race, nation, class



Preface of the newly released book by Immanuel Wallerstein and Étienne Balibar.

The essays that we have collected in this book and together present to the reader are the result of our individual work in different periods, and each of us bears our own responsibility. However, circumstances have made them elements of a dialogue that has intensified in recent years and, currently, we would like to reverberate it.

This is our contribution to clarifying a crucial question: what is the specificity of contemporary racism? To what extent is it related to the class division of capitalism and the contradictions of the nation-state? And, vice versa, to what extent does the phenomenon of racism lead us to rethink the articulation between nationalism and class struggle?

By means of this question, it is also our contribution to a broader discussion, begun more than a decade ago within the scope of “Western Marxism”, from which we hope that it emerges sufficiently renewed to keep up with its time. Undoubtedly, it is no coincidence that this discussion is presented as international, combines philosophical reflection with historical synthesis and seeks to carry out a conceptual review associated with the analysis of political problems that are more than urgent today, especially in France. At least, that is the conviction we wish to share.

Allow me, here, some personal considerations. When I first met Immanuel Wallerstein in 1981, I already knew the first volume of his work. The Modern World-System (University of California Press), published in 1974, but I had not yet read the second.

Therefore, I was unaware that he credited me with a “theoretically conscious” presentation of the “traditional” Marxist thesis concerning the periodization of modes of production that identifies the manufacturing era with a transitional period and the beginning of the capitalist mode proper with the Industrial Revolution, unlike those who, to mark the beginnings of modernity, propose to “cut” the time of history, either around 1500 (with European expansion, the creation of the world market), or around 1650 (with the first “bourgeois” revolutions ” and the scientific revolution).

a fortiori, I did not know that I myself would find in his analysis of Dutch hegemony in the seventeenth century a point of support for situating Spinoza’s role (with his revolutionary characteristics not only with regard to the “medieval” past, but also to contemporary trends) in the dispute curiously atypical of the political and religious parties of the time (with their mixture of nationalism and cosmopolitanism, of democratism and “fear of the masses”).

In turn, what Wallerstein ignored was that, since the beginning of the 1970s, after the discussions raised by our “structuralist” reading of The capital and, precisely, to escape the classic aporias of “periodization”, I had recognized the need to situate the analysis of class struggles and their effects on the development of capitalism within the scope of the social formations, not only within the limits of the mode of production, considered an ideal environment or a system that does not vary (which is a mechanistic conception of structure).

Therefore, on the one hand, it was necessary, in the configuration of production relations, to assign a determining role to all the historical aspects of class struggle (including those that Marx had designated with the ambiguous concept of superstructure). On the other hand, this entailed placing at the very heart of the theory the question of space reproduction of the capital-labor (or salaried) relationship, recognizing the full meaning of Marx's constant statement according to which capitalism implies the globalization of accumulation and the proletarianization of the labor force, but transposing the abstraction of the undifferentiated “world market” .

Likewise, the emergence of the specific struggles of immigrant workers in France in the 1970s and the difficulty of their political translation, together with Althusseur's thesis, according to which every social formation is based on the combination of different modes of production, convinced me of which the working class division it is not a secondary or residual phenomenon, but a structural characteristic (which does not mean that it does not vary) of current capitalist societies, which determines all perspectives of revolutionary transformation and even of the daily organization of the social movement.

Finally, without a doubt, I had taken from the Maoist critique of “real socialism” and the history of the “cultural revolution” (as I understood it) not the demonization of revisionism and nostalgia for Stalinism, but the indication that the “socialist mode of production”, in reality, consists of an unstable combination of state capitalism and proletarian tendencies towards communism. In their own dispersion, all these different rectifications tended to substitute a problematic of “historical capitalism” for the formal antithesis of structure and history and to identify as the central question of this problematic the variation of the relations of production articulated among themselves in the long history. transition from non-market societies to “generalized economy” societies.

Unlike others, I wasn't overly sensitive to economism which has often been criticized in Wallerstein's analyses. In fact, one must understand the meaning of this term. In the tradition of Marxist orthodoxy, economism presents itself as a determinism of the development of the productive forces: in its own way, Wallerstein's world-economy model was a good substitute for that of a dialectic of capitalist accumulation and its contradictions.

