, and cannot be reduced to any specific ideology. Its known racist and nationalist versions do not exhaust its spectrum, for it can thrive without them, as it did in eras and cultures where both modern terms had no equivalence (as the book of Ezra-Nehemiah, or the scrolls left by the Qumran sect, exemplify). Moreover, there have been revolutionary, socialist, and communist, not only fascist versions of this politics, such as French revolutionary terror, and the Stalinist and Maoist purges throughout the twentieth century.
The total collapse of Nazism—arguably the ultimate paradigm of a politics of purity26— and the disintegration of Stalinism were conceived, for a certain historical moment, at least, as an ultimate defeat of the politics of purity itself. This defeat was marked after the Second World War by a universal consensus and global treatises condemning anti-Semitism, racism, and Apartheid, and was seemingly sealed with the fall of the Apartheid regime in South Africa in the early 1990s. But this account appears today as shortsighted. Balibar’s essays on racism showed clearly, in the 1980s, how shortsighted this view was in post-war, “post-colonial” Europe. Looking at some of the current models of the politics of purity, among Indian nationalists, Pakistani Muslim fundamentalists,27 Jewish Zionists, French or Hungarian neo-fascists, or American white supremacists (a partial list), one must admit that the forces animating the politics of purity are alive and well, and that far from being defeated, the modern forms of this type of politics seem no less irreversible than the “truth effects” of “the event of equaliberity” produced by bourgeois revolutions of the 18th century.
3. The Limits of the Political
This kind of politics is precisely what has been relegated outside of the very realm (and concept) of the political by at least one influential political thinker, Jacques Rancière.28 For him, the purity of the political is established by an explicit denial of the possibility of a politics of purity.
Disruption of the mechanisms of power, of the everyday functioning of governmental practices would be considered political only when carried out on the basis and in the name of the assumption of “the equality of anyone and everyone.”
Disruption—or the attempt to disrupt—the mechanism of power is indeed crucial for anything to become political. For even power itself, governmental or otherwise, let alone the forces that collaborate with or oppose it, would assume a political dimension only once the acts and functioning of power are disrupted, when a gap is opened between its taken for granted presence and factual operations, on the one hand, and its legitimization on the other. This disruption should not be conceived necessarily in the form of a popular resistance, mass demonstrations, or a general strike. Even a poem or graffiti would suffice, even a naïve, but hitherto silenced observation of the kind offered by the little boy in Hans Christian Andersen story, The Emperor’s New Suit can sometimes constitute a disruption and turn anything it touches—the kings body and clothes, his entire entourage, the two swindlers and the whole cheering crowd—into a political matter.30 The political moment is this event of disruption that problematizes power in public, deprives power of its seeming naturalness and inevitability and introduces the possibility of change, of a different way to be governed, a different form of government, different relations between rulers and ruled, a different distribution of power and access to power, and different boundaries to the political community.31
Like Arendt, though with some differences, Rancière sets the bar for the disruption of the political much higher than what I am proposing here, closer to Balibar’s own account.32 Rancière turns the political moment into a rare and quite radical event. Politics, for Rancière, is separated from most human affairs; the numerous moments in which power has been questioned, problematized, disrupted, and resisted without invoking radical equality unjustifiably shrinks the history of politics. But the real problem with Rancière’s concept of politics is not a matter of degrees of radicalness or comprehensiveness of the disruption, but that only one kind of disruption is allowed. That which decides the political moment for Rancière is the eruption of radical equality of those subjected to a rule in which they do not take part, and this eruption is at one and the same time a radical opening of the closure of the political body and a leveling of all hierarchies within it. In this sense, Rancière’s concept of politics is precisely a negation of the politics of purity. For a politics of purity closes the political community, redefining its terms and imposes metrics of legitimation for the hierarchies within it.
