Étienne Balibar

Étienne Balibar was born in 1942. He graduated from the École normale supérieure and the Sorbonne in Paris, he earned his doctoral degree at the University of Nijmegen. He has held teaching positions in Algeria and France; he is currently Anniversary Chair of Contemporary European Philosophy at Kingston University London and Visiting Professor at Columbia University, New York. His books include Reading Capital (with Louis Althusser) (Verso, 1965), Race, Nation, Class. Ambiguous Identities (Verso, 1991, with Immanuel Wallerstein), Masses, Classes, Ideas (Routledge, 1994), The Philosophy of Marx (Verso, 1995), Spinoza and Politics (Verso, 1998), We, the People of Europe? Reflections on Transnational Citizenship (Princeton, 2004), Identity and Difference (Verso, 2013), Equaliberty. Political Essays (Duke, 2014), Violence and Civility (2015), Citizen Subject. Foundations for Philosophical Anthropology (2016).


The Hrant Dink Memorial Lecture 2018
Boğaziçi University, Istanbul
January 17, 2018

Democracy and Liberty in Times of Violence
By Étienne Balibar

In expressing my gratitude to Boğaziçi University, to my friends and colleagues of the organizing committee, and to all of you who attend this event tonight, I want to say, in the first place, that I consider it an extraordinary honor to have been asked to deliver the annual public lecture in the memory of Hrant Dink. For me in particular, but also for so many others in the world, who share the same commitments for the defense of justice and the recognition of past wrongs in the service of present and future emancipations, the name of this exceptional man, a journalist, an intellectual and a writer, symbolizes the most demanding form of the freedom of expression: what Michel Foucault notoriously called the “courage of the truth”, also translated sometimes as “fearless speech”. As we know there are times and places where this fearless courage carries the greatest risks, and this was indeed the case with Hrant Dink, who paid it with his life. Reason why, if the name “hero” can be applied in civil life, he deserves it in the highest degree. To speak in the memory of a hero creates responsibilities, which I will try not to evade: I must not repeat what he was saying, or directly address the specific questions that he tirelessly brought to the public - if only because I am not speaking here in my own country. But certainly I will expose for our common reflection the very principles that inspired his interventions, and I will do it in a manner that fully involves the present circumstances, while trying to raise the debate to general issues of political theory. Hence my (too) ambitious title: “Democracy and liberty in times of violence.”

I just said that I was not speaking in my own country, and of course this refers to legal determinations which I cannot and will not ignore. There are borders in the world. However, there are ethical and political questions which are universal, even if they receive specific characters in every single place, because of specific histories and social structures. Just as we should never omit the differences, lest we produce arrogant uninformed judgments, we should also never accept the idea that different peoples have opposite values in terms of such universal interests as violence and security, war and peace, freedom and domination. And we must take into account that we now live in a world where there is no country whose “internal” policy in matters of security and liberties does not affect the condition of its neighbors, and is not affected in return by the way in which they govern themselves. Every politics is irreversibly transnational. This is especially true within the broad space that we call the Euro-Mediterranean region, where a long history of conflicts and cultural exchanges has created a tight network of commonalities, now completed by massive exchanges of populations and goods. It will never be decided whether Turkey is or is not “part of Europe”, for a number of reasons, among which I will mention only two: Turkey was the core of the greatest “oriental” civilization, rooted in the Byzantine and Islamic traditions, but clearly this does not prevent it from also fully belonging to European or Western history; and no political institution claiming for itself the name “Europe” (e.g. the E.U.) can enjoy the privilege of deciding where the borders of Europe are drawn historically, or where the Bosporus is located with respect to those borders. So, as I said, I am certainly not speaking here in my country, but I am not perceiving my position as that of a “stranger”, and I hope that you are also not perceiving me that way.

Allow me now to return to my title. I referred to “times of violence”, and I am sure that many of you may have wondered, as I did myself upon second thought, which times are not, in fact, times of violence. I will readily admit that violence is a general condition of history, and a condition of politics, always directly affecting the forms in which they become intertwined. Further, I will presuppose that democracy and violence are intimately linked: not because democratic institutions would automatically neutralize violence, but because the forms in which democratic objectives are pursued, or democratic principles are implemented, always involve strategies of violence and civility. Conversely, the political forms in which violence is released or controlled, directly affect the possibilities of democratizing societies and states. However, when discussing these matters, which may seem highly speculative, there is a necessity to distinguish degrees and modalities of violence, to articulate forms of social or “structural” violence with forms of political “conjunctural” violence, and to take into account the extent to which they can be circumscribed within certain limits. Nothing would be more confusing than discussing issues of liberty and democracy in a framework where violence (or political violence) becomes so universal that it doesn’t leave room for any strategy of anti-violence or civilization, except in messianic or postrevolutionary times.

