No Neutral Ground

Étienne Balibar’s ‘Secularism and Cosmopolitanism’
Étienne Balibar (Agence Opale / Alamy Stock Photo)

There are understandings of the human and nonhuman world that present themselves as true for all, everywhere and at all times, and as desirable for all if only everyone could learn to see things as they are. We call these understandings universalisms. The American experiment is an example: it’s founded on texts that make its universalism explicit (“We hold these truths to be self-evident”), and it has, in its better moments, offered citizenship generously (“give me your poor”). Christianity is another example: its central premise is that the triune Lord has done something for everyone by way of incarnation, resurrection, and ascension; and it offers baptism to all, without restriction, as a means of incorporation into and conformity with Jesus, the Lord who has saved everyone. And there are many others: Islam and Buddhism provide clear-enough cases; so does Marxism, and, in some of its varieties, Confucianism.

Universalisms aspire to be, well, universal. They’d like everyone to see their truth and goodness and beauty, and to embrace the institutional forms they take. It would be good, Christians often think, if everyone were baptized. It would be good, Americans often think, if the planet were Americanized. And so on. But all universalisms are also, and necessarily, parochial: each of them has a local origin, and therefore each has local shape and color and flavor. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is parochial in this sense, as are the Declaration of Independence, the Qur’an, and the New Testament. There’s no contradiction here: mathematical truths are all arrived at parochially (by Newton, by Einstein, by Wiles), but they may nonetheless be universally and necessarily true. So also, mutatis mutandis, for political and theological universalisms.

That there are rival universalisms is almost as obvious as that there are universalisms. It became clear during the course of the sixteenth century in England, for example, that the claims of Protestant Christianity (clearly a universalism), together with its associated political forms and practices, aren’t compatible with the claims, forms, and practices of Catholic Christianity (equally clearly a universalism). It is by now just as clear in, for example, France and America and Saudi Arabia, that the claims, forms, and practices of democratic, rights-based universalisms aren’t compatible with those of some forms of Islam. What then?

Recognition of these incompatibilities is a special difficulty for democratic, rights-based universalisms. That’s because they aspire, unlike most other universalisms, to provide a political form of life within which inhabitants and advocates of all other universalisms can flourish without being required to abandon or compromise anything constitutive or defining of their own distinctive forms of life. Americanism says that if you’re a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim or a Buddhist you can live here, with us, under our regime, as what you are. Our political form of life is supposed to permit your flourishing without compromise. America—and any other democratic, rights-based polity—promises that whatever you bear as you come to us, you may continue to bear, without hindrance or constraint. What we offer you is the freedom to be yourself.

This is a distinctive understanding, a distinctive promise. I’m exaggerating it for clarity’s sake, but not much. Most universalisms don’t make this promise. Christianity certainly doesn’t. It asks its converts to leave behind most of what they were and to become a new creation. Christianity, by and large, responds to rival universalisms by asking those who’ve become Christian to abandon them—or at least permit them to be overwritten, transfigured, and perfected by Jesus. Islam, Buddhism, and, in its own distinctive way, Judaism, all do the same. These are universalisms of supersession: to accept them is necessarily to reject what you were. Not so for American universalism. America’s promise is a meta-promise—of a universalism that can accommodate all other universalisms without loss. That promise is the distinctive feature of the political trajectory that runs from the French and American revolutions to the promulgation of the Universal Declaration in 1948. America requires, of course, the rejection of allegiance to all foreign powers (I had to raise my right hand and say that when I was naturalized in 1994), but that’s a matter of taxes and wars and territoriality. It isn’t, as a matter of principle, a requirement that I should abandon my Christianity.

It’s increasingly evident that the American promise, understood in this way, has not been fulfilled and cannot be. That’s because American universalism is just like its rivals: parochial in origin and supersessionist in nature, all the way down. To become a citizen of a rights-based democracy, especially one that is inseparable from late capitalism, is also to accept the non-universality of every other universalism you adhere to. To have your Christianity or Islam or Buddhism framed by your Americanism is to make it something else, not any longer, properly speaking, a universalism at all. This is a deep difficulty for the United States and countries that follow its model.


Balibar hopes for a new cosmopolitanism and a new political rhetoric to go with it.

