Notes on Giacomo Marramao’s The Passage West. Could Europe Be But an Allegory for Something?

Alberto Moreiras
Texas A&M University

Volume 8, 2015

The Preface to the third edition of Giacomo Marramao´s Dopo il Leviatano. Individuo e comunitá (2013), published only a few months after The Passage West came out in English, explains that the questions that have occupied its author over the last years have essentially to do with an understanding of “the political” after Thomas Hobbes´s theorization of the modern State and “a philosophical analysis of globalization” (12). Marramao is concerned with political globalization as such, even though, as we will see, he makes his argument seemingly depend on the political future of Europe. He presents “eight theses” that have been elaborated both in The Passage West, whose original Italian publication dates from 2003, and La passione del presente. Breve lessico della modernitá-mondo, from 2008. Those eight theses are a good summary of what is stake at the present moment in the elaboration of Marramao´s thought.

The first six are, in summary form, the following: one, the notion that globalization includes the uncomfortable co-presence of two trends: “the tendency to technico-economic uniformity and the tendency to cultural-identitarian diaspora” (13); two, the notion that a differentiation of life-forms is a consequence of contemporary hypermodern capitalism (so that different forms of social organization are consistent with the latter); three, the thesis that spatial compression goes along with temporal decompression, so that different temporal experiences coexist within the uniform, smooth space of financial capitalism; four, the idea that a certain “post-statehood” characterizes the present epoch to the extent that the return of “indirect powers” (economic, religious, cultural) threatens to destabilize political space towards post-democratic structurations; five, the latter is partially a consequence of the collapse of the two main models of citizen integration in Western liberal democracies, namely, “Republican” identitarian universalism, alongside post-revolutionary France, and multiculturalism on the British and North American models; and, six, conflict, even world conflict, is today determined or overdetermined by what Marramao calls the “identitarian dominant” (19). I will note that these first six theses have no European specificity, as they refer to the space of globalization as such.

The final two theses represent the actual propositive dimension of Marramao´s work, and they are the ones that will focus my own commentary. The seventh thesis is that “Europe can be the future of the West,” by which Marramao means, in reference to Carl Schmitt, that the axis, not necessarily of economic or military power, not necessarily of technological dominance, but of what we would have to call nomic order, of political determination, could come back to Europe after its North American detour of the last one hundred years or so. This is because, Marramao claims, Europe is better prepared than anybody else, given European history, to thematize and politically defend a “universalism of difference” (18) whose language would always already be a “language of translation” (“the true European language is translation” [19]); and also because, also given European history, Europe can offer a third genus beyond the individualistic-competitive North American model and Chinese communitarian paternalism (20), both of them equally unsatisfying, in order to reinvent “a relational not objectual common space [or space of the commons]” (20). The eighth thesis, finally, is that the seventh thesis can never be materialized lest a political “reenchantment” of the European world takes place. Economic and techno-monetary union must give way to political invention. This is Marramao’s recipe for the European future: “reenchanting politics, demythifying identity” (21).

But is Marramao merely speaking about Europe? Or is Europe in his work secretly the name of an allegory for a hendyadic repoliticization cum demythification that would be global in scope, and that should be global in scope if, indeed, the world as such is to have a non-catastrophic future? Who is the subject of the passage to the West? The book ostensibly says: Europe! But what if it were the world as such that must accomplish the passage, as Marramao’s overriding concern with globalization authorizes us to ask? Towards the end of The Passage West Marramao addresses the notion that needs to be preempted—that is, the contingent inversion of theses seven and eight above: “The global dynamics that have unfolded since 1989, the watershed year of the fall of the Berlin Wall, is beginning to show us that any attempt to impose a standardized, ethnocentric and supremacist model of modernization can only lead to a further extension and intensification of conflicts. And here is the crux of the matter. It is here that the West courts the danger of failure, of precipitating the entire world into a state of endemic civil war” (237). The enunciation of the peril raises the possibility of a question.

Is the passage to the West ostensibly the fostering of a proper European future, that is, primarily a heuristic or theoretical mirror used to elaborate in the negative, as it were, a paradoxical diagnosis of actually existing phenomena that might lead the world towards the danger of global conflagration? Or is it something that we should try to manage and arbitrate in the most careful possible way, perhaps with the help of some non-Western intellectuals, so that it happens in Europe but in senses conducive to a democratic structuration of political life at the global level? Is the European passage to the West, as the fantasy of a new nomic order for Europe, a diagnostic tool, a critical tool for the prevention of a potential disaster to which Marramao is seeking to oppose a katechon, so that eventually Europe itself, or a certain idea of Europe, would function as a katechon for the world itself? Or is it something that he would see consummated and accomplished in real terms, immediately, imminently, for the primary sake of the future of Europe as such: not a political or critical phantasy but a proposal for concrete intervention in the real?

