Book Reviews

Between Constitution and Insurrection


A Review of Citizenship by Étienne Balibar

Lorenzo Buti

Research Institute in Political Philosophy Leuven, KU Leuven

Étienne Balibar, (2015) Citizenship, translated by Thomas Scott-Railton, Cambridge: Polity Press.


Citizenship contains the most updated version of Étienne Balibar’s theoretical investigations of the concepts citizenship and democracy. In an analysis covering multiple historical periods, Balibar shows that the insurrectionary capacity to found a constitution lies at the heart of every modern formulation of citizenship. Democracy puts pressure on the institutionalised form of citizenship by contesting its exclusions and relationships of domination. Democratic action forces political structures to reinvent themselves, restructuring the social environment in the process. After analysing how Balibar’s theoretical framework applies to the present constellation of national citizenship and its spectrum of social exclusions linked to race and class, this essay situates Balibar vis-à-vis Marxist accounts that remain sceptical towards the capacity to effect social change through the rights-based politics of citizenship struggles. It argues that this dialogue is still without definite conclusion, but that its key point of heresy – the role of rights in the struggle to go beyond capitalist social relations – remains of the utmost importance.


citizenship – democracy – Marxism – Balibar – rights

In recent years, the English translation of three major books collecting the papers and essays of Étienne Balibar, Equaliberty, Citizen Subject andViolence and Civility, has set the stage for a renewed assessment of the French philosopher’s theories and his place within the broader philosophical canon.Balibar 2014; Balibar 2015b; Balibar 2016. It is easy to overlook the fact that a fourth book, originally published in Italian, has also been translated into English.Balibar 2012. At 145 pages, Citizenship is short and concise. That being said, its range is still impressive, as it analyses the misadventures of citizenship from its Ancient Greek conception to its predicament in the contemporary age. The primary topic thus revolves around the concept of citizenship, and more specifically its relationship to democracy.Citizenship elegantly gathers many of the central claims that Balibar has expounded over at least the last 30 years that, even if it does not represent Balibar’s definitive theory of citizenship (acontradictio in terminis), at least offers a timely and comprehensive analysis of the multiple dimensions of citizenship and democracy. For the most part, Balibar manages to combine a historical and philosophical commentary on citizenship and democracy with an investigation of the contemporary political conjuncture. Even though the content ofCitizenship spans multiple centuries and a diverse range of authors and constellations, it retains a persistent focus on the contemporary.

The Antinomies of Citizenship

Balibar’s philosophical theory of citizenship and democracy is guided by a methodology that is both historical and conjunctural. According to Balibar, the nature of citizenship contains no a priori essence. One can only study the different instantiations of citizenship throughout history. In doing so, we can identify what distinguishes different conceptions of citizenship, as well as what has been ‘transmitted under this name, through its successive translations’ (p. 2). This approach leads Balibar to commence his analysis with the Greek conception of citizenship and the way it has been theorised by Aristotle. Aristotle links citizenship topoliteia, which Balibar argues must be understood as ‘the constitution of citizenship’ understood in its full sense, meaning ‘the historical process of [the] constitution or of [the] societal and institutional social formation’ of citizenship (p. 12). This Greek constitution of citizenship was marked by a strong emphasis on equality between citizens and an attention to fair procedures of representation in public office which assured that the citizenry remained in charge. On the other hand, however, the liberty and equality that characterised Greek citizenship remained unavailable to those who did not meet certain anthropological criteria. A personal and social abyss loomed between the male Greek non-labouring citizen and everyone else, most notably women and slaves.