Among other reasons, this will explain to you why I do not readily adopt the terminology and the categories proposed by Giorgio Agamben, who in recent times has so powerfully contributed to framing the debates on political violence and its relationship to everyday life. I admire him, and I draw inspiration from him, but I assume that our current debate requires less metaphysical foundations. In Agamben’s view, the very principle of sovereignty, on which the political institutions of our nation-states are founded, involves a reduction of individuals, not only to a condition of subjects, but to a statute of “bare life”, i.e. a life which can always become arbitrarily suppressed. In other words, this is a way to assert that sovereignty always normalizes the state of exception, leaving nothing out of its reach. On the contrary, it seems to me that, when discussing the vicissitudes of the political institution in our societies, and its permanent oscillations between democracy and dictatorship, we need to keep in mind a conceptual distinction between normality and exception, however fragile or fuzzy it may sometimes appear. This is necessary if we don’t want to pure and simply identify war and peace, domination and extermination, the rule of law and its internal subversion. At this point, however, another precaution is needed: as Max Weber and others famously explained, modern States define themselves in terms of the “monopoly of organized violence”, which is also called a “monopoly of legitimate violence”. This is supposed to protect the private activities of the citizens and to guarantee civil peace. There are, however, more often than once, situations in which it is the state itself which wages a civil war, openly or not, against its own people, or part of the people. In order to assert its sovereignty, or the authority of those who govern the state, it tries to reduce its own citizens to a situation of powerlessness, in which not only resistances or forms of disobedience are banned, but even contestation or contradiction of the official truth is made impossible.

This is, of course, the exact antithesis of democracy, whatever constitutional criteria we adopt, because – to put it again in Max Weber’s remarkable terms – democracy is this “paradoxical” regime where public contradiction is required and considered legitimate. Or, pushing the idea to the extreme, democracy is the paradoxical regime which – as much as possible – admits and accepts the risk of its own internal critique – in any case the critique of its own power-holders. It is the regime whose strength comes from its fragility, or from granting maximum power to its own citizens, who may also occasionally become opponents. There is little doubt in my view that democracy in that radical sense is very brutally threatened or restricted everywhere in today’s world, especially in our Mediterranean space, with very significant, but no absolute differences from one country to another. This is a situation that some political theorists have described as a moment of “de-democratization” in world history. How are we going to analyze its symptoms? How are we going to imagine strategies and mottoes to reverse it?

Democracy, a political regime?

At this point, I must ask your permission to embark on a relatively long detour, because I want to explain in which sense I have come to viewing the exercise of free speech as one of the founding principles of democracy – or, to put it in other terms, which I borrow from a famous development in Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism – the essential “right to have rights” on which democracy is founded. For the same reason, I see it as the main element of “fragility” of democracy, which helps resist sovereign violence, but also becomes targeted by undemocratic governments in the first place, and sometimes even destroys itself. This requires that I say something more about the paradoxes of democracy as a political form. This will be my second point in this lecture. It will lead me from questioning the idea of a democratic regime to uncovering the main reason of its intrinsic fragility, now addressed in the form of a transnational debate on “populism”.

I borrowed from Max Weber a provocative definition of democracy, as a regime where opposition is considered normal, therefore obedience is never absolutely granted, even if this is not supposed to take an anarchic form (and especially not the form of civil war). We may assume that this paradoxical character of democracy is one of the reasons which push rulers to fear democracy or, in Jacques Rancière’s terms, it is what pushes them to “hate democracy” unless it is more or less restrained. This can also become explained in the logic of “legitimacy” that was applied by Weber in his comparative discussion of political regimes. Inasmuch as they represent a certain institutional method to appropriate and exercise power, political regimes can be legitimate only inasmuch as they find a principle which guarantees obedience, or subjection to the rulers as completely as possible: this can be tradition (whether religious or secular), or bureaucracy (we would say today: expertise), or charisma (we could say also: prestige, popularity). However, democratic legitimacy is based on the absolutely opposite principle, which leads to thinking that, after all, it is not exactly a “regime” in the same sense as others. A conclusion that can lead to asserting that no such thing as a genuinely democratic regime can ever exist, or that, if and when democracy becomes realized, the political institution as such is in some sense overcome or withering away. It is this hypothesis that I want now to briefly examine, because it seems to me that it forms a preliminary to some of the aporias which the current situation in the world has brought to the fore.