This seems to me a fundamental question that the book is slightly ambiguous about. Oh, you could call it perhaps a disingenuous question: it is obvious, on one hand, that Marramao is indeed talking about Europe as political space, about the reinvention of Europe as political space. Such would be the European passage into the West. But can we not turn the gaze a bit and imagine, on the other hand, if only for a moment, that the European passage to the West is only a name for a global passage, for an apotropaic global passage, since Europe is no longer Europe in the conventional sense, since Europe is already globalized and subject to the laws of globalization, whatever Europe’s history is, and whatever the laws of globalization are? Otherwise, would a European passage to the West, if accomplished, not immediately become a “standardized, ethnocentric and supremacist model of modernization”? In point of fact, let us consider the possibility that, if the passage to the West is meant to imply that other planetary civilizations should join with the West in proposing a “cosmopolitanism of difference” (239), then the passage to the West might be destined to fail as such, might even have to posit its own infinite suspension, because the very success of that idea would necessarily mean the inversion of things into a passage to the East or a passage to the South. But a passage West that immediately becomes a passage East or South comes close to the nowhere of utopia, loses specificity, loses its very content (Marramao mentions the “passage from West to East” [234]).

Post-Hobbesian order, post-national constellation (214): these are the main codes to read Marramao’s book. The Passage West is immersed in a long and intense tradition of European thought that certainly incorporates North American intellectual developments (for example, Marramao makes ample use of the philosophical and ideological disputes between North American liberals and communitarians) and referents (such as identity politics in its particular North American sense), but by and large it remains European. It is in that context that the titular notion of a passage to the West acquires polemical relevance. When Marramao talks about a passage to the West, is he not precisely echoing the Schmitt of Nomos of the Earth, and with it Schmitt’s presentation of the United States as the West of the West, as the contemporary representation of a destinal trope of humanity’s fundamental law towards the evening land? If the passage to the West had nomic implications, however, then the passage to the West would seem to me perhaps not a solution, but part of the problem.

The notion of a post-Hobbesian order, regarding which the Habermasian “post-national constellation” is only partially expressive, signals the end of the political architectonics of modernity itself. The so-called Hobbesian order of constitution, which refers to Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, has everything to do with the nation-state system that, after the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, organized European public right through an interstate system of sovereignty, Eurocentric indeed, to the very extent that the lands not integrated into that system were considered available for conquest and exploitation. The idea, derived from Schmitt’s magnum opus, The Nomos of the Earth, is that such a system came to its productive end with the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the end of the Cold War. But North American unilateral hegemony, which Schmitt indeed glimpsed at the time of publication of Nomos (1950) as one of the possible outcomes of the nomic order after World War II, if not the most desirable for him, cannot by itself control a new nomic order. This became obvious after the Clinton years with the so-called second wave of globalization marked by the September 11 event and the new Chinese preponderance in production and financial markets. A diffuse globalization under North American military hegemony cannot be adequately described by the rise of what Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri called Empire in their book of the same title. Marramao posits that the world is returning to domination by the type of indirect powers active before the Leviathanic constitution of nation-state sovereignty around 1648, but that such a domination is far from constituting a system. A liberated market no longer subject to the control of the state, he claims, unleashes indirect powers that produce instability, and such an instability could become ever more prevalent.

In that context, the notion of a passage to the West after the end of the nomic power of the West is in itself a paradox that could be read as meaning, not that all postcolonial lands must pass into the West, that the globe as such must pass into the West, but rather that the moment of maximum imperial diffusion of the planetary notion of the West is also the moment in which the West must pass into itself. But what does that mean? The focus of the book ostensibly remains Europe. What is at stake is the study of post-Leviathan Europe as the site of a contemporary problematic, in a context in which Europe, in specific ways, in the age of globalization, has become the site of an epochal battle in which the dark future of humanity will be decided. But is that enough? No doubt this would be true for the United States or China or India as well. Or for Latin America. All of them are places where the so-called passage to the West, if the passage to the West is code for a reenchantment of politics and a demythification of identity, has its own conditions and its own imperatives.

Although the authority of great European thinkers such as Max Weber, Karl Jaspers, Martin Heidegger, and others is invoked, the determination of Europe as the site for a thorough symptomatic investigation of what the nomic drift “after Leviathan” might be is not meant itself to be Eurocentric. Marramao is not concerned with issues of centrality and dominance; his idea does not primarily point to nomic power and nomic rule. In fact, perhaps the most significant theoretical position in his book, from which all others derive, is that of a post-nomic configuration of the world, which is associated in the book to the neologism “glocal”. Europe must rethink itself on the basis of “glocal” constraints. The very notion of a “deterritorialization of law” undoes Eurocentrism at a fundamental level. Europe is in fact no longer Europe, just another glocal space subject to the imperatives of globalization. At its polemical edge Marramao has little patience with the identitarian claims for a recuperation of pristine, non-Western locality; in other words, for the symbolic undoing of the planetary history of capitalism and colonial domination. Indeed, he considers them to be part of the problem, and to a large extent part and parcel of the symptomatics of what is meant by a passage to the West, by the need for it. But then Europe itself cannot be the locus of pristine recuperation either.