Although there exist qualitative differences between the ancient and the modern conceptions of citizenship, Balibar’s analysis of the former already highlights certain aspects of citizenship that will retain all their relevance for the contemporary situation, such as the issue of the representation of citizens, the equality and autonomy afforded by citizenship and by the active constitution of citizenship, and the problem of exclusions to citizenship. This combination of theoretical argumentation and historical analysis furnishes a conception of citizenship that is both unstable and multipolar. Citizenship can only be defined as an inherently unstable concept, whose multiple dimensions often directly contradict one another. For instance, within each historical instantiation of citizenship, equality exists alongside different exclusions, or citizen-sovereignty alongside its immediate circumscription through the delegation of power to representatives or law-makers. These contradictions function antinomically, by which Balibar means that one must think the concept of citizenship as permanently traversed by contradictions that nevertheless do not dissolve the concept altogether. In fact, these contradictions give citizenship a dynamism that explains its enduring relevance throughout history. Sometimes, as Balibar shows, they give rise to dialectical movements, at other times to undevelopedaporiae. Most important from the perspective of philosophy is that these relations are analysed fromboth a logical and a historical perspective. More specifically, the historical nature of citizenship never ceases to influence the logical analysis. One can only study the concept of citizenship through its successive iterations throughout history (such as Greek, Roman or national citizenship), and investigate the different pathways that flow from any specific conjuncture.

Constitution and Insurrection

The structural opposition that underlies most of Balibar’s theorisation of citizenship, and that which ties citizenship to democracy, is the one between constitution and insurrection. In the modern era, citizenship is most readily associated with the elaboration of a set of rights and duties. Following T.H. Marshall’s famous tripartite division, we can state that every citizen has civil rights (such as the right to free speech, freedom of religion and the right to property), political rights (such as the right to vote) and social rights (such as a right to education and a right to a minimum of social welfare in the form of pensions, health care, etc.).Marshall 1994. According to Balibar, however, this constituted form of citizenship does not entirely exhaust the content of citizenship. As we have already mentioned, the term ‘constitution’ itself already points in that direction. ‘Constitution’ does not merely refer to an ensemble of legal texts, rights, existing political institutions and forms of representation. It also refers to the act of constituting itself, which is that which underlies and founds the existing constituted constitution. Citizens (‘We, the people’) actively and performatively found constitutions, and any regime ultimately derives its legitimacy by reference to the sovereignty of the citizenry.

In the modern era, this dimension of the sovereignty of the citizen is shot through with internal paradoxes. On the one hand, Balibar interprets the revolutionary moment of constitution (such as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1789) as a moment of insurrection: A people rose up against the structural conditions of oppression inherent in monarchical absolutism and feudal relations that denied them freedom and equality. This insurrection proclaimed the modern ideal that Balibar calls ‘equaliberty’ (theportmanteau of the words equality and liberty), namely that ‘every individual is the equal of, if not similar to, any other, and that no one can exercise an arbitrary, discretionary, authority over another’ (p. 79). The principle of equaliberty is universal, in the sense that no individual can be excluded from the conditions of equality and liberty. Moreover, in the context of the establishment of a constitution, insurrection is a democraticpraxis, since it attempts to expand the group of individuals that can make public decisions. Insurrection is the democratic pole of the concept of citizenship.

On the other hand, however, the modern form of citizenship took shape within the national sphere. The sovereignty of the citizen was identified exclusively with nationality. It was the national people who proclaimed themselves a sovereign people. Thus, the insurgent demand of the universal principle of equaliberty was restricted in its constitution by the identification of citizenship with nationality. The struggles that led to the institutionalisation of social rights as a compromise between masses that organised around ‘socialism’ and ruling classes only served to strengthen the identification of citizenship with nationality. Social rights provided democratic legitimacy to the national state in a double sense. Firstly, they were the product of a democratic struggle for equality and public autonomy (Balibar speaks here of a ‘democratic conquest’ (p. 59)). Secondly, the mechanisms of social solidarity succeeded, to a certain extent, in achieving conditions of equality between national citizens: ‘The mechanism of solidarity that was established to varying extents by the welfare state concerned virtually every citizen and covered all of society, which is to say, the rich and the poor had equal right to it’ (p. 49). However, social citizenship was always also national social citizenship. The postwar consensus took the form of the ‘national-social state’, a constellation that proved one of the most powerful of modern politics and in whose historical shadow we still situate ourselves to a large degree.