It would be a gross mistake to equate the politics of purity with what Rancière calls “the police.” The call for purity has all too often been the principle underlying radical disruption to the order of that “police” and the many governmental apparatuses associated with it. The disruptive intervention in the state apparatus and its violent re-structuring may be orchestrated from above, by the highest authorities, as clearly demonstrated by the transformations of the state in Nazi Germany, in Stalin’s USSR in the 1930s, or, today, in Turkey under Erdoğan. But it may also come from below, carried out by the individuals and groups who take active part in reiterating and enforcing the imperative of purity, using it precisely to criticize power and defy it in the name of a higher power. Is there a reason to exclude these moments and those movements and forces from the history and theory of politics, or even to collect them under the heading and logic of racism? Is it right not include in this history the many versions of sectarian politics, with their transformative potential and revolutionary fervor, which, from time immemorial, acted on the principle of purity, performed ever new modes of closure and exclusion, transforming modes of political belonging while invigorating hierarchies and restructuring them? The imperative of purity can be the binding principle of a politics that involves the people, the masses, while bypassing or undermining many of the formal institutions of government. Such a politics includes grassroots organizations, public gatherings, and the political actions carried out in the public sphere. In the course of these actions, power structures and the boundaries of the community (of those entitled to benefit from the power’s protection are and of those entitled to share it) are questioned more and less radically. Obviously, this politics has its own tension between the visionary and idealist elements and the more pragmatic, corruptible or utterly corrupted elements. It is a politics like any other, it is as ancient as the politics of equaliberty, it has had its ancient, medieval, modern, and postmodern phases, and its specter, by which Europe has been haunted for so long, is looming large today over the entire global horizon.
Once the imperative of purity is understood as a political proposition, the concept of the political cannot be conceived from the perspective of equaliberty, or that of democracy. Unlike Rancière’s theory of mesentente, the proposition of equaliberty does not prevent us from thinking the two kinds of politics together despite, or precisely due to, their radical opposition. The comparison is worth making, for they oppose each other not as the essence or core of the political versus the political’s Other, but as two extremes within a spectrum of political possibilities. Let me examine them briefly.
4. The Two Extremes and their Common Ground
The hyperbolic statement of equaliberty is a proposition of democracy as an ever renewable and repeatable process of democratization. A struggle for equaliberty may survive in a non-democratic regime, but the only regime it is compatible with is a democracy in which democratization is an ongoing process. The imperative of purity, on the other hand, does not preclude any regime found on Plato’s, Aristotle’s, Montesquieu’s, or Arendt’s list of political regimes. Rather, it inflects each of these in a specific way. In this sense, the imperative of purity inflects citizenship too, and, as stated above, must be considered part of its history. Like equaliberty, purity is a principle that precedes the division between the political community and its ruling power, demos and archē, and gives these distinctions their distinct form. These forms may change according to the type of liberty/equality—or purity—at stake. Various types of equaliberty are responsible for expanding and extending the bounds of the political community differently, but in each case, such restructuring is both a goal and an ongoing project; various types of purity are responsible for drawing the boundaries of the political community differently, but in each case, closure is both a goal and an ongoing project. In a politics of equaliberty, the closure of the community is both inevitable and an obstacle to be resisted, negotiated, and constantly removed; in a politics of purity, universalizing tendencies play a similar role.
Equaliberty is horizontal: the principle of a relation between anyone and everyone. Its questioning of boundaries is always a matter of time and circumstances, never of principle, whereas the principle that imposes closure on the political body is always foreign to it, or at least potentially so. From the perspective of equaliberty, citizenship is always expandable, its limits temporary and contingent. The struggle for equaliberty can neither constitute nor presuppose the identity, boundaries, or essence of the community in which it is taking place—it can only undermine and deconstruct them. Purity is vertical: the principle of a relation to a transcendent, salvific element, whether a god or an idea (of a superior race, class, nation, or of the mode of purification, the revolution, the party, and so on). The imperative to purify does not simply contradict the universal claim of equality and liberty. Because it is always addressed to a particular group, to a distinct, special, if not divinely chosen camp, which it presupposes and constitutes at the same time, purity endows that political community, imaginary as it is, with an absolute privilege that negates universality tout court.33 From the perspective of the imperative of purity, citizenship is not the ground for power’s legitimization but a privilege derived from a principle and a source higher than both power and its subjects. This source, from which the imperative of purity emanates, is responsible for the fact that citizenship is always erodible, and that shrinking its scope and meaning is a recurring political project.
