I’m over a third of the way through Gilroy’s book. And to follow up on my last entry, I do find what he has to say about unruliness interesting.

But in the first instance, what he has to say is (as yet) nothing particularly specific. Indeed, generally, Gilroy seems to have reached that stage of his career at which he can dispense with references.

Sometimes that’s OK. When he says that “problems like the disappearance of public torture are often understood to identify a significant stage in the development of a new type of power: capillary, biopolitical” (44), I know he’s talking about Foucault, even if he doesn’t say so. (My graduate students would be less happy, but there we go.)

But at other times, he succumbs to the temptation of broad sweeps in a way that makes me raise my eyebrows. For instance, he consistently asserts that his project is unfashionable and against the grain of scholarly and public discourse alike, but is it really true that “the academic tribunes of globalization do not usually include the end of formal empires or the wars of decolonization in their accounts of our planet’s commercial and political integration” (55)? If so, which ones? And though it might be true that “some beguiling political models assume metropolitan governance to be innocent and colonial administration to be benign” (18), it would help to know which, and to be told who exactly is beguiled. There are times when it is as though Gilroy thinks that Niall Ferguson has a monopoly on scholarship or writing about imperialism.

And as for public discourse, I’m not completely convinced either that “dissidence has been criminalized” within our contemporary “states of permanent emergency” or even that such states would have it that “civilizations are now closed or finished cultures that need to be preserved. The individual agents who are their bearers and affiliates come ready-stamped with iconic badges of relative rank” (58). Look at the London bombings: apparently carried out by three people of Pakistani descent, one of whose parents rang the police and so opened up their investigation, but also a West Indian married to a white woman and now a series of East Africans, also apparently shopped by members of the Somali community. The ways in which they have been described and discussed (OK, apart from in the Express) reveal both a more complex public struggle to understand the relations between cultures and also the fact that there’s no necessary link between bearers and badges.

Second, however, though Gilroy may not refer (yet) to specific instances of unruliness, the metaphors of disorder permeate the text. Despite his declarations of willful unfashionability, there’s something very familiar about the way in which he opposes a “docile cultural history” with its “tidy models of governance” and its “polite scholastic debates” on the one hand with the “disreputable, angry places where the political interests of racialized minorities might be identified” (17) or with the “tangled, profane, and sometimes inconvenient forms of independency” that he wants to champion. “Scurrilous speculations” are to displace “polite labor” (53). Gilroy consistently invokes a rhetoric of messiness, of the “unkempt, unruly, and unplanned” (xiv), the “messy complexity of social life” (6), allied with “disreputable abolitionism,” “insurrectionary practice,” and “vitality” that “can still embarrass and contest the overly innocent versions of liberal thinking that are still in circulation” (57). Arranged against this vital, uncontainable disorder are “facile notions,” “casual talk” (36), “squeamish reluctance” (54), and above all “cheap antihumanist positions” (7), “the cheapest invocations of incommensurable otherness” (8), and “cheap patriotism” (25).

Now, there are plenty of reasons to favour a bit of messiness and a bit of unruliness over over-tidy authoritarianism, the deceits of ideological whitewash, or (of course) the political hygiene of ethnic cleansing.

But I do wonder about the extent to which Gilroy’s is also an aestheticized politics, if more Jackson Pollock than Albert Speer. And how much that has to do with the denigration of the “cheap.” Why in politics as in housing should the expensive be valorized over the affordable? Moreover, does this opposition between tidiness and mess not also map onto a distinction between state and market?

Indeed, and rather against what is elsewhere an (Agamben-influenced) analysis of states of emergency, new modes of sovereignty, and the like, Gilroy at times implies that the market is itself undoing a couple of centuries of racism rooted in colonial order:

The colonial hierarchy that previously specified the proper relation of blackness to whiteness starts to break down. It yields to a different–usually commercial and resolutely antipolitical–understanding of what “races” are and how they differ from themselves and each other. The previously separated worlds of absolutely different groups can then be made to leak. They bleed risk, pleasure, and excitement into one another as part of selling things and accumulating capital. The magic of freshly racialized markets means that it is important to consider whether blackness and whiteness, like raciality’s other inventions, should now be understood as nothing but transient symptoms of a dominant but dying order. (55)

We can see that the messiness, entanglement, and unruliness everywhere privileged in this text maps quite closely onto market processes described in terms of “leak[age],” “bleed[ing],” “risk, pleasure, and excitement.”