This paradox of modern citizenship, namely the combination of its insurrectional universality on the one hand (that is, the fact that in principle no one can be denied the same rights as anyone else), and the immediate positing of exclusions on the other, guarantees that every attempt to institutionalise citizenship is in principle always in danger of being overturned. Every constituted form of citizenship violates the principle of equaliberty to some extent, and hence makes its own existence precarious, which means that it can always be put into question. According to Balibar, this does not entail that we should strive for a world without borders. As he puts it in another text, in this globalised world marked by the competition of major private actors, such a world ‘would run the risk of being a mere arena for the unfettered domination of the private centers of power which monopolize capital, communications and, perhaps also, arms’.Balibar 2002. Rather, we must think of it in terms of a dialectic of citizenship that plays out as much in history as it constitutes its logical structure. Every insurrection (both revolutionary and reformist) has as its aim the realisation of a constituted form. And every (democratic) constitution is the result of a history of insurrections: ‘We must place the insurrectional power to emancipate at the core of political constitutions’ (p. 18). Insurrection lies at the heart of constitution, and constitution lies at the heart of insurrection.

A Theory of Democracy

Balibar thus theorises citizenship as something that always escapes its form of institutionalisation to some extent. According to Balibar, the same fate befalls the concept of democracy. On the one hand, in order for democracy (which Balibar tends to equate with ‘egalitarian sovereignty’) to be more than a fleeting revolutionary moment, it must find a constitutionalised expression. Only within some kind of institutions can democratic decision-making become an effective form of political governance. In the modern era, democratic decision-making requires, for instance, an independent press, universal suffrage, the regular election of representatives, minimal campaign costs and the monitoring of the involvement of economic interests during elections.Jacques Rancière, the main theoretician of democracy as something that escapes every institutionalisation, has proposed these measures. See Rancière 2006, p. 72. Democratic regimes also regulate the process of public deliberation and ensure that political conflict expresses itself in a non-violent and ‘legitimate’ manner (p. 87).

On the other hand, every constituted regime also antagonistically excludes certain political alternatives. In the case of the national-social state, one such antagonistic exclusion is the extension of equal and full-fledged citizenship to non-nationals. In these situations the democratic state no longer presents itself as an impartial arbiter between contesting political views, but emerges as an ‘interested party to the conflict, taking sides or at least becoming predisposed towards certain solutions rather than others’ (p. 93). When certain political options threaten the existing institutions, one cannot guarantee that the pluralistic ‘rules of the game’ will be followed. This is where the permanent possibility of democratic insurrection comes in once more. Political alternatives that attempt to expand the spaces of liberty and equality often have no other choice than to position themselves against the existing institutions, since these same institutions have an interest in maintaining the existing system of power relations and constellations of in- and exclusion. Insurrection in the form of antagonistic confrontation must remain a permanent possibility, indeed in many cases even the democratic practicepar excellence.

By having both democracy and citizenship oscillate between constitution and insurrection, and by articulating both terms with each other, Balibar offers a multi-layered political theory that places him at the forefront of original thought in political philosophy. Balibar opposes the overly reductionist visions of both T.H. Marshall, who defined citizenship as a (constituted) status, and Jacques Rancière, whose neglect of the term citizenship leads him to overemphasise the anarchic nature of democracy. It also places him at odds with Habermas’s critical theory that attempted to translate political conflict into the exchange of rational arguments in an open public sphere.

Balibar also problematises Chantal Mouffe’s distinction between an agonistic and an antagonistic politics. Mouffe states that every hegemonic regime, even the most democratic one, must antagonistically exclude certain political alternatives as fundamentally incompatible with its workings. The problem therefore lies in identifying which political alternatives can justifiably be excluded and which cannot. Mouffe argues that modern democratic regimes allow for agonistic competition between all views that make use of the imaginary of freedom and equality to formulate their political programme (such as liberalism, libertarianism, socialism, ecologism, feminism etc.). Political alternatives that explicitly oppose these values, such as fascism or Islamic terrorism, however, should be antagonistically excluded.Mouffe 2000. For a summary of her views on this topic, see Mouffe 1996.

