Radical Democracy and Collective Movements Today

Radical Democracy and Collective Movements Today

Radical Democracy and Collective Movements Today: The Biopolitics of the Multitude versus the Hegemony of the People
Edited By Alexandros Kioupkiolis and Giorgos Katsambekis
Ashgate, Farnham, 2014, x+247 pp., ISBN: 978-1-4094-7052-6

“Back in 2011,” the editors of this collection of essays tell us, “it came to the notice of various observers that the worldwide civil insurgencies that kicked off in Tunisia shared a set of singular features. The ‘Arab Spring,’ the Spanish indignados, the Greek aganaktismenoi and the Occupy World Street movement appeared to be leaderless and self-organized insurgencies of common citizens” (2). But the way this formulation suggests that 2011 is already half a lifetime away indicates that these “various observers” have a journalist’s rather than a historian’s sense of timing and context. Indeed, the use of the casual phrase “kicked off” to describe the outbreak of the Arab Spring–as though it were a football match or a playground fight–shows the influence of Paul Mason, formerly Business Editor for the BBC’s Current Affairs show Newsnight (now Economics Editor at Channel Four News). Mason’s 2012 book Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere, updated a year later as Why It’s Still Kicking Off Everywhere, breathlessly compiles a series of dispatches from the frontlines of what he calls the “new global revolutions.” Mason is well-informed and smart, but it is not evident why his perspective should be setting the agenda for a volume of essays on political theory. It may be because he puts the Greek and Spanish protests front and centre: Kioupkiolis and Katasambekis are both based in Greece, and their contributors such as Marina Prentoulis and Lasse Thomassen also want to tell us about Spain and, to a much lesser extent, Occupy Wall Street. But hardly any of these writers address the Arab Spring, let alone the precursors to what happened way “back in 2011.” It is therefore hard not to feel that this is, from the outset, a shallow book, too attached to its place and its moment, too much a creature of its immediate environment.

The collection treats theoretical differences in similar fashion, as a kind of spectator sport: its subtitle pits Biopolitics against Hegemony, Multitude “versus” People. In the essays themselves, this split tends to play out as a head-to-head between Italian theorist Antonio Negri and the late Ernesto Laclau. Too often, however, these antagonisms come off as rather artificial–it is worth noting, for instance, that Negri and Laclau hardly engaged with each other’s work–and they generate more heat than light as it is seldom clear what, if anything, is at stake in the contest. In fact, the essays by the collection’s editors, Kioupkiolis and Katsambekis, are among the better contributions precisely because they refuse to be seduced by the very false dichotomies that their book otherwise promotes. So Kioupkiolis prefers to “muddle the lines” by arguing that “hegemony” can and should “be radically recast beyond recognition, assuming a multitudinous form” (150); equally, then, the multitude would have to “come to grips with residues of hegemonic politics in its midst” (166). Likewise, Katsambekis suggests “that the very opposition between ‘multitude’ and ‘the people’ should be challenged,” proposing instead that we think in terms of a “multitudinous people” (172), or rather of “the inescapable slippage between multitude and people” (187). In short, instead of pitting these concepts against each other it would be better to consider the biopolitics of hegemony, and the ways in which the multitude is repeatedly converted into people even as the people continuously threaten to become multitude. Seeing them as dichotomies is unhelpful, not least because it obscures the fact that what is at stake is less some fixed opposition between different conceptions of politics, but the points of transition or transmutation between them. The key to populism, for instance, is the way in which it constructs a people and has then forever to fend off the multitude. If we simply replicate this hostility (multitude “versus” people) in our own work, all we achieve is a translation of the logic of populism to the theoretical domain. This was precisely Laclau’s failing: an inability to see beyond populism, and so to understand either what passes for hegemony or its alternatives. Fortunately, this book shows that post-Laclauian theorists have moved on from such a dogmatically reductive vision of the political.

