Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe claimed to have identified the fatal flaw of Marxism and developed a better framework for left politics. But their taboo against class “essentialism” means they can’t identify the strengths and weaknesses of capitalist power.

A woman shows a flag of Greek party Syriza on February 14, 2015, in Rome during a demonstration to support newly elected Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras during his talks in Brussels and to protest against austerity. (Tiziana Fabi / AFP via Getty Images)

In the dark days of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan’s political supremacy, when post-structuralist theory was at the peak of its intellectual influence, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe developed a novel conception of “hegemony” intended to overcome the crisis of left-wing politics. The roots of that crisis, they argued, lay in an “essentialism” that was endemic to the Left’s Marxist heritage.

Laclau and Mouffe’s “post-Marxism” defined contingent, discursive procedures of identity formation as the foundation of political agency. In this framework, the political became the contingent structuring principle of the social, divorcing political identities from any grounding in collective interests, social antagonisms, or tendencies inherent to the class structure of capitalist societies.

If this abandonment of “class politics” seemed to offer a way to knit together the demands of emerging social movements in the 1980s, from ecology to feminism, two decades later Laclau and Mouffe would offer the same approach as a model of “populist reason,” articulating the internal logic of new electoral forces in Latin America, Europe, and elsewhere. In the process, a theoretical conception that might have seemed all too discursive took on new elements of political concreteness: the construction of a “people” through the discourses articulated by parties and leaders and their entry into the state through electoral victories.

That link to concrete political practices, however, highlights the position’s theoretical dilemmas. What could it really mean for a popular identity to be organized, in practice, on the basis of a wholly contingent unity? What would define such a program, in its very contingency, as left-wing? What would such an identity do? How could we measure its success and achievements?

Laclau and Mouffe’s paradigm cannot adequately answer such questions. Rejecting any possibility of tracing the political impact of relations of force and their different causal efficacies, in however nuanced a manner, the argument against “essentialism” leads toward an ultimately incapacitating embrace of “representation” as the whole of politics.

Post-Marxism and Discourse Theory

Laclau and Mouffe set out their criticisms of Marxism at length in the book Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, first published in 1985. They focus on its supposed tendency to take the existence of the working class for granted as a fixed and unified social identity expressed in determinate political interests. Across dozens of pages, the Marxist tradition appears as a series of failures to grasp a simple problem: the sociopolitical theory of classes falters when it has to confront the complexity of social fields and the fickleness of political formations.

Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe developed a novel conception of ‘hegemony’ intended to overcome the crisis of left-wing politics.

They present their own position as the polar opposite of the Marxist one. The diagnosis of absolute determination leads to an embrace of absolute contingency:

The alternative is clear: either one has a theory of history according to which this contradictory plurality will be eliminated and an absolutely united working class will become transparent to itself at the moment of proletarian chiliasm — in which case its “objective interests” can be determined from the very beginning; or else, one abandons that theory and, with it, any basis for privileging certain subject positions over others in the determination of the “objective” interests of the agent as a whole — in which case the later notion becomes meaningless.

The authors direct much of their polemic against what they call “classism,” defined as “the idea that the working class represents the privileged agent in which the fundamental impulse of social change resides.” But their strictures apply to any form of political analysis, Marxist or otherwise, that looks toward particular social groups as the best foundation on which to build: “The crucial limitation of the traditional left perspective is that it attempts to determine a priori agents of change, levels of effectiveness in the field of the social, and privileged points and moments of rupture.”

For Laclau and Mouffe, there is no “privileged” social subject for left politics, just a serial array of discrete demands being expressed at any given time. A political movement faces the problem of “suturing” them through a discursive process that does not rely on prior social determinations. That suturing requires the drawing of an “internal antagonistic frontier,” defining the common opposition of those demands (or some of them) to existing powers, summoning into political existence a “people” under the sign of an “empty signifier.”

