‘Equaliberty: Political Essays’ reviewed by Amy E Wendling

Equaliberty: Political Essays

Translated by James Ingram, Duke University Press, Durham, 2014. 376pp., £18.99 pb
ISBN 9780822355649

Reviewed by Amy E Wendling

About the reviewer

Amy E Wendling is Professor and Chair of Philosophy at Creighton University in Omaha, NE …


Equality. Liberty. In recent political philosophies, libertarianism in particular, these two core values of the modern revolutionary traditions have been accused of contradicting one another. At its most simple, the accusation runs that the demands of equality, and especially distributive justice, will necessarily infringe upon liberties, and so that the two core values are incompossible. Liberty is then given primacy over equality (100). (This is, at best, a semantic solution, since the same problematic can be found if tensions are seen between the negative and positive aspects of liberty, as was made famous by Berlin.) Conversely, as we find in positions we might loosely group as communitarian, one can accept that there is a contradiction between the two core values, and choose to give primacy to equality over liberty.

Balibar rejects the contradiction between the two values, and so rejects any suggestion of primacy of one over the other. He crafts what he calls the “portmanteau” word “equaliberty,” thereby putting back together what has come apart in these critiques. He writes, “what is [the idea of equaliberty]? Nothing less than the identification of the two concepts” (46). His argument for this identification is historical and empirical. He writes of the two concepts: “their extensions are necessarily identical. Simply put, the situations in which both are present or absent are necessarily the same (48). Balibar will give this argument a negative formulation, writing that “there are no examples of restrictions or suppressions of freedoms without social inequalities, nor of inequalities without restrictions or suppressions of freedoms, be it only to put down resistance” (49) and, later in the text, affirming that “the negation of freedom de facto destroys equality and the negation of equality de facto destroys freedom. This is precisely why it is impossible to choose one against the other “ (101).

It would be more accurate, then, if we refrained from saying that Balibar rejects the contradiction between the values, and said rather that he sublates this contradiction. He does so by situating what appears to be the antinomy between equality and liberty in the tableaux of modern political constellations and then showing that it is only in the wake of the identification of equality and liberty that anything like a dissonance between them can come about, and then only in theory, never in practice.

Because it is a book of essays rather than a sustained philosophical treatise, Equaliberty does this in stages, building the complexities of the discussion until the argument achieves a critical mass. The work has three parts: an historical section that looks at one of the original statements of the values of liberty and equality in the context of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1789, and joins this with a discussion of the values in the theorists of the contract tradition; a contemporary section that treats thinkers absorbed in the same problematic: notably, Poulantzas, Arendt, and Laclau, but also, in passing, Rancière, Schmitt, Derrida, Deleuze, Foucault, and many others; and an empirical section that looks at some contemporary political problems in France, especially the “Headscarf Affair” and the November 2005 riots in the banlieues, as expressions of the tensions of contemporary citizenship that reflect the problematic of equaliberty. I will treat each of these in turn.

Part One, The Statement and Institution of Rights, is distinguished by its careful attention to a revolutionary text, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1789. Balibar recalls the identification between equality and freedom that characterizes Article I of the Declaration: “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.” Like the Marx of the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Balibar is careful to emphasize that the French Revolution was not simply or exclusively a bourgeois revolution, but a revolution synthesized of both bourgeois and proletarian forces. The identification of equality and freedom in the Declaration was the “universally true proposition on which, at the decisive moment, the different forces making up the revolutionary camp had to agree” (48) since they struggled, on the one hand, against the absolutism that negated freedom and, on the other, against the privilege that negated equality (47).  

An important second thesis of the chapter on the Declaration is Balibar’s interpretation of the document as presenting another identification: that between man and citizen. Against the interpretation that regards the document as expressing a distinction between the rights of man and those of the citizen, and then seeking to align the latter with the former (44), Balibar argues for the convergence of citizenry and humanity, both in the document, and in the political imaginary. This will be important again in section two, when he looks at Arendt’s attempt to found human rights without recourse to a natural law theory, and again in section three, when he applies the thesis to the problem of the absent human rights of stateless persons. This point notwithstanding, the remainder of section one puts the Declaration into dialogue with “what is commonly considered its ideological ‘source,’ the classic theories of natural right” (36), and especially with Locke.