Take for instance Yannis Stavrakakis’s article on “Hegemony or Post-hegemony?” At first sight, and starting with its title (another “either/or”), this is a trenchant defense of Laclau’s legacy that takes aim at my own book, Posthegemony, as well as the work of Scott Lash and Richard Day. I will not engage in detail with his criticisms, except to note that it is odd that Stavrakakis should read my repeated and quite explicit rejections of binarism as, instead, inadvertent contradictions of some other position that I have in fact never taken. But the point is this: that precisely in establishing, however fitfully, binarism as the theoretical enemy (and here the fact that this enmity is projected onto my own work, among others, is by the by), Stavrakakis starts to open up Laclau’s legacy in interesting and productive ways. Admitting, then, that “not all [. . .] struggles are bound, sooner or later, to acquire a hegemonic form” directs our attention to the preconditions for so-called hegemonic projects and the factors that lead to “the gradual sublimation of the emerging multitude into ‘a people’” (121), all of which is what provokes a shift from hegemony to posthegemony in the first place. In this light, Stavrakakis’s only real mistake is to invoke the dialectic (“a historical dialectics of mutual engagement and co-constitution” [122]), as though the relationship between multitude and people, potentia and potestas, and so on, were a matter of negation (and negation of the negation) or, worse still, subject to some kind of historical or political teleology, with hegemony always destined to emerge from posthegemony. Laclau himself, with his insistence on contingency, would have been the first to reject this recuperation of Hegelianism to manage hegemony’s limitations. But otherwise I can only agree with Stavrakakis’s point that “the issue is not to radically isolate the eras of hegemony and post-hegemony” (123); this after all is the import of my own declaration, contra Lash and others, that “there is no hegemony and never has been” (Posthegemony ix). And I agree even more whole-heartedly with the argument that “discourse and affect, symbolic and real” are far from being “mutually exclusive dimensions,” and that it is therefore our task “to explore, in every historical conjuncture, the different and multiple ways in which these interact to co-constitute subjects, objects and socio-political orders” (123). It is just a pity that this book features so little of such explorations.

I sympathize with the Greek anarchists to whom Richard Day and Nick Montgomery’s article is notionally addressed: they complain that Day’s book, Gramsci is Dead, is practically unintelligible. When Day replies that he was “in fact trying to write in a way that would make sense to people like them,” one of them responds: “Well, my friend, you kind of fucked up on that, didn’t you?” (45). Yet the shame is that Day and Montgomery then proceed to contribute an argument that is, of all things, meta-meta-theoretical (i.e. about meta-theory) and that has little to say about Greece or, to be honest, anywhere else. Its much-vaunted intelligibility comes down to some populist gestures, a celebration of North American indigeneity, plus a demotic defence of undecidability: “everyone is right that everyone is wrong” (67). Which can hardly help Day’s anarchist friends very much. Perhaps the best essay in this collection is Benjamin Arditi’s article on posthegemony as “Politics outside the usual post-Marxist paradigm,” which stands out not merely for the clarity of its exposition but also for its range of reference and engagement with multiple examples of social movements, from protests against Pinochet or South African apartheid to the Mexican Zapatistas or the Argentine piqueteros. The point is that, though the indignados and the aganaktismenoi may have been particularly enthusiastic in their search for political vocabularies that go beyond the platitudes of populism or the shibboleths of hegemony, they were far from the first. And the fact that (as other essays in this collection delight in reminding us) they may not have entirely succeeded in throwing off the discursive tics of more conventional politics is neither surprising nor damning. What is interesting is the ways in which these movements build on and learn from each other, as well as from what Arditi describes as a whole “range of formats of collective action that were either ignored or dismissed by the advocates of the theory of hegemony” (41). Not all of these have turned out well, not by a long shot: whether in Egypt or Argentina, Spain or the United States, the extraordinary multiplication of political experiments since the end of the Cold War (or since, say, Venezuela’s Caracazo of February, 1989) has had as many dead ends as live wires, as many disappointments and setbacks as promising advances. Still, something always escapes. There is no teleology or predetermination here: neither Negri’s eschatology of the multitude nor Laclau and Mouffe’s infinite expansion of radical democracy. But there is plenty to remind us that politics (and surely, political theory) is rather more than a spectator sport. For better or for worse, as biopolitics it is life itself, and always has been.

Ernesto Laclau

Ernesto Laclau

I have spent almost the entirety of my academic career reading, and responding to, Ernesto Laclau, who has died at the age of 78. Ernesto was one of the great systematic thinkers of the past fifty years, possibly the most influential Latin American theorist of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and one of the most significant influences on Anglo-American cultural and political theory as a whole. We all write to some extent in his shadow and in his debt, myself perhaps more than anyone.

