Political Grammars
The Unconscious Foundations of Modern Democracy
Davide Tarizzo



In filmmaking, there is a technique known as subjective camera, or first-person perspective, which consists in filming from the point of view of one of the characters. As a result, we see things as the character in question does. In my view, we should do the same when we study modern democratic societies. Indeed, these are first-person societies, whose life and behavior cannot be fully understood unless we adopt, and somehow empathize with, their first-person perspective. Who are we? First-person societies raise this question without hesitation and without pause, as they can no longer find peace in mythology, religion, or time-honored beliefs and traditions. Such societies wonder about their own nature and fate relentlessly, and for this reason they release democratic or democratizing effects sooner or later: the reason is because “we the people” start asking each other about our past, present, and future, thereby seeking to grasp what keeps us together, what we aim for, and how to achieve our goals. It follows that a first-person society cannot be compared with a mechanical or quasi-mechanical body politic like the artificial “automaton” Thomas Hobbes had in mind.1 Rather, it resembles an organism endowed with a spiritual quality, with a genuine soul, and that soul is the nos, the first-person plural, that animates the whole of society, just as the ego, the first-person singular, animates each one of us. In the modern era, this soul has often been called a nation. As Ernest Renan famously put it, “a nation is a soul, a spiritual principle.”2 This book elaborates on that principle, arguing that first-person—namely, secular and self-questioning—societies are democratic in the first instance and that it is only thanks to the existence of first-person societies that democratic systems and institutions could take root in the Western world.

To prove this, I do not analyze what philosophers such as John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and others theorized about democracy or politics in general, nor do I consider how their philosophical views might have influenced the course of history. Rather, I rewind the film of modern history and replay some scenes in the subjective camera mode, taking the first-person perspective of peoples, of nations, of the collective characters that really made modern history. Of course, it might be objected that it is impossible to see things through the eyes of someone else, not to speak of someone who lived a long time ago. Moreover, do peoples or nations truly exist? There are many ways to deal with these problems. One way is to immediately strike back with another, more troubling, query: do you truly exist, dear reader? And if that is the case, in what sense of the word existence can you claim that you do so? Who are you? What are you? We will need to tackle these issues before asking ourselves whether collective subjects may exist and whether we can learn to see things from their perspective.

If you are a philosopher, you know that the question as to whether it makes sense to say “I am,” ego sum, in the first person has yet to be answered. Philosophers still quarrel over the mystery of the self. If you are a psychoanalyst, you will know that this problem can be turned upside down by asking not what the self is or is not but rather how I come to see myself as being an ego, a self. Jacques Lacan, in particular, found a way around all philosophical perplexities about the self and developed a theory of subjectivity that accounts for our inescapable, albeit doubtful, being in the first person. I will say just enough to make this theory comprehensible for readers who may not be well versed in psychoanalysis. I will then apply some conceptual tools forged by Lacan to collective subjectivities such as peoples or nations. The upside of this approach is that it allows us to take the first-person perspective of someone else by exploring the unconscious grammar, as Lacan would have it, that shapes subjectivity and that allows people to speak and act in the first person, whether singular or plural.

The concept of grammar is key to my entire argument, but it will take some time to elucidate its meaning.3 As a first approximation, we may say that in order to realize what a certain person is telling us and how she sees things, we must know the language she is speaking and the grammar she is following. Yet there exist many types of grammatical restrictions that condition the way we see things and communicate with each other. In writing these lines, for instance, I am following not only the grammar of the English language but also the grammar, as it were, of the theory that I present in the book as a whole. This grammar dictates that my thoughts be expressed in a particular manner and not others. Grammars, in Lacan’s sense of the word, dictate yet another type of syntactic restrictions that lay the groundwork for some “grammatical fictions,” as Ludwig Wittgenstein would call them.4 These are the fictions that make us be in the first person. Who am I? Who are we? Briefly put, Lacan’s answer is: I am, ego sum, what I am not allowed to say. We are, nos sumus, what we cannot be.