Structures and Interests

This critique empties out most of the substance of Karl Marx’s thought, making it possible for Laclau and Mouffe to put forward the remarkable claim that Marx failed to recognize the inherently “political” character of the “economic.” For them, this assertion means that Marx failed to see “the economic level,” including productive relations, as a “context of contingency,” in which antagonisms develop only through discursive formations that symbolically delineate the antagonistic sides.

The historical means and products of capitalist appropriation have always been much broader than a focus on industrial wage labor would suggest.

Yet for Marx, the political character of productive relations was intrinsic to them. It was a function of the necessity, both biological and historical, of organizing material subsistence as the enduring foundation of all human social life. Humans, as Marx famously put it, distinguished themselves from other animals once they began to produce the means of their own subsistence.

Such production, with the complex divisions of labor and social compositions that organize its changing forms, is not fundamentally distinct from “political” relations of power, domination, control, negotiation, and resistance. Rather, the two coevolved as part of the productive (and reproductive) relations that comprise the core, ongoing dynamics of human societies.

The apparent — and partially real — separation between political and economic forms in Marxist conceptions of capitalism is not the function of a methodological precept that asserts the existence of an inbuilt economic destiny. It is a mediated and mediating effect of transformations in the relations of production, which are simultaneously “political” and “economic.”

Most fundamental, as Ellen Meiksins Wood argued, those transformations involved the “privatization” of core political functions — control of the social means of production, the investment of social surpluses, and collective labor processes and laborers — that crystallized in “absolute private property” as the appropriative basis for capitalist production and exploitation. The (tendential) capitalist “laws of motion” arising from that appropriation are not akin, as Laclau and Mouffe claim they are, to “natural laws” operating in a neutral and necessary manner.

They derive, rather, from fundamental power relations, including the anarchic character of privatized social production in capitalism (which requires the “social substance” of value, or money, as the general mediator of exchanges) and the forced separation of workers from independent access to land and other means of subsistence (which requires that they sell their labor power to gain access to money and, thereby, to the means of their own reproduction). The composition of these dynamics is not absolute nor fixed, but neither is it wholly contingent.

Indeed, the historical means and products of capitalist appropriation have always been much broader than a focus on industrial wage labor — itself, of course, a recurrent tendency within Marxism — would suggest. From colonization and chattel slavery to the unpaid reproductive work of women in the home and the “hidden wages” of small landholding farmers and debtors, living labor has always been subordinated to accumulation in multiple, variegated forms.

In this complexity, which is intrinsic to capitalist sociopolitical relations, interests are articulated on different scales, both spatial and temporal, and often in forced competition with one another. This does not mean we cannot discern such interests or identify possibilities of historical alignment. The riddle of “hegemony” for Marxism is precisely how these zones and interests could be aligned.

Unity Through Representation

The priority of the political, for Laclau and Mouffe, does not mean that the social world has no “reality” beyond political articulations. However, they read the history of Marxism as proof that any such reality is composed of demands that are too discrete to provide a basis for shared political orientations. Even the notion of “interests” suggests too strong a link between a given position and specific political claims. Demands possess no “manifest destiny” that will lead them to “coalesce into any kind of unity” or “constitute a chain.”

If we are reduced to such serial demands, the only sources of unity are acts of representation, a point that becomes clearer with Laclau and Mouffe’s turn toward populist politics. Political identities, Laclau came to argue, have “an inner structure that is essentially representative.” Empty signifiers and the institutions of representative democracy share the same inner structure, allowing the latter to be used to explain the former. In the process, the distinction between an empty signifier and a “leader” tends to fade.

The task of constructing a “people” depends upon “the mechanisms of representation,” in which the name of the representative catalyzes the unity of a people. While Laclau insists that such mechanisms are “two-way” — “a movement from represented to representative, and a correlative one from representative to represented” — it is the latter movement that takes priority, precisely because it defines a retrospective unity that the first movement intrinsically lacks: “The represented depends on the representative for the constitution of his or her own identity.” This displaces agency to a representative elite, fostering the passionate investment of the masses in identities they play no independent role in defining.

Laclau and Mouffe cannot conceive of hegemony as a process that exceeds or overflows the limits of existing political institutions.