Obviously, the formula saying that democracy is not a regime, or is no longer exactly one, is very perilous: for peoples and citizens who live in non-democratic states of various degrees (totalitarian or dictatorial states, but also authoritarian regimes), it seems to cancel the very possibility to define the criteria after which they will establish (or restore) a constitution where rights are guaranteed. Such fundamental charts as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were precisely written in the perspective of this definition. On the other hand, to identify democracy with is own formal rules, and, as a consequence, with any regime that obeys such rules, has led to calling “democratic” certain States and regimes which were in fact purely oligarchic, where the participation of all citizens in public affairs was in fact appropriated by technocratic, economic or cultural elites. We must try and overcome this dilemma. What history has indicated, I believe, is the fact that the name democracy never really corresponds to a stable regime, or one that is defined in invariable identical terms. What has existed, and can still exist in given historical conditions, are dynamic combinations of legal institutions and collective “acts of citizenship” (to borrow Engin Işın’s felicitous expression) which maximize the capacity of the people to govern itself in its own interest, or to promote equal liberty and to subject rulers themselves to the power of the governed. “Democracy” therefore always names a moment in the life of peoples and nations rather than a formal regime, and it remains always conflictual. It is in critical moments, such as we are living in today, that we become aware of the general rule: democracy does not refer to any constituted power, but to a permanent tension between processes of “de-democratization” and processes of “democratization”. In other terms, on the one hand, we have processes of dispossession of the political capacity of the people, be it in a brutal form, or through corruption, the rise of the bureaucracy, the transformation of politicians into professionals, etc.; on the other hand, we must have a “democratization of democracy” itself, which relies on the reactivation of more radical forms of participation that had emerged in the past, or on the invention of new forms of equality and liberty, adapted to the social conditions of the day. But, contrary to the old metaphysical principle (Aristotle), there is in fact no middle: if democracy does not steadily progress, it regresses, or the only possibility for democracy not to regress is to be renewed and to invent its own future already in the present.

It is on this general assumption that I want now to examine three more concrete questions: namely some typical aspects of the current “de-democratizing” processes; the forms in which it can be a question of defending or restoring democracy in order to advance it; and, most important, why there is currently such a crucial debate about the issue of “populism”.

I shall be relatively brief on the first point: not because it would be a minor one, but, on the contrary, because it would deserve a whole discussion in its own right. It seems to me that the multiple forms in which, throughout regions or continents, ordinary citizens now tend to be disempowered or dispossessed of their civic rights, are reducible to various combinations of the following two tendencies: on the one hand, there is a technocratic and aggressively modernist tendency, which is a tendency to replace representative government with a “governance” of anonymous economic and administrative experts. The now fashionable term “governance” was coined in the early 1990’s by experts of the World Bank, to indicate and foster this substitution. This tendency can be called “neo-liberal”, because in the last instance it is linked to the globalization and financialization of capitalism, displacing the centers of real power beyond the reach of historical constituencies – those communities which most of the time where called “peoples”. But on the other hand, there is a tendency which, in comparison, seems to embody a “return” to archaic forms of government: namely a powerful return of personalized quasi-monarchic rule, or authoritarian administration, accepting no contestation or opposition, making full use of the instruments of popularity and collective passions. How can these two apparently antithetic modalities of the destruction of democracy become articulated and complementary? Most of the times, they are cemented through the intensification of nationalism, which has permanent roots in every country, and is a powerful way to turn around the resentment generated by growing social inequalities and rising corruption of the elites which are generated by contemporary capitalism. Neither technocracy nor authoritarian government are really compatible with public liberties, both of them, on the contrary, are intimately linked to corruption and inequalities. In this moment, therefore, their combination is sending to the world a signal of emergency and distress. More or less democratic forms that had been taken for granted, or perceived as more or less inevitable futures in the liberal narrative of the “end of history”, are threatened with degeneracy or even political death.