In much of modern and contemporary politics, certainly in the US today,34 the purity of the camp and universal equaliberty are not simply contradictory but actively antagonistic positions.35 If these two forms of politics are indeed opposite extremes within a spectrum of possibilities, it may be useful to look again at their common ground. This common ground, I believe, is that permanent tension about which Balibar speaks in the text that opens this essay, the tension between the institutions of power and the hyperbolic statement that sets the principle that these institutions are supposed to embody. The political emerges through this tension, while the performance, the enacted statement, and the institutions simultaneously assume their “politicality.” Only when directed at a certain always-already existing order of power does the performance of the statement assume or reveal its political nature. And only when addressed by a claim that problematizes their logic or practice do institutions of power lose their self-evident nature, assume their politicality, and reveal their potentiality for politics.
Most of Balibar’s work vacillates in the space opened here, being interpellated by this tension between hyperbolic political statements and their aporetic encounter with, and embodiment in, political institutions. He would never fix his thinking on one of these poles without immediately referring to the other, always struggling to articulate the many and various historical and theoretical manifestations of the tension, and to reconstruct the dialectics unfolding between the opposing poles. I would like to take the liberty of interpreting this tension in which Balibar is so thoroughly engaged as a manifestation of the basic structure of the political event—and of the political as an event. This tension and this gap between the institutions of a ruling power and the acts that actually or virtually—but always publicly (a point we must return to)—challenge them is precisely where the political resides.
The hyperbolic principle of equaliberty and the obsession of purity are two opposite modes of challenging institutionalized power according to its own principles, introducing gaps in the interstices of power that feed off the logic of that very power they publicly call into question. It is this strange dialectics, in which the ruling power can always be questioned in its own terms and the opposition between the poles is never played out fully, never creating an unbridgeable split (as is the case, for example, in slave rebellion or a struggle against a foreign tyranny), which make these rival types of politics especially adept for demonstrating the nature of the political. In both, the interruption brought about by the problematization of power takes place in the medias res, with respect to an always-already institutionalized power, on the one hand, and an excess of particularity or hyperbolic universality which, when called into present, is always already remembered, if only as forgotten, concealed, or repressed. And even when a phantasy of a constituent foundation is violently sought, the struggle to achieve it interrupts an existing power structure while reiterating some of its elements, and relying on various performances in which precedents are reiterated (as the establishment of a community of purity in Ezra-Nehemia, or in the emblematic case of the French Revolution clearly demonstrate).
These two extreme forms of problematizing power are special even though they may not introduce forceful interruption into schemes of power relations, and even when they have little effect on the excess of particularity or universality in the political event (the failure to interrupt or achieve an excessive impact is always an option). The two opposite type of politics are special because the problematization of power’s institutionalization is built into their logic. Without being necessarily democratic they are open to the demos, which, however it is defined, can be called into question. Without a necessary figure of a Hobbesian or Schmittian sovereign, they recognize a political authority whose grip on power can always be challenged. The most radical political question, the relation between the political authority and the many—who is supposed to recognize the political authority and be bounded by, who has access to it and who is entitled to challenge it—can never be settled, due to the obsession with interpreting and applying the principle that binds this authority.
