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…