Without the capacity to account for sociopolitical contradictions that potentially open onto broader interests and goals, Laclau and Mouffe cannot conceive of hegemony as a process that exceeds or overflows the limits of existing political institutions. Rather, it must find its actualization within them: “renewing” democracy by redefining the signifiers of representation and replacing representatives.

What remains of Laclau and Mouffe’s radical lineage finds expression in the refusal of the border that liberal democracy insists upon between foundational acts of representation — social contracts, general wills, constitutional conventions — and their pale echoes in recurrent electoral rituals. If peoples are discursively constructed, they argue, and if those constructions are always contingently “sutured,” they can also be unstitched. No unity is final.

This means that every election offers the possibility of a refoundation, at least once existing hegemonies have begun to break down. The new constitutions drafted in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and elsewhere after left-populist victories appear as the concrete embodiment of this “radicalization” of democracy.

Yet without objective interests or historical tendencies, however complex and contradictory, with which to guide itself, this radicalization also runs into fixed limits. If liberalism sought to legitimate existing institutions by sacralizing their foundations, Laclau and Mouffe’s demystification of those foundations leaves the institutions themselves largely untouched, precisely because they cannot provide an alternative history (or future) for them without straying into “essentialist” territory.

Everything can change, even as liberal institutions remain the same. What matters is the agonism of the people that breathes life into them. The work of giving citizens a “voice,” according to Mouffe, entails “making our institutions more representative” and “winning elections and reaching state power” as “the objective of a left populist strategy.”

Mouffe rejects the idea that representation can be reduced to elections. However, she does not explain how to go beyond them, other than to note the “essential” role that parties like Podemos and Syriza play in the elaboration of political subjectivities.

Of course, Mouffe is not wrong to note that states wield enormous amounts of concentrated power, even in this era of their supposed weakness, and that disrupting and reorienting the uses of that power might be essential for popular aims. But the wholescale character of her rejection of “essentialism” defines an incapacity to account for the sources of that power and the purposes it can effectively serve. A refusal to reckon with Marx’s account of the coevolution of “political” power and the organization of social (re)production thus returns to bedevil both left-populist theory and the movements it endorses and inspires.

Capitalism and the State

For Laclau and Mouffe, the problem of the contemporary state is defined by its “post-political” character. Politics, as the constitution of hegemonic identities and agonistic contests over competing demands, has been replaced by forms of technical management overseen by experts. The construction of a hegemonic popular identity is supposed to coincide with the reassertion of the hegemony of representative institutions within the state.

At the core of this conception is a detachment of representative governance from the social and historical processes that compose it. Just as class is not a set of fixed social positions but a dynamic, relational structure, so the electoral and parliamentary institutions of contemporary states are not pure sites of “political” representation but rather nodes in a complex of evolving functions, mediating and comprising a balance of forces. Capitalist states perform a variety of tasks: reproducing labor power, mediating antagonisms between capital and workers, securing the infrastructures of capital accumulation, defending their own legitimacy, and so on.

If the field of action available to states is defined, as Stephen Maher argues, by “the structural limits and crisis points of capital accumulation,” the job of managing those limits has never been left exclusively to legislative bodies. Central banks, finance ministries, and other “public-private” fusions have long functioned at a remove from representative powers, although their character has changed along with the increasing complexity of capital accumulation.

In other words, the defining political feature of the neoliberal era has not been the usurpation of representative governance by apolitical “administration,” as Laclau and Mouffe would suggest. Instead, there has been a shift in the balance of forces internal to representative states. Two of these changes have been particularly important.

Instead of acting upon markets from ‘outside,’ states have mobilized infrastructural powers to act within markets so as to shape and stabilize financial initiatives.

First, the economic apparatuses of states have been set increasingly free from oversight by representative institutions. Second, and as an enabling condition for that separation, there have been significant transformations in the economic capacities that states possess. Instead of acting upon markets from “outside” by imposing regulatory limits and requirements upon them, states have mobilized infrastructural powers to act within markets so as to shape and stabilize financial initiatives.