5. The Political
We may now address the political more generally. There are many types of politics, of course, and not all of them manifest the political with the same degree of clarity. To understand this, one must draw a decisive distinction between politics and the political, and allow for a politics that is hardly political, and for a political event that does not translate into politics. The political is any event in which a ruling power is problematized in public, in the name of a binding principle. This may take place even when a ruling power publicly defends one of its own acts or principles without being directly challenged, for this means that the possibility of such a challenge is publicly acknowledged, i.e., that an order of power has been de-naturalized. An act, a person, a monument, policies and procedures, patterns of exchange and interrelation, space and time, gods and animals—any of these becomes political by taking part in a political event, being drawn into the space opened in public between the challenging or problematizing act and the problematized authority, act, actor, etc. A thing becomes political because it becomes integral to such a challenge or its suppression. When this space of public contention shrinks, the political shrinks with it.36 The political event is always also the event of becoming political, or of reasserting the politicality of whatever is publicly problematized in the event.37
The political cannot take place without an actual confrontation between the two parties to this tension, hence their co-presence in some actual or virtual space. The political is distributed between these two poles, as the confrontation grants “politicality” to each. The political does not emanate from either of them; it resides in between. The universality of equaliberty and the exclusivity of “the pure camp” are two opposing forms this “in between” might take. The modern event of equaliberty is the historical moment in which the two forms appear as the exact inversion of each other, even when they defy and problematize the very same power.
Hence “the political” is not an idealized realm or a set of transcendental principles that precedes or conditions politics, grounds its autonomy, or sets its ultimate goals. The political is an event that takes place by publicly problematizing a certain order of power, a form of rule or a mode of government. Power is problematized with respect to the principles that should allegedly bind it, and in the very space created by this problematization. The political event takes place through concrete performances of problematization of power and politicization of what power strives to naturalize, regardless of the nature of the “part” that defies power and the questioned principles. The nature and scope of this event determines what is being politicized. Nothing is politicized avant la lettre, i.e., prior to the performance and outside the scope of some such performance; and nothing remains political without reiterating this problematization, or at least without the ghostly presence of its suspended repetitions. This means, among other things, that the question of the autonomy of the political—which concerns Balibar a great deal—must be recast.
The political event is one in which a certain portion of politics’ “other scene” is put on display. That another scene always accompanies politics, both preceding and following it, that the political struggle is both displaced from other spheres of actions and continues through other means, and that forces working in those other scenes (for there are always more than one) prepare the ground for, and shapes the stage of the political performance—all this, and the importance of all this for political theory cannot be denied. If autonomy has any meaning here, it is because none of those forces and structures at work behind the political scene can determine the political event. How and what would be problematized, resisted, defied can never be foreclosed, no matter how totalitarian an order of power might become.
The problematization of power, however, need not be performed as defiance, disobedience, or anarchy—these may be merely invoked or alluded to as possibilities at the moment power is denaturalized. One only has to look through the open cracks to see the abyss, as Balibar shows convincingly when reading Arendt’s essay on disobedience.
This immanent instability, reversibility, of political power, with its irreducible elements of unpredictability, cannot be dissociated however from the immanent potentiality of human beings to disobey.
We should add, however, that the potentiality of disobedience does not depend on whether or not rights have been granted or deprived, while obedience necessitates the possibility of disobedience whether it is legitimate or not. Power is embedded in and exists through a set of institutionalized apparatuses because of the disruptive potentiality of individuals to disobey its decrees, while individuals obey because power is both regular and reversible, because it can smash their rights even when pretending to protect them, because there is always more it can take from them, unto death, and beyond—the death of their loved ones, the destruction of their world, the erasure of their memory. Which is also, at the same time, why their obedience can never be guaranteed.
