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  • Europe, an "Unimagined" Frontier of Democracy
  • Étienne Balibar (bio)
    Translated by Frank Collins (bio)

In my Berlin talk I spoke of the ever more massive and ever more legitimate presence in the old European states of people from their former colonies, and this despite the discrimination to which these people are subjected [see "Europe, Vanishing Mediator?"]. I added that this was the basis for a lesson in alterity that Europe can use to define more uniquely its power (or lack of power—"puissance" vs. "im-puissance") in the world today. This idea might appear to be excessively optimistic, if not a delusion, but I wish to clarify what it means by examining the ideas of two Italian sociologists, Alessandro Dal Lago and Sandro Mezzadra. These two scholars have for a long time been engaged in analyzing the effects of postcolonial immigration in a Europe caught up in the process of globalization.

In their essay "I confini impensati dell'Europa," they examine the way in which, in today's Europe, two meanings associated with "frontier" conflict with each other. They are referring to what Italian calls confini (which I would translate into French as frontières [English "frontiers"]) and frontiere (which I would translate into French as confins [English "confines"/"outer reaches"]).2 The end of the Cold War and the nullification of the Yalta agreements have reopened a historical and philosophical question with respect to the the very meaning we attach to the name "Europe." In the bloody wars that followed the disintegration of former Yugoslavia, that question took on a particularly dramatic form and prefigured other events of the same kind.

Dal Lago and Mezzadra place this question in the context of the changes undergone by imperialism. The fight by the capitalist powers to control world resources and to impose a "Western-style" economic model upon the rest of the world is now becoming a full-scale battle that includes all the social, demographic, and humanitarian aspects that tend to impose a global constraint against the movement of peoples. This constraint is particularly felt in those "frontier-zones" in which political control coexists alongside military control (as in Yugoslavia), but where the two are violently separated. In these zones, men are at once displaced, forced into migration, yet also confined to house arrest. Here we are touching upon the profoundly equivocal nature of the "European" project:

We can thus state that the frontiers of Europe have multiplied and diversified. As a consequence, the political concept of Europe has also significantly [End Page 36] fragmented. We might say that today there are as many distinct Europes as there are functions undertaken on the international stage by that nebulous continental entity. [. . .] This multiplication, however, cannot hide the chasm that separates on the one hand ideological or utopic pretentions to self-determination for the whole of Europe, and on the other the inescapable need strategically to align itself with the center of the Western empire, namely the USA. Recent global wars—such as the Gulf and Afghanistan wars—periodically remind us of this reality.


Dal Lago and Mezzadra go on to describe the self-fulfilling prophecy inherent in European discourse on identity and security, an ever more insistent discourse since the 1990s.3 This is true for the supporters of "populism" who, from Austria to Italy to Denmark have built their electoral successes on the concept of "unassimilable difference" and insecurity. It is also to be seen in the practices of European governments today and in the way civil societies are "conditioned." True, constructions that define identity (constructions identitaires) following the end of the Cold War have established nothing positive with respect to European identity, but they stigmatize a group of excluded people in order to mark the difference between Europe and the rest of the world. Essentially these refugees and migrant workers occupy that slot in society, both imaginary and real, of internal or domestic political enemies4 who are nothing more than a construct of the State. These people are seen as a threat to security while in fact having no security themselves.

This defining of the immigrant in term of his alterity, as a potentially dangerous temporary guest...