A review of La pensée française à l’épreuve de l’Europe, by Justine Lacroix

Americans have long believed that what happens in the Old World matters to us. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson quarreled bitterly over the French Revolution in part because they both understood the importance of the European example. But recently Europe has become difficult for an American conservative to take seriously. How, after all, could those drawn to the examples of Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln bring themselves to pay attention to Europe’s recent endeavors to bring its once proud nation-states under the aegis of an insistently benign European Union—an entity at once ethereal and bureaucratic, not quite a nation, but not merely an alliance, issuing regulations on the ingredients in jam and the volume of Scottish bagpipes but twiddling its thumbs when Russia invades Georgia? While the American Left continues to draw inspiration from European ideals, the scorn many American conservatives reserve for Europe implies that for them the Old World has lost its relevance for the New.

We should not forget, however, that Adams and Jefferson thought European events worth arguing about not only because those events were at the epicenter of world history, but also because European political ideas are drawn from the same wellsprings as our own. The American Founders understood that European experiments in modern democratic self-governance stand to tell us something about possibilities and dangers inherent in our own political form.

Indeed, no student of modern democratic politics should overlook the significance of the current attempts to “construct” a new Europe. In its efforts to realize democracy on an unprecedented scale, Europe is at a juncture in some ways parallel to 1789. As many European thinkers realize, creating a robust E.U. is not just a matter of expanding the territorial limits of a nation-state. Whether the E.U. is ultimately understood as a transnational state, a supra-national federation, or an international order, it is an attempt to create a new political form that disrupts the framework of the historical European democracies and calls their meaning into question. This fact has led thoughtful Europeans to raise radical questions about the justice of the nation-state, the nature of democracy, and the limits of politics. These questions are both urgent for Europeans and fundamental for liberal democracy, and as such deserve our attention.

Justine Lacroix’s La Pensée Française à l’Epreuve de l’Europe (French Thought in the Crucible of Europe) provides a useful introduction to the political-philosophical debate surrounding the efforts to create a European Union, particularly since Lacroix succeeds in putting her finger on some of the more radical questions raised by the new Europe. She summarizes and systematizes the contemporary French debate about Europe, arguing that this debate is best understood as an argument over the question of the relation of politics to place. She thereby draws our attention to what are perhaps the key issues raised by the current attempt to instantiate the democratic politics developed in Europe’s historic nation-states on a new scale: What kind of place does democratic politics require in order to function? Can democratic logic justify limiting a democracy to a particular place?

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Lacroix divides the thinkers she studies into three schools: neo-Tocquevillians, neo-Kantians, and Spinozists—though it seems more appropriate to call this last group neo-Marxist. All three begin with an attachment to the modern democratic idea, though each considers a different aspect of this idea to be of primary importance. As Lacroix shows, this leads to three radically different stances on the question of the relation of democratic politics to place, and therefore to differing opinions about how Europe should think of itself.

Lacroix opens her analysis with the neo-Tocquevillian school, represented chiefly by Pierre Manent and Marcel Gauchet. Although Lacroix clearly disagrees with these thinkers, she allows them to set the terms of her book, and describes them as “dominating” contemporary French thought on the subject of Europe.

In Manent’s view, the idea of democracy stands in logical tension with the designation of a particular place as the locus of democratic politics. As he points out, the principle underlying the idea of democracy—the principle of equality or consent—can operate in any social body, from the family, to the city, to the nation. According to Manent, the principle of equality is not sufficient to define the body politic which it is to govern. Indeed, the principle of equality stands in flat contradiction with any attempt to define such a body, as any definition that excludes anyone—that is, any polity that falls short of including the entire human race—is in some sense undemocratic.

And yet, Manent argues, the principle of equality must take on a “body” if there is to be democracy in practice. To take the most obvious example, it is impossible to decide questions on the basis of majority vote unless one has determined concretely the whole of which the majority is the major part. Because anything less than a global political whole is exclusive, the idea of democracy as expressed in the principle of equality is at odds with one of the necessary conditions of functional democratic politics. Manent earns the label “neo-Tocquevillian” because he adheres to Tocqueville’s view that “to love democracy well, one must love it moderately”—that is, one must refuse to follow those “overzealous friends” of the democratic idea who would take it to its radical, self-destructive conclusion.