When power is performed by those ascribed with agency and authority—the policeman, the tax collector, the street light with its camera, the talking head on the TV screen—each of its agents may invoke the imaginary perpetuity and ubiquity of the ruling power and the supremacy of its authority. When power is disrupted and problematized, the individuals who bring the possibility of disobedience to the surface or actually perform it may pierce this image and seek to re-inaugurate power. And both kinds of performance, it should be noted, by surrogates of a ruling power and by those challenging it, enact and imply suspensions of certain violent acts. But (contrary to Arendt, as Balibar understands well) it is not violence itself that is suspended, only more violence. At the end of the slippery slope of violence stands the violence that would eliminate the space in which the political resides.40 This violence cannot be monopolized, not even by the state apparatuses of an effective sovereign, and it might come from both sides of the barricades, no matter how asymmetrical the power relations seem to be. Furthermore, this violence may be integral to many forms of politics, including (if not especially) those we find at the two ends of the spectrum—equaliberty and purity. In and of itself, sheer violence, no matter how massive and excessive does not put an end to the political; the political is doomed only when the space for the public problematization of power is closed, when there are forces that systematically prevent the subjects of power from reintroducing publicly the gap between the seeming naturalness and inevitability of power and its legitimacy. Excessive violence should be directed toward this goal and is only one way of achieving it; there are today several other, more gentle ways of doing so—you may recognize them immediately when looking at your laptop, iPad or iPhone screen.
While violence itself does not put an end to the political, politics does not ensure it. Not all politics is political. Whatever goes on behind closed doors and concealed from the public cannot involve public problematization of power and is a power struggle that fails to become political. The same is true more generally for the institutions of power and authority. The state and its apparatuses are not political merely by virtue of being involved in the exercise of power for collective ends, not even because they concern the lives of the governed and the consistency and boundaries of the community. They become political and are endowed with a politicizing force when they are split by the acts that call into question, in public, what they do, how they are structured and legitimized, and how they are affected by forces beyond their control. Similarly, terrorist organizations don’t cease being political because they use brute force, and are not baptized into the political sphere once they start to negotiate; they are political as long as their disruption of power forces its public problematization.
This lack of overlapping between politics and the political goes both ways. A public reading of a poem, graffiti drawn on a wall to be seen by many, a defiant speech in a graduation ceremony—all these may be political any affiliation to any of the institutions of a recognizable, organized politics. Even when not entirely institutionalized in parties, blocks, and social movements, politics requires a continuity of affiliations and bonding, persistent patterns of reiteration of principles, claims, and demands, and the political event may take place without any of these. When it is conceived in relation to a recognizable politics, its potential disruption has already been reduced to the terms, coordinates, expectations, and the horizons of and possible in that particular politics. Politics is a particular mode of performing the political that realizes and conceals it at the same time. No matter how power is problematized, there is always much that remains unsaid, unthematized, and ignored; there is always more ruling and governing than the political event can articulate and problematize. When demanding not to be governed thus, that much, or like this, those defying power leave in the dark, unarticulated, inexistent perhaps, other possible modes of rule and governing that that lie in between what has been problematized and total anarchy and what the political act could have acknowledged, if not brought into existence.
The political event happens in public, but its disruption of power is limited by the way “publicness” is institutionalized. Like any other institutions of power, those through which a public comes into being and persists, can be called into question by a political event. With the help of figures like camp, community, the people, the nation, or the working class, the public is imagined more clearly than it can ever be grasped or experienced. Lately the public is simulated by opinion polls and replaced by devices like “people meters” and metaphors like “base.” Neither an imagined nor a simulated public can stand for the public that a political event presupposes. This public appears when some people—and it does not matter how many or who they are—are capable of responding to power by saying, not “we, the people,” but rather “we, those people affected by this power.” This response, always contingent, insecure, and unstable, and not the institution of the power that invokes it, is the inaugural moment of the political. Once this moment comes into being it immediately calls for its own reiteration; it cannot survive without it.
An actual ruling power precedes the political community and is the first thing that community has in common. This commonality of a ruling power always exceeds—but is also far less than—the imaginary community envisaged or called for by any specific politics. The politics of equality, just like the politics of purity, throws into relief the irreducible incongruity between these two commonalities, one projected through the imagined unity of a ruling power, and the other ascribed to the imagined community under its rule. But the two kinds of politics do so from opposite directions, and for opposite purposes.
