Paper Leviathans. Exclusionary politics and democracy in Europe
Pasquale Ferrara 8 November 2017


Ethno-nationalism is at the centre of debates on the involution of the political sphere in Europe and in the western world. Some political analysts interpret this phenomenon as a re-edition of the nationalism of the XIX century and the first half of the XX. In this reading, liberal democracy is seen as a sort of interlude that began after world war (1946); that fortunate interval, according to this approach, is now coming to an end. Besides, there exists in the western thought an anti-democratic tradition, along with the democratic ideology.[1]

However, it remains to be seen whether the concept of liberalism as a short-living episode is relevant for understanding the new features of the current wave of ethno-nationalism. In the XIX century, ethno-nationalism was closely linked to the formation of nation-states; in the ‘20s and ‘30 it was mainly caused by the growing competition and confrontation among state powers in the very heart of Europe.

The current ethno-nationalism, contrary to the correlate ideology of the XX century, is often connected to the weakening of national bonds (Cataluña is the case in point), in the form of separatism, localism, and fiscal federalism. As Joseph Rothschild notes, “in modern and transitional societies – unlike traditional ones – politicizing ethnicity has become the critical principle of political legitimation and de-legitimation of systems, states, regimes, and governments and at the same time has also become an effective instrument for pressing mundane interests in society’s competition for power, status, and wealth.”[2] To be sure, it is possible to trace back the ethnic origins of many European peoples, but only at four conditions: ethnology doesn’t correspond to anthropology; culture and history are much more important than ethnos; there is no monolithic identity, not even at regional and level; the ethnology of Europe is strictly connected to “distant others” in other continents.[3]

To be more accurate, instead of ethno-nationalism one should talk of “ethno-politics”, that is, the political use of ethnicity in a broader sense, as a manifestation, jointly with forms of religious radicalism, of the resurgence of an exclusionary vision of the polity. From this point of view, we live in an era of “regressive modernity” or “democratic regression”. It is true, as Alain-Gérard Slama writes, that “la démocratie n’est pas un régime, c’est une convention d’une fragilité magnifique”.[4] This “magnificent fragility” of democracy is becoming quite evident even in Europe. Form a political standpoint, a new epoch of de-civilization has started. The paradox is that the actual negation of civility in public life is perpetrated in the name of an imaginary Western civilization[5]. Democracy is accepted as a default institutional arrangement, but the democratic culture is in deep trouble.

Sovereignty versus democracy?

“Sovereign is he who decides on the exception”.[6] This is the famous definition that Carl Schmitt coined to characterize sovereign power in its utmost assertiveness; that is, suspending the rule of law. Today, this expression could be rephrased, with distorting effects, in a radically different way: “Sovereign is he who decides on the exclusion.” In fact, in the four corners of the globe, conceptions of political community are more and more articulated around “extreme identities” (sometimes even “murderous identities”, according to Amin Maalouf) [7], that tend to accentuate differences, cultural and religious distances, in terms of structural incompatibility, irreconcilable visions and deep division. If neo-liberalism could be understood as “atomic individualism”, the present enclosure of political and cultural entities could be defined as “atomic communitarianism”, communitarian insulation: an apparent contradiction. Besides, modern western democracies have always been tempted with homogeneity and normalization, perhaps perceiving themselves as communities of fellows (“communautés de semblables[8]) more than as societies of equals.

More that on purely ethnic arguments, the new exclusionary political movements tend to legitimize their claims in favour of fragmentation through resistance to re-distribution, as opposed to recognition; in doing so, they decouple sharply two essential and intertwined dimensions of social justice in the age of identity politics.[9] At semantic level, they miss the difference between taxes and fees: “taxes are levied to the community as a whole, regardless of whom captures the benefits of the public services funded hereby. Fees, by contrast, are charged to specific beneficiaries to the services they personally receive.”[10] At systemic level, the aim of these movements is de-structuring coherent political entities through the dis-integration of existing institutional arrangements and compromises in the name of a hyper-inflated concept of cultural roots.

The causes of the revamping of the dangerous “land and blood” politics coupled with fiscal localism are to be found in two parallel processes of objective marginalization. On the one side, considerable sectors of western population feel increasingly excluded for the benefits of globalization. Saskia Sassen writes about the physical “expulsion” of categories from the social scene and from the mainstream economic system.[11]

Growing income inequality, unemployment, expanding populations of the displaced and imprisoned, accelerating destruction of land and water bodies produce socioeconomic and environmental dislocations well beyond the traditional understanding poverty and injustice.

In conjunction with the emergence of this new form of alienation, aggressive political entrepreneurs are successfully framing the political agenda in the West, by exploiting or simply utilizing the feelings of exclusion, anger, and resentment against the élites. It would be a mistake to think that this attitude belongs only the traditional right; it regards today the entire political spectrum, including to some extent the left and the electorate that usually vote to the left.