“Hegemony” was Laclau’s signature concept. He was not the first theorist of hegemony, but he made the term his own and spent decades elaborating a theoretical structure around the basic recognition of the contingency of political allegiances. This insight first came to him as an activist in 1960s and 1970s Argentina, faced with Peronism’s extraordinary capacity to mobilize people of all classes and every political inclination. Populism thus became the great problem that Laclau addressed. He showed the ways in which populism posed difficult questions for political theory, but also the practical issues it raised for any movement that sought social change. It is worth underlining that, for all the occasional abstraction of his theorizations, first and last Laclau was a militant.

Beyond theorizing hegemony, Laclau added a series of new formulations to our lexicon of political theory, often taking up terms elaborated in other fields (Linguistics, Psychoanalysis, Poststructuralism) and putting them to new uses in an effort to understand the fundamental workings of politics. A mark of his originality and significance is the ways in which he gave new life to notions such as “articulation” or created concepts such as the “empty signifier.” Laclau’s strength was his combination of eclecticism and flexibility in his sources and case studies–he had provocative observations on everything from medieval mysticism to Turkish nationalism–with a steadfast consistency and focussed sense of purpose.

It is no doubt partly thanks to this focus that Laclau was able to enter a lecture hall with half a dozen words scribbled on the back of an envelope for notes, and proceed to give an hour’s fluent, densely argued exposition of his thought. In some ways he was always expounding the same basic intellectual architecture, if always accommodating or responding to critiques while taking on new topics or new issues of pressing political importance.

For Laclau was indeed above all else a systematizer, and the system he constructed had great power and a certain seductiveness. This was perhaps his signal virtue, and it is the reason why I regard his version of hegemony as the strongest and most developed that we have. And it is also why I took issue with it, in a critique that was always driven by respect for what Laclau had accomplished and with acknowledgement and gratitude for what he had made possible.

Back in 1997, as a graduate student, I invited Laclau to Duke, along with his partner (in writing and in life), Chantal Mouffe. I was thrilled to host them for a few days in North Carolina, and very much liked them in their various ways: Mouffe, animated and spiky; Laclau, calm and generous, the very image of the perfect gentleman, thoughtfully playing with his mustache or drawing elaborate patterns with pen and paper as he listened intently to a question offered to him. Both of them were rich conversationalists, and what is more, a lot of fun to be around.

In a long (no doubt over-long) introduction to one of their events, I said among other things the following:

Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe are among the most important thinkers of our time, who have continually redefined the fields of political and cultural theory, philosophy, and ethics. Their visit to Duke will be a major event, especially as they promise to put their theoretical insights to work in the analysis of our current situation in an uncertain world of globalization and political and cultural upheaval.

[. . .]

Indeed, anyone concerned with analyzing social processes, cultural development, the meaning of politics and particularly the effort to enrich and deepen democracy has had to work through the contributions of Laclau and Mouffe in these areas. They have provided perhaps the most thorough and the most challenging general theories of society and culture for a whole generation of researchers and activists. Especially for those on the left, their work marked a watershed between a generation that had remained within the Marxist tradition, and the “new wave” of cultural studies, postcolonial studies, and particularly the work on “new social movements” that has been heavily influenced by Laclau and Mouffe, and that has been a means to understand developments in modern Europe, Latin America and elsewhere in this era of globalization.

[. . .]

In short, Laclau and Mouffe are theorists of the first order, who have shaped not just one but several fields of study and research, and yet who have always remained engaged with the most practical and pressing of contemporary problems. Their influence has been marked for twenty years, but their 1983 masterpiece Hegemony and Socialist Strategy even grows in importance, given the prescience we can now see it showed concerning the challenges posed by world developments of the most recent ten years. Their work since has only deepened and extended their impact and importance. Their visit to Duke will be inspirational and productive for all those working in these areas they did so much to define.

All I would add to that tribute is to note how productive Laclau (and Mouffe) continued to be over the following decade or two. Laclau’s On Populist Reason of 2005, for instance, has every right to be considered on the same level as Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. I look forward to his new book, now to appear posthumously, The Rhetorical Foundations of Society. Indeed, what is striking is not only Laclau’s consistency of purpose, but also the consistently high quality of his work. He was never one to rest on his laurels.

Our paths crossed a few times after that meeting in Duke, if never with quite the same intensity. Last summer a friend told me that my name had come up in conversation with Laclau at a conference in Italy, and I thought to write to him to reiterate my respect and admiration for his work, as well as for him as a person and intellectual of such stature. I am sorry that I failed in the end to write. It is a true loss that someone who has had such profound influence on the landscape of our thought, and perhaps on mine in particular, is with us no more.