When posing the question of the historical conditions in which it is possible to establish the cycle of expansion and recession phases, Wallerstein was not far from what seems to me to be Marx's authentic thesis, the expression of his review of economism: the primacy of the social relations of production over the productive forces, so that the contradictions of capitalism are not contradictions between relations of production and productive forces (for example, contradictions between the “private” character of one and the “social” character of the other, according to the formulation propagated by Engels), but – among others – contradictions No. development of the productive forces themselves, “contradictions of progress”.

In turn, the so-called critique of economism is made, most of the time, in the name of a claim to the autonomy of politics and the State, whether in relation to the sphere of the mercantile economy, or in relation to the class struggle itself, the which practically reintroduces the dualism liberal (civil society/state, economics/politics) against which Marx argued decisively. Now, Wallerstein's explanatory model, as I understand it, allows us to think that the structure of the entire system is that of a generalized economy and, at the same time, allows us to think that the processes of formation of States, of hegemony policies and of Class alliances form the fabric of this economy.

Since then, knowing why capitalist social formations take the form of nations, or better, knowing what differentiates nations individualized around a “strong” State apparatus and dependent nations, whose unity finds direct opposition internally and externally, and how this difference transforms with the history of capitalism ceased to be a blind spot and became a decisive question.

In fact, this is where my questions and objections come in. I will briefly mention three, leaving it to the reader to decide whether or not they relate to a “traditional” conception of historical materialism.

In the first place, I remained convinced that, in the last analysis, the hegemony of the ruling classes rests on their ability to organize the work process and, moreover, the very reproduction of labor power in a broad sense that encompasses, at the same time, at the same time, the subsistence of the workers and their “cultural” formation. In other words, what is at stake is the subsumption real, which Marx considered, in The capital, indicative of the constitution of the capitalist mode of production itself, that is, the point of no return of the process of unlimited accumulation and “valorization of value”.

When you think about it, the idea of ​​this “real” subsumption (which Marx opposes to the simply “formal” subsumption) goes far beyond the idea of ​​an integration of workers into the world of contract, monetary income, law and official policy: it implies a transformation of human individuality, which ranges from the education of the workforce to the constitution of a “dominant ideology” susceptible of being adopted by the dominated themselves. Undoubtedly, Wallerstein would not disagree with this idea, since he insists on the way in which all social classes, all statutory groups that form within the framework of the capitalist world-economy are subjected to the effects of “commodification” and the “state system”. ”.

But we can ask ourselves if, to describe the conflicts and the evolutions that result from them, it is enough to analyze, as he did, the historical actors, their interests and their strategies of alliances or confrontations. The very identity of the actors depends on the process of formation and maintenance of hegemony. Thus, the modern bourgeoisie was formed in order to become a class that framed the proletariat, after having been a class that framed the peasantry: it needed to acquire political capacities and a “consciousness of itself” that anticipated the expression of its own resistances and that transform with the nature of these resistances.

Therefore, the universalism of the dominant ideology takes root at a much deeper level than the worldwide expansion of capital and even than the need to find, for everyone, the “frames” of this expansion of common rules of action: it takes root due to the need to build, despite their antagonism, an ideological “world” common to exploiters and exploited. The egalitarianism (democratic or not) of modern politics is a good example of this process.

This means, at the same time, that all class domination must be formulated in the language of the universal and that, in history, there are multiple universalities that are incompatible with each other. Each one – and this is also the case with the dominant ideologies of the present time – is shaped by the specific tensions of a given form of exploitation, and it is not entirely guaranteed that a hegemony can encompass at the same time all the relations of domination that are found within the scope of capitalist world-economy. To be clear, I doubt that there is a “world bourgeoisie”.

Or, to be more precise, I fully recognize that the extension of the accumulation process on a world scale involves the constitution of a “world class of capitalists”, whose law is continual competition (and, paradox for paradox, I see the need to include in this capitalist class both the leaders of “free enterprise” and the managers of “socialist” State protectionism), but I do not believe that this capitalist class is at the same time a world bourgeoisie in the sense of a class organized in institutions, the only historically concrete one.

