Another placeholder…

In an entry on “Freelance Freedom Fighters” (which also mentioned a post of mine from a few days back), the folk at Lenin’s Tomb point to an article by Loretta Napoleoni on “The New Economy of Terrorism”.

I think the point of Napoleoni’s article (as is the point of most such articles) is to instruct us about the power of contemporary terrorism, and our powerlessness to do much about it. Lenin’s Tomb comments (after some further references to Iraq) that “it looks as if the occupation is fucked.”

But Napoleoni’s first example is the Red Brigades, and she tells us effectively that soon enough the financial tail was wagging the terrorist dog:

Just to give an idea of the vast amount of money required by an armed organization to function, in the 1970s, the Red Brigades had a turnover of $8 to 10 million, equivalent to about $100 million today. This figure was equivalent to the turnover of a medium size Italian company. Generating such vast flow of money required constant attention and absorbed the bulk of the time of the full time members of the organization.

If this was indeed the case, one might argue that it was all to the good that the Red Brigades had their hands full trying to keep their financial show on the road, and so had little disposable time to engage in much real political violence.

At the very least, the picture Napoleoni provides is of a rather inefficient organization, more concerned with striving to maintain its overheads than with engaging in the activity to which it was purportedly dedicated.

Back to my earlier post, it would seem worth investigating the “tipping points” at which a political organization is transformed into what is effectively a mafia-style commercial (or better, perhaps, financial services) operation. Is that also the point at which such an organization ceases to be politically effective?

Of course, the violence continues. The FARC and the IRA (to use examples I invoked before) continued and continue to terrorize their respective populations in more or less everyday, low-level ways. But they have lost sight of their political goals and, more importantly perhaps, are in any case no longer in a position to accomplish them.

If I were a convinced free marketeer, I might even suggest that at this point (if not before) the best way of combatting such terrorists-turned-financiers would be to ensure that there were other more profitable, legitimate, channels for their financial investments. I.e. follow the money, and construct economic mechanisms (oh, I dunno, reducing taxes, say) to allow it to flow elsewhere. But I’m not, in part because you can’t overlook the importance of affect and habit: as being terrorist, even growing up terrorist, becomes a way of life, it also becomes a habit or lifestyle that’s hard to shake off. It shapes your affective and emotional life. (Look at the trauma when guerrilla groups disband, as in the Salvadoran case.)

Anyhow, more on this anon.

Oh except, and this does vaguely tie in with what I’m supposed to be doing, all this reminds me of the anecdote that opens Jorge Castañeda’s Utopia Unarmed: the question, in the 1970s, of what to do with the Montoneros’ $70 million in unspent ransom money, which ended up in trust with the Cubans after an earlier financial arrangement went wrong. The Cubans tried to get the Argentines to give the money to the Sandinistas, but the Argentines initially refused until under pressure they agreed to hand over $1 million, but on condition that the Nicaraguans would spread the word and set up some photo ops to give the impression that the Montonero leader Firmenich was a key figure fighting to defeat Somoza. The principle being that this would cheer up the chaps back home: the fight might be going badly in Argentina, as the military junta busily eliminated up to 30,000 people under the Proceso, but at least the head Argentine rebel honchos were helping out the Revolution elsewhere, rather than simply getting lazy and unfit sipping Havana Club on the Malecón.


Back with Laclau, now trying to think through the relations between Politics and Ideology, his and Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, and On Populist Reason. These three books span his career, and indeed are his three major works, in that New Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time and Empancipation(s) are both collections of essays, while Contingency, Hegemony, and Universality is a (rather unusual) collaborative but also competitive project.

(This is not to say that Laclau’s essayistic output is not important; in fact I think more and more that it is very much so.)

Anyhow, what’s interesting is that there are some very basic continuities between the three books, but that they are combined, in a fairly unusual way, with some radical breaks and changes of direction.

As far as the breaks are concerned, most obviously, of course, whereas the early Laclau is an apologist for Marxism, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy is a manifesto for post-Marxism, while the word “socialism” hardly features at all in On Populist Reason. At the same time, I don’t think there’s any real “rightward drift” in his political stance; throughout his main concern is to define and defend a space for (his conception of) the political, which he understands in terms of the discursive articulation of diverse demands that are made to some degree equivalent through the insistence on a basic antagonism. This is the logic of populism, and it is also the logic of hegemony.

But the enemy that is seen as threatening that political space changes at least between Hegemony and Socialist Strategy and On Populist Reason. In the former book, he and Mouffe stress the importance of democratic demands, in the face of a new right populism incarnated above all in Thatcherism and Reaganism; in the latter book, he’s more concerned about the potential death of politics at the hands of New Labour administration. Yet in each case it is the logic of hegemony that is best placed to combat that enemy. In the process, however, the fundamental virtues of hegemony are shifted: in Hegemony, “it is clear that the fundamental concept is that of ‘democratic struggle'” (137); in On Populist Reason, by contrast, he even has to go out of the way to defend the notion that “democratic” demands are worthy of the name, given that his stress is so much on the populist aspects of political activity.

You could say that these changes are driven by context: it is New Labour that is dominant today, whereas it was Thatcherism that held sway in 1985. (And the fact that Laclau’s politics are determined by his antagonism towards the power bloc, whatever the nature of that bloc in a given conjuncture, reveals another aspect of his populism.) You could also say that that such changes demonstrate the essential arbitrariness of hegemonic politics: either (what Laclau would term) equivalence or difference can come to the fore, depending on circumstances and (perhaps) whim.

One person’s flexibility is another person’s slipperiness, of course. And there’s no doubt that Laclau exhibits both qualities in spades.

I suppose that Laclau’s response might be that an insistence on either equivalence or difference is a fault, and a form of anti-politics. Any political movement has to acknowledge the contradictory tension between these two tendencies. But in that he would also say that pure equivalence and pure difference are both impossible, and so that anti-political dreams are mere fantasies, one wonders why bother struggling to prevent what is in any case never going to happen? Why not simply sit back and watch the inevitable failures of anti-hegemonic projects (that is, projects to undo the logic of hegemony itself)?

Well, perhaps because the thought of hegemony’s obsolescence is not such a crazy notion after all…