The crisis management of financial markets after the 2008 crash extended the direct leverage of central banks within markets as not only lenders but buyers of last resort, linking financial liquidity and profitability with the maintenance of debt-leveraged state capacities. Key social rights have likewise been transformed into state-facilitated access to marketized services and debt.

Such changes have fostered a deeper intertwining of state economic capacities with private capital flows and accumulation processes that are now international in scope. The resulting focus on “national competitiveness” is ill suited to the universalist forms of law and longer timescales that are proper to traditional representative assemblies. They have also provided private capital with more direct means to disrupt the normal functioning of states if their policies should impose risks or limits on accumulation.

None of this has led to the disappearance of the state’s representative functions. Rather, those functions are celebrated and transformed into increasingly agonistic or “polarized” spectacles even as substantive decision-making capacities are transferred elsewhere. In this context, a strategy defined through those functions appears fundamentally limited, precisely because it will view the political fate of representative institutions as something imposed upon them from “outside,” rather than as intrinsic to their contradictory position within the political-economic terrain of capitalist states.

Mouffe speaks, for example, of the acceptance by social democratic parties of “the diktats of financial capitalism and the limits they imposed on state interventions in the field of redistributive politics.” Likewise, she suggests that Syriza was “forced” to accept such “diktats” by the Troika. In neither case, however, does she put forward an analysis of what drove such acceptance, nor of how resistance to those diktats might have been possible. The problem appears as something like a lack of will on the part of representatives — their bending to someone else’s discourse.

The Limits of Left Populism

Certainly, Mouffe is right to insist that Syriza’s failure alone does not “invalidate the populist strategy that allowed it to come to power.” But the problem is whether Mouffe can conceive of the roots of such a failure and how they might be overcome in the future. Here her position tends to retreat into the indeterminate space between political ontology and concrete phenomena.

In her writings, there is a kind of unstated presumption that the way in which “the people” is constituted and represented must prove decisive, as if discursive constructions will summon material powers and take hold of state powers through their very articulation. She points to Thatcherism, for example, as proof that “it is possible to bring about a transformation of the existing hegemonic order without destroying liberal-democratic institutions.”

Yet Margaret Thatcher was granted space to experiment precisely because her project explicitly pursued the interests of dominant fractions of capital amid the crisis of Keynesianism. As the experience of Syriza demonstrates, a left-wing government will not be granted the same time and space for experimentation.

What, then, does the example of Thatcherism prove? Mouffe cannot quite say. Instead, her account oscillates frequently between an abstract focus on the idea of hegemonizing “democracy,” which defines the overlap between right and left populisms, and an insistence that “equality” is a defining aspect of democracy, with social justice as its expression, and “anti-capitalism” one essential dimension, which can steer a “democratic” people toward the left.

In some passages written in the second of these registers, Mouffe can seem to be on the verge of a rapprochement with Marxism, stressing the capitalist roots of the crisis and the need for a “rupture” with its present financial form at least, which will lead to a reshaping of “the material conditions of social reproduction.” Yet because these aims remain for her so many discrete demands, they cannot exceed the party and leader (or leaders) that represent them.

For a political project to succeed, Mouffe argues, it is necessary to discursively construct a “people.” There can be no articulation of specific social alliances, no mediation of intersecting interests toward a common coherence, and no disruption of existing state powers without that prior construction. Specific goals thus become something like the generalities of an electoral platform: “Before being able to radicalize democracy, it is first necessary to recover it.”

Only after we have achieved such a recovery will it be possible to conduct “a more agonistic debate about the policies more suitable for radicalizing democracy.” The answers, for Mouffe, “should not be determined in advance.”

If Syriza’s failure teaches us anything, it is surely that we cannot “democratize” the state through the electoral assertion of a new discursive identity and then see what opportunities are opened by better forms of representation. For such an assertion does not “democratize” the state as a whole but only one of its minor spheres, which is already detached from and subordinated to its “economic” functions. Representatives of “the people,” operating on such a terrain, will find themselves subject to forces and imperatives that are wholly opposed to the signifiers they supposedly embodied.

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