Adi Ophir is Professor Emeritus at Tel Aviv University and Visiting professor at the Cogut Center for the Humanities and the program for Middle East Studies at Brown University. .
Published on May 29, 2018
1. Étienne Balibar, “The Proposition of Equalibrity,” in Equaliberty: Political Essays, trans. James Ingram (Durham and London: Duke University Press 2014), p. 50; my emphasis.↩
2. The first version of this essay was written in the dark shadow of the recent elections. A certain theme, about which I did not intend dwell, has become irresistible. As a result, the constructive part of my essay will be sketchy and fragmentary.↩
3. See Étienne Balibar, “Three conceptions of Politics” in Politics and the Other Scene (London: Verso 2002). To these three Balibar later added his interpretation of the politics of human rights, which he presents as “a politics of the second order” or “a politics of politics,” a politics that concerns decisions related to the tension itself, “reflecting the consequences of its insurrections and resisting the modalities of its perversions.” What is at stake in this politics are decisions regarding “which compromises or articulations of rights must be left to authorities [i.e., the current form institutionalization of equality and liberty] and which ones must be elaborated by the people themselves [i.e., those committed to the hyperbolic principle and follow its call] in the form of intellectual debates and social movements” (Étienne Balibar “Politics of Human Rights,” Constellations 20:1 [Mar 2013 ], pp. 20, 23).↩
4. Balibar, preface to Politics and the Other Scene, p. viii.↩
5. The two directions are implied, but not explicitly addressed in Étienne Balibar, Violence and Civility, trans. G.M. Goshgarian (New York: Columbia University Press 2015).↩
6. Balibar, Violence and Civility, p. 20.↩
7. The dialectics of equality and liberty and “their realization in the forms of property and community . . . allows us to set out successively three ages in politics,” an ancient one, a modern and a postmodern” (Balibar, “The Proposition of Equalibrity,” p. 65; see also pp. 127–128).↩
8. Étienne Balibar, “New Reflections on Equalibery: Two Lessons,” in Equaliberty, pp. 119–120. This is a milder version of a stronger claim made in the original essay, “The Proposition of Equalibery,” published in 1989. There Balibar underlines “the revolutionary moment of the Declaration and its uninterrupted efficacy in the course of sociopolitical struggles;” he argues that by linking the struggle against tyranny with the struggle against injustice the Revolution of 1789 brought about “an irreversible mutation in the very meaning of the term [revolution]”; and he ascribes to the current, postmodern age of politics the most advanced form of equaliberty that goes “beyond the abstract or generic concept of man on the basis of generalized citizenship”(“The Proposition of Equalibrity,” pp. 42, 47, 65; emphases are mine). ↩
9. The paper was first presented at Le Petit Odéon, November 27, 1989 and first published as “La proposition de l’égaliberté,” Les Conférences du Perroquet 22 (November 1989) and translated into English as “‘Rights of Man and Rights of the Citizen’: The Modern Dialectics of Equality and Freedom,” in Masses, Classes, Ideas: Studies on Politics and Philosophy before and after Marx, trans. James Swenson (New York: Routledge, 1994), pp. 39–59.↩
10. Étienne Balibar, “Racism and Nationalism” in Étienne Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein, Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities, trans. Chris Turner (London: Verso, 1991), pp. 37-67; originally published as Race, nation, classe: les identités ambiguës (Paris: Editions La Découverte, 1988).↩
11. Balibar, “Racism and Nationalism, pp. 53, 54.↩
12. Balibar, “Racism and Nationalism,” p. 52.↩
13. Balibar, “Racism and Nationalism,” p. 59; my emphasis.↩
14. Balibar, Racism and Nationalism,” pp. 59–61.↩
15. Balibar, “Racism and Nationalism,” p. 39.↩
16. Étienne Balibar, “Three Concepts of Politics: Emancipation, Transformation, Civility,” trans. Chris Turner in Étienne Balibar, Politics and the Other Scene (London: Verso 2002; originally published 1997), pp. 1–39.↩
17. Balibar, Race, Nation, Class, pp. 59–60.↩