I began work on this project in 2010, in the wake of the European debt crisis. At that moment, the problem of nationalities reappeared on the Continent, and since then, the problem has worsened. In a matter of years, the British voted for Brexit, Euroskeptic parties became stronger and stronger, and now that the migrant crisis has spiraled out of control, the emblems of national sovereignty are brandished almost everywhere in Europe. Legal and political theorists had not foreseen this situation. A specter is haunting Europe—the specter of nationalism. But what are nations? To begin with, nations can be thought of as historical constraints. Let me explain this with an example. Would you lend money to your brother or sister? Most people would answer yes. Would you lend to one of your friends? Maybe. Would you lend to a stranger? Most people would answer no.5 Likewise, at the outbreak of the financial crisis, German taxpayers did not agree to lend to foreigners, to Greeks, to people whom they did not regard as fellow citizens. Long story short: nations resemble families. A nation, just like a family, is based on mutual trust, a perceived similarity or proximity, and a common sense of belonging that elicits feelings of unity and solidarity among people.6 As Johann G. Fichte stated in the early nineteenth century, “inner frontiers” (innere Grenzen)7 divide Germans from Greeks, Italians from French, British from Spaniards. The boundaries of nations, like those of families, can be demarcated with little difficulty. But there the similarity ends. Indeed, the nature of nations is extremely difficult to understand. The mystery is so impenetrable that some even doubt the existence of nations. Given that nobody can say with precision what nations are, so the argument goes, there seems to be no valid reason to think that nations are really out there. Yet the fact remains that ordinary people believe, more often than not, that they form one people, one nation, together with their fellow citizens. Thus, the question arises as to why people hold this belief and whether or not national feelings, however ill-founded they may be, are the sine qua non of modern societies.

Some years ago, two German theorists discussed the matter extensively, with a special focus on Europe. Dieter Grimm argued that in the absence of a European demos—that is, in the absence of a common language, a common political culture and history, and a “Europeanised media system”8—it was extremely risky to constitutionalize the European Union and deprive European nations of their sovereignty. The consequence of this might have been disintegration rather than integration. Jürgen Habermas replied that a modern demos is not the source but the product of constitutionalization. For him, it is the constitution that gives birth to the demos, not vice versa. Hence his praise of a European “constitutional patriotism” and his cautious optimism about the rise and consolidation of a European demos.9 In the end, history proved that Grimm’s view was closer to reality. Despite the rejection of the European Constitution in 2005, the European Union underwent an invisible yet powerful process of constitutionalization. The Maastricht and Lisbon Treaties, as well as a number of critical rulings of the European Court of Justice, fostered that process, so much so that we may speak of an “overconstitutionalization” of Europe today.10 Yet nonintegration—not to say disintegration—ensued because no feelings of solidarity and unity among Europeans had arisen in the meantime. As Grimm has recently remarked, “When the Monetary Union was founded in 1992, it was a common understanding among economists that a monetary union of states of very different economic strength could function only if either economic policy was communalized as well or the strong states were willing to pay for the debts of the weaker states. Politicians ignored this warning. The financial crisis showed that the economic experts were right.”11 Today, Habermas himself concedes that something went wrong with European integration, that several countries—including Germany—witnessed the resurgence of nationalism, and that the problem of nationalities therefore remains on the front page: “The problem has surely been that the Federal Government of Germany has had neither the talent nor the experience of a hegemonic power. If it had, it would have known that it is not possible to keep Europe together without taking into account the interests of the other states. In the last two decades, the Federal Republic has acted increasingly as a nationalist power when it comes to economics.”12 Will Europe collapse under the burden of nationalism? Can we continue to dream of a European demos? In the following, I will take up these problems from a wider theoretical and historical standpoint, for Europe is not the only issue at stake.