And there’s nothing wrong, either (and especially for Deleuzians), with considering the revolutionary potential of capital’s deterritorializing flows (as it were). But I wonder how that fits with what is otherwise Gilroy’s high-minded defence of (a revitalized) modernity, universalism, humanism, and the like.


I’ve now finished and sent in the review of Read’s book.

Next (and for all intents and purposes last) up on the review front is Paul Gilroy’s Postcolonial Melancholia. (Which I believe goes under another title in the UK.) I’ve flicked through it before, and even read the Preface, in which Gilroy writes that “Britain should make more of the conspicuous gains brought about in its civil society by an unkempt, unruly, and unplanned multiculture” (xiv). It’ll be interesting to read this book in the light of the recent unruliness.

I may take a little longer on this review, as at the same time I’ll be starting up on the Book again, and saving Gilroy for downtime.


I’m about a quarter of the way through Read’s book. It does have some virtues, not least in retelling some of the early history of British Hispanism. Those were very much the days of the gentleman amateur, a continuation of the eighteenth-century “grand tour.” Apparently the founding editor’s contribution to the first issue of the Bulletin of Spanish Studies (in 1923) was entitled “Literary Pilgrimages in Spain” (20). I buy Read’s argument that, at least in these heady days before the Spanish Civil War, the Northern Hispanist found in Spain “an organic, pre-individual, pre-capitalist community, comparable to the ‘merrie England’ of contemporary English critics such as F. R. Leavis, but in the case of Spain, refreshingly real, surviving, that is, into the 20th Century” (20).

Two points, however:

First, if academics are always torn between two fantasies, either of their vital importance as the new “unacknowledged legislators” of the world, or of their marginality and insignificance, mere spectators of the real theatre of power, Read insistently plumps for the first illusion over the other. His particular inflection is a Marxism of a fairly vulgar variety. Hispanism is endlessly found to act in the service of either capital or the state, often both. “Thrown into relief,” for instance, “is Hispanism’s ideological role in the (re)production of the whole social order” (14). Indeed he even presents the possibility that the fate of social reproduction is at stake in the choice of syllabus in specific courses: “the control of the content of Golden Age courses served the purposes of a conservative elite, anxious to defend the prevailing relations of production, just as surely as the superannuation of those courses is related to the need to expand the forces of production” (27). Moreover, the influence of the humble junior lecturer expanded far beyond the confines of national boundaries: “the traditional Hispanist . . . served the middle class in its capitalist exploitation of Third World Countries” (28). And in rather predictable vulgar Marxist fashion, the fact that the professoriat refuse to realize their true role in global oppression is the coup de grace of outraged critical dissection: “Needless to say,” Read strangely feels the need to say about the above founder of the Bulletin of Spanish Studies, “it escaped his attention that the capitalist extraction of surplus value from workers involves a form of legalized robbery, that the freedom of these workers is constantly infringed by cut-throat managers, and that dominant classes have, throughout history, enjoyed a fuller life at the expense of those who serve them” (36).

Yes, there are moments when Read’s excoriation of Hispanism invokes the second academic illusion, when he wishes to suggest that his forbears and colleagues were so dismal that they weren’t even able to ensure the continuation of legalized robbery on the part of the British bourgeoisie. At these points, Hispanism turns out to be a “quietly conservative, marginal discipline” (26). Indeed, Read even contemplates the possibility that the Humanities in general may inadvertently resist capital expansion: “Their knowledge, over the ages, has generally been ‘useless,’ to the extent of holding back the development of the forces of production” (52). But the scare quotes around the word “useless” here indicate, I think, not so much that Read contests prevailing utilitarianism, as that he is reluctant to relinquish the notion that Hispanism must still somehow be a vital link in the chains of capitalist imperialism.