The question becomes, therefore: how to defend democracy? Which also means: how to recreate it? How to reinvent it? Clearly, there is no universal, homogeneous recipe, or strategy, because, although the problem itself, and the expectations, are universal, genuine acts of citizenship are always rooted in the singular history of each political community. But there are general rules with which we can work. The rule of rules, I believe, is the principle that democracy can be restored or established only through the use of means which are themselves democratic. This accounts for the vital importance of certain constitutional principles, which crystallize centuries of democratic struggles in many different places, but also, ultimately, for the fact that they cannot exist and resist in a pure legal manner, they must also rely on extra-legal movements and practices: by which – let me insist right away on this – I do not mean violent practices, although an “insurrectional” dimension may be involved; on the contrary, I am firmly convinced that, in almost every situation today where, in particular, the monopoly of violence of the state is used against its own citizens, the only successful strategies to be used are non-violent strategies.

I said that certain constitutional principles are vital. They must be defended and reclaimed at all costs, and they are well-known in the liberal tradition, once again with the proviso of considering specific traditions and histories: let us just mention the division of powers (or checks and balances); an effective possibility for citizens to regularly control the activity of their representatives, and to make them politically and legally accountable; a guarantee of political and ideological pluralism, therefore a full recognition of the legitimacy of the opposition to governmental policies. To which, in view of the transformations now affecting representative government in those very nation-states which, until recently, presented themselves as beacons of democracy for the whole world, there should be added constitutional rules that prevent the concentration of economic, political and media power in the same hands, and proscribe the massive interference of financial corporations in the electoral processes. However, the most important of constitutional principles in my view, or the one that somehow secures the combination of all the others into a coherent whole, is the independence of the judiciary – both from political pressure and from corruption, and above all from the interference of the government itself, because this is what protects the capacity of citizens to resist abuses of power and their right of dissent. As we know, it is very frequently the case that authoritarian regimes justify a restriction or a suppression of the independence of the judiciary in the name of dangers threatening the state, or “seditions”, but what they fail to indicate is the fact that this same independence also protects the society against violence from inside. Because if the magistrates or the rulers are not exposed to accountability, or the ordinary citizens cannot successfully appeal to the courts, feelings of injustice have no other possibility of expression than violence. A vicious circle for democracy is initiated.

However, I also said that beyond constitutional principles, or in order to endow them with vitality and effectivity, with a capacity to resist “de-democratization”, another component of active democracy is needed: I called it extra-legal. This is because I had in mind recent episodes of the invention of democracy (to put it in Lefort’s vocabulary), or “acts of citizenship” (in Isin’s vocabulary), or “insurgent citizenship” (in the vocabulary of James Holston), which have illustrated the capacity of autonomous collective movements to recreate political participation and regenerate democratic governmentality. The so-called “assembly” movements which, in the recent years, have repeated themselves on different continents, speaking different languages, are primary examples of such inventions, displaying an amazing creativity and democratic passion. This country has produced one of the most significant examples, not far from here and not so long ago. “Extra-legal”, of course, is a very problematic category. It should not be identified with “illegal”: popular assemblies can be forbidden and suppressed by governments, which they challenge on the terrain of their monopoly of power, but this doesn’t make them illegal, especially from the point of view of their contribution to the freedom of expression, to which I will come in a moment. Their strengths and weaknesses, their value and limitations are now the object of extensive debates, which are also remarkably transnational. It has been emphasized, on the one hand, that popular assemblies represent a qualitative change in the publicity of political debate, and a resurrection of ancient forms of direct democracy, combined with a strong egalitarian ethics of discourse and a notable capacity to overcome vested forms of discrimination, particularly professional and gender hierarchies. It has been argued, on the other hand, that they failed to address the question of the exercise of power at the level of the state, and that they had difficulties to overcome certain class barriers, involving the subalterns who “cannot speak” (Spivak), or to communicate across national borders. All this may very well be the case, but it shouldn’t obfuscate, in my view, the important fact that, while being easily labelled “populist” by journalists and political theorists, they virtually represent the only politically innovative form that challenges “populism” on its own terrain, that is, not in the form of anathemas and “fences” (Jan-Werner Müller), but in the form of alternative mobilization of the ordinary citizens in response to their feeling of exclusion from the political sphere. For that reason, in the terminology that I have proposed some years ago in Athens, they are not “populist”, but they should rather be considered a form of “counter-populism”. I know that such an expression may create confusions and trouble. I carefully distinguish it from “anti-populism”, because it doesn’t ignore the problem of empowering the people, and it takes head-on the challenge of “democratizing democracy”, through a revitalization of the meaning of “people” or “demos”, while absolutely rejecting its subjection to nationalist or authoritarian principles. This is a central issue in contemporary politics, where in a sense the capacity of democracy to overcome its historical crisis is now dramatically tested. For this reason, it deserves a specific remark in this part of my lecture.