Citing MacPherson and Pocock, Balibar recalls that Locke, like other classic authors, made property “the foundation or even the substance of individual freedom” (69). For Locke, the foundation of property was, in turn, based on property in one’s person.

Even after more than three centuries of critique, Marx’s included, have we yet understood all of the paradoxes and intricacies of Locke’s formulation? This author concurs with Balibar that we have not, and that the problems endemic to what seems, at first, a simple formula—that of mixing property in one’s person with some unowned natural substance, at least where there is enough and as good left in common for others— begin well before we get to the famed issues of “unowned natural substance” and “enough and as good.” For, what is it to have property in one’s person? To be a person? To be a person unaltered by the cycle of alienation that the formula requires (78, 93)? To be a person with bodily integrity at the very moment that, as Balibar writes, “the capitalist organization of labor splits and distorts the integrity of the body” (83)? To do a labor that is personal at the very moment that, as Marx reminded us, labor was no longer personal, if it ever was (83)? It is here that, as Balibar rightly points out, the foundational formula of Locke’s political philosophy touches on the history of the subject.  

In enunciating this set of issues, Balibar’s erudition in the history of philosophy is much in evidence. He is able to connect the Lockean political theory to the Lockean epistemology (89). He sets Locke’s Second Treatise against the backdrop of the often forgotten First Treatise and its discussion of patriarchy (75), and he sets the property passage from the Second Treatise against the backdrop of the discussion of slavery that immediately precedes it (77). He is sensitive to the differences between the contract theorists, and especially between Locke and Hobbes, in ways most summarizers of the contract tradition are not. As one instance of this, Balibar very clearly points out that one would have trouble finding the formulation of property in oneself in Hobbes (73), and explains the reasons why this is the case. He also points out Marx’s hesitations before applying this model of Lockean appropriation to wage labor (77-8, 83). Finally, Hegel’s fitting original criticisms of the contract tradition are never far from either Balibar’s mind or the reader’s (95).

Part Two, Sovereignty, Emancipation, Community (Some Critiques), contains a wonderful account of Ernesto Laclau’s deconstruction of the category of “the people” (187-195), a category that political philosophers in general and leftist political philosophers in particular should indeed attend to with more care. It also contains an excellent retrospective of Balibar’s theoretical similarities to and differences from Nicos Poulantzas, as both struggled to revive and reinvent a new Marxism in the wake of what Balibar calls “the collapse of state and party models deriving from traditional Marxism” (145). But the long essay on Hannah Arendt distinguishes Part Two, for it is this essay that offers the most traction with the theme of equaliberty.

Balibar has high praise for Arendt, of whom he writes, “more than any other contemporary thinker, she never wrote the same book twice, nor any two books from the same point of view” (165), and he is right that this can be said of only a very few authors, contemporary or otherwise. Still, Balibar thinks that he is able to isolate a problem that runs across Arendt’s work: the problem of defending human rights without either adopting a positivist notion of rights, since this leads to the vulnerabilities of the Eichmann case, or returning to a natural rights narrative about the origins of the human self, since this will be marked by exclusions from the category of the human. As his own work on equaliberty faces the same dilemma (289), he is interested in her resolution to this problem.

This resolution comes in the form of what Balibar calls “Arendt’s theorem.” He expresses this theorem, succinctly, as follows: Arendt observes a situation in which humans are “progressively deprived of all personal protection of the political communities to which they belonged . . . If the abolition of civic rights is also the destruction of human rights, it is because in reality the latter rest on the former and not the reverse” (170-1). This means that human rights are an uncertain political achievement. Balibar will return to this theme in the conclusions to the book, there in dialogue with forms of international citizenship and civic rights that would not be delimited by the declining nation state, and with what he calls “the ineliminable element of risk that . . . is the mark of politics as such” (281).