I imagine that Wallerstein would immediately respond to this question: but is there in fact an institution common to the world bourgeoisie that tends to give it a concrete existence, independently of its internal conflicts (even when they take the violent form of military conflicts) and, above all, independently of of the very different conditions of its hegemony over the dominated populations! This institution is the states system, whose stability has become quite evident since, after revolutions and counter-revolutions, colonizations and decolonizations, the form of the national State was formally extended to the whole of humanity.

I have long held that every bourgeoisie is a “state bourgeoisie”, even where capitalism is not organized as planned state capitalism, and I think we will agree on this point. One of the most pertinent questions among those formulated by Wallerstein, in my view, is to ask why the world-economy has not been able to transform itself (despite several attempts from the XNUMXth to the XNUMXth century) into a empire-world, politically unified, because, in it, the political institution acquired the form of an “interstate system”.

It is not possible to answer this question beforehand; the history of the world-economy needs to be exactly rebuilt, and above all that of conflicts of interest, of “monopoly” phenomena and the unequal developments of the force that has not ceased to manifest itself in its “center” – in fact, today more and more less located in a single geographic area – but also that of the unequal resistances its “periphery”.

However, this very answer (if it is appropriate) prompts me to rephrase my objection. At the end of the first volume of The Modern World-System, Wallerstein proposes a criterion for identifying relatively autonomous “social systems”: the criterion of internal autonomy of its evolution (or its dynamics). He draws a radical conclusion from this: most of the historical units to which the label of social systems (from “tribes” to nation-states) is usually applied is not a social system; these are simply dependent units; the only systems in the proper sense of the word considered by history are self-subsistence communities on the one hand and “worlds” (world-empires and world-economies) on the other.

Reformulated according to Marxist terminology, this thesis would lead us to think that the only social background in the proper sense of the expression, in today's world, it is the world-economy itself, as it is the largest unit in which historical processes become interdependent. In other words, the world-economy would not only be an economic unit and a system of states, but also a social unit. Therefore, the very dialectic of its evolution would be a dialectic overall or, at least, characterized by the primacy of global pressures over power relations locations.

There is not the slightest doubt that this representation has the merit of giving a synthetic account of the phenomena of globalization of politics and ideology which we have been witnessing for decades and which seem to us to be the result of a centuries-old cumulative process. She finds a particularly startling illustration in periods of crisis. It provides, as we shall see throughout this collection, a powerful instrument for interpreting the nationalism and the rchasm omnipresent in the modern world, avoiding confusing them with other phenomena of “xenophobia” or “intolerance” of the past: nationalism as a reaction to the domination of central states, racism as the institutionalization of hierarchies that are part of the world division of labor.

But I wonder if, in this way, Wallerstein's thesis does not give the multiplicity of social conflicts (and, in particular, class struggles) a formal or, at least, one-sided uniformity and globality. In my view, what characterizes these conflicts is not only transnationalization, but the decisive role played in it, more than ever, by localized social relations, or local forms of social conflict (economic, religious, political-cultural), whose “sum ” is not immediately totalizable.

In other words, if, instead of taking as a criterion the extreme external limit within which the regulation of a system takes place, I consider the specificity of social movements and the conflicts that are established in it (or, if you prefer, the specific form under which the global contradictions are reflected), I ask myself if the social units of the contemporary world should not be differentiated from their economic unit. In short, why would they coincide? At the same time, I suggest that the movement of the entire world-economy is more result random movement of your social units that your cause. But I recognize that it is difficult to identify the social units in question, as they simply do not coincide with national units and may, in part, overlap (why would a social unit be closed and a fortiori “autarchy”?).

This brings me to a third question. The strength of Wallerstein's model, generalizing and, in parallel, concretizing Marx's indications regarding the “law of population” inherent to the indefinite accumulation of capital, is to show that this did not fail to impose (by force and by law) a redistribution of populations in the socio-professional categories of their “division of labor”, composing it with their resistances, or breaking it, and even using their subsistence strategies and playing the interests of some against those of others.

The basis of capitalist social formations is a division of labor (in the broad sense of the term, including the different “functions” necessary for the production of capital), or rather, the basis of social transformations is the transformation of the division of labor. But does the fact of basing the integrality of what Althusser recently called the “society effect” on the division of labor mean just skipping steps? In other words, can we consider (as Marx did in some “philosophical” texts) that societies or social formations are kept “alive” and constitute relatively durable units by the simple fact of organizing production and exchanges in determined historical relations?