Why is it that so many of us, whether political philosophers or not, are intensely involved in discussions about “populism” in this moment, or tend to interpret the possible developments of the crisis of democracy in terms of the expansion of populism? Above all, why is it that – depending on who writes, and I admit that there are great minds on both sides of the controversy – “populism” can be presented either as a mortal threat for democracy, or as an effective, if perilous, recourse against its degeneracy? Of course there are many different reasons for that, in particular all those reasons which refer to the idea that populism is not just a complement for neo-liberal governance, especially when it is penetrated with a nationalist ideology, but also a defensive mechanism against the alienating effects of hyper-individualistic competition in the age of neo-liberal capitalism, a defense mechanism which could in turn become appropriated by opposite political movements. I do not reject this kind of discussion, but I believe that one should seek the contradictory articulation of democratic invention and populism at a deeper level, where it is the very idea of the “demos”, the understanding of the people and the “foundation” of any democratic policy on the sovereignty of the people, that are critically examined.

This intrinsic aporia was already discussed some decades ago by as Hannah Arendt and Claude Lefort, who put it in terms of a confrontation between “democracy” and “totalitarianism”. Both regimes claim to derive their legitimacy form popular support and participation, but they do it through opposite methods and with antithetic institutional goals. In other terms, it is an internal vacillation in the idea of the “people” that – depending on circumstances, but also actions – produces a bifurcation in the direction of democratic or totalitarian political practices. It lies at the very heart of the historical dilemma that can produce the death of democracy or its recovery. Either the “people” is a myth, to which citizens can believe and become passionately attached, based on the representation of absolute unity or indivisibility, therefore the violent exclusion of differences, the elimination of dissent and internal alterity. Or it is a pragmatic construction of the collective power to confront the challenges and the hazards of history, which is based on the understanding of its own contradictory interests, and its multiple constitutive identities – therefore its intrinsic pluralism. The democratic wager therefore does not deny that an active people is needed in order to confer legitimacy to any government; it is also not linked to the dream of building fences behind which the people is kept in custody; but it is linked to the conviction that the mythical unity has to be deconstructed and replaced with a deliberative collectivity, or a capacity to transmute exclusions into conversations. Thus, it corresponds closely to what I have called a “counter-populist” invention, which in other times had been also labelled a democratic politics involving the “masses” or the “multitude”.

Now the powerful instrument, and at the same time the fragile guarantee, of such a political invention is freedom of speech for the citizens, which is itself the “subjective” component of constitutional freedom of expression: a “right” which was coextensive with the processes of democratization of the State in all its historical forms, but which has acquired a very different function from other fundamental rights. This will now become the object of my last part.

Freedom of expression and fearless speech

Before I define what the notion of “right” can mean in this context, I must allude again to certain facts which do make us worry about the state of democracy in the world. As we all know, there are considerable temporal and geographic variations in the degree to which freedom of expression, and in particular freedom of the press are recognized as fundamental values today. With the exception of wartime, institutional censorship is very rarely seen as a legitimate form of government in modern states, whereas it was considered a necessary component of the law in ancient states, according in particular to the Roman Codes. Notwithstanding this change at the level of principles, which can be considered an effect of liberalism, serious reports from civic agencies which monitor the freedom of expression indicate that the 21st century in fact exhibits a degradation of the global situation on this side, particularly for the independent press (https://freedomhouse.org/report-types/freedom-press ). Reality more than ever clashes with principles and proclamations. In order to understand why this is not only an effect of violence, or a “collateral damage” of the regression of democracy in times of violence, but the core of the regression itself, we may proceed in two steps: looking at the place that freedom of expression occupies in the general system of fundamental liberties, and more precisely at the articulation of this freedom with the practice of free speech.