18. In contemporary Hebrew, the imperative (and slogan) “and your camp should be pure” (ve-haya mahanekha tahor) is often used (with no reference to holiness) in the context of “purity of arms,” that stands more or less for jus in bellum, and, to a lesser extent, in the context of struggles against corruption.↩
19. Balibar, “The Proposition of Equalibrity,” p. 49.↩
20. Balibar, “Two Reflections on Equalibrity,” p. 127.↩
21. The relations between purity and holiness unfold differently in different layers of the Bible and are widely disputed. See for example M.J.H.M. Poorthuis & J. Schwartz (eds), Purity and Holiness: the Heritage of Leviticus (Boston: Leiden 2000). In the rabbinic tradition, purity came to be equated with holiness and even replaced it altogether. See Yair Fustenberg, Purity and Community Antiquity: Halakhic Traditions between Second Temple Judaism and the Mishna (Jerusalem: Magnes 2016) [in Hebrew].↩
22. Balibar underscores the need to account for “egalitarian” racist societies as part of “the structural conditions . . . of modern racism” (“Racism and Nationalism,” p. 49). What is modern here, however, is racism, not the egalitarian element associated with the hyperbolic principle of purity.↩
23. See Donald P. Moffat, “Ezra’s Social Drama: Identity Formation, Marriage and Social Conflict in Ezra 9 and 10, Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies: 579 (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), pp. 81–82; see also the works cited there, n. 56; Wilhelm Rudolph, Esra und Nehemia samt 3. Esra, Handbuch zum Alten Testament. 1. Reihe ; 20 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1949), p. 89; Jacob M. Myers, Ezra. Nehemiah, Anchor Bible, 14, [1st ed.] (Garden City, NY,: Doubleday, 1965), p. 77; Joseph Blenkinsopp, Ezra-Nehemiah: A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (London: SCM Press, 1989), p. 176.↩
24. Recently another, related episode from Ezra-Nehemiah, the building of a wall around Jerusalem, was invoked in the sermon delivered by Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of First Baptist Church on the morning worship service on Donald Trump’s Inauguration Day (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/01/20/god-is-not-against-building-walls-the-sermon-donald-trump-heard-before-his-inauguration/?utm_term=.633d980ae75d). Jeffress, who had previously spoken about Obama as “antichrist,” about Islam as an “evil religion,” and described the lifestyle of gays as “miserable” and “filthy,” told Trump that Nehemiah built a wall around Jerusalem “to protect its citizens from enemy attack.” But when placed in context, the notion of the enemy would include Mexican migrants, “filthy” gays, and even Catholics “laid astray by Satan,” and the real danger these enemies pose is degradation to a “blessed—great— . . . nation whose God is the Lord.” Hence this reference to “the Wall” is but another expression of a politics of purity, as it is indeed in biblical story.↩
25. See Ezra, 10:10-14: “But the people are many, and it is a time of heavy rain; we cannot stand in the open. Nor is this a task for one day or for two, for many of us have transgressed in this matter” (13).↩
26. See, most adequately for the point I am trying to make here, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean Luc Nancy, “The Nazi Myth,” trans. Brian Holmes, Critical Inquiry 16:2 (Winter, 1990), pp. 291–312; Jean Luc Nancy, “Eulogy for the Mêlée,” in Being Singular Plural, trans. Robert D. Richardson and Anne E. O’Byrne (Stanford: Stanford University Press 2000), pp. 145–158.↩
27. By virtue of its name, Pakistan is a particularly apt example. See Mushin Hamid, “There is no Purity in the Land of the Pure,” The Guardian, Jan. 27, 2018 (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jan/27/mohsin-hamid–exit-west-pen-pakistan).↩
28. Rancière is the clearest voice of an approach shared by many, who question and explicate the political only or mainly from the perspective of some kind of radical democracy, with strong commitment to equality, that is from the perspective of the politics they prefer. Rancière also brings into relief the strong Eurocentric bias common to many of these thinkers.↩