One key aspect of this discourse against the élites concerns the questioning of political representation. There is no doubt that this is an institution that is in a critical condition, but this does not justify replacing representation with the idea of “disintermediation”. This notion implies the belief in the possibility of a supposed perfect identification between those who govern and those who are governed, in a sort of neo-organicist conception of the state. In this context, the electoral process, more than expressing the will of the people, would serve to legitimize the power (any power) before the people. What is happening in reality is the “entropy” or representation.[12] We live more and more in an environment of fundamental political mistrust, which Pierre Rosanvallon defines as “contre-démocratie”.[13] In short, it appears a political form that has been effectively defined as “illiberal democracy”[14]. There is the envelope of democracy, for example, with electoral procedures, but essential components, namely pluralism and the riches of liberties, are missing.

A variation of this distortion of democracy is competitive authoritarianism[15]: an oxymoron, which in this case also indicates the existence of democratically-formulated formal procedures, accompanied by the re-production of power relations in favour of those who already hold it (incumbent). On a different account, political scientists distinguish between “extractive” and “inclusive” political institutions[16]: in the first case access to political power suffers restrictions of various kinds (even when the competition is formally present), while in the latter case the political system is open and power is accessible. In sum, sovereignism is the senile disease of sovereignty. In fact, the latter was born as an instrument of identification, mutual recognition and relational structure both in the domestic and international politics.

Sovereignism as selective isolationism

Last century’s brand of ethno-nationalism was mainly linked to the lack of internationalism in national politics, whereas this time it is the “excess” of internationalism (globalization) that is apparently causing a reaction in the direction of localism or nationalism.

Carl Schmitt wrote about the dissolution of the “Jus Publicum Europaeum”, based on territoriality and the appropriation of land between the XIX and XX century.[17] The link between “order” (Ordnung) and “localization” (Ortung) was no longer the foundation of political units in the wider space of internationalization.

The instinctive reaction to this the ongoing process is rethinking the role of states in terms of sovereignty rather than in term of democracy. It is the formulation of politics as “sovereignism”.

In particular, the state is conceived as a diaphragm between national society and international society, contrary to the universalism (often instrumental, it must be admitted) of human rights, the responsibility to protect and so-called humanitarian intervention. In other words, sovereign democracy implements an “immunization mechanism” at international level not only in the sense of the classic rejection of any interference in domestic affairs, but also of disinterest for world affairs that are not directly related to national interests articulated according to economic, military, hegemonic, securitarian parameters.

Thus, sovereignism is a selective isolationism, that is taking us back to Jean Bodin, who in 1576 theorized that state as summa potestas, as supreme power “superiorem not recognoscens[18], which does not recognize higher instances. The political fascination (or intoxication) of sovereign democracy has also plagued the European Union, which in theory, according to Habermas’s lesson, should be characterized as an example of a “post-national constellation”.[19]

Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, as well as the refusal of some member states (such as Hungary and Poland) to accept the re-allocation of refugees falls in the same category.

Today the exclusionary public discourse in Europe on the strangers, the others, the migrants is an easy substitute for questioning Islam, despite the fact that Islam already became an European and American religion – as a research published recently by Nadia Marzouky demonstrates[20] – in a double sense: first through the strategies of recognition adopted by Muslims and second through the performance of Islam as a faith. The irony of the false assumption of a “Muslim invasion” is that the vast majority of immigrants in Italy, for instance, are actually Christians and Catholics. Moreover, in the case of Italy, immigrants contribute to the welfare system eight billions Euros a years and receive three billions Euros in terms of pensions and social benefits, with a net gain for the public budget of five billions Euros.[21]

Pragmatically, the real question is about the effectiveness of this post-modern policy of national seclusion. Ulrich Beck had already written about the “cosmopolitan realpolitik”[22] that would be imposed on states by virtue of the very transnational nature of global phenomena. Beck makes a clear distinction between philosophical cosmopolitanism, which is about norms, and sociological cosmopolitization, which is about facts. It is unrealistic to rely upon “sovereign democracy” in the face of climate change or migration. “Questions about human needs – writes Michael Ignatieff – are questions about human obligations”.[23] The danger of sovereignism, led to its extreme consequences, is global irresponsibility.

Moreover, there is the question of the real capabilities. Let’s take the case of the so-called “recovery of monetary sovereignty” in the area of ​​the European Monetary Union. It is really odd to assume that the return to the lira or to the drachma would allow to control the national currency, whose value now largely depends on transcontinental private transactions carried out through electronic means 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Currencies are no longer either material or territorial; both money and land became virtual. The solution here should be a severe global regulation, not re-territorialisation. It is, as we see in several other domains, a case of cognitive dissonance.