Fundamental liberties in the liberal democratic tradition are ordered on a scale that progressively extends from the protection of personal safety and autonomy, which by definition is essentially made of individual rights and capacities, to the creation of the conditions under which individual subjects can also become active citizens, participating in the government of their own communities. They are in fact collective rights. This is not to say that some rights are more or less important than others, because in fact they condition each other reciprocally. Very often it is when individuals try to collectively exercise their political rights, taking sides in partisan disputes, and standing for principles, that they become threatened in their freedom and physical integrity. Habeas corpus features here like a bottom line granting personal immunity, without which there is no public activity, no community. But beyond the bottom line we must identify another threshold, which is crossed when subjects become actual citizens, in the sense that they construct and share with their fellow-citizens a capacity to take part in the public debate. This can’t be done if individual and groups are not allowed a franchise of expression and speech. For this reason, as I announced at the beginning, I borrow here the somewhat enigmatic formula from Hannah Arendt: “right to have rights”, and in fact I displace it. In Arendt the formula seems to apply only to the legal fact that, for individuals to be active as citizens, they must be recognized as members of a political community, which usually is a nation-state. But we may include in this notion something more than this merely “passive” condition - however important and vital it appears in times of persecution, when the de-nationalization and disenfranchisement of individuals and groups forecast their social death. The “active” dimension of the freedom of expression, which transforms it into a genuine right to have rights, or even better makes it a right to claim rights, the “liberty of liberties” as it were, comes from the fact that it allows citizens to move themselves from the side of the governed, where they obey the law, they receive orders, they vote for representatives, they fill administrative forms, they answer opinion polls, to the side of the agents, where they share in the responsibility of government. This is not only beneficial for them individually, it is beneficial for the state, because a state whose citizens remain passive, are limited to obedience, and are not free to inform each other about their conditions, their needs and opinions, is a state which doesn’t really know the society that it is ruling and representing. Despite many polls or inquiries that are commissioned by the government, it is a blind state for whom, to borrow another philosophical formula, its own affairs are covered by a “veil of ignorance”. The political or civic importance of freedom of expression, hence, making it the cornerstone of democratic institutions, does not only come from the fact that it protects the autonomy of the subjects, together with other liberties and basic rights (to circulate, to own properties, to produce and exchange commodities, to adopt beliefs or change them, etc.). It also comes from the fact that freedom of expression makes society intelligible (if not “transparent”) to itself, therefore governable and changeable, admittedly at the risk of conflict.

At this point I want to insert an additional remark on the articulation of “freedom of expression” and “free speech”, between I seem to have been continuously shifting. The two notions are not clearly distinguished in every language, in any case they seem so closely related that using one instead of the other might be a simple matter of terminology, a stylistic nuance. It is true, of course, that they often refer to the same situations and activities. However, the possibility to use two different words can be precious. It is already useful if we want to insist on the fact that there are forms of expression which are not purely verbal, or involve other means of intersubjective communication: writing, images, body language, music, and the arts in general. In its complete definition, freedom of expression extends to many media and languages. Above all it is useful in order to distinguish the more objective, institutional, side of this fundamental collective right, and its more subjective, personal side. Under the name “freedom of expression”, I want now to include all the activities and effects of those institutions, which together form what Habermas famously called öffentlichkeit, the “public sphere” or the space of “publicity”. As they were progressively elaborated and structured, especially during the “Enlightenment” period, they formed the condition of the modern democratization of politics: the press, of course, but also the academia with its privilege of autonomous research protected by so-called “academic freedom”, the free publication of books, journals, encyclopedias and films. Then, broaching on the independence of judges, the immunity of lawyers and the publicity of judgments, the right to accuse and defend. Finally, the freedom of association, and the right to teach religious or secular doctrines. Accordingly, this becomes an extremely complex system of institutions, a system coextensive with what other theorists call a “civil society”. But what is it that articulates all these institutions and makes them work together? It is the circulation of ideas, of artistic works, of information and knowledge offered for discussion. Therefore it is freedom of expression itself, which in this process ceases to be a purely individualistic property, a form of “self-ownership”, and becomes a public good. Legal theorists today are increasingly interested in theorizing such public goods, which can be used by an unlimited number of people without exhaustion, and any of the participants being deprived of their property. However, for the ideas and information to circulate and become equally distributed among everyone as a public good, something more, namely a subjective agency is also needed, which is like the “life” of the institutions, although it can’t be prescribed by them. I think that we can reserve the beautiful name “free speech” for that subjective agency, which can be exercised only in common, and requires institutional conditions (books, newspapers, associations and party-meetings, class rooms, libraries and bookstores, theaters, churches and mosques, etc.), but ultimately is always the initiative of individual subjects, allowing them to cross the barriers of the private domain to speak in public. Just as, in a previous moment of my lecture, I explained that democratic politics requires both a legal franchise and an extra-legal capacity of assembly, I can say now that the fundamental liberty giving rise to other political powers, requires both a systems of institutions whose autonomy is not curtailed or suppressed in an authoritarian manner, and also, in addition, a subjective capacity of free speech that is protected by the state against the state itself.