29. Jacques Rancière, Dis-agreement: Politics and Philosophy, trans. Julie Rose (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 1999) p. 17.↩
30. In Andersen’s tale, the Emperor understands the message but decides to “bear up to the end,” and the procession continues, as “the chamberlains walked with still greater dignity, as if they carried the train which did not exist” (Hans Christian Andersen, Fairy Tales and Stories, English Translation: H. P. Paull , http://hca.gilead.org.il/emperor.html). Only now everyone knew who the real stupid was, and who collaborated with that stupidity, and with the scam that allowed it to be shown in public.↩
31. For a systematic account of the political moment, of which this section is a fragment, see Adi Ophir, “The Political” [in Hebrew], Mafte’akh: Lexical Review for Political Theory, vol. 2, Summer 2010 (http://mafteakh.tau.ac.il/issue/2010-02/).↩
32. See the opening of this essay and note 6 above.↩
33. The superb analytics of universals and universalization recently proposed by Balibar, and the pluralization and differentiation of universalism which this analysis entails are rendered superfluous or irrelevant by a politics of purity. For Balibar’s analysis see Des Universels: Essais et conférences (Paris: Galilée 2016).↩
34. But also in Israel, which in this, like in and other matters, has become not only a forerunner of political trends but also a field of experimentation where political trends and governmental apparatuses are brought into play intensively and dramatically, under the careful watch of many observers, in Europe, the US, and elsewhere.↩
35. The tension may take many forms. But even if the antagonism of equaliberty and purity dominates the political scene today, it by no means exhausts the diversity of the forms of politics at play.↩
36. Arendt explained this in detail, taking totalitarianism as the paradigmatic, albeit not the only case, in which the space that enables political events is reduced or eliminated. The Frankfurt School thinkers addressed a similar problematics with respect to liberal democracies, and later critics as different as Baudrillard and Brown have extended this analysis. See Jean Baudrillard, In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities: Or, The End of the Social, and Other Essays, trans. Paul Foss, John Johnston, and Paul Patton (New York: Semiotext(e), 1983); Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (New York: Zone Books, 2015). The list is long; besides being brilliant, these two works represent two different and influential trends of the same problematization that span over four decades. Most of these thinkers, however, thought about the shrinking of political space in terms of diminishing freedom and growing inequalities. They missed the other option, namely that the political space might be reopened—and not only closed—by a claim to purity embedded in a very powerful and dangerous politics of its own.↩
37. Therefore, a struggle in which nothing is at stake except for a sheer will to dominate, on the one hand, or an arbitrary, whimsical expression of individual freedom, on the other hand, are not political. It is still too early to know who won the last election – the politics of purity or the party whose only principle is to eliminate the role of principles in the use of power, including the very distinction between true and false – and hence to eliminate the political. Sooner or later the coalition between the two ought to break down. See Marian Constable, “When Words Cease to Matter,” Amor Mundi, 11/20/2106 (https://medium.com/amor-mundi/draft-c-when-words-cease-to-matter-fe71c3637099#.gcgz6u7qn)↩
38. Étienne Balibar, “Hannah Arendt, the Right to Have Rights, and Civic Disobedience,” in Equaliberty, p. 173.↩
39. Balibar, “Hannah Arendt, the Right to Have Rights, and Civic Disobedience,” p. 175.↩
40. One may be tempted to read this excessive violence as referring to Balibar’s concept of extreme violence (Politics and the Other Scene, pp. 23-35, and chap. 7; Violence and Civility, esp. chap, 1 and pp. 127-128). The overlapping is only partial, however. As all critics cited above (notes 26, 27) show, it does not take a genocide to eliminate the political. And even in the midst of a genocide a space for challenging power may emerge.↩