Understand well what I say: it is not a matter of re-editing the conflict between materialism and idealism and suggesting that the economic unity of societies must be completed or replaced by a symbolic unity whose definition we will seek, either in law or in in religion, or in the prohibition of incest, etc. Above all, it is a matter of asking whether, by chance, Marxists were victims of a gigantic illusion about the meaning of their own analyses, largely inherited from liberal economic ideology (and its implicit anthropology).

the division of labor capitalist it has nothing to do with a complementarity of tasks, individuals and social groups: it leads more, as Wallerstein himself reaffirms with great emphasis, to the polarization of social formations into antagonistic classes, whose interests are less and less “common”. How to base the (even conflictual) unity of a society on a division like this?

Perhaps we should, then, reverse our interpretation of the Marxist thesis. Instead of representing the capitalist division of labor as what founds, or institutes, human societies into relatively stable "collectivities", we should think of it as what destroys? Or rather, how would destroy, giving its internal inequalities the form of irreconcilable antagonisms, se other social practices, also material, but irreducible to the behavior of the homo economist, for example, the practices of linguistic communication and sexuality, or technique and knowledge, did not impose limits on the imperialism of the production relationship and did not transform it internally?

The history of social formations would not, then, be so much that of the transition from non-merchant communities to market society or of generalized exchanges (including the exchange of human labor power) – a liberal and sociological representation that preserved Marxism –, but rather the history of social formations. of reactions of the set of “non-economic” social relations that make the connection between a historical collectivity of individuals and the disruption of what threatens them, that is, the expansion of the value form. It is these reactions that give social history an air that is irreducible to the simple “logic” of the expanded reproduction of capital or even to a “strategic game” of actors defined by the division of labor and the state system.

They are also the basis for the ideological and institutional productions, intrinsically ambiguous, which are the real stuff of politics (for example, the ideology of human rights, but also racism, nationalism, sexism and its revolutionary antitheses). . Finally, they are the ones that account for the ambivalent effects of class struggles, since, seeking to operate the “denial of negation”, that is, destroy the mechanism that destroys tendentially the conditions of social existence, also aim, utopianly, at restore a lost unit and, thus, propose to “recover” by different forces of domination.

More than initiating a discussion at this level of abstraction, it seemed to us at first sight that it would be better to reinvest the theoretical instruments available to us in the analysis of a crucial question suggested by the current moment itself, through a collaborative work, whose difficulty is of a such that it contributes to advancing the discussion. This project materialized in seminars that we organized for three years (1985, 1986, 1987) at the Maison des Sciences de l'Homme in Paris.

He was successively dedicated to the themes “Racism and ethnicity”, “Nation and nationalism”, “Classes”. The texts presented below do not reproduce our interventions literally, but return to the subject and complete it in several aspects. Some were exhibited in other presentations or marked publications. We have reorganized them in order to highlight the points of confrontation and convergence. Its succession does not intend to be absolute coherence or completeness, but, above all, to open up the question, to explore some avenues of investigation. It's too early to conclude. However, we hope that the reader will find material for reflection and criticism in them.

In the first section – “Universal racism” – our intention was to outline an alternative problematic to the ideology of “progress” imposed by liberalism and widely taken up (we will see below under what conditions) by the Marxist philosophy of history. We found that, under traditional or renewed forms (but whose affiliation can be identified), Racism is not regressing, but is progressing, in the contemporary world. This phenomenon includes inequalities, critical phases, and care must be taken not to confuse its manifestations; ultimately it can only be explained by structural causes.

As what is at stake here – through erudite theories, institutional or popular racism – is the categorization of humanity into artificially isolated species, there needs to be a violently conflictual split within the scope of social relations themselves. This is not, then, a simple “prejudice”. Furthermore, it is not only necessary that there be historical transformations as decisive as decolonization, but also that this split be reproduced in the world context that created capitalism. It is not, therefore, a matter of survival or archaism. However, is this not contradictory with the logic of generalized economics and individualistic law? No way.

We both think that the universalism of bourgeois ideology (hence also its humanism) is not incompatible with the system of hierarchies and exclusions that, above all, takes the form of racism and sexism. In the same way that racism and sexism acquire the form of a system.