One of my panels at LASA (the Latin American Studies Association congress) turned once more to discussion of Ernesto Laclau.

I have spent a long time engaging with Laclau (and I deal with his work at length in my book’s first chapter). His is an important and influential theory–indeed, I argue that it is the most complete theory of hegemony–but it is also fundamentally flawed and fatally limited.

In essence, what Laclau has done is extrapolate from the discussions among a small number of leftist radicals in Argentina during the early 1970s, when populism seemed the only possible horizon for politics. Their question then was how could they redeem populism for a progressive project, when there seemed to be no alternative available.

It is impressive that Laclau has managed to produce an entire politico-theoretical system from the dilemma that these militants perceived in a particular place at a particular time.

But what is extraordinary, given the subsequent adoption of this system almost wholesale by so much of cultural studies, is that if we return to the Argentine situation we see that left-populism was proved totally mistaken.

For the left was violently expelled from the Peronist coalition almost as soon as Perón arrived back in the country following his long exile. Moreover, the subsequent military coup then (and even more violently) showed that populism itself had run up against its limit when it refused to acknowledge the role of the state.

No doubt pretty much any political philosophy is at root largely an extrapolation from a particular state of affairs. Antonio Negri, for instance, is in his own way also still captivated by his observation of the rapid changes in Italy during the 1950s and 1960s, and then by his part in the resulting struggles of the early 1970s.

But Negri was at least to some extent right: the dismal failure of the Italian Communist Party’s so-called “historic compromise” revealed the political and theoretical poverty of the theory of hegemony upon which Eurocommunism (so lauded by Laclau) depended.

Negri was of course wrong about the imminence of revolution both then and, I’d argue, now, though I still think that there is much to salvage from his work none-the-less. I suppose that followers of Laclau could similarly argue that hegemony theory can likewise be salvaged even after its failure in the context in which it was originally elaborated, and for which it should ideally work best.

But they don’t seem to acknowledge that failure in the first place, in part no doubt because Laclau’s increasingly abstract systematization serves to obscure that context quite totally for most of his commentators.


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.

Read more…. (long .pdf file)


I’m reading a couple of books for a review essay: Darrow Schecter’s Beyond Hegemony and Lars Tønder and Lasse Thomassen’s Radical Democracy.

Schecter’s book is smart but misguided, and essentially involves an attempt to rescue liberalism from itself–or what he sometimes terms “early liberalism” from its historical vicissitudes. He likes, in short, the ways in which Kantianism sets up formal legality over legitimacy, as legitimacy (he argues) always involves a compromise in which particular interests take precedence over the universal, and a forced reconciliation or fabricated consensus (hegemony) results. The problem, Schecter recognizes, is that Kant secured such a distance of legality from interest or need only by assuming a limited suffrage and so by excluding women, wage-earners, etc. from the sphere of politics. Moreover, even within such an attenuated public sphere, actually existing liberal democracy depended upon a covert subject, the white male property-owner, and his particular interests. Still, Schecter wants to maintain the notion that a disinterested (and so legitimate) legality is attainable. For this he turns (rather unconvincingly) to the libertarian or “guild” socialism of G D H Cole.

Still, however wrong, Schecter’s book is at least provocative and intelligent.

The same can hardly be said for Tønder and Thomassen’s collection. Its premise is to set up a distinction “between abundance and lack,” which essentially means playing off Lacanianism and Deleuzianism, all under the sign of radical democracy. The so-called Lacanians (because in fact they are Laclauians through and through) run through the same old moves about hegemony, constitutive outsides, tendentially empty signifiers, non-coincidence of desire, and the like. The so-called Deleuzians are, however, on the whole even worse, as they attempt to shoe-horn Deleuze within the framework of “radical democracy,” as bidden by the collection’s editors. Paul Patton’s piece, for instance, rather bizarrely tries to claim that Deleuze was a paid-up liberal democrat mainly based on the fact that he so seldom discusses liberal democracy. His argument is generally along the lines of admitting “there is no doubt that Deleuze is not a theorist of democracy in the narrow sense of the term,” but only to follow up with the thought that “it does not follow from this that Deleuze is hostile to democratic government” (54). Well, but you can’t make of a non sequitur a democratic theorist.

