Academic journal article Philosophy Today

What Comes before the Citizen? Violence and the Limits of the Political in Balibar

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

What Comes before the Citizen? Violence and the Limits of the Political in Balibar

Article excerpt

We can situate Étienne Balibar's political philosophy within a trajectory that views democracy as central to the human and the polity, while at the same time refusing to reduce democracy to any form of constituted power-be that the constitutional form of representative democracy or the state. Thus, Balibar's philosophical anthropology describes the conditions within organized society that prevent an easy resolution of the category of the human that remains split between being a subject and a citizen.1 Or, to mention another site of the development of Balibar's thought, he insists on a notion of the social citizen that is not reducible to the state's determination of citizenship.2 These projects are testament to Balibar's life-long task to aspire to a radical democratic thought.

In the present paper, I will start by linking some of the ideas that predominate in Balibar's well-known project on democracy with his study of Spinoza that perhaps remains of more narrow interest to the Spinoza specialists. The reason is that Spinoza, who himself belongs to the tradition that understands democracy as irreducible to constituted power, foregrounds one of the most intractable problems, that of violence. As he puts it in chapter 16 of the Theological Political Treatise, democracy is the most natural constitution. Here, the notion of the natural is not a pacifist one but includes the ineluctable possibility of violence. The excursion through Spinoza will lead us to examine the limits of the political that arise from this conjunction of the subject, the citizen and violence in Balibar's recent book Violence and Civility. Ultimately, the question that arises out of the engagement with Spinoza is, what's the relation of violence and democracy?


In the entire scholarship on Spinoza, it is Étienne Balibar who most perspicaciously points to a series of difficulties that arise from "the inherent ambiguity of the word nature (which at times includes the idea of violence and at other times stands in opposition to it)" in Spinoza's Theological Political Treatise.5 For instance, to expand on Balibar's point, chapter 16 of the Theological Political Treatise defines democracy as "a united body of men which corporately possesses sovereign right over everything in its power"4 This suggests a community where the citizens share their power harmoniously, as if violence has been eliminated. And yet, the chapter opens with a definition of natural right as coextensive with power-a coextensivity that establishes a power differential that inevitably contains violence. Thus, Spinoza avers that it is by natural right that the big fish eat the small fish.5 This is an ambiguity that does not have a clear resolution in chapter 16 of the Theological Political Treatise.

The ambiguity also affects Spinoza's conception of democracy, since it is in the same chapter of the Theological Political Treatise that he characterizes democracy as the most natural constitution. This is meant to point to the irreducibility of democracy to any form of constituted power, whereby the ambiguity of nature that is both violent and nonviolent pervades democracy as well. Nonetheless, Balibar insists that the "political meaning" of the thesis about democracy as the most natural constitution is "plain"6 It consists in the following:

Every State institutes reciprocal forms of domination and obedience, through which individuals are made subject to an objective order. But the condition of the subject is not the same as that of a slave, and a generalised slavery does not constitute a State_In other words, the condition of the subject presupposes citizenship, in the sense of activity (and therefore an equality which is deemed to be proportional to that activity). This activity finds its fulfilment in the democratic State.7

The key idea in this practical perspective of Spinoza's conception of democracy as the primary constitution is that it positions the citizen before the subject. …

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