A Disintegrating “New Old World” Between Final Surrender and Necessary Re-foundation

December 3, 2018 • CRITICAL ANALYSIS, International Relations, In-depth, Europe

By Tommaso Visone

This article aims to analyse the ongoing disintegration of what Perry Anderson called the “New old world” in order to show how this process could be transformed in a constituent path able to guarantee to democracy a new continental and world breath.


“…l’histoire humaine, donc aussi le diverses formes de société que nous connaissons dans cette histoire, est essentiellement définie par la création imaginaire”.

Cornelius Castoriadis, Imaginaire politique grec et moderne, 1990


“No. No. No.”. In 1990, with these words, Margaret Thatcher affirmed the firm opposition of UK to the creation of a European Democracy, founded on the division of power.  She resigned a few weeks later and witness, in an apparent defeat, the birth of the EU and the euro. But, while the UK never joined the single currency, the entire EU was more the product of a “no” towards a meta-national democracy than the effect of a yes towards a decisive shift in the relations among the member states. The choice to retain the sovereignty in the hands of the states – stressed by the refusal to share sovereignty in the field of foreign, economic and fiscal policies (on which French government played a decisive role) – created a Union founded on “differentiated decisional regimes”;1 a Union substantially unable to act out of the veto mechanism in several decisive domains: economy, taxation, foreign relations and public sphere. If Maastricht parametres and NATO gave a sort of common frame for the states’ action in economic and defense domains, the true “lords of the treaties”2 remained the member states with their governments. Thus, the EU was realised more as the “European rescue of the Nation State”3 than as the model of a transnational and federal democracy. Margaret Thatcher’s nightmare was not realised. But the following decades showed that there is no possible rescue for the European nation state and the people it has empowered and created. Far from preserving people’s sovereignty inside what Perry Anderson defined as “the New Old World”4 such a strategy lead to what we currently face: the political disintegration of European polities, states and union and the radical crisis of democracy.


Paths of disintegration

As Etienne Balibar stressed we are living in a destituent moment.5 Not only has the crisis of EU became irreversible – EU will never return to work as it did from 1992 to 2007 – but it assumes the shape of a multiple disintegration of the old political system, starting from its constituent and “sovereign” actor, the nation-state. In effect we are not just living in a phase of exacerbation of the conflict among EU governments or citizens, but in a phase of conflict inside the same nation-state. These conflicts could lead directly towards separation and/or civil war (cold and hot). While on the one hand there is a multiple crisis context that, beyond Brexit, divided EU along the South-North and East-West axes.6

We can say that the economic crisis that began in 2008 opened the way to this huge disintegrating trend that works on many levels, each feeding the other in a sort of vicious cycle.

On the other, it is possible to see an explicit claim for regional independence and separatism in Catalunia and Scotland, exacerbation of the differences between east and west in Germany (look to the electoral results of AfD in the east) and the south and north in Italy (look to the different results from the last elections in these two halves of the country), the Corse issue in France, along with the insidious struggle around the Macron’s constitutional reformation proposal, and the Northern Ireland conundrum as linked to the Brexit negotiation, etc.7 Furthermore it is necessary to include the rise of racism and xenophobia all around Europe, bringing with it increased violence – both verbal and physical – in relation to “the strangers” and “others” (especially in relation to Islamic communities and migrants). We can easily underline how the ongoing disintegration of political units is just the other and specular face of the splitting up of society. We can say that the economic crisis that began in 2008 opened the way to this huge disintegrating trend that works on many levels, each feeding the other in a sort of vicious cycle. But why? 

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About the Author

Dr. Tommaso Visone is Adjunct Professor in Political Thought for Colonization and Decolonization at Sapienza-Università di Roma and Research Fellow in the History of Economic Thought at Università degli studi di Roma Tre. He is the co-editor of the collection “Teoria e Ricerca Sociale e Politica”, Edizioni Altravista.



1. Sergio Fabbrini, Sdoppiamento. Una prospettiva nuova per l’Europa, Laterza, Roma,2017, p.32

2. About this see Natalino Irti, Norma e luoghi. Problemi di geo-diritto, Laterza, Roma, 2006, p.71

3. See Alan Milward, The European Rescue of the Nation State, (second edition) Routledge, London, 1999

4. Anderson’s book was built around the awareness to consider – wanting to describe the political history of contemporary Europe – two necessary and intertwined levels of analysis: the union one and the national(s). See Perry Anderson, The New Old World, Verso, London, 2009.

5. Etienne Balibar, Prefazione all’edizione italiana. Momento destituente, momento costituente, in Id, Crisi e fine dell’Europa?, Bollati Boringhieri, Torino, 2017.

6. A good analysis of this disintegration trend is that of Jan Zielonka in Is the EU doomed? Polity Press, Cambridge, 2014.

7. States, as any other thing created by man, could die and disintegrate or dissolve. On this topic see Norman Davies, Vanished Kingdoms. The history of Half-Forgotten Europe, Penguin, London, 2011, pp. 729-739. 

8. “The power to coin money, to dispose of the estate and persons of infant heirs, to have pre-emption in markets, and all other statute prerogatives may be transferred by the sovereign, and yet the power to protect his subjects be retained. But if he transfer the militia, he retains the judicature in vain, for want of execution of the laws; or if he grant away the power of raising money, the militia is in vain; or if he give away the government of doctrines, men will be frighted into rebellion with the fear of spirits”. Thomas Hobbes, The Leviathan, (1651) Ch. XVIII.

9. See Fabbrini, cit., pp. 42-48

10. On the kind of regime that emerges from such a path see also Wolfgang Streeck, Gekaufte Zeit. Die vertagte Krise des demokratischen capitalismus, Suhrkamp Verlag, Berlin, 2013.