It’s this difficulty that Étienne Balibar’s book addresses. He, being French, is mostly interested in the French case rather than the American, but the problem in its fundamental structure is the same, and there’s much that Americans can learn from what he has to say. Balibar holds academic positions at several universities, French, American, and English, and is best characterized as a philosopher of politics. Of late—the last two decades or so—he’s been exercised by the problem I’ve just outlined, and in this latest book, a collection of essays written between the early years of this century and 2017, it’s front and center. The longest and most significant essay in this book, “Saeculum,” addresses it directly. What, in this present age, this saeculum, are the rights-based democracies to do about rival universalisms? Are they to take the straightforward route and abandon their aspiration to provide a universal form of political life within which all other universalisms can flourish, acknowledging that they are just one more player on the field—like, say, Wahhabi Islam or Neo-Confucianism? Or can they find a way to keep the promise?

Balibar’s method in addressing this question is genealogical. His prose is clotted with references to, expositions of, and self-differentiations from his ancestors: Marx, Foucault, Lacan, Régis Debray, Louis Althusser, Judith Butler, Fredric Jameson, Saba Mahmood, and so on. This can make it difficult to follow his argument. It’s too often obscured by parenthetical comments on one or another of the ancestors, and by engagement in exegetical arguments about this or that text. This is a pity, for in fact his argument is straightforward and important, and mostly right. It involves the following elements.

First, there’s the acknowledgment that conflicts between the rights-based democracies and the “religious” universalisms such as Islam or Christianity are best understood as religious all the way down on both sides—or as irreligious all the way down. Deploying the term “religious” to identify some of them but not others has no analytic payoff. To take a clear example, in the case of the French controversies over the hijab (illegal in public spaces in France, required by some versions of Islam in France), what we have is “a conflict of religious universalisms concentrated around the singularity of the bodily regime that lies at the core of each of these universalisms.” Yes. Or, more directly: there’s no important difference between a shari’a-based hijab requirement and a laïcité-based hijab ban. They’re in direct conflict and held with equal passion on both sides as essential elements of a universalism. We’re confused, Balibar thinks, by categorizing some universalisms as religious and others as secular. We’d see more clearly if we said that they’re all political, or better yet “cosmopolitical.” Balibar affirms here the line of reasoning about the use of the term “religion” in the work of the American anthropologist Talal Asad. And although he doesn’t note it, there are trenchant versions of the same line put forward by Catholic thinkers, such as William Cavanaugh.

Balibar is clear that French laïcité as an ideology is based upon a clear distinction between the private and public spheres, together with an unambiguous location of the “religious” in the former and the political in the latter. There’s a clear American analogue: this separation is one of the important strands in interpretation of the religion clauses of the First Amendment. What this means in practice, more clearly in the French case than in the American, is that when some universalism requires public behavior, it becomes political. And once it’s political it’s no longer religious, and therefore no longer protected by whatever religious freedoms are promised by the state. Balibar argues that this way of marking the territory is no longer sustainable. It looks like sleight of hand and that’s because it is. It amounts to saying that you can have your “religious” universalism so long as it remains cloistered; when it isn’t, you can’t have it, because it’s no longer “religious” but political. And it’s the job of the rights-based democracies to specify when you’ve transgressed in this way, which is tantamount to specifying when you’ve made a mistake about what properly belongs to your “religious” universalism. When rights-based democracies do that, they transgress their own claim to broad neutrality on matters internal to the religious universalisms, because they are now ruling on just such matters.

Second, there’s Balibar’s claim that all politics is now what he calls cosmopolitics. That is, all politics is now about dealing with conflict between and among rival universalisms, including those enshrined in the constitutional self-understandings of the rights-based democracies. I think this is right—especially since the end of the Soviet experiment in 1989. To say that all politics is cosmopolitics, however, is also to say that the political experiment and hope of the Enlightenment is over, and on this point Balibar is less clear than he might be because of his own political leanings. The Enlightenment hope was to make an end-run around cosmopolitical conflicts by offering a political order that could embrace all universalisms. But no such political order is possible. The offer is inflated, confused, and violently corrupt—a key element in what Balibar calls “the economy of generalized violence” within which we all live. We would all do well to remind ourselves often that the principal purveyors of violence of all kinds are nation-states.