Let me attempt a concise definition: a universal passage to the West means that the world today is no longer to be thought geopolitically as the stage for a conflict of interests. It is, however, to be thought as the place for a conflict of values. But when values rather than interests conflict in the era of planetary nihilism the stakes of confrontation go drastically up. This is what threatens to turn the post-Leviathan disorder into a pre-Leviathan war of all against all. Carlo Galli’s notion of global war is not far from Marramao’s passage West. So Marramao is thinking global war, which he calls the “glocal,” and attempting to find a thoughtful word on it. What is the place of European values in that confrontation? Can they be sustained as European values?

In his “Afterword” to The Passage West Antonio Negri celebrates the book but he also introduces a critique of it from his own philosophical and political position. The critique is that Marramao is ultimately unable to offer anything like a new subject of the political, which for Negri means that Marramao’s call for a repoliticization in the name of democracy is ultimately bound to fail, and that the failure is precisely bound to a certain mannerism of the European academic intellectual, always willing to believe, in principle or constitutively, not practically, since things are always very different at a practical level, that a certain discourse of reason, the phantom sovereignty of Western rationality, will prevail. But reason has nothing to do with politicality, and is in fact impotent if deprived of the libidinal process of subjectification that may, at best, go with it, but is never constituted by it.

Negri asks Marramao why his phenomenological description remains at an archaeological level and never crosses over into genealogy. In other words, if the “passage” is the move towards a new historical time, is it not plausible to note that a new subject of the political will be constituted through the novelty itself? Will that new subject of the political still be Europe? In what sense? Or are we to think that it is still the same old European intellectuals, a little frayed today by the loss of all their certainties, but still very much a recognizable corporate body, that must tell the people, everybody in the world, how to adjust and bend and change so that a restrainer of the worse might fall into place? Negri says “there is no longer a subject here” (242), and by that he means that the phenomenological description of the new historical epoch can only posit a subjectivity that is “an empty transcendental continuity” with the time that precedes it. The implication is of course that Marramao´s “universalism” or “cosmopolitanism of difference” (239) becomes no more than an intellectual prescription, itself a symptomatic expression of an impasse. Negri says: “The Angelus novus that rises up at the heart of the passage can only see the to-come when, looking back, he confronts a horizon of struggles, and sees the production of the subject in struggle” (242-43). Or let us hear a different question that is intended to be the same question: “From the standpoint of politics, what will ´democracy´ mean when it breaks with the abstract universalism of its historical premises?”

The question is clear, but the answer is of course much more difficult than the question. Negri believes that there is a new subject of the political willing and waiting to come into its own, and he has named it “the multitude.” But for Marramao that particular answer is inadequate, and it is inadequate precisely on the basis of his own critique of substantialist subjectivity premised on the model of modernity. He calls it “the patrimonial subject,” which is now as gone as the time of Leviathan. Marramao thinks it is a false genealogical solution to opt for the multitude to the same extent that it is a false genealogical solution to opt for any identitarian position: if the multitude is not an empty concept, then it fills with identitarian content. But a Europe beyond identity cannot mean Europe. And yet the problem remains. I think Negri is right in his demand, and I think Marramao is right in refusing to produce it. But we know that in these things there is no default position that does not carry with it a heavy price. And this is my question for Marramao, finally: Is his anti-identitarian will for a reconstitution of the grounds for democracy in contemporary times not disembodied and transcendental, if Europe is finally nothing but the embodiment of a certain empty subject position that could eventually be filled by a global, non-identitarian citizenry? Or alternatively, if we deem it to be very much embodied and very much immanent to a certain kind of European past, very much a subject position that corresponds strictly to Europeans, can a global democracy be sought that would not be the projection of a standardized, Eurocentric notion of democracy consistent with a long history of European and Western dominance? Europe is not today the site of political invention, after all.

Works Cited

  • Marramao, Giacomo. The Passage West. Philosophy After the Age of the Nation-State. Translated by Matteo Mandarini. Afterword by Antonio Negri. New York: Verso, 2012.
  • ———. “Prefazione alla terza edizione”, In Dopo il Leviatano. Individuo e comunità. New Expanded Edition. Torino: Bollati Boringhieri, 2013: 9-21.