11. It is important to note that the same discourse of sovereignty, deeply Eurocentric, always worked in a graduated framework in which the few true sovereigns were always able to act at global level. See John M.Hobson, The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics. Western International Theory, 1760-2010, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2012, pp. 331-334.

12. See Giuseppe Allegri e Giuseppe Bronzini, Sogno Europeo o incubo ? Come l’Europa potrà tornare a essere democratica, solidale e capace di difendersi dai mercati finanziari, Fazi Editore, Roma, 2014, p. 23.

13. On the use of time during the crisis in order to affirm the political will of the strongest see Ulrich Beck, German Europe, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2013.

14. See on this the analysis concerning the fall of the pro-European consensus in Spain in José Ignacio Torreblanca, ¿Quién Gobierna en Europa ? Recostruir la democracia, recuperar a la ciudadanía, Catarata, Madrid, 2014, pp. 36-44.

15. See on this Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land, Penguin, New York, 2010.

16. One of the first studies on this complex phenomenon is the one of Michel Maffesoli, La transfiguration du politique. La tribalisation du monde, Grasset, Paris, 1992.

17. See Colin Crouch, Post-Democracy, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2004. The concept of a postdemocratic society – a society without conflict, without any possibility of true politics – was introduced by Jacques Ranciere in his book La Mésentente, Galilée, Paris, 1995.

18. See Stephan Collignon, The European Republic. Reflections on the Political Economy of a Future Constitution, Federal Trust for Education and Research, London, 2003 and Ulrike Guérot, Warum Europa eine Republik werden muss!: Eine Politische Utopie, Dietz Verlag, Bonn, 2016.

19. This is one of the possible manifestations of what has been called “Psyco-Politics”, see Byung-Chul Han, Psychopolitik. Neoliberalismus und die neuen Machttechnicken, Fisher Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 2014.

20. Reciprocity as equal and mutual recognition is a fundamental feature of a democratic society. See Pierre Rosanvallon, La societé des egaux, Seuil, Paris, 2013.

21. Lorenzo Marsili and Niccolò Milanese are completely correct affirming that, from this point of view, “the logic of ‘There is no alternative’ seems to have morphed in a depressing ‘There are only bad alternatives’” (Lorenzo Marsili and Niccolò Milanese, Citizens of Nowhere. How Europe Can Be Saved from Itself, Zeed Books, London, 2018, p. 180). It is possible to add that the result is the dialectic consequences of premise, it is still inside the totalizing picture of meaning opened by the first.

22. See Étienne Balibar, La proposition de l’égaliberté: Essais Politiques 1989-2009, PUF, Paris, 2015. 

23. There are some movements like DIEM 25 or Volt that could represent interesting starting prototypes of this new kind of political actor. In particular DIEM 25, with other national subjects (Dema, Libre, Razem, Generation, etc.) launched a transnational list – European Spring – which aspire to transform itself in a true transnational party.

24. On this issue see Tommaso Visone, ‘Towards an European Public Sphere: the case of Talk Real’, in Juliane House and Themis Kaniklidou (edited by), Europe in Discourse: Identity, Diversity, Borders, Hellenic American University, Athens, 2017.

25. National Constitutional Courts, such as the Bundesverfassungsgericht in Germany, have several times affirmed the exigency to establish a limit to the transfer of competences throughout international treaties, declaring the will to oppose to any creation of a “Federation” throughout this method.  E.g. see BVerfG, 2 BvE 2/08 del 30.6.2009. 

26. Some critics to the American Constitution are notoriously contained in Robert A. Dahl, How Democratic is the American Constitution ?, Yale University Press, Yale, 2001.

27. See Fabbrini, cit., p. 128.

28. “The essential nature of the American union was for many decades the subject of passionate disagreement, even more so than that of the European Union is now. Indeed, that disagreement persists in a muted form even today. Was the Constitution a basic law enacted by the sovereign people of a single nation, or a compact between the sovereign peoples of independent states? Or was Madison right in believing that ‘the people’ had succeeded in doing what most political thinkers denied that any sovereign could do, by permanently surrendering a portion of their sovereign power? These rival theories had very practical, as well as theoretical, implications. They determined how the Constitution should be interpreted, and especially the respective powers of the nation and the states. They determined who had ultimate authority to interpret it: for example, whether national courts could over-ride state courts, and whether the states could ‘interpose’ their authority to nullify national measures they deemed unconstitutional. Above all, these theories determined whether the states retained authority to secede from the Union. That question was only finally settled by a terrible civil war, in which over six hundred thousand men perished”. Jeffrey Goldsworthly, The Debate About Sovereignty in the United States: a Historical and Comparative Perspective in Neil Walker (edited by), Sovereignty in Transition, Hart Publishing, Oxford, 2003, p. 424. On the relevance of the Lincon Presidency in terms of the US constitutional shift see also Luigi Marco Bassani, Dalla Rivoluzione alla Guerra Civile. Federalismo e Stato Moderno in America 1776-1865, Rubettino, Soveria Mannelli, 2009, pp. 233-280.

29. Of course no pivot alone could win a game. In order to do it a team composed by different players (other parties, civil society, unions, NGOs, individual citizens, etc.) is needed.

30. E.g. This strategy is the one proposed by the transnational list “European Spring” who will run for the European election of 2019.

31. E.g. see the DIEM 25 proposal

32. See

33. See Haoues Seniguer, La civilisation islamique et l’humanisme arabo-musulmane: le regard de Malek Bennabi, in « Confluences Méditeranée», 2, n.89, 2014, p.192.

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