However, in the detailed analysis, we differed on several points. Wallerstein refers universalism to the very form of the market (to the universality of the accumulation process), racism to the cleavage of the workforce between center and periphery, and sexism to the opposition of male “work” and female “non-work” in household chores or in the domestic structure (household), which he considers a fundamental institution of historical capitalism.

For my part, I think that the specific articulation of racism is with nationalism and I believe I can demonstrate that universality is paradoxically present in racism itself. In this case, the temporal dimension becomes decisive: it is a matter of knowing how the memory of past exclusions is transferred to those of the present, or more, how the internationalization of population movements and the change in the political role of nation-states lead to into a “neo-racism” and even into a “post-racism”.

In a second section – “The historical nation” – we try to renew the discussion of the categories “people” and “nation”. Our methods are quite different: I proceed in a diachronic way, in search of a trajectory of the nation form; Wallerstein, synchronically, in search of the functional place that the national superstructure occupies, among other political institutions, in the world-economy. For this reason, we also articulated the class struggle and national formation in a different way. In an extremely schematic way, we could say that my position consists of inscribing the historical class struggles in the national form (although they represent its antithesis), while Wallerstein's inscribes the nation, with other forms, in the field of struggles. of classes (although they only become classes “for themselves” in exceptional circumstances – an issue we will return to later).

Undoubtedly, it is here that the meaning of the concept of “social formation” plays an important role. Wallerstein proposes to distinguish three great historical modes of construction of the “people”: the breed, nation, ethnicity, which lead to different structures of the world-economy; insists on the historical break between the “bourgeois” state (the nation-state) and earlier forms of the state (indeed, the very term “state” for him is a misnomer).

For my part, trying to characterize the transition from the “pre-national” State to the “national” State, I attach great importance to another of his ideas (not taken up here): that of plurality of political forms in the constitution phase of the world-economy. I present the problem of the constitution of the people (what I call fictitious ethnicity) as a problem of internal hegemony and I try to analyze the role that the institutions that embody, respectively, the linguistic community and the racial community play in its production.

Because of these differences, Wallerstein appears to have a better understanding of the ethnicization of minorities, while I am more sensitive to majorities; perhaps he is too “American” and I too “French”… However, the truth is that, for both of us, it seems equally essential to think of the nation and the people as historical constructions, thanks to which institutions and antagonisms current can be designed in the past to give “communities” a relative stability on which the sense of individual “identity” depends.

With the third section – “Classes: polarization and overdetermination” – we ask ourselves about the radical transformations that must be made in the schemes of Marxist orthodoxy (that is, to be brief, in the evolutionism of the “mode of production” in its different forms). variants) so that capitalism can really be analyzed as a historical system (or structure), in accordance with Marx's most original indications.

It would be tiresome to summarize our propositions beforehand. The malicious reader will be pleased to account for the contradictions that arise between our respective "reconstructions". Let's not transgress the rule according to which two “Marxists”, whatever they may be, are incapable of giving the same meaning to the same concepts… Let's not rush to conclude that this is a scholastic game. What, on re-reading, seems to me to be more significant is the degree of agreement in the conclusions we reached based on such different premises.

What is at stake, very clearly, is the articulation of the “economic” and the “political” aspects of the class struggle. Wallerstein is faithful to the problematic of the “class in itself” and “class for itself” which I reject, but elaborates it with theses, at least provocative, concerning the main aspect of proletarianization (which is not, according to him, the generalization of salaried work ).

According to his argument, wage-earning develops, although of the immediate interest of the capitalists, under the double effect of crises of achievement and workers' struggles against “peripheral” super-exploitation (that of part-time salaried work).

I disagree on the grounds that this reasoning assumes that all exploitation is “extensive”; in other words, that there is not also a form of super-exploitation linked to the intensification of salaried work subjected to technological revolutions (what Marx calls “real subsumption”, the production of “relative surplus value”).

But these analytical divergences – which we might think reflect a point of view from the periphery as opposed to a point of view from the center – are subordinated to three common ideas:

(1) Marx's thesis concerning the polarization of classes in capitalism is not a disastrous error, but the strong point of your theory. However, it must be carefully differentiated from the ideological representation of a “simplification of class relations” with the development of capitalism, linked to historical catastrophism.