I am reaching now my conclusion. It will take the form of a final reflection on the responsibilities that are linked to the recognition of the right to have rights in the crucial form of freedom of expression and free speech. On a philosophical level, the first thing I want to say here is that, in a sense, both freedom of expression and free speech are basic human needs, or needs which are rooted in human nature itself. The philosopher Spinoza, writing in the middle of the 17th century, at a time when the principles of authority and liberty were violently clashing within the construction of the modern state, explained that every freedom can be obstacled or suppressed. But it is not in the power of any individual, not to want, and therefore not to try to express himself/herself, or to attempt free speech. Notwithstanding the difficult issue of “voluntary servitude”, I believe that this is true, which also explains that, although expression and speech are subjected to many variations and interpretations reflecting cultural and historical differences, the power that they incarnate is a universal right. It is not “western”, it is not “bourgeois”, it is not “elitist” or purely “intellectual” … This is also the starting point if we want to discuss the question of responsibilities associated with liberties, and the correlative question whether there can exist legitimate boundaries, or limitations to the right of expression. Is it not the case that a fundamental right which commands all other rights, and opens the very possibility of doing politics in the interest of the people, should be considered unlimited, or absolute? I tend to believe so, but I am also wondering why states (even states that declare themselves attached to democratic principles) regularly tend to impose limits on free expression and free speech. One reason is simply the social fact that, most of the time, a state that presents itself in the name of the general interest, or the rule of law, is in fact protecting private interests, class interests, or the interest, for power holders, to keep in power indefinitely. As a consequence, they fear the collective empowerment arising from the right of association, the freedom of the press, the academic liberties, the unbridled artistic expression, etc., but especially that extreme form of free speech that Foucault called the “courage of truth”, or the courage to “speak truth to power”.

It is true as well that a need to impose limits onto the freedom of expression arises from the observation that it generates conflicts, because words are deeds, or actions which, in a given social environment, excite passions and fan the flames of violence. Some violence is private, but some is public, therefore destructive of the political itself, or it makes the society its own enemy. Social conflict oscillates between pluralism and civil war. An equilibrium must be found, and an arbitration is necessary. States, even if they are not oppressive, usually tend to explain that the limits must be very narrow, and above all the state itself is the arbiter. Democracy, even “in times of violence”, requires just the opposite: that the limits be as wide as possible, accepting the risk that is inherent in “fearless speech”, and acknowledging as much as possible the citizen’s right to be wrong, to be offensive, and to oppose the general opinion (which, by nature, is changing overtime). In general terms, this means that the sovereign has indeed a responsibility to regulate the circulation of opinions and words, or set rules. But, from a democratic point of view, the main responsibility of the sovereign is not interdiction, it is self-limitation: a responsibility to restrict its own power over the opinions and the expressions of the citizens, because it is only their autonomy that can resolve, as much as possible, the “unresolvable” problem of governing a complex society, creating knowledge that can be shared, maximizing initiative and minimizing violence. As we see, this is another way of expressing the paradox of democracy: not a regime, but a moment in which the state negates its own monopoly of power.

I began my lecture with a reference to the courage and the tragic fate of Hrant Dink, because I am speaking today, full of respect, under his auspices. However, reaching the end of what I wanted to say, it seems to me that there is no better way to conclude than invoking again his example. If there was ever fearless speech, free speech in the purest possible form, it was when he raised his voice in a responsible manner. This was dangerous, for him and for others, and he was eliminated for that reason. It was also an extremely efficient manner to demonstrate that liberties need to be protected, for sure, but above all they need to be invented and exercised if they are to become historically real. As long as this example is remembered it can be followed, and as long as it is followed the germ of democracy in times of violence is alive.