Actually, the question of nations, peoples, and the like can be considered a blind spot in legal and political theory at large. Take, for example, the notion of popular sovereignty or the principle of self-determination of peoples that stands at the center of today’s international law. In both cases, what remains rather mysterious is the subject that is deemed to have the power to govern itself. As a rule, that power is ratified by democratic constitutions that are authored by people themselves through their representatives. But the people who authored the US Constitution, for instance, the people who solemnly proclaimed “we the people of the United States” in 1787, are no longer there. In light of this, can we really say that the people who nowadays accept the US Constitution and recognize themselves as Americans constitute a self-governing or self-determining people? According to some scholars, there appears to be a fundamental asymmetry between the chartering people and the chartered people of America, or between the “constituent power” and the “constituted power,” and such an asymmetry seems to undermine the very idea of democracy, of popular sovereignty, of a self-governing and self-determining people, unless we prove that—and explain why—the people of the past and the people of the present basically amount to one and the same people:

Apparently, then, there is a dimension of political freedom that we both attribute to the chartering People and deny to the People as thus chartered—that is, the freedom to decide upon procedures of higher lawmaking. The charterers (“We the People of the United States”) seem to stand, then, on a different plane of authority from the chartered (“our posterity”), as creators to creatures. How is it possible to construe such an event as one of self-government? . . .

We need to say, then, what it is we think confers political identities on empirical human aggregates, identities of a sort that allows us to check for the sameness of the identities of the People who lay down constitutional law and the People to whom it is laid down. What do we think this people-constituting, identity-fixing factor could possibly be?13

Most of the time, legal scholars tackle the problem of the “intertemporal”14 unity of the people from the perspective of normative theory. In this book, I take another perspective, which I call clinical. When one adopts the latter perspective, the normative point of view is not totally discarded. If anything, it is relativized. In other words, there is no normative “view from nowhere” that allows everybody to judge what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is bad, always and everywhere; rather, the normative point of view varies according to contexts and circumstances. Here, normative is not what we the scientific observers consider to be normative but what “we the people” consider to be normative.

To clarify the matter, let us move from legal to political theory. Jacques Rancière and Axel Honneth discussed each other’s theories at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt a few years ago. On that occasion, both attested that they endorsed a normative point of view on politics based on the abstract ideas of either “equality” or “freedom.” According to Rancière, if political emancipation is possible, this is because human beings regard each other as being equal even when they explicitly deny such equality on account of their identities. As soon as they talk with each other, Rancière avers, people have to acknowledge that they are equally endowed with language and equally intelligent. Equality thus appears as a universal and a priori category of human history. According to Honneth, if political emancipation is possible, this is because modern people cannot be at peace with themselves unless they attain freedom. This entails that people, in particular modern people, suffer from not being free and have to achieve freedom in one way or another. Freedom thus appears as a universal and a priori category of modern history. I do not share these views, both of which can be labeled normative in the traditional sense of the word. I do not think that equality and freedom are quasi-transcendental categories that mean more or less the same thing for all human beings (Rancière) or for all modern peoples (Honneth). Instead, I would say that these categories gain normative value only within specific historical contexts that determine this normative value in various ways depending on how, each time, equality and freedom are subjectified at both the individual and the collective level. Hence, it is from within those contexts, which I call political grammars, that the normative impact of those categories should be evaluated and studied.

Having said this, it seems to me that Rancière and Honneth highlight two key elements of modern political history—subjectivity and suffering—that help us to understand how a sense of collective selfhood is brought to life and the intertemporal unity of the people is obtained. As regards subjectivity, Rancière is certainly right in saying that this notion should not be conflated with that of identity. When we say “I” or “we,” ego or nos, we do not always know what these words mean exactly. It is all too obvious, moreover, that speech acts do not necessarily presuppose that speakers go through a process of identity verification. Yet it is equally obvious that a subject appears every time that “I” or “we” take the floor and speak in the first person. As Rancière makes plain, this discrepancy between subjectivity and identity is of the utmost importance when it comes to political subjects:

I propose the model of the subject as self-constructed in a process of “subjectivization,” and think of subjectivization first as “dis-identification.” What disidentification means is first of all a certain kind of enunciation. In a political declaration, in political action, when a collective subject says, “We, the workers, are (or want, or say, and so on),” none of the terms defines an identity. The “we” is not the expression of an identity; it is an act of enunciation which creates the subject that it names. In particular, “workers” does not designate an already existing collective identity. It is an operator performing an opening.15