Second, Read’s book is, well, embarrassing. Interleaved with his analyses of Hispanism as an institution are a series of autobiographical essays. One of these compares his own career with that of Paul Julian Smith (professor at Cambridge and probably the most prominent figure in contemporary British Hispanism). I haven’t reached that chapter yet, but even the thought of it makes me wince. (Apparently Read writes about himself in the third person; which if anything makes it even worse.) It is very clear that Read has been advised multiple times to tone down his book, revise it, and make it less personal, less confessional, less full of.. well, of ressentiment. Read glosses Richard’s Hoggart’s famous description of the “scholarship boy” as characterized by “an unusual self-consciousness and tendency to self-dramatization” (38). This description seems to fit Read to a T. (Read, however, will claim that he is not even a scholarship boy, as he failed his eleven plus.) The book’s acknowledgements refer to the fact that one of its constituent essays was essentially rejected by the Journal of Hispanic Cultural Studies, and also to the fact that the book as a whole “was submitted to Liverpool University Press, and held by it for several years, before being rejected on the grounds that the Press suddenly found itself ‘over-committed'” (i). Further, the book’s preface reports the reaction of a series of friends and colleagues who had read the manuscript: Michael Sprinker “was significantly guarded in his response” (iv) while other colleagues “obviously felt that I had gone over the top in terms of political rhetoric and ad hominem criticism. More painfully, others failed to respond at all, as if embarrassed by the whole enterprise” (v). Frankly, no wonder.

So what to say about such a book that a) is not clearly (and even more excruciatingly) anticipated within its own pages and b) is not, indeed, a class condemnation of the scholarship boy for not fitting in, for being gauche, for not living up to the decorum of academic convention?


I have now sent off my review of the Laclau and Panizza books.

The next book up for review is Malcolm Read’s Educating the Educators: Hispanism and its Institutions. The title and concept are promising, but I fear that the content is less so. We will see. My position towards Hispanism is already at best ambivalent. At the same time my work is in some ways becoming more recognizably Hispanist than ever, all the more so as I edge in on Peninsular Studies via my project on sixteenth-century piracy.


Just a quick note or two after reading the BBC story “Microsoft Steps up Piracy Fight”.

First, on the political economy of digital production. Pace declarations that “a third of software worldwide is fake” or “counterfeit,” in that these are digitally exact replicas of the “original” software, charges of “fakery” are ungrounded. This is not a product that is constructed to resemble what Microsoft sells. This is what Microsoft sells. I take it that the rhetoric of the “counterfeit” is invoked to suggest that “pirated” software is in some way inferior to the “real” thing. But this goes against the whole logic of the digital mode of production.

Second, on the political economy of piracy. I find it interesting that over the past thirty years or so there has been an almost exact reversal of the relation of pirates to the process of production. Classical piracy involved the disruption of distribution networks. Indeed, a common charge against sixteenth and seventeenth-century buccaneers was that they were parasitic and unproductive. Today’s software (and CD and DVD) piracy, however, is stigmatized because these pirates, freed from the start-up costs of R&D, from the requirement to invest in the fixed capital of the recording studio, from the obligation to pay wages (royalties) to the artists and designers, and from taxation and other levies imposed by the state, etc. etc., are producers who enjoy unfair comparative advantage because of their overall lower unit costs.

Of course, the political economy of piracy is complicated by the political economy of digital reproduction: most people would probably suggest that pirates copy, rather than produce. But copying is an essential part of the digital production process, in a manner quite distinct from traditional production processes. In Fordist industrial production, for instance, it is not that you first produce one car and then copy that car; rather you produce moulds for the various car components, which are then assembled to construct a car. (Here a counterfeiter would produce his or her own moulds, perhaps relying on inferior technology or materials to construct a product that resembles or is a replica of the original product.) Digital production, however, involves exact duplication. It is as though the “pirates” now have the exact same moulds as the “legitimate” producers (and, as I said, their product is indistinguishable from the legitimate product). They are therefore producers no more and no less than Microsoft (or Time Warner or whoever), albeit that they have abbreviated (rationalized?) the production process.

