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.