From Rancière’s point of view, the question remains as to what makes this “opening” effective—that is, invariant over time. Indeed, from one act of enunciation to another, there must be some continuity such that “we” recognize ourselves as the same subject with the passing of time, else no collective struggle could ever take place, as no political battle could be fought for more than one day. Rancière’s theory of disidentification does not consider this problem. With Honneth, emphasis shifts from subjectivity to another ingredient of political history that should not be neglected: suffering. For him, it is always suffering that unleashes the motivational force for the political mobilization of those who, in Rancière’s own words, are not counted as equals. And suffering explains in part what first unites people and then ensures the invariance of a political subject, of one people:

It’s not sufficient to say that there is a miscount, that some are not counted. One has to add that the miscounted also suffer from it; otherwise, it becomes unclear why they act as they do, why they perform “de-identification” and undergo the “subjectivization” process. Becoming a political subject means overcoming the status of an uncountable excluded subject; but as I like to put it, the motivational force for wanting to overcome this status has to stem from some form of suffering, which is therefore part of the political order Rancière and I are describing. It seems to me an added explanatory element is required at this place.16

At this point, I am in a position to present the basic idea of this book. As Honneth remarks, once we acknowledge that suffering plays a key role in modern politics, we are in need of something like a “political psychology, in order to be able to explain why certain groups do rebel under certain circumstances”17 and how they enact their rebellion on the basis of a shared suffering. In some respects, this book attempts to meet the need for a political psychology that Honneth expresses. But there is more to it than that, because modern politics is not only a question of rebellion. It also requires stabilization.

Rebellion and revolutions are surely essential for the process of modern emancipation but stabilization and constitutionalization, too, must be taken into account. In the modern period, if rebellion succeeds, then constitutionalization follows, and the two moments—the insurrectional and the constitutional—are both foundational to the life of one people. Take the example of America. The people who declared independence in 1776 and the people who ratified the Constitution in 1787 cannot be seen as two separate peoples; they are one populus, the American people, the same political entity to whom citizens of the United States continue to pledge loyalty today. But this entails that there is continuity between rebellion and stabilization and that some sort of suffering, viewed as the motor of insurrectional subjectification, permeates the process of constitutional subjectification as well.

In legal and political theory, the two moments are usually perceived as distinct from each other. Theorists privilege one or the other, dividing themselves into two families: mainstream theorists and critical theorists. What do Frank Michelman and Antonio Negri have in common? If the answer is nothing, this is because they focus on just one of the two moments of political subjectification rather than seeing them as two aspects of the same process. But can we solve Michelman’s problem—the problem of the intertemporal continuity between the chartering people and the chartered people—without paying attention to what Rancière and Honneth say about the role that subjectivity and suffering play in modern politics? I do not think so, and what I present here is a theory that endeavors to tie together the insurrectional and constitutional moments of modern political subjectification.

As I have said, the notion of grammar is central to my whole argument, not least because a grammar is that which allows us to distinguish between identity and subjectivity. In my view, however, identity and subjectivity are not diametrically opposed, as Rancière believes. In reality, subjectification amounts to a process of failed identification rather than sheer disidentification, and for this reason subjectivity and suffering are closely intertwined from beginning to end of modern political mobilizations. Initially, people do not manage to identify with the community in which they find themselves living. At a later stage, this failure of the people’s identification becomes the driving force of a process of subjectification that pushes the people to search for their true identity. A political grammar, as I understand it, is nothing but the path that this search follows and that gives shape to a certain form of permanent disease. In the modern era, people definitely suffer from not being able to grasp their true collective identity, even after they have found a way to stabilize and constitutionalize their new political nos—which is why self-questioning societies like ours arise and a process of stormy democratization can proceed. It follows that failed identification (not mere disidentification) ensures the continuity between the first and second stages of political subjectification. It is the suffering caused by failed identification that connects the insurrectional and constitutional moments of modern political life.