Balibar does not explicitly reject this view, but he clarifies that the only political actor capable of making the ‘Mouffeian’ decision of exclusion, namely the state, can never fully be trusted to make this decision. That is because, as noted above, the state itself can become a partial actor vis-à-vis certain political actors. The antagonistic exclusion of legitimate political alternatives is a permanent possibility. One might even wonder whether this is not the shape most meaningful political struggle takes! In conclusion, Mouffe’s agonistic theory of democracy can never translate itself into a fully constituted political regime, since that risks prioritising the will of the state over other legitimate political actors.

Citizenship and Exclusions

Throughout his analysis, Balibar shows that exclusions are inherent to every political constitution. This statement does not lead to a relativistic conception of politics, however. On the contrary, it leads Balibar to a detailed investigation into the specific modalities of exclusions in contemporary societies. The rightlessness of non-nationals in a conjuncture where national citizenship remains hegemonic is one such instance of exclusion. In Citizenship, Balibar addresses a different but related phenomenon of such an exclusion, based on the convergence and overlap of race and class in contemporary Europe.

In the imaginary of the nation state, there exists a certain symmetry between nationals, who receive the privilege of political, economic and cultural inclusion within the nation state. Those excluded from the mechanisms of the nation state were situated ‘outside’ its borders, both historically and symbolically. The ‘other’ did not belong to the national community. This situation has changed dramatically in the contemporary conjuncture. Histories of empire, colonisation and migration have placed the ‘foreigner’ at the centre of the political scene in European societies. Not only do they contest dominant notions of the national community on cultural and political grounds, they also overlap to a high degree with the class divide, in such a way that class and race overdetermine each other. Balibar calls the form of exclusion that corresponds to this situation ‘internal exclusion’, which signifies that ‘the condition of foreignness is projected within a political space or national territory to create an inadmissible alterity’ (p. 69).

It is necessary to develop this concept in more detail, however. Formally, the second- or third-generation youth of immigrant descent that reside in thebanlieues of Paris or Brussels do not lack the rights that are awarded to the other national citizens (this generally still holds, even though we have seen incursions on this terrain in recent years). However, what the internally excluded lack is the capacity toactively make use of their rights. Whether this takes the form of unemployment and economic precarity, or of projecting youth of immigrant descent still as foreigners who must attempt to ‘integrate’ into civilised European society, the consequence is that they take on the role of politicalsubjects, not of activecitizens. Passive citizenship, a condition reserved for women in the early modern European space, now forms a primary means of exclusion for these groups as well.

Within a globalised context, the political question that follows from this discussion, according to Balibar, is the following: ‘The whole question rests in knowing whether the collective “actors” of globalization … will as a majority search for a transnational model of “governing” discriminations and exclusions, or, on the contrary, for a new universalism that would be as “egalitarian” as possible’ (p. 82). Balibar makes clear that this political dilemma must be understood within a context that exceeds the national exclusions of race and class, to encompass the predicament of citizenship within the neoliberal age.

Rhetorically, contemporary neoliberalism often dresses itself up in the language of governance and technocracy. It presents itself as the only method capable of finding efficient solutions to technical problems, able to satisfy all the ‘stakeholders’ in contemporary society whilst remaining fundamentally a-political. In this discourse, the enemy has become the unsavoury and unknowing masses who flock to populist leaders intent on destroying the core foundations of our society. In this sense, neoliberalism’s specific threat to citizenship is not simply that elected officials have become corrupt by failing to represent their constituency and instead serve economic interest-groups or state power-holders, which is surely a phenomenon of all ages. Instead, the specificity of neoliberalism is that it threatens to disqualify ‘the very principles of representation itself’ (p. 118; emphasis in original). Elected officials do not view themselves as representatives of the citizenry anymore, thus disqualifying the principle of citizen sovereignty altogether. When the representative function of those in government disappears in the age of neoliberalism, one is left with the governing of exclusions, exporting conflict and violence outside the sphere of politics, if not outside one’s own territorial boundaries (p. 118).