At the same time, the political economy of classical piracy is also more complex than appears at first sight. There are two main, apparently dichotomous, approaches:

1) Pirates disrupted trade routes, forced extra costs (above all protection costs) on capitalist producers, and also often destroyed the goods that they seized. When this is taken into account along with their prevalent ideologies of freedom from state and other authority, they should be regarded as essentially anti-capitalist, perhaps even proto-communist.

2) Pirates forced open trade routes, introduced competition in the face of monopolized distribution networks, and also often sold on much needed goods to make up for the inefficiencies of over-restricted markets. When this is taken into account along with their prevalent ideologies of freedom from state and other authority, they should be regarded as essentially capitalist, perhaps even proto-neoliberal.


My Collins Italian Dictionary translates “egemonia” as “hegemony,” which is not as helpful as it might otherwise be. Secondarily, however, it also translates the word as “leadership, supremacy.” In any case, it is usually assumed that there is some connection between hegemony and power: either, as I mentioned in my last post, power in the simple sense of “dominance,” or, in the Gramscian tradition, the particular form of power whereby those dominated consent to their own domination. Indeed, in Gramsci, the distinction between these two forms of power accords with the distinction between state and civil society:

What we can do, for the moment, is to fix to major superstructural “levels”: the one that can be called “civil society,” that is the ensemble of organisms commonly called “private,” and that of “political society” or “the State.” These two levels correspond on the one hand to the function of “hegemony” which the dominant group exercises throughout society and on the other hand to that of “direct domination” or command exercised through the State and “juridical” government. (Selections from Prison Notebooks 12)

Now, the novelty and attraction of the concept of “hegemony” (in the second, Gramscian sense) is that dominance within civil society is never entirely secure: there is always space for the articulation of new hegemonic projects, that would disturb and even (eventually) displace the hegemony of those who are currently dominant. This is the famous “war of position.” On the one hand, the fact that power is partially secured within civil society (i.e. by means of gaining the consent of those dominated) is the key to the fact that the bourgeois state is resistant to economic or political crisis: “The superstructures of civil society are like the trench-systems of modern warfare” (Gramsci 235). This makes power more powerful. One the other hand, the fact that power has to rely upon civil society (as supplement) is also its weakness. Were the Left able to win the war of position within civil society, then it could take power without even the need for a frontal “war of manoeuvre” against the state (or at least, knowing that the outcome of that war would be a foregone conclusion): victory within civil society would be decisive, in that “in politics the ‘war of position,’ once won, is decisive definitively” (239).

This is an ambiguity central to the concept of hegemony: it names both power and also certain projects of “counter-power.” Hence some have made use of a concept of “counter-hegemony,” but this is misleading in as much as it suggests something counter to hegemony per se; counter-hegemony is at best a project for hegemony on the part of some other social group, as Laclau might say in somebody’s else’s “name.” NB this is why (within the theory of hegemony), the political valence of any hegemonic project is crucial. Of course, for Gramsci (and also for the early Laclau), this is determined by the articulation between hegemonic struggle on the one hand, and class struggle on the other. A hegemonic project on the part of the bourgeoisie is clearly opposed to a hegemonic project on the part of the proletariat. Except, that is, in the case of populism. Hence the original problem, for Laclau: how to determine where populism is located on the political spectrum.

As I have said, in Laclau’s first approach to the problem of populism, he retains the notion of an articulation between hegemonic struggle and class struggle. From (at least) Hegemony and Socialist Strategy he abandons this idea, terming it “class essentialism.” But the problem does not go away, and now that Laclau is returning explicitly to a consideration of populism, so he has to confront it once more.

I am still only just over half-way through Laclau’s On Populist Reason. And it is still unclear as to how he may or may not resolve the problem of populism’s ambivalence–the fact that there are populisms both of the right and of the left.

In the meantime, however, it would seem that Laclau is threatening to reverse entirely the relation between hegemony and power. Populism is always constituted as a discourse articulated in opposition to some illegitimate power. It is a discourse that appeals to the “common man” against “faceless bureaucrats,” “government cronies,” “spendthrift politicians,” “bourgeois parasites,” “the Masonic conspiracy,” or the like. Of course, there are important distinctions between these various constructions of the enemy. But Laclau tends to pass over these distinctions. At times he suggests that populism is always opposed to “institutional system” or that it is always “anti-status quo” (123). At other times it is “anti-statist” (91). Sometimes populism confronts “an unresponsive power” (86); sometimes it attacks “the abuse of power by parasitic and speculative groups which have control of political power” (90). In short, however, populism is here defined as a movement of the dispossessed against a source of power. In so far, then, as hegemony is modelled on this view of populism, hegemony is also defined as a project of the powerless.

So, from hegemony as a synonym of power, we are moving towards a concept of hegemony as a synonym of powerlessness.

Now, by any standards this is rather bizarre. Empirically and historically, one might want to point to the numerous examples of populism in power. (Peronism rather comes to mind.) Or one might want to distinguish between different forms of power, either à la Foucault (capillary power) or à la Negri (constituent vs. constituted power). Either way, I am surprised by the extent to which Laclau appears to go along with the populist rhetoric of dispossession.

I think there’s much more that could be said here, for instance about the ways in which it is precisely populism (and so hegemony?) that constructs an image of power as emanating from a centre (and so constituted rather than either capillary or constituent). But let us first see what Laclau has to say in the rest of his book. I can’t believe that he is unaware of this problem.


I just read Giovanni Arrighi’s “Hegemony Unravelling I” in a recent issue of the New Left Review (32: March/April 2005).

Arrighi’s basic argument is that we are now seeing, with the war in Iraq, the “terminal crisis of US hegemony” (61) on the international stage (here, hegemony meaning its position as dominant economic, military, political, and cultural power), and that this is in part thanks to the fact that US authority is already no longer “hegemonic” (now in the sense of governance by means of consent rather than coercion).

Arrighi’s basic argument, then, is a critique of David Harvey’s view that the war in Iraq (and more generally, neoconservative-driven foreign policy since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon) is laying the grounds for a “new American Century” of revitalized imperialism. By contrast, what we are witnessing, Arrighi argues, is “the closing act of the first and only one, the ‘long’ twentieth century” (61). In this protracted decline, we see the US reverting to what, following Guha, Arrighi terms “dominance without hegemony” (32), a revitalized campaign of what Marx termed primitive accumulation but what Arrighi, in line with Harvey, prefers to call “accumulation by dispossession” (42), but pressed by trouble at home and abroad and in the financial debt of an increasingly reluctant international community.

The winner in all this will prove, we are told, to be China.

Arrighi’s analysis is certainly smart. Especially interesting is the notion that neoliberalism and neoconservativism are in fact opposed to each other: the claim is that the neoconservativism promoted by Bush Jr (and cronies) displaced the neoliberalism of the Reagan/Clinton era partly because (and this is also fairly novel) the US saw globalization as a threat to its interests. Behind this analysis is the proposition, taken from Harvey, that there is a fundamental contradiction in capitalist imperialism between the territorial logic proper to the state, and the deterritorializing logic proper to capital. All very Deleuzian, of course, though Arrighi doesn’t cite Deleuze (nor does he use the vocabulary of deterritorialization).

I’m suspicious of the proclamation of imminent crisis and breakdown. And anyhow, didn’t Deleuze and Guattari point out precisely that capitalism works by breaking down? Arrighi acknowledges this indirectly in his analysis of Schumpterian “creative destruction” as the response to crises of over-accumulation, though he suggests that there are now resistant forces within the US preventing creative destruction as an option, hence the move to primitive accumulation and imperial adventures abroad. I’m also rather suspicious of the announcement of a forthcoming “Chinese Century.” Haven’t we been faced with an ascendant Orient (“yellow peril,” call it what you, ideologically, will) for at least most of the past 100 years, perhaps longer? I suspect that, like the bourgeoisie, at any moment in time you can always argue that the East is “rising.”

More importantly, however, Arrighi has no concept of posthegemony. He, too, is caught in the dichotomy of either hegemony or dominance. Perhaps this is why he has so little to say (and what he does say is so unconvincing) about the ways in which stability is assured within the US, and indeed the reasons (beyond its sheer brutality) why the US has so spectacularly failed to win “hearts and minds” in the Middle East.

Arrighi’s version of hegemony (and its decline) is very much concerned with international relations, and indeed with what is at root a rather traditional view of international relations: focussed more on the amount of US securities bought up by the Japanese government than with (to pick up on either Laclau et. al. or Foucault) any discursive strategies Bush and his allies may invoke to establish or secure national or international order. In this, then, Arrighi is much closer to (say) Robert Keohane’s After Hegemony than even to Harvey. Paradigmatic of the conventional nature of his approach is that “culture” is hardly mentioned, and when the term does appear, it is only to refer in passing to the popularity (or otherwise) of “Hollywood movies [and] MTV” and to the destinations of global tourism (77). All in all rather odd in so far as he is also invoking a Gramscian notion of hegemony: which goes to show that it is the first meaning of hegemony (as dominance) that here holds sway over its second meaning (as a particular form of dominance).

Still, I look forward to reading Part II of this long piece, in the latest issue of the NLR, which should be winging its way to me anytime soon.


I’ve very nearly finished Populism and the Mirror of Democracy. All the contributors are essentially followers of Laclau, and as such there’s a remarkable homogeneity to their analyses. Indeed, it would be hard to point to much in the way of overt debate or disagreement, though there are of course differences in nuance and emphasis. I suspect that some of these differences reflect deeper contradictions, though these contradictions are in large part internal to Laclau’s own thought.

Almost all the contributors are upfront about their debts to Laclau, but they tend to refer to what they are doing as “discourse theory.” Discourse theory would seem, here, to be equivalent to Laclau’s thought, but presented under a banner makes this thought take on aspects of universality, objectivity, and even scientificity. I don’t know whether or not this displacement and its effects have been taken up as a conscious strategy, but it is notable that these writers are adopting discursive moves that are paradigmatic of their own conception of how politics (as hegemony) functions: an individual signifier takes on broader appeal, but is also emptied of (some of) its meaning, as it is put into a relation of equivalence with other signifiers, so taking on aspects of the universal.

Less self-consciously, a host of problems arise as “discourse” itself takes on the characteristic of an “empty” or “floating” signifier within this discourse theory. It is Yannis Stavrakakis who outlines most clearly the standard theoretical line that discourse is not the same as either “ideology” or even “text” or “language” (let alone “spoken language”). At the same time, and unlike others who have a similarly broad conception of the discursive (notably Foucault), these discourse theorists cling to the centrality of signification, meaning, and so representation. In Stravrakakis’s words, “discourse in Laclau’s terminology refers to a network of meaning articulating both linguistic and non-linguistic elements” (232). But if this is necessarily a network of meaning, then essentially “non-linguistic elements” are treated as though they were linguistic elements, so the basic distinction breaks down. Indeed, this is a linguistic monism, as per the quotation from Laclau that Stravrakakis cites to back up the point: “The discursive is not, therefore, being conceived as a level nor even as a dimension of the social, but rather as being co-extensive with the social as such” (qtd. 232).

Again very much in line with their own theory of how society works, this discourse theory then operates by a series of equivalences and substitutions whereby not only is discourse “co-extensive with the social” but it is also co-extensive with the political, while the political is equivalent to hegemonic struggle, and hegemonic struggle is equivalent with the logic of populism. (Populism comes to be the highest form of politics, except I should say in Benjamin Arditi’s rather more subtle contribution.) Everything becomes very tightly knit into a closed, self-referential circuit that is demonstrated, or incarnated, better in and by the theory itself than by the cases that are described and analyzed.

Strangely for an approach so influenced by post-structuralism, discourse theory is apparently blind to the possibilities of its own deconstruction. The contributors to this volume have continually to make recourse to endless supplements that are to ground what is otherwise presented as a self-sufficient system. I mentioned in my last post the way in which “political signs” are brought in to supplement Laclau’s own account of populism. In Sebastián Barros’s essay, it is “power” that functions in this way. In answer to the question of whether “any demand has the same chance of becoming hegemonic,” he declares that in theory “the answer will be affirmative,” but that “in political analysis the answer will be negative. If the imposition of a demand is a matter of power, it is obvious that not every demand will have the same degree of success” (253). So here “power” is set apart from and determines the success of particular discursive strategies, rather than being the outcome of hegemonic struggle. Over the page, though, Barros changes his tune, to suggest that power is indeed a result, in referring to “potentially more powerful discourses.” But he has to add a new qualifying supplement, by invoking the notion that some strategies are “better suited” than others “to impose their particular concept as universal” (254). Again, one would expect that the question of whether or not a particular discourse is “better suited” than any other should (for the theory to be consistent) be determined in and through hegemonic struggle, rather than determining that struggle ahead of time.

Another point or two, on what such discourses may or may not be “suited” for: all these essays assume that a discourse becomes hegemonic in so far as it is able to resolve, by naming and interpreting, a given social crisis. In Barros’s words, “a dislocation of the existing structures of meaning forces the emergence of different demands that will seek to resignify the political context by advancing a specific solution to the critical situation provoked by the dislocated structure” (252-253). There are two problems with this: first, again a supplement (here, “crisis”) is introduced to determine the outcome of a hegemonic struggle. Surely one could equally argue that hegemonic discourses are successful because they legitimate themselves by retrospectively constructing a crisis to which they purport to provide an answer? Indeed, populism would seem to offer plenty of examples of movements whose opening gambit is to whip up a sense of crisis (“the nation is being flooded by immigrants,” “the government is out of touch and out of control” etc. etc.) in order, subsequently, to make their proposed solutions seem legitimate and palatable. Second, and more significantly, are we really so seduced by the prospect of resolution? Indeed, is crisis and the discourse of crisis not itself attractive, energising? I suspect that we have here the unexamined remnant of an originally Freudian assumption that the psyche is always looking to reduce trauma, to bind libido, and to seek coherence. I don’t buy it: this is Freud as the enemy of desire. And the politics (and theory) of hegemony is likewise an attempt to defeat desire.


I’ve been asked to review Francisco Panizza’s collection Populism and the Mirror of Democracy along with Ernesto Laclau’s On Populist Reason (which is finally out). I’m getting going on this review quickly, as it’s absolutely germane to the chapter I am finishing at the moment.

Laclau’s contribution to Panizza’s book is useful, clear, and interesting. But it seems clearer than ever, now that he’s returned so explicitly to the terrain of his first book, Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory, that there is something missing in his post-Marxism that has never been replaced: an answer to the question of how to distinguish between populisms.

I’m relatively untroubled by the other changes that are consequent in the move from Marxism to post-Marxism (even if I may not agree with them). But the essay on populism in Politics and Ideology responded to a specific problem, arising from Laclau’s personal experience with Peronism in Argentina: is it possible (and if so how) to distinguish between a “progressive” or left-wing populism and a “reactionary” or right-wing one? In Politics and Ideology, this problem was resolved by reference to a second, class, articulation. So every political movement had its class aspect as well as its populist aspect. That’s gone now, and nothing has replaced it.

Or rather, he does distinguish between a right-wing and a left-wing populism, but only on the basis of their “entirely opposite political signs” (Panizza 45). But what are these “political signs,” and how do they differ from the signifiers deployed by and in political discourse itself? These political signs must be some type of meta-signifier transcending the political itself. But how does one adjudicate, in turn, within this secondary (primary?) order of political signification? I can only imagine it’s a matter of “common sense”: of course we know that (say) Mao is on the left and Hitler on the right. But that begs the question, precisely, of those more difficult populist movements such as Peronism.

Perhaps all will become clear in On Populist Reason. But I doubt it.

Anyhow, my aim is to finish this review by the end of the week, or earlier if at all possible.


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