Meanwhile, the whole concept of “radical democracy” is a con. The tag “radical” is basically meaningless. And there is much confusion as to what purpose the adjective serves: is the notion that radical democracy is some new kind of democracy, exciting, different, and better than (say) liberal or neoliberal democracy? Or is it that democracy is itself radical, and what’s involved is merely a redescription to make democracy seem more exciting, different, and better than it currently appears? This ambivalence, which is never directly confronted, undermines the book’s very premises.


The following reading is only partly against the grain, I think…

The state is the unacknowledged center of Laclau’s theory of hegemony. In On Populist Reason, he declares that “social demands” are the “smallest unit” of political analysis (73). But these demands are addressed to an institution or authority, an “institutional system” (73), “the dominant system” (89), or an “institutional order” (116), that is presupposed in and through their articulation. These “democratic demands” are “formulated to the system by an underdog of sorts” (125; emphasis in original). Laclau’s examples of such institutional systems include small-scale state structures such as the “local authorities” from which people might seek a resolution to housing problems (73) or, elsewhere, the “city hall” that could improve transport networks (“Populism” 36); his historical case studies, however, all involve nation states. If “a demand is always addressed to someone” (On Populist Reason 86), that “someone” is always, for Laclau, an institution already in a position to satisfy such demands. Indeed, the demand itself recognizes the pre-constituted power of the system that is addressed: “the very fact that a request takes place shows that the decisory power of the higher instance is not put into question” (“Populism” 36). The power of the state as “higher instance” is never questioned either by Laclau, who insists that social demands can be satisfied, and satisfied fully.

When a demand is satisfied, it disappears: it “ceases to be a demand” (On Populist Reason 127). When it is not, it gains “discursive presence” (128). Unsatisfied demands give rise to the people and power bloc as partners in an antagonistic relation: if demands addressed to the state remain unfulfilled, they accumulate and an equivalential relationship is established between them; “they start, at a very incipient level, to constitute the ‘people’ as a potential historical actor” (74). Thus emerges “an internal antagonistic frontier separating the ‘people’ from power” (74). But this antagonism also displaces the object of its address. When “an extensive series of social demands” remain unfulfilled, these “popular demands are less and less sustained by a pre-existing differential framework: they have, to a large extent, to construct a new one.” Hence, “the identity of the enemy also depends increasingly on a process of political construction” (86). That enemy may be given any of a number of names, such as “the ‘regime,’ the ‘oligarchy,’ the ‘dominant groups,’ and so on” (87). And as Laclau points out, names retrospectively constitute their referents: “the name becomes the ground of the thing” (105). But what is important is the displacement, by which a discursive antagonism replaces an institutional relation. An enemy constituted through populist discourse stands in for the state itself.

At the same time, the populist leader, or rather the tendentially empty signifier that is populist articulation’s nodal point, comes to incarnate the sovereign. First the leader is identified with the group: “the equivalential logic leads to singularity, and singularity to identification of the unity of the group with the name of the leader” (On Populist Reason 100). The more successful this process, the more that the populist leader can claim to represent the social whole, the “populus.” Of course, in that a populist movement emerges in opposition to the state, this constitution of a “signifying totality” has to be distinguished from “actual ruling” (100): the latter would require institutional power, the power to satisfy or deny social demands. But in so far as a hegemonic project can legitimately claim to represent a “people,” its leader can then argue that he embodies the popular sovereignty denied by the illegitimate rule of the “enemy.” Indeed, for Laclau, it is by means of its characteristic production of an empty signifier that the logic of populism constructs sovereignty itself, as the “void [that] points to the absent fullness of the community” (170). The principle of populism’s transcendent “empty universality” is also the principle that grounds sovereign power. And on this basis, the populist leader demands that his sovereignty is recognized, that he should assume the mantle of the state.

These, then, are populism’s characteristic moves. First, it displaces the state through the construction of a discursive antagonist. In the process, institutional power, the power to grant or deny demands, is replaced by an image of power, projected onto an illegitimate enemy. In other words, the stakes of the political game become representational legitimacy, rather than the satisfaction of demands. Second, then, the populist leader assumes representational transcendence, and demands the right to be named sovereign. All this is accomplished by means of a sleight of hand that substitutes hegemony for other forms of politics, and sovereignty for any other conceptions of power. Hence populism can gain institutional power while still maintaining an anti-institutional critique directed at the displaced objects of its antagonistic discourse. But rather than offering a critique of this process, Laclau mirrors it, accepting as we have seen that hegemony is indeed politics tout court. This is true even in Politics and Ideology, ostensibly a work for which Marxism and anti-statism remain fundamental.


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…


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’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.