With this analysis of neoliberalism, Balibar offers an original perspective on the question of the current predicament of democracy and citizenship in the world today. Most importantly, it highlights the threat posed by the disqualification of the democratic power to constitute a constitution. Balibar’s argumentation feels incomplete, however, and in my view suggests the need to develop its different facets. Balibar offers no conclusive answer to the question of whether neoliberalism’s threat to democracy is guided by the material interests of capital, or whether we are dealing with a dynamic that operates mostly at the level of politics and ideology. From this perspective, it is worth taking a detour in order to relate Balibar’s theory to Marx and recent discussions in post-Marxist thought, where Balibar has been reproached for undertheorising the role of capital in the constitution of citizenship.

Balibar and (Versions of) Marxism

Balibar has continuously engaged with the texts of Marx from his earliest writings.Althusser and Balibar 2009. Most often this took the form of a problematisation of key Marxist ideas or concepts, such as ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’, the idea of revolution or the concept of ideology. Although Marx is often mentioned in Citizenship, he only becomes the main focus of interest once. In the chapter on neoliberalism and de-democratisation, Balibar comments on the properly apocalyptical vision that Marx expressed in a chapter he chose to omit from the first volume ofCapital. In this ‘nightmare’, capital has fully achieved a ‘real subsumption of the labor force’ under its own logic (p. 108). This entailed that capital not only succeeded in maximising the productivity of the worker, but that the labour force was also entirely reproduced as commodity. The capitalist system thus tended fully to the reproduction of the labour force, managing its skills and capacities as well as its needs and desires. Balibar then proceeds to draw a continuity between Marx’s prognosis and contemporary ‘eschatological’ predictions, be theynegative, such as Agamben’s theory that biopolitical forces strip humanity of every quality so that it is reduced to ‘bare life’,Agamben 2005. or positive, such as Hardt and Negri’s theory of the contemporary formation of the ‘multitude’ as the product and gravedigger of capitalist relations of production.Hardt and Negri 2000.

More importantly, however, some of the ideas Balibar expresses in Citizenship allow us to reflect on a discussion within Marxist circles that is of particular relevance to our contemporary predicament, namely the role of citizenship in the transformation of social structures within our capitalist societies. In this book, Balibar again makes clear that citizenship and democracy (or the ‘democratisation of democracy’, as we shall see) provide the unsurpassable horizon of progressive social and political transformation. This means that one can achieve social progress only through the invention of new forms of citizenship and the elaboration of new rights. The inherent instability of citizenship provided by its relation to the ideal universality of equaliberty guarantees that citizenship be permanently open to ‘democratic inventions’ that build upon (and in that sense surpass) the history of citizenship (p. 18).

Balibar therefore clearly disagrees with Marx’s famous comments on the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in ‘On the Jewish Question’.Marx 2000. Here, Marx argues that the Declaration makes a distinction between the rights of the citizen (which are strictly political rights) and the rights of man (which in the final analysis can be reduced to the right to property). According to Marx, the Declaration thus naturalises the human being as an egoistic man, that is, the man of capitalist social relations. Citizenship, as a political construction built upon this foundation, covers up its intrinsic ties to capitalism and is therefore fundamentally unable to challenge it.

It is clear that today, Balibar’s theory of citizenship is of sufficient power that one cannot be as dismissive of citizenship as Marx. In recent years, however, in typically hauntological fashion, the Marxist argument seems to have returned to oppose Balibar once more. Stathis Kouvelakis, for instance, has argued that, although ‘struggles in the realm of right and for rights are constitutive dimensions of class struggle’, there is, in fact, an internal limit to citizenship.Kouvélakis 2005. According to Kouvelakis, struggles that centre around citizenship can indeed bring about progress (something Marx also affirmed), but they cannot fundamentally threaten the structure of capitalist domination. In other words, progress in the realm of citizenship ‘is not the final “form of human emancipation,” but it remains “the final form of human emancipationwithin the hitherto existing world order,” the “partial emancipation” that “leaves the pillars of the house intact”.’Kouvélakis 2005, p. 717; emphasis in original. At the conclusion of an excellent analysis of Balibar’s dialectics of citizenship and equaliberty, Svenja Bromberg has similarly criticised Balibar for insufficiently taking into account the role of capital.Bromberg 2018. I refer to Bromberg for an investigation into the different strands of Marx’s thought that Balibar identifies and engages with. At worst, according to Bromberg, this gap in his theoretical framework risks jeopardising the political relevance of his endeavour:

While Balibar identifies infinite contradictions between structures and actions, one wonders if the global zones of non-reproduction, the forms of hyperexploitation, the unattainability of citizenship have not developed into violent closures of what it means to be human or ‘[w]hich men are citizens?’ that might have catapulted us into a political moment where social citizenship needs to be abandoned as a valid objective of communist struggle.Bromberg 2018, p. 221.

