‘What Is a People?’ reviewed by Emily Cousens

What Is a People?

Translated by Jody Gladding, Columbia University Press, New York, 2016. 152pp., $24 hb
ISBN 9780231168762

Reviewed by Emily Cousens

About the reviewer

Emily Cousens is studying for a PhD in philosophy at Oxford Brookes University. Her thesis is …


Across the world, the people are speaking. Just a year after the people in Greece said ‘Oxi’ to the ‘troika’s’ bailout conditions, the Columbian people voted ‘No’ to a peace deal with Farc guerrillas. In the interim, the British people have voted in favour of leaving the European Union, and popular protests outside of, or against, the workings of the ballot box abound, spanning Ethiopia, Brazil, Venezuela and Moldova, to name just a few. As the limits of the neoliberal order are becoming devastatingly apparent, we are quick to declare that the people are speaking, or that populism is becoming the order of the day. Yet, what, if anything, does this mean? And who are the people, i.e. the democratic majority that voted for Brexit or, the Oromo’s in Ethiopia, who make up a third of the local population, yet are excluded from the country’s political and economic developments? In engaging these questions, two particular concerns pervade the essays in What is People: first, can we ever speak of a people without the category operating according to a necessary exclusion and, secondly, as Bruno Bosteels in his introduction eloquently asks, ‘can the category of the people be salvaged from the combined wreckage of national chauvinism and imperialist expansionism so as to be rescued for genuinely emancipatory purposes?’ (3-4). In other words, can the term ever break with its exclusionary adjectival prefixes to be put to truly progressive ends, and if so, under what conditions?

The question ‘What is a people?’ both contains these concerns, and gestures towards the possibility of their alleviation. As Bosteels explains, ‘the use of the indefinite article in the question “What is a people?” invites us to abandon the essentialist presuppositions behind “the” people and opens up the possibility of talking about “peoples” in the plural’ (2). Thus, despite the logic and history of exclusion embedded in the category of ‘a people’, the impulse driving the contributions to this slender volume is a transformatory one. Moreover, transformation takes on a twofold significance in relation to ‘a people’. On a societal level, transformation is possible if the category is put to honourable ends. As Kevin Olson argues in the conclusion, the people is important in politics because it has a normative character, and with this comes power: ‘[p]ower is created with the people’ (127). On an individual level, the category is also transformatory in the Rousseauian sense that the general will is more than just the sum of its parts. In the act of declaring itself a people, each individual is transformed. Not only is the question a timely one, then, it is also a timeless one for political philosophy. It circumscribes both the object of political thought, and its very possibility.

Alain Badiou is the first contributor of What is People?, and his piece, which takes the form of ‘Twenty-Four Notes on the Uses of the Word “People”’, is useful to have at the start. He engages directly with the question of how the term can be put to progressive purposes, despite the fact that most applications of “adjective + people” serve the interest of the capitalist state. He teases out two contexts in which ‘[national] adjective + people’ can be in fact be deployed for progressive political struggle. The first of these is when the identity in question is ‘in reality a political process under way’ (24), for example in wars of liberation where the right to the word “people” is denied by the colonizers. The second is when ‘the nation of which they speak is yet to come’, as was the case for the ‘Egyptian people’ during the Arab spring. In each of these situations, the term can be deployed for ends other than simply the legitimization of capitalist oligarchy. Thus for Badiou ‘the word “people” has a positive sense only with regard to the possible nonexistence of the state’ (31). Olson in his conclusion criticises this framework as being ‘rather stylised’ (112). Nonetheless it provides a useful armoury with which to engage some of the subsequent reflections.

Sadri Khiari also explores the proximity of the word “people” to nation. For him, this connection is a racialized one; ‘the notion of people, in its modern sense, was constructed in close connection with the social production of races by colonization’ (90). Whereas Badiou provides clear examples of when he understands that the term can be employed progressively, for Khiari this is not possible. In fact, along with Rancière and Didi-Huberman, Khiari is adamant that ‘the people’ as such does not exist. For Rancière this is because the category is always a construction, deployed strategically by the state in order to present its own discrimination and racism as a necessary response to populism. Khiari, on the other hand, is slightly more optimistic. Whilst his focus is on the racism contained in the evocation of the word “people” in leftist French politics, he offers way out for a progressive politics: to introduce a plural notion of the people (99) in order to counter the inevitable racist and exclusionary effects embedded within the republican myth of universalism. Thus whilst the people is an impossible category to rescue from its colonial legacy, because for Khiari it is ‘a history of power relationships’ (88), pluralizing the category provides the possibility of recognising difference while it also enables participation in the same French society. This depends on a ‘revamped definition of popular sovereignty’ (99), away from its conflation with national sovereignty and the republican myth of universality and equality. This amounts to an alternative to the ultimately homogenizing notion of a people contained in traditional social contract theory.

Judith Butler also ties the question of the people to the issue of popular sovereignty, asking ‘In what sense is popular sovereignty a performative exercise’ (52). Like Badiou, Butler understands popular sovereignty as necessarily ‘an extra-parliamentary power’ (52), and to this end she explores the constitutive relationship between assembly and the speech act ‘we the people’. For Butler, this utterance is a performative speech act which ‘asserts a form of equality in the face of increasing inequality’ (59). Moreover, although it does not in and of itself contain any demands, the utterance’s embodied, and equal, nature exposes the fundamental interdependence that Butler understands to be constitutive of subjecthood. She says that ‘[i]n a world in which the bodily life of numbers of people is proving to be highly precarious [the appearance of the body shows] what is required in order to survive, to work, and to live’ (60). In other words, by taking to the street, or the square, bodies are already exposing themselves as needing support, and thus ask for the very infrastructural conditions necessary for a liveable life. In the process of assembling, people are exposing the very vulnerability that, as Butler understands it, unites us as embodied beings. Thus Butler’s contribution presents a potentially unendingly inclusive account of the people; in declaring ‘we the people’, not only are the speakers’ dependencies brought to the fore, but the interdependence of embodied life is made apparent. Accordingly, the speech act in itself designates the possibility of not only individual, but social transformation.

Vulnerability, or more exactly powerlessness, is also explored by Georges Didi-Huberman. His contribution examines the possibility of ‘rendering sensible’, that is, bringing to the focus of our attention the people who are invisible in dominant society. Echoing Khiari, Didi-Huberman says that ‘[t]here is not a people, only coexistent peoples’ (66). This plural focus then underscores his attempt to bring to light those marginalised and excluded people, ‘to make heterotopias visible’ (74). Like Butler, this visibility is facilitated by the manifestation of ‘the faults, places, or moments through which, declaring themselves “powerless”, the people’s affirm both what they lack and what they desire’ (85). The affective power of expressing powerlessness ‘means that we ourselves, before these flaws or symptoms, suddenly become “sensible” to the life of the peoples’ (85). There is a strong Levinasian undercurrent to both Butler and Didi-Huberman here, whereby ethico-political motivation depends on a recognition of the helplessness of the other. However, for Didi-Huberman this other remains apart from oneself as ‘bodies singular and multiple, not “the body” in general’ (77), whereas for Butler ‘the condition of bodily vulnerability’ (64) unites us all and is the motif that makes possible a global ethics. Like Khiari, Didi-Huberman is aiming not at wholescale social transformation, but rather, the visibility and inclusion of the unheard.

In Butler’s optimistic contribution, language has the power to unite us, such is the constitute and inclusive power of the utterance ‘we the people’. For Bourdieu, on the other hand, language is a marker of social difference. Bourdieu’s essay explores ‘popular language’ and the way in which it functions within a stratified society, emerging as an attempt to resist both linguistic norms, and wider social norms. However, as Olson says in the conclusion, Bourdieu is recapitulating ‘insights from several centuries past’ (111), and his essay feels not only outdated but out of place in the volume. The ‘dominated’, who participate in ‘popular’ discourse, have no political agency, and their relational position is fixed. ‘[T]his discourse expresses and reinforces a profoundly stable and rigid version of the world’ (46). Linked to the lack of agency is the essentializing notion that ‘determining factors of the [linguistic] habitus’ include sex, social position (understood as dominant or dominated) and ethnic origin’ (39). Women’s speech, for example, expresses ‘the logic of deprivation’ and ‘distinguishes itself in that the very idea of affection and effect is almost absent there’ (46). Such a dichotomous and functional approach to language both strips individuals of any agency, and immediately devalues the majority who are doomed to express domination.

This essay aside, however, the rest of the collection is an insightful investigation of a concept with significant political prescience. At a time when ‘national adjective + people’ is being evoked with ever more fervour, and when, in spite of Badiou’s observation that ‘the workers are now more nomadic than ever’ (23), Hardt and Negri’s multitude shows little sign of emerging; this book provides a critical arsenal with which to think the tensions embedded in popular politics.

17 October 2016

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