Author: Roberto Esposito
Polity Press, 2018,
In the last decades, Roberto Esposito has established himself as one of Italy’s most important and accessible thinkers – and is first and foremost known for his books on the meaning of the community: Immunitas and Communitas. To understand the workings of social units we need to understand immunity, because every society works like a group protected from a hostile environment. What appeared as a speculative philosophy of life in Schopenhauer and Nietzsche has been channelled through the works of Foucault, becoming a «biopolitical» theory. What is at stake is the condition of life itself, both for individual bodies and for the body politic.
Esposito also explicitly connects to Foucault’s «biopower» – connecting power with health, sexuality and death – as well as the late Heidegger’s thoughts on technology and nature. For Esposito the two world wars – the second in particular – are decisive. This was the time where Heidegger went through his darkest years, letting his own thoughts on time and destiny merge with the historical visions of Nazi-Germany. The world wars were also a setting in which the mechanical deployment of human lives and bodies rose up as the monstrous underbelly of civilisation. Europe’s crisis had long been latent in culture and thought, but now it manifested itself fully in a political and geographic sense – pulling the rest of the world with it into its turmoil.
«The absence of authoritative truths and values at the centre of our culture cannot be covered by the uncontroversial «facts» of science.»
Europe’s crisis is philosophical
Esposito reminds us that «crisis» is a medical term, describing the state of the patient suspended between life and death. Terror-threats and the migration-crisis give us the impression that Europe’s problems invade us from outside its borders, and that it is – in immunological terms – a question of immunising oneself form the outside. In other books, however, Esposito has made it clear that biopolitics is about more than immunological self-defence and the struggle for survival. A crisis can also be understood as an enduring birth – as a continuous struggle to come to life and to take shape. The outer problems facing Europe are signalled by subtler transformations that particularly well-positioned philosophers foresaw.
Nietzsche gave a name to the European crisis long before the world wars: nihilism, «The uncanniest of all guests», is a homeless negativity that knocks on our door. With a shudder we see all our common notions unravel before a mistrustful gaze – which is really our own. The absence of authoritative truths and values at the centre of our culture cannot be covered by the more or less uncontroversial «facts» of science, Esposito warns us. Neither calculable market values nor common economic interests can solve the problem of nihilism. Esposito searches for a way ahead utilising a critical reading of the philosophical tradition.
A family portrait
Perhaps with some unease the reader realises that Esposito’s attempt to trace the roots of Europe’s crisis grows to a full philosophical family portrait, a whole family tree of thinkers ordered in German, French and Italian branches. He points out hidden connections, tells anecdotes about significant meetings and draws up division lines and battlefronts in the philosophical landscape. Still he helps the reader by the continuous re-articulation of «Europe’s problem», which gradually unfolds in a plethora of historical events and metaphysical knots. It is evidently tempting to search for both the cause and the cure in the root of the family tree – to search for a lost unity in order to find the way ahead. This, precisely, is the most dangerous of all temptations, warns Esposito.
«The answers are not to be found inside the borders of Europe but outside in the global context.»
The longing for a redeeming unity and a deeper truth in Europe’s cradle – particularly in Greek culture – found its most sentimental expression in the neoclassical and romantic periods where an idealised Greece was joined with an equally idealised local culture. In the time between the wars the search for roots became a philosophical obsession. At the same time, political history was haunted by the idea of the Empire, whose task it would be to embody universal values. After Rome, the empire rose again and again in Spanish, Austrian, French and English costumes. The longing for empire found its most forced manifestation in Nazi Germany, where the classical legacy was reduced to a shallow political ornament, and the European obsession with universal truth became a totalitarian expulsion of what appeared as different.
Unification without unity
Schematically put, Esposito tries to draw a line between all those who think in terms of unity and roots and those thinkers who try to depart from what is different or from the «outside». Nietzsche had no illusions of a primordial unity in the cultural past but rather was aware that the Greek culture harboured within itself explosive contradictions. Esposito refers to the Nazi theorist Carl Schmitt, who already in 1945 realised that Europe was doomed to relate to new empires in a global game that would radically overrule the sovereignty of the individual states. After World War II these empires were obviously the USA and the Soviet Union. But even in an apparently post-imperial Europe, the states are sidelined by international corporations. At the same time the states are undermined by inner conflict and a seemingly irreconcilable patchwork of tribe-like identity groups.
Esposito’s own conclusion is that Europe should not seek its identity in the past, but in the future. It is not in unity but in the multiplicity and contradictions that Europe must seek its way ahead. The answers are not to be found inside the borders of Europe but outside in the global context. Europe must embrace its own contradictions and tensions if it still wants to teach the world anything about democracy and civilisational progress.
Two European peoples
Having painted this dizzying panorama, Esposito allows himself a surprisingly radical simplification in the last pages of the book. The thesis sounds more or less like this: The European countries have almost succeeded in uniting through trade-deals and bureaucratic regulations, but this is a false unification that only comprises the privileged and overfed elites. A real unification will only arrive when the indignant, marginal and hungry – Europe’s second population – unify and gain authoritative independence.
Esposito articulates an insight that is in the air, but which is easily overlooked. Today, new fascist formations throw us back to the political landscape of the interwar period. In a demagogic rigged conflict over out-dated identities, groups of underprivileged people clash while the economic elites remain untouched. In the name of Italian philosophical tradition Esposito calls for a new kind of enlightened class struggle. Europe must be born again – or perish inits compulsive historical repetitions, allergic overreactions and out-dated identity-projects.
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