The question is thus raised of whether Balibar’s theory of citizenship does not a priori limit the field of radical political action, thereby preventing social emancipation from ever getting off the ground. Returning to Balibar’s analysis of neoliberalism, we can add that he leaves open too many questions regarding the role of capital in neoliberalism’s disqualification of the principle of representation. Is this disqualification mainly something produced at the level of the superstructure, for instance through the dissemination of neoliberal ideologies though think-tanks, the media and contemporary discourses of governance, or is it more directly a product of capitalism’s need to be governed more efficiently in order to meet profit-making requirements? And if the latter is the case, can we reasonably expect that the elaboration of rights could still bring meaningful social progress? It is not my intention to answer these criticisms and questions in this review (nor doesCitizenship conclusively provide the resources to do so). InCitizenship, Balibar does however elaborate on certain dimensions of his position that indicate where his analysis could develop from here. In doing so, we can clarify the stakes of the discussion and more clearly flesh out the positions taken by Balibar and his interlocutors.

To begin with, there is no doubt that Balibar is aware of the role that capital plays in the establishment of modern citizenship and democracy – witness his comments on the destabilisation of national-social citizenship by the globalisation of capital flows (e.g. pp. 46, 55), or the way he analyses the rise of national-social citizenship as a product of class struggle within Fordist structures and relations of production (pp. 51–5). Tied to this, but more importantly, Balibar makes clear that he espouses the position that social progress can be viewed as a continuous movement or struggle (p. 126). Emancipation cannot be established through a radical break that once and for all institutes equality and liberty for all, since every social and political transformation engenders new forms of exclusion. This, Balibar insists, is not the same as a capitulation to a form of capitalist realism. It points to the idea that ‘capitalism can be compelled into incorporating rights that contradict its own logic’ (p. 127). If the state is materially constituted and conditioned by the struggle between classes, this implies that the democratic gains can also be made within the state (indeed, Balibar suggests that this is one of the ways we must read the formation of the ‘national-social state’ (p. 61)). Added to this is Balibar’s idea (contra Kouvelakis) that the progressive transformations of citizenshipcouldalso lead beyond capitalism. As he hesitatingly puts it:

The key is knowing whether such a transformation of the power struggle can reach a point where it begins to make room for non-commercial relationships that are neither residual nor compensatory (such as the recent neo-liberal philanthropy)butexpansive. Even if these are not little islands of communism in the ancient sense of ‘modes of production’ that organize the totality of the society (and abolish the political), then they might at least be what Hardt and Negri called ‘commons’ (not only ‘common goods,’ but ‘community practices’). (p. 127; my emphasis.)

A final point concerns Balibar’s radicalism. Indeed, the expansion of social rights (for instance, via a basic income or the reduction of the working week), the expansion of the rights of immigrants, or the institution of transnational forms of citizenship (for instance on the European level), are more moderate claims than the abolition of wage labour or of social classes. In the contemporary conjuncture, however, these rights seemingly represent impossible demands on the dominant system. As Bruce Robbins puts it in defence of Balibar, ‘The trouble with that theory [i.e. the theory of revolutionary social emancipation in Marx’s mould] is that while the suffering worsens, the system isn’t breaking. Maybe the best way to break it is to keep asking it for things it can provide, but won’t.’Robbins 2013. Although these arguments in no way adequately settle the discussion, perhaps it is here that one can glimpse the ‘utopian element’ of Balibar’s thought.

