Article 10: Two nightmares

This is the account of two sleep paralysis nightmares I had several months ago. I believe both horrific episodes were the result of a very underwhelming and comical reason: I had tucked my sheets in too tightly.

The red iris

It must have been the middle of the night when I woke from my sleep and felt a slight draft under my sheets by my feet. Though it chilled me I was to drowsy to think of doing something about it. Suddenly though, my attention was caught my the inescapable feeling that something was moving from the door of my room, which is about three meters to the right of my bed’s foot end, past my bed. My immediate assumption was that a burglar had entered, an idea which enraged me, but I kept still. I became even angrier when I had the feeling that someone came to sit or lie on the mattress next to me and had its face close to mine. Not only did this person want to steal from me, but it also wanted to satisfy some kind of perversion.

My plan for how to act in case of a burglary is simple and maybe a bit naive: be as loud, intimidating, and violent as possible and if they turn out to be violent themselves, submit. Just as I wanted to strike my intruder and scream on the top of my lungs I was confronted with my inability to do either. No matter how hard I tried I could not get a single muscle to move and my throat had dried up.

I opened my eyes and to my shock there was no thief, but a woman. She had long sleek black hair, white skin, and, as I looked a bit lower, I saw she was holding a child. However, the one thing I was drawn to and couldn’t take my eye of was the bright red iris of her right eye. She stared at me and calmly asked me: “You’re good at waking up, are you also good at falling asleep?” Though I tried I couldn’t resist falling asleep again and my mind slowly slipt.

It felt like it was only a few minutes later when I woke up, but I was alone again and able to move. Again I felt a slight draft and out of fear I pulled at my sheets to make them cover me fully. I didn’t dare open my eyes to look at the time let alone stand up and tried to go back to sleep, which I eventually did.

A vanishing

Normally I lock the room of my door as I go to sleep, a habit I formed when I lived in a dormatory as a student. This night, as I lay in bed, I realized that I had not locked my door, but I wasn’t feeling like getting up out of bed and instead went to sleep.

I woke up suddenly and realized there was a movement from my door to the window to the left of my bed’s footend. Instead of making the connection with the previous episode I again gathered a burglar had entered my room, though I did not think of my unlocked door. The thought of a person daring to come into my house made me furious and I immediately tried to scare this intruder off and opened my eyes.

Instead, I was confronted with the black wraith of a woman staring at me standing at the left footend of my bed. I couldn’t actually see if it was a woman, there were no distinguishable features, but somehow I knew it was a woman. Behind her stood another wraith who I knew to be her mother. She did not face me, but instead looked in the direction of the door. It was at this moment that I realized that I had made a mistake and that I was having another hallucination. The wraith turned in the same direction of the mother looking up. They were looking at an evil presence which I could not see as it was beyond the corner of my eye, but which I felt to be as present as myself.

It was with dread that I heard the wraiths speak without making sounds. “Condolences, condolences, condolences, condolences”, they repeated over and over. Not to the presence, not to me, but almost as a mantra.

I felt terrified, but also humiliated and angry. It couldn’t be that what I saw was real and it was unacceptable that I was not to say whether I could move or not. I decided to close my eyes for a second and then muster all my strength to move by force of will alone if needed. I shut my eyes and as I opened them and tried to lift my arm with great effort and felt that I was succeeding in moving it a tiny bit. However, I couldn’t hold my attention to my mixed success as at that very moment I saw that one of the wraiths had disappeared and, as I looked, the second wraith disappeared in thin air.

My newfound ability to move was of no use to me. I was deadly afraid to move. I must have lain completely silent for at least twenty minutes, feeling an intense solitude in the room, but nevertheless fearing to see or feel anything else. Eventually I did dare to readjust my sheets and to look at my alarm. It was after three o’clock, which struck me as I remembered this was the witching hour.


Quotation 6: ‘On populist reason’ by Ernesto Laclau

From “Demands and popular identities”

“A first decision has to be taken. What is our minimal unit of analysis going to be? Everything turns around the answer to this question. We can decide to take as our minimal unit the group as such, in which case we are going to see populism as the ideology or the type of mobilization of an already constituted group — that is, as the expression (the epiphenomenon) of a social reality different from itself; or we can see populism as one way of constituting the very unity of the group. If we opt for die first alternative, we are immediately confronted with all the pitfalls that I have described in Chapter 1.[1] If we choose the second — as I think we should — we have to accept its actual implications: ‘the people’ is not something of the nature of an ideological expression, but a real relation between social agents. It is, in other terms, one way of constituting the unity of the group. Obviously, it is not the only way of doing so. There are other logics operating within the social, and making possible types of identity different from the populist one. So, if we want to gauge the specificity of a populist articulatory practice, wc have to isolate units smaller than the group, and to determine the kind of unity that populism brings about.

The smallest unit from which we will start corresponds to the category of ‘social demand’. As I have pointed out elsewhere, the notion of ‘demand’ is ambiguous in English: it can mean a request, but it can also mean a claim (as in ‘demanding an explanation’). This ambiguity of meaning, however, is useful for our purposes, because it is in the transition from request to claim that we are going to find one of the first defining features of populism.

Let me give an example of how isolated demands emerge, and how they start their process of articulation. This example, although it is imaginary, corresponds pretty well to a situation widely experienced in Third World countries. Think of a large mass of agrarian migrants who settle in the shantytowns on the outskirts of a developing industrial city. Problems of housing arise, and the group of people affected by them request some kind of solution from the local authorities. Here we have a demand which initially is perhaps only a request. If the demand is satisfied, that is the end of the matter; but if it is not, people can start to perceive that their neighbours have other, equally unsatisfied demands -problems with water, health, schooling, and so on. If the situation remains unchanged for some time, there is an accumulation of unfulfilled demands and an increasing inability of the institutional system to absorb them in a differential way (each in isolation from the others), and an equivalential relation is established between them. The result could easily be, if it is not circumvented by external factors, a widening chasm separating the institutional system from the people.

So we have here the formation of an internal frontier, a dichotorriiza-tion of the local political spectrum through the emergence of an equivalential chain of unsatisfied demands The requests are turning into claims. We will call a demand which, satisfied or not, remains isolated a democratic demand. A plurality of demands which, through their equivalential articulation, constitute a broader social subjectivity we will call popular demands – they start, at a very incipient level, to constitute the ‘people’ as a potential historical actor. Here we have, in embryo, a populist configuration. We already have two clear preconditions of populism: (1) the formation of an internal antagonistic frontier separating the ‘people’ from power; and (2) an equivalential articulation of demands making the emergence of the ‘people’ possible. There is a third precondition which does not really arise until the political mobilization has reached a higher level: the unification of these various demands — whose equivalence, up to that point, had not gone beyond a feeling of vague solidarity — into a stable system of signification.”

From “The adventures of equivalences”


Let us go back to the previously established distinction between democratic and popular demands. We already know something about the latter: they presuppose, for their constitution, the equivalence of a plurality of demands. But about democratic demands we have said very little: the only thing we know is that they remain in isolation. Isolation vis-á-vis what? Only vis-á-vis the equivalential process. This is not, however, a monadic isolation, for we know that if it does not enter into an equivalential relation with other demands, it is because it is a fulfilled demand (…). Now, a demand which is met does not remain isolated; it is inscribed in an institutional/differential totality. So we have two ways of constructing the social: either through the assertion of a particularity — in our case, a particularity of demands — whose only links to other particularities are of a differential nature (as we have seen: no positive terms, only differences); or through a partial surrender of particularity, stressing what all particularities have, equivalentially, in common. The second mode of construction of the social involves, as we know, the drawing of an antagonistic frontier; the first does not. I have called the first mode of constructing the social logic of difference, and the second, logic of equivalence. Apparendy, we could draw the conclusion that one precondition for the emergence of populism is the expansion of the equivalential logic at the expense of the differential one. This is true in many respects, but to leave the matter there would be to win the argument too cheaply, for it would presuppose that equivalence and difference are simply in a zero-sum relation of exclusion of each other. Things are far more complex.


Equivalences can weaken, but they cannot domesticate differences. In the first place, it is clear that equivalence does not attempt to eliminate differences (…) — if the particularity of the demands disappears, there is no ground for the equivalence either. So difference continues to operate within equivalence, both as its ground and in a relation of tension with it.


I have shown that equivalence and difference are ultimately incompatible with each other; none the less, they require each other as necessary conditions for the construction of the social. The social is nothing but the locus of this irreducible tension. What, in that case, about populism? If no ultimate separation between the two logics is possible, in what sense would the privileging of the equivalential moment be specific to it? And, especially, what would ‘privileging’ mean in this context? (…) on the one hand, all social (that is, discursive) identity is constituted at the meeting point of difference and equivalence (…). On the other hand, however, there is an essential unevenness in the social, for, as we have seen, totalization requires that one differential element should assume the representation of an impossible whole.  (The Solidarność symbols, for instance, did not remain the particular demands of a group of workers in Gdansk, but came to signify much wider popular camp against an oppressive regime.) Thus a certain identity is picked up from the whole field of differences, and made to embody this totalizing function. This — to answer the previous question — is exactly what privileging means.

The difference between a populist and an institutionalist totalization si to be found at the level of these privileged, hegemonic signifiers which structure, as nodal points, the ensemble of a discursive formation. Difference an d equivalence are present in both cases, but an institutionalist di9scourse is one that attempts to make the limits of the discursive formation coincide with the limits of the community.  So the universal principle of ‘differentiality’ would become the dominant equivalence within that homogenous communitarian space. (Think, for instance, of Disraeli’s ‘one nation’.) The opposite takes place in the case of populism: a frontier of exclusion divides society in two camps. The ‘people’, in that case, is something less than the totality of the members of the community: it is a partial component which nevertheless aspires to be conceived as the only legitimate totality.


…the rejection of a power that is very active within the community requires the identification of all links in the popular chain with an identity principle which crystallizes all differential claims around a common denominator — and the latter requires, of course, a positive symbolic expression. This is the transition from what we have called democratic demands to popular demands.


At this point I can deal with two aspects of populism to which the literature on the subject frequendy refers but for which, as we have seen, no satisfactory explanation has been provided. The first concerns the socalled ‘imprecision’ and ‘vagueness’ of populist symbols. (..) The empty character of the signifiers that give unity or coherence to a popular camp is not the result of any ideological or political underdevelopment; it simply expresses the fact that any populist unification takes place on a radically heterogeneous social terrain. This heterogeneity does not tend, out of its own differential character, to coalesce around a unity which would result from its mere internal development; so any kind of unity is going to proceed from an inscription, the surface of inscription (the popular symbols) being irreducible to the contents which are thereon inscribed. The popular symbols are, no doubt, the expression of the democratic demands that they bring together; but the expressing medium cannot be reduced to what it expresses: it is not a transparent medium. (…) [I]n a local struggle I can be relatively clear about both the nature of my demands and the force against which we are fighting. But when I am trying to constitute a wider popular identity and a more global enemy through an articulation of sectorial demands, the identity of both the popular forces and of the enemy becomes more difficult to determine. It is here that the moment of emptiness necessarily arises, following the establishment of equivalential bonds. Ergo, ‘vagueness’ and ‘imprecision’, but these do not result from any kind of marginal or primitive situation; they are inscribed in the very nature of the political.


A second problem that is not completely solved in the literature on populism concerns the centrality of the leader. How do we explain it? (…) We already know that the more extended the equivalential tie is, the emptier the signifier unifying that chain will be (that is, the more specific particularism of the popular symbol or identity will be subordinated to the ‘universal’ function of signifying the chain as a totality). But we also know something else: that the popular symbol or identity (…) does not simply express a unity of demands constituted outside and before itself, but is the decisive moment in establishing that unity. That is why I said that this unifying element is not a neutral or transparent medium. If it were, whatever unity the discursive/hegemonic formation could have would have preceded the moment of naming the totality (…). But if – given the radical heterogeneity of the links entering into the equivalential chain — the only source of their coherent articulation is the chain as such, and if the chain exists only in so far as one of its links plays the role of condensing all the others, in that case the unity of the discursive formation is transferred from the conceptual order (logic of difference) to the nominal one. This, obviously, is more the case in situations where there is a breakdown or retreat of the differential/institutional logic. In those cases, the name becomes the ground of the thing. An assemblage of heterogeneous elements kept equivalentially together only by a name is, however, necessarily a singularity. The less a society is kept together by immanent differential mechanisms, the more it depends, for its coherence, on this transcendent, singular moment. But the extreme form of singularity is an individuality. In this way, almost imperceptibly, the equivalential logic leads to singularity, and singularity to identification of the unity of the group with the name of the leader.”

From “Naming and affect”

“I have talked about the name becoming the ground of the thing. What, exactly, is the meaning of this assertion?


For descriptivism, the operations that naming can perform are strictly limited by the straitjacket within which they take place: the descriptive features inhabiting any name reduce the order of the signifier to the transparent medium through which a purely conceptual overlapping between name and thing (the concept being their common nature) expresses itself. [Every name has a content given by a cluster of descriptive features. The word ‘mirror’, for instance, has an intensional content (the ability to reflect images, etc.), so I use that word whenever I find an actually existing object which displays such a content. (…) Difficulties arose within this approach in relation to the plurality of descriptions which can be attached to the same object.] With anti-descriptivism we have the beginning of an autonomization of the signifier (of the name).  [Words refer to things not through their shared descriptive features, but through a ‘primal baptism’ which does away with description entirely. Gold (…) would remain gold even if it were proved that all the properties traditionally attributed to it are an illusion. In that case we would say that gold is different from what we thought it was, not that this substance is not gold.] This parting of the ways between naming and description, however, does not lead to any increase in the complexity of the operations that ‘naming’ can perform, for although designation is no longer ancillary to description, the identity of what is designated is ensured before and quite independendy of the process of its being named. [The basic problem of antidescriptivisrn is to determine what constitutes the identity of the designated object beyond the ever-changing cluster of descriptive features – what makes the object identical-to-itself even if all its properties have changed (…) What is overlooked, at least in the standard version of antidescriptivism, is that this guaranteeing the identity of an object in all counterfactual situations — through a change of all its descriptive features — is the retroactive effect of naming itself: it is the name itself, the signifier, which supports the identity of the object.] It is only with the Lacanian approach that we have a real breakthrough: the identity and unity of the object result from the very operation of naming. This, however, is possible only if naming is not subordinated either to description or to a preceding designation. In order to perform this role, the signifier has to become, not only contingent, but empty as well.[2]

These remarks, I think, show very clearly why the name becomes the ground of the thing.


Our whole approach to populism turns, as we have seen, around the following theses: (1) the emergence of the ‘people’ requires the passage — via equivalences — from isolated, heterogeneous demands to a ‘global’ demand which involves the formation of political frontiers and the discursive construction of power as an antagonistic force; (2) since, however, this passage does not follow from a mere analysis of the heterogeneous demands themselves – there is no logical, dialectical or semiotic transition from one level to the other — something qualitatively new has to intervene. This is why ‘naming’ can have the retroactive effect I have described.


I have now introduced all the theoretical variables needed to attempt a first and provisional conceptualization of populism. Three aspects should be taken into account.

1. First, it should be clear at this stage that by ‘populism’ we do not understand a type of movement – identifiable with either a special social base or a particular ideological orientation – but a political logic.


2. …If the construction of the ‘people’ is a radical one — one which constitutes social agents as such, and does not express a previously given unity of the group – the heterogeneity of the demands that the popular identity brings to a precarious unity has to be irreducible.


3. …Since any kind of institutional system is inevitably at least partially limiting and frustrating, there is in any society a reservoir of raw anti-status-quo feelings which crystallize in some symbols quite independently of the forms of their political articulation…”

* * *

By Ernesto Laclau in On Populist Reason (2005).

Emphasis in the original. I have tried to present the key elements of Laclau’s argument by selecting various passages from chapter 4 of his book. In the preceding chapters he provides a criticism to support the need for his own argument. The following chapters essentialy are an expansion and elaboration on his parsimonious basic model.

[1] In chapter 1 Laclau surveys existing attemtps to define populism through common substantive demominators and concludes that they do not succeed in finding a suitable definition.

[2] I have added key phrases from the preceding paragraphs to clarify the summary of this concluding paragraph. The following passage is a quote in the text by Slavoj Žižek:

What is overlooked, at least in the standard version of antidescriptivism, is that this guaranteeing the identity of an object in all counterfactual situations — through a change of all its descriptive features — is the retroactive effect of naming itself: it is the name itself, the signifier, which supports the identity of the object.

Note 8: Verwerping van een eerder standpunt

Enkele jaren terug, in 2013, schreef ik een stuk getiteld “Afschaffen die Zwarte Piet! Of toch niet?“. Ik probeerde het destijds eerst op de linkse website Joop gepubliceerd te krijgen, maar deze accepteerde het stuk niet – achteraf terecht, gezien de vlakke stijl en simpele redenering – en zodoende richtte ik mij op het de rechtse opiniesite The Post Online die wel tot publicatie overging. Ik was destijds niet geheel op de hoogte van de signatuur van het platform, al wist ik wel dat het niet links was dacht ik dat het opinies over de hele breedte publiceerde.

De kern van mijn argument was het volgende: het geforceerd wegwerken, “afschaffen”, van racistische discursieve elementen in de samenleving racisme juist aanwakkert en het moeilijker te werken aan de bestrijding van socio-economisch racisme. Ik wens expliciet afstand te nemen van deze eerdere positie die ik in feite al enkele jaren niet meer aanhang.

Het werk van de activisten betrokken bij Zwarte Piet is Racisme en de reactie van een groot deel van de samenleving daarop hebben mij, net als veel andere Nederlanders, overtuigd van het gelijk van zij die al eerder stelden dat dat racistische maatschappelijke discoursen grondig, voortdurend en compromisloos bekritiseerd moet worden. Zij hebben als katalysator gefungeerd en een discussie op gang gebracht over zwarte pijn die het bewustzijn over racisme in Nederland naar een hoger niveau heeft getild.

Dat racisme ondanks het plaatselijk terugdringen ervan over het geheel toe kan nemen is geen bezwaar tegen het terugdringen van racisme. Dat veel Nederlanders zich daadwerkelijk cultureel onteigend zouden voelen als het Nationaal Sint Nicolaas Comité zou stoppen met Zwarte Piet heeft meer te maken met het gebrek aan een breder levendig cultureel erfgoed dan met de grote waarde van Zwarte Piet binnen het sinterklaasfeest voor de Nederlandse cultuur.

Wel sta ik nog steeds achter een sceptische houding tegenover het Nederlandse gebruik van het woord “afschaffen” voor zaken die niet af te schaffen zijn. Zelfs als alle instituties zouden stoppen met het gebruik maken van de figuur Zwarte Piet is deze nog niet “afgeschaft”, mensen zullen zich bijvoorbeeld in de praktijk nog steeds kunnen verkleden als Zwarte Piet.

Deze scepsis door laten slaan in een rechtvaardiging voor het niet terugdringen van racisme was echter fout.  Er zijn gevallen waar men uit tactische overwegingen moet tolereren. Voor Zwarte Piet zie ik niet meer in waarom dit het geval zou moeten zijn.

Quotation 5: ‘The future of liberalism’ by Alan Wolfe

Three ways of defining liberalism have come down to us. One emphasizes substance, the second procedure, and the third temperament.

The core substantive principle of liberalism is this: As many people as possible should have as much say as is feasible over the direction their lives will take. Expressed in this form, liberalism, as in the days of John Locke, is committed both to liberty and to equality. The question is what those terms mean under the conditions of modern political life.

With respect to liberty, liberals want for the person what Thomas Jefferson wanted for his country: independence. Dependency, for liberals, cripples. Human beings have minds and bodies, and both, liberals believe, should be free to exercise their full capacities: minds, through open societies that allow everyone to develop their intellect, and bodies, through societies that guarantee sufficient economic security to individuals so that they are not dependent upon the arbitrary will of others for the basic necessities of life. When we have no choice but to accept someone else’s power over us, we fail to think for ourselves, are confined to conditions of existence resembling an endless struggle for survival, are unable to plan for the future, and cannot possess elementary human dignity. The autonomous life is therefore the best life. We have the potential, and are therefore responsible for realizing it, to be masters of our own destiny. This is why liberals insist on the importance of rights, including the right of people to practice their religion as they see fit, to speak for and assemble around causes in which they believe, and to possess a significant degree of control over their personal livelihood. Take away such individual rights—imagine a world in which religion (or irreligion) is coerced, freedom of speech curtailed, economic activity directed and controlled by the state, and no one allowed to organize and bargain collectively to improve their economic condition—and you have a political system that can only be called illiberal, whether it leans backward toward absolute monarchy or forward to some alleged socialist utopia.

Liberalism’s core commitment to individual autonomy does not mean that it refuses to accept the existence of authority, including authority that derives from supernatural forces or governmental power. (…) Much like conservatives, liberals believe that individuals live within an ordered world that necessarily constrains the ability of people to do whatever they want whenever they want to do it. For liberals, however, such constraints are not imposed by authorities over which people have no control or shaped by traditions they cannot influence; they are established instead by people themselves through some form of consent or social contract. Independence cannot exist without interdependence. Once we have left the state of nature, we require the existence of society.

This insistence on the importance of the social is frequently overlooked, but it cannot and should not be. “Men are not born free; they become free by means of Society and the State, which, while limiting the claims of individuals, in reality bestow upon these claims an effectual recognition and sanction, and elevate them from precarious facts to rights whose fulfillment can be confidently demanded,” wrote Guido De Ruggiero, an Italian historian of European liberalism, in 1927. “That is the real gain which the individual makes when he exchanges the uncertainty of natural liberty for civil liberty.” Or, as James Oakes, a historian at the City University of New York, put the point in more of an American context:

Society was the great discovery of enlightened liberals. They felt liberated by their conviction that most of the things that previous generations had taken to be “natural” or “divinely ordained” were, in fact, the products of human history. Families, political systems, even economies were, as liberals realized (and as we would put it), “socially constructed.” For liberals, humans were above all social beings. They were born tabula rasa and were thus the products of their upbringing, their environment. To function freely as a flourishing human being, everyone had to be, well, socialized. And if humans are the products of society, then the social institutions that shape them must be constructed so as to produce the kind of individuals each society wants.

Equality is liberalism’s second substantive goal. Liberals are not satisfied when only some people (…) have the chance to determine how they will live. Liberals believe in equality, but not as an end in itself; radical egalitarianism is more associated with the socialist tradition than with the liberal one. Liberals, rather, believe that the freedom to live your life on terms you establish does not mean very much if society is organized in such a way as to deny large numbers of people the possibility of ever realizing that objective; if independence is good for the few, it ought to be good for the many. How much actual equality there is in a society will vary from one to another, and one can imagine different kinds of liberal societies with different degrees of it. But any society that closes off opportunities for people to achieve their full human capacities, or that allows persistent inequalities to stifle the desire on the part of its least fortunate members to develop them, would not be a liberal one.

One frequently hears that liberalism’s commitments to liberty and equality contradict each other. I certainly do whenever I address conservative audiences: Which liberalism are you talking about, they immediately want to know, the “classical” form or the “modern” one? Classical liberalism, in this rendition, is all about respecting private property and allowing individuals to pursue what they determine to be in their own self-interest without the coercive hand of government interfering in their decisions. Adam Smith, the Scottish moralist who published The Wealth of Nations in the same year that Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, is the philosopher par excellence of classical liberalism; were he alive today, many of his followers insist, he would be a champion of Thatcher or Reagan, leaders who are called conservatives but are better described as libertarians, or advocates of the free market. Libertarians, to rely upon a distinction associated with the twentieth-century British philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin, are advocates of “negative” liberty, the key principles of which are not difficult to grasp: one is that freedom consists in the fact that no one can tell me what to do; and the other holds that when I am free to make my own decisions, my success is due to my own efforts and my failures are my own responsibility.

For those who think this way, classical liberalism, because it puts freedom first, is worlds apart from the form liberalism has taken in the twentieth century, which asserts the primacy of equality. Modern liberalism promises equality through what Berlin calls a “positive” conception of liberty: it is not sufficient for me merely to be left alone, I must also have the capacity to realize the goals that I choose for myself. If this requires an active role for government, then modern liberals are prepared to accept state intervention into the economy in order to give large numbers of people the sense of mastery that free market capitalism gives only to the few. Positive conceptions of liberty hold that human beings ought not to be reduced to their passions or even their interests. They live for some higher sense of purpose than getting and spending and ought to be able to realize those ideals in the here-andnow through their own collective efforts.


Yet classical and modern liberalism are not nearly as distinct as those who insist on dividing them maintain. One, in fact, follows, if not logically, then certainly sociologically, from the other. Liberalism’s substantive commitments have to be understood in their historical context. In the eighteenth century, dependency was fostered by legacies of feudalism that made individuals subservient to their presumed superiors and, given the fixed status categories of the old regime, simultaneously created conditions that made it all but impossible for those in the lower orders to overcome their dependency. Under such conditions, autonomy and equality could both be furthered through the operations of a free market, for markets would provide opportunities for individuals to escape from the ties to which they were bound as well as give them a chance to improve their condition.

In more recent times, by way of contrast, dependency happens when people are too poor or too much the objects of invidious discrimination to develop sufficient autonomy. The eighteenth-century idea that people’s fates were intertwined because of the existence of society was transformed, during the twentieth century, into the conviction that government had to be called upon when necessary to make concrete the idea of the social; no more effective means existed by which those who already led independent lives could fulfill an obligation to offer assistance to those who did not. This was a solution not without its problems, for reliance on government, as I will argue later in this book, put a crimp into the consistency of all modern political worldviews. But the liberal proposition, tested by long experience, is that whatever dependencies result from using public policy to address modern inequalities, the resulting gains in individual mobility, development of physical and mental capacity, and racial and gender equality far outweigh them. This is why Smith, writing in the eighteenth century in opposition to the regulation of business by government, and Keynes, writing in the twentieth century in support of it, were, substantively speaking, both liberals. Their disagreements were over the means by which large numbers of individuals could achieve control over their lives, not over whether they should.

The same is not true of twenty-first-century Smithians. To advocate today what Smith advocated yesterday—a free market unregulated by government—is to foster greater, rather than lesser, dependency and less, rather than more, equality. This is not always the case; in the aftermath of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, a reliance on the market could and did unleash pent-up human potential in ways that contributed, at least for a time, to both greater liberty and equality. But in the highly organized and concentrated forms taken by capitalism in the contemporary world, removing government from the marketplace does not allow large numbers of people to become entrepreneurs in ways that enable them to set the terms by which their lives will be led; it instead allows firms to reduce their obligations to their employees and thereby make them more dependent on the vagaries of the market. At the same time, it increases the gap between rich and poor such that, even if the poor improve their condition, which they do not always do, they do so in ways dramatically unfair compared to the other improvements taking place around them. And by ignoring the tendency of employers or other people in authority to prefer people like themselves to those who are different, it sanctions forms of irrational prejudice that keep members of stigmatized groups from reaching their full potential. You do not give people more control over their lives by reducing their real income, increasing their fears of unemployment, exposing them to greater risk of accident, threatening to take away their health care, lowering how much income they receive relative to society’s most well off, allowing their talents to be overlooked for purely arbitrary reasons of race and gender, and making them more dependent in their last years.

Liberalism’s substantive commitments to freedom and equality represent a political position; they are meant to defend particular goals against other political positions that either oppose such goals or assign a low priority to them. In the eighteenth century, liberalism’s opponents were those who protected a caste system in which favorable birth gave a small minority advantages available to no one else. In the twenty-first century, liberalism stands in opposition to forms of conservatism that justify hierarchies of unequal opportunity; versions of libertarianism that, by giving big business too much power, give ordinary people too little; and lingering legacies of socialism that run roughshod over individual rights in their determination to achieve greater equality. Liberalism in the substantive sense of the term is partial as well as partisan; to realize their substantive goals, liberals must organize on behalf of them and influence public opinion to obtain them.

In addition to its substantive content, liberalism can also be defined according to procedural means. Liberalism emerged in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries when constitution writing was all the rage, and the constitutional imperative reflected a desire to create rules that would enable competing interests within society to peacefully negotiate their differences. For liberals, proceduralism is the only realistic alternative we have to violence. In the absence of agreed-upon rules in the international arena, war is inevitable. Without adherence to procedures in domestic life, civil war threatens. Liberal thinkers have come up with a variety of terms to express this commitment to proceduralism, ranging from Locke’s social contract to such American constitutional practices as the separation of powers and checks and balances to the movements of the twentieth century to create international bodies designed to prevent war such as the League of Nations and the United Nations. What links all of them are the shadows cast by two political philosophers who called attention to the ubiquity of, and need for, force in the world of public affairs: Niccolò Machiavelli, the Florentine Renaissance man who gave the rulers of his day strikingly coldblooded advice about how to retain their power; and Thomas Hobbes, the seventeenth-century Englishman, and rival of John Locke, who insisted that only a powerful sovereign could prevent a return to a barbaric state of nature in which life is, in one of the most chilling phrases ever written by a political philosopher, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” To avoid such a fate, liberal proceduralists held, government must achieve sufficient neutrality between contending parties to win their trust, and that can be accomplished only through agreements to which all parties commit themselves.

Procedural liberalism, in contrast to substantive liberalism, refers to a moral ideal rather than a political goal; its goal is fairness or impartiality, the idea that anything that applies to any one person must apply to every person. Liberalism in this meaning of the term is not necessarily opposed to political conservatism, certainly not the anti-ideological conservatism of the twentieth-century British philosopher Michael Oakeshott or those followers of Leo Strauss, the German émigré to the United States and inspiration for contemporary neoconservatism, who have done so much to help us appreciate the importance of the American founding. Nor does it stand in opposition to libertarianism. If anything, libertarians have been even more vigilant than liberals in the protection of civil liberties against arbitrary power. And even those forms of socialism that left behind the idea of government ownership of the means of production in favor of a less intrusive commitment to the welfare state adopted a sympathy toward liberal proceduralism. Procedural liberalism’s real opposition is to absolutism: the notion that a ruler need not be bound by rules.

Understood in a procedural sense, a liberal is anyone who supports a constitutional form of government; believes in a government of laws rather than of men; holds that exceptions to general rules should be rarely if ever granted; and accepts the principle that the party in power cannot change the rules of achieving power to benefit itself.


In addition to sharing core substantive convictions and a preference for procedural means, liberals are characterized by a distinct temperament. The first use of “liberal” in a political sense took place in 1810, when Spanish delegates to the Cortés, or parliament, meeting in Cádiz, adopted the term to characterize a program seeking to end feudal privileges and to establish a more modern government. But the word “liberal” existed etymologically long before it existed politically. “Liberal” stems from the Latin liber, or “free.” Because it originated as an adjective whose meaning was dependent on whatever noun it was modifying, “liberal” has always had a rather capacious—dare one say liberal?—meaning; the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary points out that “liberal,” besides meaning free, can also mean generous, abundant, large, gentlemanly, unstinting, lax, candid, and unprejudiced. Legacies of that broad meaning abound today: students do not study something called the conservative arts and many societies claim to be liberal democratic while none call themselves conservative democratic. In ordinary usage, “liberalism” refers not only to a substantive political program and a morality emphasizing fairness; it also possesses a connotation emphasizing an openness to the world.

The liberal temperament has more to do with psychology than with politics or morality. “Liberalism” in this meaning of the term seeks to include rather than to exclude, to accept rather than to censor, to respect rather than to stigmatize, to welcome rather than reject, to be generous and appreciative rather than stingy and mean. Temperamentally, liberals are impatient with arguments rooted in fear and selfprotection. They tend to see the past’s improvements in the human condition as reason for anticipating continued improvement in the future. To be sure, liberals recognize that evil can lurk in the hearts of men and women and that some political systems—by definition, illiberal ones—have been evil in the extreme. But they hold that the existence of the bad does not make impossible the realization of the good. On the contrary, the fact that some societies lack liberalism’s generosity of spirit is all the more reason for liberals to insist on reform, not only in the public and political sense but in the private and human one.

As was true of liberal proceduralism, temperamental liberalism is trans-ideological. (…) Temperamentally speaking, liberalism is not defined by the positions one takes, but by the spirit in which they are taken.

* * *

By Alan Wolfe from The Future of Liberalism (2010).

Emphasis in the original. I have tried to strip this quotation from criticism and superfluous examples in order to shift the focus towards the “ways of defining liberalism”.

Article 9: Some remarks on the Catalan question

The Catalan question has starkly divided European politics in recent weeks. On the one hand, there are those who insist on the rule of law, constitutionality and anti-separatism. On the other, there are those sympathetic to self-determination, participatory democracy and regionalism.


However, we are not just dealing with different positions on this specific issue. The Catalan question illustrates a deeper divide in European politics between liberals on the one hand and radicals on the other. In a sense these are misnomers. Those called “liberals” here will include people who in no way are affiliated with liberal parties and the “radicals” will also describe some Christian democrats and other centrists and conservatives. Let me therefore clarify that these labels do not describe self-identified camps, but tendencies in European politics.

In any case, there is a need for a dialogue – not just in Spain, but in the whole of Europe – between these tendencies to counter the risk of losing common ground. This means acknowledging qualifications to our views and, even more so, to acknowledge that after those have been made there still are and will remain differences of opinion. What we gain from it is not the reaching of a consensus, but preventing the transformation of opponents into enemies; of safeguarding common ground. In that spirit, let’s start with picking apart some of the particular opinions amongst liberals and radicals on the Catalan question and then ask what this says about these tendencies


With regards to the outcome of the referendum the following can be said: liberals are right to qualify the “90%” outcome in favour of independence by pointing towards the turnout. In reality the pro-independence vote is closer to 42% on the eligible population and 31% on the total population. However, they forget two other points. First, the same turnout correction applies to the national government. For the national lower house the Rajoy’s Partido Popular has only received the votes of 22% on the eligible population and 17% on the total population, compared to 33% on the voting population. In Catalonia the respective numbers for his party were 8,4%, 6,2% and 13,4%. Second, “the people” – the collective of citizens which give momentum and legitimacy to fundamental political change – has rarely ever consisted of the great majority of the population, but has rather been formed by a sufficient minority.

Liberals do well to free radicals from their mythical notion of the popular will. They would do equally well to recognize that this is an issue of all elections and that in practical terms the independentists have the support they need. Politics remains after all not the art of the admissible, but the art of the possible.

This is also what liberals need to accept with regards to the legal standing of the referendum. It is undeniably true that it is unconstitutional and in breach of the rule of law. It is also beside the point. By blocking a political solution earlier and by refusing to deal with this as a political matter the Spanish government has enabled this situation to develop. Appeals to constitutionality and the rule of law as the sole standards by which to measure this referendum forget that these need to remain in line with political reality. They remain, we should not forget, means to the end of peacefully resolving of political differences. By excluding a persistent, strongly held and fundamental political issue the Spanish government has perverted the rule of law by using it for the exact opposite purpose: to place issues outside of the realm of political deliberation. This frustrating of the political process through a legalistic blockade does not exclude independentist politicians from responsibility – they should face the appropriate consequences – but it does make the Spanish government complicit.

For anyone who would object that this is unduly in favour of the radicals let it be clear that this might be an opinion of radicals, but it is not a radical opinion. It is the same position voiced by, for example, the Economist and Foreign Policy magazine. Both not exactly bastions of radicalism.


Speaking of possibility, a common cry is that it is possible to be both Catalan, Spanish and European. This is undoubtedly true. However, we should not confuse the possibility of multi-layered identities with a necessity of having this reflected in institutional structures. With or without the European Union, we remain European. Our identity as Europeans is not so flimsy and weak as to cease to exist when the Union does. The same applies, I hope, to Spanish and Catalan identity. In this sense it does not follow that Catalonia should not be independent from the Spanish state, because one can be Spanish and Catalan at the same time. People will remain Spanish and Catalan regardless of whether Catalonia is part of Spain or not. It is simply not an objection.

An opinion less voiced outside of Spain is that the Catalan referendum transgresses the (constitutionally established) unity of Spain. The answer to this should be simple: constitutional articles establishing the “unity” or “indivisibility” of the nation are the nationalist parallels to the articles establishing the “leading role” of the Party in the Communist regimes of old. They are mystical fables which should be struck from any European constitution in which they feature. They are an insult to the principle of “united in diversity” since they more often than not are employed as obstacles to further unify Europe and simultaneously threaten the diversity within member states.

This insistence on Spain’s unity is also the other side of arguments on the historical merits of Catalan nationhood which radicals also indulge themselves in. This kind of historical pedantry is just as much a form of poisonous nationalism as the constitutional emphasis on Spain’s unity. The temptation of radicals to rely on essentialist forms of nationhood are rightly condemned. This same sort of appeal to history has been used by Russian nationalists to deny the legitimacy of Ukrainian independence and it deserves the same reply: if Catalonia is not to be part of the Spanish state it will be because of how Catalans living now feel; what was or wasn’t the case hundreds of years ago should not be of concern to anyone today.


What then, does all of this say about the European politics? It comes down to a difference between those inclined to propagate universalism and judicialization, on the one hand and those who lean towards particularism and politicization on the other. The former, who I have called liberals, hope for Europe as a vehicle to supersede nationalism – hence their opposition against new nation states. Taken to its extreme, their utopia is one of a world of one humanity without nations. This latent distaste of cultural difference stands in defiance of the fact that people desire, value and cherish their particularities and fails to recognize that it would robs the world exactly of one of the things which enrich it.

Radicalism, the latter tendency, wants Europe to protect regions against bigger nations. However, the romanticism of radicals at times threatens towards the essentialist and to go beyond protection towards the rectification of past “errors”; a Europe of regions is a legitimate vision, but shouldn’t lapse into vulgar nationalism.

Liberal trust in the judiciary, the rule of law and the constitution comes from a specific distrust in politics, associated with special interest and contrasted with reasoned neutral arbitration and consensus. The danger is when these associations lapse into the denial of the reality of different interests in which a neutral perspective does not always exist. The view of a Europe where the judiciary is used to neutralize politics has been the concrete form of European integration over the past decades. It is a dangerous course which threatens more turbulent situations later on – as the Catalan issue demonstrates.

Still, radicals who give too much room for politics ought to remind themselves of Foucault’s “politics is the continuation of war by other means”. Politics has to be bound or else it will tear society apart and opponents will turn into enemies again and, in the worst case, transform common ground into a battleground. This is why, as sympathetic as one might be to Catalan independence, it is better to hope against a unilateral declaration of independence.

Note 7: Gavrilo Princip’s gun

And there it is. Small, almost tiny even. It is hard to imagine that a bullet from this gun could kill anyone. I am standing in front of the pistol Gavrilo Princip used to kill Archduke Franz Ferdinand 103 years ago. As part of the exhibition at the House of European History, it is kept safe behind glass on a plastic stick, showing it standing up as one might hold it.

As I look at I am overwhelmed. The entire suffering of a century is contained in that one insignificant object. The one shot it fired executed millions, levelled cities, ripped apart the world. I think of all people who suffered because of it in trenches, in camps, in prisons, but also in normal homes of their own or of another. Of the countless lives scarred by combat, by rape, by hunger, by dozens upon dozens of different ways just because of this one gun.

Tears well up in my eyes and my throat swells as the thought reaches me that the daunting and massive shadow of this terror is just a fragment of the actual misery which that one weapon brought about.

I take a deep breath. I look away. I take another. I take a step. Another. I have myself under control again. I remind myself, as an educated person, that there were broader causes to the war, that there were numerous places where tensions were present, that what happened ten, twenty, forty, eighty years after cannot be reduced to that one bullet, even that a lot of what we celebrate today would not exist if history would have taken a different turn. Still, what if Gavrilo Princip had not fired that gun?

Quotation 4: ‘The abduction of Europa’ by Cees Nooteboom

From “The abduction of Europa”

“How does one become a European? In the first place by being one, and this can for example be attained by being born in The Netherlands. It has been said that this is also possible in Sicily, East Prussia, Lapland and Wales, but since I happen to be a Dutch European it seems best to me to talk about this. To become Dutch is easier than one would think. Who is prepared, in the persons of his forefathers, to push back the sea, to dry the land, to have himself be governed by Burgundians in the Middle Ages, to swap his duchies and counties early on for a number of provinces and then to unite them under the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands, who wants to wage eighty years of war with Spain and to colonize island kingdoms on the other side of the globe and to wage war at sea over some resting monopolies with Englishmen who for centuries will express their rancour over every single lost battle in idioms such as double DutchDutch uncle, and going Dutch, who subsequently lets himself be made part of a French dream of imperial grandeur by a brother of Napoleon as a renewed Batavian and who will let himself be walked over one hundred forty years later by German armies for five years and during all this time continue to make calculations, eat herring, trade, keep the soil dry, and thank God paint as well, invent the microscope and pendulum clock, polish up naval law and harbour Europeans from very different backgrounds who have been driven out of their own paradises; who, finally, is possessed of good intentions for the rest of the world and who also à tort et à travers wishes to push on because he is convinced that he can get to know the world better than the world itself because he has gathered his knowledge as buyer, seller, administrator and victim; so who wants to take the burden on himself of being both very small and very big is Dutch. If his father and mother have additionally stayed in the right place during this prescribed period he will as such be born like this and thus meet the first requirement of being a European, and perhaps also to become one.


Because almost every writer starts with the decorum of his own life I wrote a novel when I was twenty years old in which a sensitive young Dutch man wanders through Europe to find a mysterious girl about which he has told in the Provence. The book was called Philip and the others, where the others where those who one meets while traveling and who express diversity. As you can see I started this reading in time. Of course the young man finds her, and of course he loses her, but only after he has populated the harbour of Copenhagen for her with all the personalities from his first, personal mythology, Scarlatti, Paul Éluard, the Spanish poet Bécquer and the Dutch poet Lodeizen, whom we carefully hide from you behind the shroud of our language since Dutch, together with Albanian, might be the most hidden language of the continent. After I finished that book and so was promoted to the status of writer, I should actually have died according to my friend the German philosopher Rürdiger Safranski, but this was because he didn’t like that I distanced myself from my previous innocence. Dying I didn’t do, I thought of something better, I went to Spain, and I never actually left there; an incurable European schizophrenia separates me in a southern and a northern being; in winter I life in Amsterdam and Berlin, in summer I’m at Spain’s mercy, one of those ever misunderstood hybrid beings which is at home in three places at once and nowhere at all at the same time, perhaps the first real Europeans, brave guineau pigs of the new continent, who have incorporated unity and diversity in their very being. We should be researched, we are very valuable to science. We read the Frankfurter AllgemeineThe GuardianLe MondeVrij NederlandLa VanguardiaLa Repubblica and if we have to Diário de Notícias and the Osservatore Romano, we despise the bêtise of large countries which speak no language other than their own and who ensure that this will be the case for another generation by camouflaging all other languages behind their own on television and in the cinemas so that even the sound of that other language is obscured; we are perplexed that those same progressives who weep when some insignificant bird species goes extinct laugh when they see someone, perhaps the last of his kind, wearing traditional Bavarian clothing; we feel humiliated when another McDonald’s wins over a plate of Swabian lungs, Florentine tripe, haggis from Edinburgh or stockfish in Navarra; we support regionalism if this is meant to preserve something essential and against it if it is directed against the Other; we despise the cancer of violent nationalism regardless if it comes from the Irish, Croats, Basques or Serbs; we are, in short, those people nobody listens to.”

From “Zeno’s arrow”

“[T]he names of the Miloševićes and the Karadžićes of the last century might have disappeared, the place names, Kosovo, Sarajevo, have remained unchanged, like Macedonia, Serbia, Herzegovina; those who want to die for them and who do that in reality are not lost in space, but in time, and the Europe of unification looks impotently at the Europe of bloody fragmentation. Exactly because it is an anachronism Europe is afraid to intervene, that is part of the past, it has already let itself be torn apart for this once before. But it also doesn’t want to take on the consequences of the tribal war, an unending river of refugees from this war and wars to come, which slowly flows in the direction of the West, where the weather map confirms its own predictions. The only country that momentarily bears the full burden of all this is Germany, three hundred thousand last year, five hundred thousand this year; as a reward it is called xenophobic by some. There are people who say that this Europe has enough vitality to absorb such amounts. However, there are plenty in Germany who say that Germany doesn’t have to do this alone – and then I do not mean those who say that Germany shouldn’t have to do it at all, and who evoke a wholly different and horrific déjà vu by how they make this clear. However, he who is eager to point this out might do better by taking a look at himself first. It does not take long to make the balance.

Is there no solution? The biggest folly is perhaps to think that the world ought to be logical, and with this I mean that no meaningless wars ought to be waged anymore in which people die for causes which you should not die for anymore. But who deiceds that? Can you measure that? We are occupied with our beautiful and magnificent unification, and now you come from under the rock of your dictatorship which secretly we have always blamed you for, and spoil the oh-so logical and promising, by the future so clearly prescribed path of history with your backward, anachronistic obsessions, which you moreover are the victim of! And look what you are doing to us! We no longer know ourselves anymore! Old ghosts of the past surface again, many things are surfacing, the pound is melting, the lira withers, money dashes bitterly around the world now it suddenly has become apparent that we cannot pay attention to everything at the same time because everything is connected to everything in a way which nobody has yet been able to figure out. Evil processions roam our apotheotic dreams, we are reminded of everything which we had wanted to forget, the stereotypes of the antiquarian puppet theatre are in fashion again: the egocentric Frenchmen who tackles Europe in a fury, the arrogant German who beats around him with his mark and so doing hits the perfidious Englishman who already had his hands on the dagger intended for Europe’s back, the corrupt Italian who lives above his means and trusts that the hardworking North will provide for this parasite, the Dutch who tell everything how it should be done and in the meantime profit of it all, the Danes who as the only sensible people realize just in time that something is rotten in Brussels and Strasbourg – oh, Europe!”

From “European memories”

“And if I were to have any recipes for this Europe of ours it would be that all countries which belonged to it at some point still do, that large countries should learn from the small and their history, that the extortionate rates which limit Intereuropean travel should be abolished, and finally that the South shouldn’t imitate the North in pursuit of a soulless modernity, and that the North looks long and attentively to the South and its pace and traditions, and with the South I mean the true South, that which everything originates from.”

From “Uralte Verwirrung”

“Last week I was in this same city. Then the subject was Europe, now it is, one more time, Germany. I recounted how I, on 10 May 1940, six years old, was made into a European with a great thundering blow by the arrival of German troops. I recite this because I can’t tell the story of my Europeanisation, let’s call it that, or that of my relation to Germany – and those two are related – without this peculiar signifying moment. It of course not true that my life started in this moment, but it does seem like it. How unimaginable as it might sound I have no conscious, precise recollection whatsoever of my time before that tenth of May. Never will I be able to write an A la recherche du temps perdu because those first six years, my childhood, are in fact perdu, lost, blown away, drowned in the noise of Heinkels and Stuka’s which bombed the airport of Ypenburg near The Hague. My father, who would die in a bombardment later in that same war, has put an armchair on the balcony and observes. Naturally he must have said something, but in my memory he says nothing, he sits there, looks over the pastures and sees the same as I, silly men with parachutes who fall out of the sky, who come to ‘occupy’ our country, for the first time that word meant something. Later I realized, or remembered, or made up that my dad despised me. I was shaking continuously, my back was washed with ice cold water so it would stop.

I remember two kinds of sound of airplanes, the hellish shrieking and screeching of those first days, the red horizon of burning Rotterdam, the accompanying sirens, anti-aircraft fire, distant explosions, and then, a few years later, unending monotone pounding, as if a bass the size of the heaven itself was being bowed, of the air force which was on its way to bomb Germany, it was a threatening sound, revengeful, fated doom and death were part of it, death which was being returned to where it came from. Lancasters was the name of these planes, and the answer to them were Werner von Braun’s V2s, which also happened to be launched near our house in the direction of London, a screech from the underworld which seemed to come forth from an apocalyptic glow, all of it the stuff of nightmares.

A few days later the troops came marching in. The enemy’s troops. Strangely enough I remember that as something which happened in complete silence, and that is not possible. They wore boots, there were banners, drums, orders were given which I would only hear later, when I saw the war movies, that loud shouting which is caught up in the wind and clashes against the ears. But back then I only heard that nothing which is called silence, and that must have been the silence of the adults around me, that of defeat. Only much later I realised that German must have been the first foreign language which I heard, certainly the first foreign language which I read. Proclamations of the Orstkommandant, death sentences on posters glued to the walls, the inescapanle voice which sometimes carried through windows on inside and announced another victory, a sign on a corpse which read ‘I am a looter’ , songs of troops marching which, when they marched in the other direction later on, did not sing anymore.”

* * *

By Cees Nooteboom from De ontvoering van Europa (1993).

These excerpts have been translated by myself. I mostly have tried to stick to Cees Nooteboom’s use of commas in Dutch, because it seems a conscious choice of style on his side.