Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Saint ÉTienne: Balibar, Grexit, and Universalism

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Saint ÉTienne: Balibar, Grexit, and Universalism

Article excerpt

If Europe is for us first of all the name of an unresolved political problem, Greece is one of its centers, not because of the mythical origins of our civilization, symbolized by the Acropolis of Athens, but because of the current problems concentrated there.

-Étienne Balibar1

Much has happened since I first had occasion to write this analysis of Étienne Balibar's response to the sovereign debt crisis in Greece in the winter of 2015. Most notably since that time the United Kingdom has held a referendum on its membership of the European Union with the outcome that British politics is now entirely consumed by the fallout of the decision by 52 percent to 48 percent to leave the EU. I had considered entirely re-writing my reading of Balibar to take account of this epoch-defining moment for European politics. However, the topic of what is now known as Brexit is so vast that it requires extensive analysis in its own right, including Étienne Balibar's distinguished commentary on it.2 The question of Grexit (whether Greece should withdraw from European monetary union) and the question of Brexit (the United Kingdom's intention to renounce its membership in the European Union) are sufficiently distinct to merit individual considerations. The problem of Greece did not play a significant role in the UK referendum, even if the events of the Greek crisis might tell us something about how the councils of the European Union might proceed in their divorce negotiations with the United Kingdom. However, the commentary that follows, which raises significant questions about the project of monetary union within the Eurozone, should in no way be understood to be informed by a sympathy for Britain's departure from the European Union. On the contrary, in certain respects the entirely negative consequences of the UK's ill-considered departure from the EU precisely demonstrates the theoretical mode of operation that this paper identifies in the work of Étienne Balibar. The undesirable political, cultural and economic effects that Balibar imagined would be the fate of Greece if it withdrew from monetary union are now being played out in the United Kingdom with a rise in nationalism and declining prospects for UK prosperity. Accordingly, it remains a worthwhile exercise to isolate Balibar's writing on Greece as a case study within his own thought and in the politics of Europe, prior to a subsequent discussion of the meaning of Brexit elsewhere. This is even before we consider such matters as the impact of the Trump presidency on the universalisms that preoccupy the thought of Étienne Balibar. What follows is a historically specific snapshot of an analysis of the problem of Europe, which remains ongoing. The question would be whether we should think of the idea of Europe as now unfolding or unravelling. That is a speculation for another occasion.


Let us then talk about Greece, or the Greek problem, perhaps, what we might call "the problem of Greece." It will be necessary to do this in the context of responding to and saluting Étienne Balibar. For Greece is part of an as yet unfinished conversation between Étienne and myself. In talking about Greece, let us suggest that Greece represents a problem for Balibar, or, at least a challenge for his thinking of universalisms.3 One could, if it were necessary, recall the history of that crisis and place Balibar's numerous interventions alongside that historical narrative, to map the twists of this story against the turns of Étienne's thought on Greece and wider questions of European union. This has been done elsewhere,4 so we will not attempt to reconstitute that history on this occasion. Rather, as would be appropriate to Greek tragedy, let us plunge in media res into the moment of Balibar's singular encounter with Greece.

The Syriza government was first elected in January of 2015 on the promise of opposing the regime of austerity that had been imposed on the country by its creditors, the troika of the European Central Bank, the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. …

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