(2) There is no “ideal type” of classes (proletariat and bourgeoisie), but processes of proletarianization and embourgeoisification; each carries its own internal conflicts (what I would call, following Althusser, the “overdetermination” of antagonism): thus, we explain that the history of economy capitalist depends on struggles policies in national and transnational space.

(3) The “bourgeoisie” is not defined by the simple accumulation of profit (or by productive investment): this condition is necessary, but not sufficient. We will read, in the text, Wallerstein's arguments concerning the search, by the bourgeoisie, of holding a monopoly and transforming profit into “income” guaranteed by the State according to different historical modalities. This is a question to which we will certainly have to return. The historicization (and therefore the dialecticization) of the concept of classes in “Marxist sociology” is just beginning (which means that there is still a lot of work to be done to undermine the ideology that conceived itself as Marxist sociology).

Here, too, we react to our national traditions: contrary to a tenacious prejudice in France (which goes back to Engels), I try to show that the capitalist bourgeoisie is not a parasite; in turn, Wallerstein, who comes from a country where the myth of the “entrepreneur” was created, tries to show that the bourgeois is not the opposite of the aristocrat (neither was it in the past, nor is it currently).

For different reasons, I am in full agreement with thinking that, in present-day capitalism, schooling generalized has not only become “reproductive”, but also producer, of class differences. However, less “optimistic” than he is, I do not believe that the “meritocratic” mechanism is politically more fragile that the historical, previous mechanisms of acquisition of a status privileged social.

In my view, this is related to the fact that schooling – at least in “developed” countries – constitutes itself as a means of selecting executive cadres and, at the same time, as an appropriate ideological device to “technically” naturalize and “scientifically” the social divisions, above all the division of manual and intellectual work, or that of execution work and work of the staff, in its successive forms. Now, this naturalization, which, as we will see, is closely related to racism, has the same effectiveness as other historical legitimations of privilege.

Which brings us directly to the last point: “Displacements of social conflict?”. The objective of this fourth section is to return to the question initially posed (that of racism or, more broadly, of “thestatus” and “community” identity), crossing previous characterizations or preparing practical conclusions – although we are still a long way from that. It is also about assessing the distance in relation to some classic themes of sociology and history. Naturally, the differences in approach and the more or less important divergences that arose before persist: therefore, it would not be the case to conclude.

If I wanted to exaggerate, I would say that this time Wallerstein is much less "optimistic" than I am, since he sees "group" consciousness necessarily prevailing over "class" consciousness, or at least constituting the necessary form of its historical achievement. It is true that, in overdrive (“asymptotic”), the two terms come together, according to him, in the transnationalization of inequalities and conflicts.

As for me, I do not believe that racism is the expression of the class structure, but rather a typical form of political alienation inherent in class struggles in the field of nationalism, which are manifested through particularly ambivalent forms (racization of the proletariat, workerism, “interclassist” consensus in the current crisis). It is true that my reasoning is fundamentally based on the example of the French situation and history, in which today the question of renewing internationalist practices and ideologies is uncertainly posed.

It is also true that, in practice, the “proletarian nations” of the Third World, or, more precisely, its impoverished masses, and the “new proletarians” of Western Europe and elsewhere – in their diversity – have the same adversary: ​​the institutional racism and its extensions or its mass political anticipations. And the same obstacle to overcome: the confusion of ethnic particularism or political-religious universalism with ideologies in itself liberating.

This is probably the essential thing, what still needs to be reflected and investigated not only in university circles, but with other interested parties. However, the same adversary does not mean the same immediate interests, nor the same form of conscience, nor a fortiori the totalization of struggles. In fact, this is just a trend that is opposed by structural obstacles. For it to impose itself, favorable conjunctures and political practices are necessary.

That is why, throughout this book, I have maintained that the (re)constitution on new bases (and, perhaps, with new words) of a class ideology, susceptible of opposing the rampant nationalism of today and tomorrow, had as its goal condition – which, in fact, determines its content – ​​an effective anti-racism.

*ANDTienne Balibar is a professor at the University of Paris X-Nanterre. Author among other books by Marx's philosophy (George Zahar).


Etienne Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein. Race, nation, class: the ambiguous identities. Translation: Wanda Caldeira Brant. São Paulo, Boitempo, 2021, 304 pages.


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