Sovereignty as political responsibility 

Leviathans – big or small, state-centred or community-based – are back on the scene of the world. However, to paraphrase the famous expression of Mao Tse Tung[24], they are “paper Leviathans”. Their horizon is the protective barrier, the “field”, and the wall. In building fortifications (real or imaginary), they seem to be victorious in the short time, but they have been already defeated by the great history. Their most serious responsibility does not concern the closure of spaces, but rather the illusion of dominating time, the pretence of halting the future, of determining the choices of successive generations.

No matter what they believe, the true “sovereign is he who decides on the inclusion”. Sovereign is he who resists the siren call of pseudo-identity or ultra-identity and ultimately accepts political responsibility of re-humanizing the world community, without losing sight of the primary goals and justification of democracy: pursuing human development, common good and common goods.

Pasquale Ferrara, a serving diplomat, is Professor of Diplomacy and Negotiation at LUISS – Rome and member of the RESET DoC Board of Governors


[1] Cf. J.T. Roberts, Athens on Trial. The antidemocratic Tradition in the Western Thought, Princeton University Press, Princeton N.J. 1994

[2] Joseph Rothschild, Ethnopolitics, a conceptual framework, Columbia University Press, New York 1981, p. 2

[3] Cf. Jean Cuisenier, Ethnologie de l’Europe, PUF ,Paris 1990

[4] Cf. Alain-Gérard Slama, La regression démocratique, Perrin, Paris 2002.

[5] Cf. Oliver Nachtwey, Decivilization: on regressive tendencies in Western societies, in Heinrich Geiselberger (Editor), The Great Regression, Polity, New York 2017

[6] Cf. Carl Schmitt, Political Theology. Four chapters on the concept of sovereignty, University of Chicago Press Chicago, Chicago 2005 [1932]

[7] Cf. Amin Maalouf, Les identités meurtrières, Grasset, Paris 1998

[8] Cf. Achille Mbembe, Politique de l’inimitié, La Découverte, Paris 2016

[9] Nancy Fraser, Axel Honneth, Redistribution or Recognition? A Political-Philosophical Exchange, Verso, London-New York 2003

[10] Stephen Holmes, Cass R. Sunstein, The Costs of Rights. Why Liberty Depends on Taxes, W.W. Norton & Company, Nwe York-London 1999, p. 21

[11] Cf. Saskia Sassen, Expulsions: brutality and complexity in the global economy, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass 2014.

[12] Cf. Pierre Rosanvallon, La contre-démocratie. La politique à l’age de la défiance, Seuil, Paris 2006

[13] Cf. ibidem

[14] Cf. Fareed Zakaria, The future of freedom. Illiberal democracy at home and abroad, W.W Norton & Company, New York 2003

[15] Cf. Steven Levitsky, Lucan A.Way, Competitive Authoritarianism, Cambridge University Press, New York  2010

[16] Cf. Daron Acemoglu, James A. Robinson, Why nations fail. The origin of power, prosperity and poverty, Profile Books, London 2012

[17] Cf. Carl Schmitt, The Nomos of the Earth in the international law of the Jus  Publicum Europaeum, Telos Press, New York 2003

[18]  Cf. Jean Bodin, Les six livres de la République, Jacques du Puy, Paris 1576.

[19] Cf. Jürgen Habermas, Après l’Etat-nation. Une nouvelle constellation politique, Fayard, Paris 2000 [1998]

[20] Cf. Nadia Marzouki, Islam. An American religion, Columbia University Press, New York 2017

[21] Cf. Tito Boeri, Populismo e stato sociale, Laterza, Bari-Roma 2017, p. 16

[22] Cf. Ulrich Beck, Living in and Coping with World Risk Society: The Cosmopolitan Turn,Lecture in Moscow, June 2012 []

[23] Michael Ignatieff, The needs of strangers, Picador, New York 1984, p. 27

[24] “Paper tigers”, an ancient Chinese expression, was used by Mao Tse-tung in an August 1946 interview with American Journalist Anna Louise Strong: “The atom bomb is a paper tiger which the U.S. reactionaries use to scare people. It looks terrible, but in fact it isn’t. Of course, the atom bomb is a weapon of mass slaughter, but the outcome of a war is decided by the people, not by one or two new types of weapon. All reactionaries are paper tigers. In appearance, the reactionaries are terrifying, but in reality they are not so powerful.” (Mao Tse-tung, “Talk with the American Correspondent Anna Louise Strong” in Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung, IV, Foreign Languages Press, Beijing 1969)

CreditDaniel Leal-Olivas / AFP