Third, there’s Balibar’s suggestion that, in spite of all this, there is a way to preserve some essential elements of Enlightenment aspiration. Not, now, as a mere ideological commitment—if it’s that, then its primary instrument will be the blunt instruments of political power and executive force, as is evident at the moment. Rather, Balibar hopes for a new cosmopolitanism and a new political rhetoric to go with it. This cosmopolitanism will have the world as its political horizon, and it will mean a drastic reduction in the importance of the capitalist nation-states that are still, for us, the principal political units. It will require, too, a new political rhetoric, a “civic articulation” as Balibar likes to call it, that will extend secularism’s horizon spatially as well as temporally—not, that is, the saeculum as this present age only, but also the saeculum as the entirety of this planet. Balibar thinks this is the only way through the political impasse and planetary ecological crisis we find ourselves in.

This is utopian, of course. Balibar acknowledges both the unlikelihood that any such renewed cosmopolitanism will move or convince most people and the inevitability of violent conflicts among the universalisms we live with. But he still holds out hope for a rhetoric and a politics that is areligious—that is, neither a sacralized secularism nor a resurgent monotheism—and that can serve as a mediator for or catalyst of new forms of politics. Balibar sometimes describes his position as a “skepticism to the second power,” which is about right. No self-evident truths for him, no high-toned appeals to what every rational person ought to assent to. Instead, there’s something—we don’t know what exactly and we can’t know because, if we could, it wouldn’t be the thing we need—that will save us and that we will all, eventually, see that we need. Balibar is therefore still an Enlightenment thinker, even if a chastened one. He sees our problems clearly and diagnoses them with vigor, but he provides only the mistiest of abstractions as a way forward. The substantive hopes of Enlightenment political theory have been thinned to almost nothing. In the phrase that Balibar prefers, borrowed from Fredric Jameson, there is only the aspiration for a vanishing mediator.


The nation-state has become a religion that’s collapsing under the weight of its contradictions. It may be time to consider alternatives.

If you don’t want to derive your politics from a religion of substance, whether one that stems from Jesus Christ, or the Prophet, or John Locke, or Jean-Jacques Rousseau, or Thomas Jefferson, or John Rawls, or Gautama Shakyamuni, then this is what you’re left with. It’s not nothing, but it isn’t enough to stem the bloodtide that Balibar anticipates. He’d agree. Those who want to hold on to some attenuated vestige of Enlightenment political hope, will have, if Balibar is right, to brace themselves and look forward to a peace far in the future with much bloodshed on the way there. One could call it an eschatological peace.

But perhaps there’s another way. If the nation-state in its current form is indeed a violently and incoherently sacralized bearer of meanings that it can’t sustain, then perhaps the nation-state is the problem. In that case, simply thematizing its incoherence or revising its secularism by means of a “skepticism to the second power” is unlikely to be enough. But perhaps a deeper localism than Balibar would entertain (Catalonia for the Catalans, Scotland for the Scots, Texas for the Texans, Tamil Nadu for the Tamils, and so on), combined with a strong commitment to something like his cosmopolitanism (a strengthened United Nations, World Health Organization, and so on), is possible. Then, universalisms might find a polis without having to emasculate themselves in the service of Leviathan; human longings for a homeplace might be satisfied; and the planetary horrors of climate change and other devastations wrought by late capitalism might be addressed in the only way they can be, which is globally. And isn’t that line of thought the Catholic doctrine of subsidiarity, robustly construed? It, too, is utopian, but it may have more bite and heft than what Balibar offers.

I live now in the mountains of western North Carolina. There, I often see a bumper sticker that says, “I love my country but I fear my government.” That’s a slogan from the right. In urban America, it’s not uncommon to see a bumper sticker that says, “He’s not my president.” That’s a slogan from the left. The sentiment, however, is the same, and in both cases it’s a version of what Balibar offers in sophisticated, convoluted, deep-genealogical prose: the nation-state has become a religion that’s collapsing under the weight of its contradictions. It may be time to consider alternatives.

Published in the May 17, 2019 issue: 

Paul J. Griffiths, a longtime contributor to Commonweal, is the author of several books, including Intellectual Appetite: A Theological Grammar, and, most recently, Christian Flesh (Stanford University Press).

Also by this author
Eternal Life for Atheists

Please email comments to and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads