Civil society theory has flourished in the social sciences in recent decades, and enjoys great influence with non-governmental organizations, social democratic think-tanks, and the like. This second chapter is a critique of that theory and the practices it fosters, arguing that it assumes a liberal compact that is too easily overtaken by its neoliberal radicalization. I first discuss the various definitions of civil society, and the reasons for the concept’s popularity: it names a sphere of mediation between state and market, private and public, and also brings with it an aura of normativity. Who would not want a more “civil” society? I go on, however, to criticize the term’s deployment, through a close reading of political theorists Jean Cohen and Andrew Arato. Their theorization of civil society reveals the concept’s profound ambivalence: it is presented as a moderating, mediating force, but depends upon what they call the “democratic fundamentalism” that drives the social movements that constitute civil society itself. For all that these movements are championed as the expression of democratic rejuvenation, they also are to be policed and curtailed to protect both state and market in the name of political and economic efficiency. I argue that the neoliberal state outflanks civil society theory with its cult of transparency that bypasses mediating institutions and breaks down the boundary between society and state. Neoliberalism and its diffuse sovereignty herald a revolution in reverse, a fundamentalism purged of affect. But that repressed affect always returns, and in counterpoint I offer an account of the Peruvian Maoists Sendero Luminoso and their relations with the neoliberal regime of Alberto Fujimori. Sendero’s baffling ferocity challenges any theory of civil society, and provide a foretaste of the global war on terror that we are all living through now.
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Hegemony theory has become the ubiquitous common sense of cultural studies. This first chapter is a critique of both by means of an examination of their shared populism. After defining and historicizing the field, I embark on a close reading of the Argentine theorist Ernesto Laclau, whose version of hegemony theory is the most fully developed and influential for cultural studies. Laclau’s definition of hegemony is embedded in a series of reflections on populism, especially in his earliest book, Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory, and in his latest, On Populist Reason. I trace the development of Laclau’s theory, showing how from the start it simply mimics the logic of populism. Laclau sets out to differentiate between a left populism and a populism of the right, a distinction that would be essential for cultural studies to make good on its political pretensions, but ultimately he fails to establish such a difference, even to his own satisfaction. I then move to the relationship between populism and the state, and show, again through a reading of Laclau, how hegemony theory and cultural studies alike repeat the populist sleight of hand in which a purported anti-institutionalism in fact enables the state apparently to disappear. Hegemony stands in for politics, and screens off the ways in which states anchor social order through habituation, under the cover of a fictional social contract. Throughout, in counterpoint, I offer an alternative account of the Argentine Peronism from which Laclau’s theory stems.
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When Latin American modernization projects fail, or when their ideological legitimation falters, authoritarian regimes often step in to complete (or to further) their agenda. Though authoritarianism is defined by its contempt for consensus (for which it substitutes coercion), it does not give up on discursive legitimation altogether; it merely prioritizes efficiency over hegemony. Authoritarianism’s legitimation may still take its cue from populism’s project of national popular redemption. Authoritarianism comes to be the pursuit of hegemony by other means once populism has defined hegemony as the model for the political–or rather, once populism has defined hegemony as politics by other means. Military rulers seeking justification by appealing to populist understandings of hegemony give an ironic twist to the martial understanding of politics implicit in the Gramscian concept of hegemony. Authoritarianism literalizes what, in cultural studies at least, is the figurative conceit of defining the pursuit of hegemony as a war of position. Thus the Argentine military president Juan Carlos Onganía in 1966 appeals to national unity, arguing that “the cohesion of our institutions [. . .] ought to be our permanent concern because that cohesion is the maximum guarantor of the spirit that gave rise to the republic” (qtd. in Loveman and Davis, The Politics of Antipolitics 195). Equally, handing over to what would become Perón’s second administration, “in his farewell address to the Argentine people in 1973, General Alejandro Lanusse felt obliged to thank his fellow citizens for their patience with a government that had not been elected” (Schoultz, The Populist Challenge 20).
The Saturday photo, part VI: a phone box near Loch Gorm, Islay.
Meanwhile, I’m now back in Vancouver.