Democratising Democracy

The philosophical reflections that Balibar has offered throughout the course of Citizenship culminate in the final chapter, which reads as Balibar’s most explicitly political stance outside of his direct public interventions. According to Balibar, we must respond to the a-democratic nature of neoliberalism and the authoritarian turn witnessed in so many countries with a ‘democratization of democracy’ (p. 119). This latter expression denotes the fact that the term democracy does not naturally belong to those regimes that call themselves democratic. Rather, citizens, but also and especially non-citizens, passive citizens and others in between, should claim the ideal universality that lies behind the idea of a democratic sovereignty of equals. It is a democratic act to impose oneself on the political scene on the basis of equality and freedom. Indeed, according to Balibar, such an imposition from without, that is, this breaking into the established governing of things and people, is the only way genuine equality and freedom can come about. The democratisation of democracy is an insurrectionarypraxis that necessarily happens ‘from below’. It ‘displaces the [dominant] political practices in such a way as to openly confront thelack of democracy in existing “democratic” institutions and to transform them in a more or less radical manner’ (p. 124).

In my view, the final chapter of Citizenship represents the high point of the book. It is a political intervention as well as a layered philosophical reflection. Balibar shows throughout the book that insurrectionary practice is a permanent pole of citizenship. As such, the democratisation of democracy fits entirely within the dialectic of citizenship and democracy. One should not approach insurrectionary practice in a naïve, celebratory manner, however. The political movements that were able to force themselves into the dominant structures of power most often have an exclusionary dimension to them as well. The subordination of women’s rights to the socialist cause is but one example of this phenomenon. Therefore, in order truly to do justice to the ideal of equaliberty, ‘a political movement can only democratise society if it itself is fundamentallymore democratic than the system it opposes, both with respect to its objectives and to its internal operation’ (p. 128).

Citizenship most likely won’t stand out as Balibar’s most original or impactful work. Balibar has already written extensively on the theme of citizenship; in this respect the book does not break decisive new ground with regard to his previous work (the final two chapters are probably the most original contributions Citizenship makes to Balibar’s body of work). Those acquainted with Balibar’s philosophy will recognise many – if not most – of the arguments presented inCitizenship. Moreover, although it is a short book, it can at times be difficult to work through. Balibar’s texts often meander seemingly without purpose or goal, as he uncovers yet another conflictual dimension in the presentation of a philosopher’s text or another aporia within universal concepts such as citizenship, democracy, progress or equality.

At times, this strategy risks becoming excessive. Balibar’s analysis of the impact of neoliberalism on citizenship is a case in point here. In this relatively short chapter, Balibar only formulates his main argument after discussing a text by Wendy Brown on neoliberalism, the eschatologies of Marx, Agamben and Hardt & Negri, Laclau’s populism and Foucault ethos of a ‘self-care’. As we have discussed above, when Balibar arrives finally at his main point, namely that neoliberalism threatens to disqualify the principle of representation as such, he insufficiently addresses the specificities of this conclusion.

That being said, Balibar’s approach to text and writing offers significant advantages. Not least is that on a second or third reading, one identifies a striking coherence of thought that is immensely diverse. Balibar appears not to shy away from any topic or author, and is willing to look even the most uncomfortable truths straight in the eye. The final chapter expresses a surprising energy and call to arms that are rare for contemporary philosophy. Citizenship is well worth reading if one is interested in discovering a microcosm of the riddles and problems that have occupied this French philosopher’s attention for multiple decades.


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Althusser, Louis and Étienne Balibar 2009 [1968], Reading Capital, translated by Ben Brewster, London: Verso.

Balibar, Étienne 2002, Politics and the Other Scene, translated by Christine Jones, James Swenson and Chris Turner, London: Verso.

Balibar, Étienne 2012, Cittadinanza, Turin: Bollati Boringhieri.

Balibar, Étienne 2014, Equaliberty: Political Essays, translated by James Ingram, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Balibar, Étienne 2015a, Citizenship, translated by Thomas Scott-Railton, Cambridge: Polity Press.

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Balibar, Étienne 2016, Citizen Subject: Foundations for Philosophical Anthropology, translated by Steven Miller, New York: Fordham University Press.

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