Manent’s awareness of democracy’s need for definition leads him to consider afresh the achievements of the nation-state, a political form now reviled by some because of the nationalist excesses of the early 20th century. Manent argues that, whatever its faults, the nation-state performed an essential role in the development of democracy in Europe because it convinced the individual Frenchman, for example, to believe that the ties that bind him to other Frenchmen are strong enough that the will of the French majority is authoritative for him even when it seems wrong. It is no small feat, as Manent points out, to define a political body such that its members accept the decisions of the whole as binding even when they disagree. Manent warns that until Europeans find some way to articulate a compelling understanding of what it means to be “European”—which requires distinguishing what is European from what is not—they will not prove able to put a genuinely political equality into effect.

Manent’s fundamental concern regarding the E.U. is thus to defend democratic practice from the self-destructive absolutization of the democratic idea that he sees at work in the “construction of Europe.” In Manent’s view, Europe courts self-destruction not only by remaining geographically indeterminate—keeping Turkey on the fence for 45 years, for example—but more fundamentally by its principled resistance to setting its own bounds. In light of Manent’s analysis, it becomes clear that the Berlaymont’s bureaucrats are not cynical autocrats masking their decrees in democratic language—as they sometimes appear to the popular imagination—but rather earnest adherents of the democratic idea, insofar as democracy means the idea of equality and necessarily leads to universal human rights. Manent shows that what Brussels hesitates about is political democracy, precisely because popular sovereignty can oppose universal human rights. In Marcel Gauchet’s phrase, the European predicament exemplifies the problem of democracy “turning against itself.” Widespread European ambivalence toward the European Union, the neo-Tocquevillian analysis reveals, is representative of a tension within the democratic idea itself.

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Lacroix next turns to the “neo-Kantian” school, represented principally by Jean-Marc Ferry. Ferry begins from the understanding that the democratic idea centers on the principle of consent, which he argues can be fully realized only in the concept of autonomy as articulated by Kant: consent ultimately implies autonomy in the sense that an autonomous actor is “auto-nomos,” giving himself the law and holding himself to it. For Ferry, the new Europe holds out the possibility of a voluntary association of nations which collectively govern themselves without recourse to force, and thus realize a new level of human autonomy.

Although Ferry agrees with Manent that the nation-state should be retained as the primary functional unit of European political democracy for the present, he disagrees with Manent’s view that a body is necessary for Europe, or ultimately for politics as such. Rather than seeking to tie democracy to a “place,” Ferry appeals to the idea of a European “space”—an arena that nations can decide to enter and exit on their own volition, an arena in which the idea of democracy as autonomy will be explored and practiced. He does not shrink from drawing out the audacious practical consequences of his suggestion that politics can occupy a space rather than a place. He argues that entry into the E.U. should be in principle open to all peoples willing to govern themselves by Europe’s treaties. And he insists that the E.U. charter must allow for both total and partial secession in order to ensure that it remains loyal to the principle of autonomy understood as free adherence to law.

On Ferry’s understanding, the European Union might represent the first transcendence of the state of nature by entire nations, rather than by individuals entering into a social contract. For him, to politicize is to civilize, in the sense of learning to settle differences through legal and political means rather than by force. The civilized condition the states of Europe are entering, according to Ferry, resembles the Rousseauan social contract rather than Hobbesian one, as it allows men to be a law unto themselves, rather than demanding their mutual submission to the law of another. And yet it goes beyond even the Rousseauan social contract in that the nations united in Europe, in Ferry’s view, govern themselves according to common agreements without a truly coercive enforcing power: no one has to “force men to be free.” Ferry’s Europe thus holds out the possibility that human self-governance will be realized at a higher level than ever before, thereby challenging the very understanding that force and place are necessary in politics.

This neo-Kantian argument represents an attempt to suggest a new practical possibility in the political world: that genuinely autonomous, international self-governance can work by mutual agreement of states without any possibility of recourse to physical force. The surprising fact about Europe that these authors seize upon is that it is indeed composed of

historic nations that have renounced the exercise of their sovereignty in matters of international politics and defense, and have agreed to harmonize their policies on social, economic, educational, scientific, health, and public security matters on the basis of objectives and programs defined by a common accord.

When else have nations willingly lined up to give up so much sovereignty? One might wonder whether this movement truly deserves to be called democratic, given both the institutional and the perceived distance between Europe’s peoples and the decisions made by the E.U. One might also wonder about its long-term viability. Be that as it may, Ferry’s argument is noteworthy for bringing this new possibility into view.

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Lacroix takes Etienne Balibar as the principal representative of what one could call the “neo-Marxist” school of thought about Europe. According to Balibar, “what is distinctly characteristic of modern citizenship, at least by right or in principle, is the universalization of the status of the citizen.” Modern democracy, he argues, “forbids the denial of citizenship.” Because modern regimes ground political rights in our common humanity—”all men are created equal”—their basic principles implicitly demand that citizenship be extended universally, that political rights become coextensive with human rights. Balibar coins the term égaliberté to capture this moral and philosophical imperative, arguing that the liberty and equality mutually imply one another, and therefore that liberty is always attenuated if it is not extended to all.

Balibar’s analysis of Europe is thus focused on those who want European citizenship but are turned away by Europe’s current laws. Balibar is a Marxist who departs from Marx in arguing that the fundamental obstacle to the realization of the democratic principle of equality is no longer capitalism but nationalism, which restricts European citizenship to the nationals of historically European, democratic countries. Balibar, therefore, vociferously calls into question the relation of democratic politics to any particular place.

The European project first seemed to Balibar a positive step away from this arbitrary limitation of liberty and equality to a particular place. The new Europe, with its principle of the “free movement of people,” does according to Balibar go some way toward “relativizing” the identification of citizenship and nationality: border controls no longer exist between the Schengen countries, and citizens of the traditional European democracies now enjoy their rights beyond their nations’ borders. But over the course of the past decade, Balibar has become bitterly disappointed by Europe. He has made the interesting observation that as the idea of “Europe” takes hold, the idea of what is not European has grown stronger. As Western Europeans struggle to assimilate the populations of the recently added countries, he finds, they become less ready to accept “non-European” immigrants. These developments, combined with immediate concerns about terrorism, have led Europe to strengthen its external border controls. Thus, in Balibar’s analysis, the auspicious decoupling of citizenship and nationality for citizens of historically European states has been accompanied by a reinforcement of the identification of citizenship and nationality regarding those beyond Europe’s borders. In his view, the European “place” is so far from being “open” or “bodiless,” as thinkers such as Manent fear, that it deserves to be called “Fortress Europe.”

Balibar at times acknowledges that the extension of the rights of citizenship to every human being may not be possible in practical terms. But he remains focused on the moral necessity of extending citizenship as broadly as possible, and does not seem to share Manent’s concerns about the danger this might pose to democratic practice. Balibar and Manent do seem to agree, however, on the abiding tension between the universality of democratic principles and the particular and exclusive character of democracy as practiced, even in the new Europe. The attention that Balibar insistently calls to the challenge from non-Europeans who demand that Europe live up to its universalist pretensions is useful, at the least, for keeping one aware of this tension.

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By focusing on the issue of politics and place, Justine Lacroix demonstrates that even authors who begin from the same fundamental, democratic principles can arrive at widely different understandings of the possibilities and limits of democracy—that it cannot exist without a place (Manent), that it cannot survive connection to a particular place (Balibar), or that it should be conceived of as a space that one can join or leave freely (Ferry). The debate between these French thinkers merits our attention because it clarifies the tensions within the democratic idea and points us toward deeper questions about the nature of democracy and the potentialities of democratic politics.

Furthermore, the question of Europe’s eventual political form is far from settled, and the arguments being made there cannot fail to have an impact on our understanding of democracy as well. While conservatives may be rightly skeptical that a continent encompassing 27 national histories and 23 languages can ever create a unum from such a pluribus, our own national experience with an unprecedented political experiment should prevent us from rejecting the possibility without taking the trouble to think it through. Indeed, in considering the prospects for a new political form in Europe, one must attempt to distinguish political possibilities from impossibilities, which entails the most fundamental kind of political reflection. Lacroix and the thinkers she discusses are worth reading, at the very least, for the questions they ask us to face.