Part Three, For a Democracy Without Exclusion, is not only an application of the equaliberty concept to political events in France in recent years, and especially to the “Headscarf Affair” and the November 2005 riots in the banlieues, it is also a chronicle of Balibar’s activism. Not to be missed, in this regard, is the story of then interior minister Mr. Sarkozy’s written reprimand to Balibar, in 2006, for the position he had advanced in opposition to the arrest of students without proper immigration papers (278). In this position, Balibar had compared “the idea of unequal access to fundamental rights based on naturalized social and anthropological differences” with certain aspects of Nazism, though with care to stress the differences in the cases (ibid.). Balibar chronicles both the Sarkozy reprimand and his reaction to it, including the motives that compelled him to mobilize the comparison.

Part three is distinguished by Balibar’s terrific essay on the “Headscarf Affair,” which may be the most memorable piece of the volume. In elegant prose rich with examples and unexpected applications, Balibar opposes the bill that bans the wearing of religious symbols in school. He points out that one consequence of this bill, were it rigorously enforced, would be the banning not only of the of yarmulke, but also of the crosses, and that the bad faith extension of the ban to “large crosses” merely confirms the hegemony of a Catholic Christianity that prefers them smaller and ubiquitous (325). He also points out that the bill is written broadly enough to prevent the wearing of a color, were a religion to claim one (329)! Throughout the essay he is careful to intersect race, class, religion, and above all, in this case, sex and youth, with the matrices of oppression and difference. One of the more remarkable discussions is about the situation of teachers in relationship to the ban (219-21). Another is about the visible marks of secularity, which are themselves, of course, hardly neutral (216).

The essay on the headscarf affair ends with a call to rethink the concept of secularism in philosophical detail (221), and is followed by a short essay that attempts exactly this. In its brevity, however, this second essay does not capture what the preceding, empirically mixed account has done so well. Readers will be better served, if interested in the concept of secularism more generally, by the accounts of Blumenberg and Koselleck.

Threaded through the three parts are some especially fine, original ideas, and some refinements of Balibar’s ongoing reading of Marx and the Marxist tradition. I will mention here just three of these that fit both categories.  

First, Balibar wonderfully sketches the continuities of revolutionary traditions distributed over space and time, and the potential solidarities between them. He mentions, in particular, the importance of the example of the French Resistance to those engaged, in a subsequent generation, in anti-colonial struggles in Algeria (292), but he means to chart a hopeful trajectory for revolutionary peoples, in general, who may draw strength for acts of “resistance, insurrection, and insubordination” from others who have done the same. This is even possible, and perhaps especially important, when a preceding revolutionary generation or people has failed or forgotten its ideals, a reality of which Balibar, like Marx, is all too aware (292).  

Second, Balibar offers terrific observations about how political philosophy has moved from the margin to the center of philosophy. He writes, “It is probably an achievement of the debates in the second half of the twentieth century (to which, from this perspective, thinkers as different as Arendt, Habermas, and Negri have contributed) to have reestablished the connection between political philosophy and philosophy as such, by way of categories such as action, judgment, rationality, and constitution” (137). On this foundation, Balibar shows how thinking the political object has become one of the most important tasks of philosophy (ibid.). Similarly, while Marx asked us to stand speculative philosophy on its head, it is no less certain that he used philosophical categories to rewrite the task of what philosophy ought to be doing.

Third, Balibar revisits the enduring presence of the nation state during the long century when Marx did not expect that it would retain its grip, and now also in light of its actual dissolution as a political form. To this end, Balibar’s text is interwoven with speculative and futural meditations about transnational citizenship and the new political demands it might inaugurate, both positive and negative.

It remains to say a few words about editorial issues, including the translation. Ingram has managed to capture the range and depth of Balibar’s speculative ideas. Even when this has meant electing to preserve some of the French syntax, the reader gets a sense of what it is like to think with Balibar, and is invited to engage in bilingual thinking. Ingram has neither forced the text into short, declarative English sentences, nor left it so French that the ideas are inaccessible to the English reader. A few passages repeat exactly, not much to the profit of the reader (174 and 286; 253 and 274).

To conclude, this is a wonderful speculative text in the best tradition of French political philosophy. But it is not only this: Balibar is also in dialogue with problems of leftist American social and political philosophy and especially its focus on the violences of neoliberalism. Finally, in a style that, by design, knows no country, Balibar’s Equaliberty works to update the enduring insights of Marx and Marxism in a deep reflection for our times. 

22 July 2014

Make a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *