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Searching for politics in Europe


What is politics? It essentially means the act and art of ‘living together’ in a polis, a city-state, which defines the boundaries and draws the lines of the political. Politics is the creation and perpetuation of a ‘we’; it comes about when a kind of ‘together’, a form of collectivity, is made possible.


How this collectivity is defined and legitimized is perhaps the most important question of political philosophy: from Plato’s Republic, through Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract, to a more recent example - Jürgen Habermas’ Europe. The Faltering Project, the central theme has always been the prescription of a normatively ‘perfect polis’.


For Plato and Rousseau, the place of politics was a physical space of direct democracy and public debate. The polis had a materiality. For Habermas, following the Kantian tradition of ‘social contract’ theory, the question is far more complicated, as he attempts to find the normative justification for proposing the emergence of a world society, as a democratic constitutional order. The ‘place’ of politics, as such, is non-existent, as it extends beyond any traditional identification with The State. It is dissociated from a politics, which no longer has a clear boundary.


Where then ought we to ‘put’ this politics, if its place is no longer immediately identifiable? In Europe, says Habermas, politics can remain decentred, flow beyond the polis, through a reconstitution of public space and political community, where new binding forces, such as the media, must be recruited to help foster this change. In a word, politics, as we have known it for a very long time, must be deconstructed and repositioned in order to incorporate the creation of a new kind of collectivity (a new ‘we’).


Yet, in this transition, something is lost – all the old meanings. As the foundation of politics is shaken to its very foundations, everything begins to crumble: notions of ‘left/right’, ‘liberty/equality’, ‘individual/community’, ‘past/present’, ‘us/them’, are in a state of semantic and practical suspense, i.e. they are fuzzier than ever.

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