But what does failed identification mean? To answer this question, we need to bring another notion into the picture, the notion of natural rights. In the modern age, people rebel against the established powers in the name of their alleged natural, or “unalienable,” rights. Then, it is in the name of those same rights that people constitutionalize a new political nos. Natural rights are therefore crucial from beginning to end, and they are so important because they prevent the modern political nos from identifying with itself once and for all. Natural rights are there to point to a kind of remainder, to some secret, inscrutable nature of human beings that becomes the normative end of modern democratic societies as viewed from the perspective of the peoples themselves. These rights are the sign that people continue to suffer from a gap between what can be deemed truly human and what is recognized as human in a certain society. Modern societies are indeed those in which there is a constant interplay between the natural “rights of man” and the “rights of the citizen,” yet the gap between them cannot be bridged in any satisfactory way. Every modern populus owes its existence to this internal distance from its true nature, from the alleged integrity of all human beings who are part of it and who strive to recover their own being and fulfill their genuine destiny through political mobilization. A political grammar, very briefly, is the way in which such a pursuit of human integrity and happiness is framed by a single people.

One more remark about the Grimm-Habermas debate might be helpful before moving forward. As I have already stressed, recent developments in Europe proved that the demos, not the constitution, comes first. A process of political subjectification ends in constitutionalization; it does not start from constitutionalization, as Habermas maintains. History is undoubtedly on Grimm’s side. Unfortunately, the latter cannot seem to explain why this is the case, and most of his arguments against Habermas—similar to Carl Schmitt’s arguments against Hans Kelsen—are far from convincing. Actually, Grimm’s conception of the demos dates from the nineteenth century. For him—as well as for Fichte, Schmitt, and several others—the key to everything is the notion of social homogeneity. For a demos to be possible, people must share the same language and a common cultural background. Apparently, this conjecture makes sense: a common sense of belonging does require a certain degree of homogeneity among people, especially in Europe. A modern demos, however, is the expression of a political subjectivity, of a “general will” that struggles for recognition, of a collective quest for happiness and truth, and it is clear to everyone that a strong linguistic and cultural homogeneity does not lead automatically to the political self-affirmation of one people. To give just one example: no political subjectivity is detectable in regions such a Sicily or Apulia, in Italy, where local communities are nonetheless characterized by a remarkable level of linguistic and cultural homogeneity. In sum, history is on Grimm’s side, but Grimm himself has great difficulty in understanding why. And until we understand why, we run the risk of believing that history is on Habermas’s side. As should be evident by now, this theoretical problem has some practical implications that cannot be overstated.

The concept of political grammar serves to address this problem. In a nutshell, the idea is that objective elements of social homogeneity are not enough to explain the birth and life of a political nos. Those elements become relevant only when they are subjectively activated. Political mobilization requires political subjectification, and subjectification entails that people feel the need—at some point in their history and for reasons that need to be clarified—to speak and act chorally, to express their “general will” in the first-person plural, and that they acquire the capacity to do so for a certain period of time. As I will argue at length, political grammars make this kind of collective subjectification possible by imposing restrictions over the acts of enunciation of the people, who thus turn into one people and continue to see themselves as one people day after day because they all comply with the same grammatical limitations whenever they open their mouths. Most of the time, such restrictions operate on some preexistent resources: language, religion, traditions, and others. But the point is that grammars never amount to the algebraic sum of those symbolic and cultural resources, of those preexistent elements. Rather, a grammar is that which selects from among those elements, organizes them in a peculiar manner, and activates them, animates them, from the point of view of a political subject. Importantly, not even that point of view preexists a political grammar, for a grammar is that which establishes that point of view, thereby giving rise to a political subjectivity.

To recapitulate: I will not develop a normative theory of democracy or of politics—at least, not in the commonly accepted sense of normative. I do not intend to explain, for example, why and when violence ought to be condemned. I am more interested in the reasons why conflicts broke out and violence flared up, sometimes with abominable cruelty, in Europe and in other parts of the world. As Judith Butler has remarked, the most pressing problem in political theory is quite simple: “Whose lives are already considered not lives, or only partially living, or already dead and gone, prior to any explicit destruction or abandonment?”18 Unlike Butler and others, however, I will adopt the view from within, not the view from nowhere.19 I will not ask myself what the general and abstract criteria for a “good life” are.20 My problem is what has been done in the past, why, and what lesson for the future can be drawn from this.


1. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 7.

2. Ernest Renan, Qu’est-ce qu’une nation? (Paris: Calmann Lévy, 1882), 26.

3. A note for Lacanians: when I speak of “grammar” (in the Lacanian sense), I always mean “phantasy” (in the Lacanian sense). Usually, grammar is not considered a key word in Lacan’s thought, but Lacan himself is quite clear about the grammatical nature of all phantasies. I will expand on this aspect of his theory throughout the book.

4. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (London: Blackwell, 2009), 109.

5. Economic studies based on empirical evidence lead to the same conclusion: trust is contingent on feelings of affinity and a sense of closeness among people. “The effect of heterogeneity on trust is in large partly due to the fact that individuals trust those more similar to themselves. Based upon all these results, can one conclude that if one person is (exogenously) moved from a less to a more homogeneous community he or she will trust others more? This is, of course, a very difficult question, but our results are not inconsistent with an affirmative answer.” Alberto Alesina and Eliana La Ferrara, “Who Trusts Others?,” Journal of Public Economics 85 (2002): 231. The problem here is how to interpret the words homogeneity and heterogeneity, which economists take for self-evident concepts.

6. See, e.g., David Miller, Citizenship and National Identity (Cambridge: Polity, 2000):

That we need such solidarity is something that I intend to take for granted here. I assume that in societies in which economic markets play a central role, there is a strong tendency towards social atomization, where each person looks out for the interests of herself and her immediate social network. As a result it is potentially difficult to mobilize people to provide collective goods, it is difficult to get them to agree to practices of redistribution from which they are not likely personally to benefit, and so forth. These problems can be avoided only where there exists large-scale solidarity, such that people feel themselves to be members of an overarching community, and to have social duties to act for the common good of that community, to help out other members when they are in need, etc.

Nationality is de facto the main source of such solidarity. (32)

7. Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Addresses to the German Nation, ed. Gregory Moore (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 166.

8. Dieter Grimm, “Does Europe Need a Constitution?,” in The Question of Europe, ed. Peter Gowan and Perry Anderson (London: Verso, 1997), 252.

9. Jürgen Habermas, The Inclusion of the Other: Studies in Political Theory, ed. Ciaran Cronin and Pablo de Greiff (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998), 155–61.

10. See Dieter Grimm, Constitutionalism: Past, Present, and Future (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 305–11.

11. “Europe in Hard Times. A Conversation with Dieter Grimm and Michael Wilkinson,” Ordines, no. 1 (2018): 344.

12. Jürgen Habermas, “Entrevista,” El País, April 25, 2018.

13. Frank Michelman, “Always Under Law?,” Constitutional Commentary 12, no. 2 (1995): 240–41.

14. Frank Michelman, “Constitutional Authorship by the People,” Notre Dame Law Review 74, no. 5 (1999): 1624; Bruce Ackermann, “The Storrs Lectures: Discovering the Constitution,” Yale Law Journal 93, no. 1013 (1984): 1045–49.

15. Jacques Rancière, “Critical Questions on the Theory of Recognition,” in Axel Honneth and Jacques Rancière, Recognition or Disagreement: A Critical Encounter on the Politics of Freedom, Equality, and Identity, ed. Katia Genel and Jean-Philippe Deranty (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 92–93.

16. Axel Honneth and Jacques Rancière, “A Critical Discussion,” in Honneth and Rancière, Recognition or Disagreement, 123.

17. Honneth and Rancière, 128.

18. Judith Butler, “Can One Lead a Good Life in a Bad Life?,” Radical Philosophy 176 (2012): 10.

19. In some respects, this book might also be seen as an attempt to explain why Hilary Putnam is right in saying that “we all have to live and judge from within our particular inheritances while remaining open to insights and criticisms from outside.” “Must We Choose between Patriotism and Universal Reason?,” in For Love of Country?, ed. Joshua Cohen (Boston: Beacon, 2002), 97.

20. “My normative aim . . .” Butler, “Can One Lead a Good Life?,” 15.