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On Laclau and Mouffe

Poor Bruno Latour. Like my 2013 monograph challenge and the rather more modest 2014 'minor Romantic' binge before it, it turns out trying to fit something else blogworthy in between the demands of modern academia and real life is quite hard - as such, I only managed nine rather than ten theorists in 2015. So Latour's We Have Never Been Modern falls off the edge, for the time being at least, and I end up with Ernest Laclau and Chantal Mouffe's Hegemony and Socialist Strategy.

1. The problematic from which the study sets off is, broadly, the insufficiency and disintegration of the orthodox Marxist political model, which posited both a deterministic progress through phases of history, and a priori 'subjects' of history such as the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. These premises became increasingly difficult to maintain as one observes a 'disjuncture between "theory" and "observable tendencies of capitalism"' (loc. 834).* For example, it became necessary to sometimes accept that a task that the Marxist model would allocate deterministically to one class would actually have to be carried out by another class, or that provisional and contingent moments and identities forged in the political sphere would come to displace the supposedly more fundamental moments and identities predicted in the sphere of economic relations.

As such, socialist theorists from Plekhanov to Trotsky attempted to map the complex actuality of the struggles of the modern age - and the identities of the historical actors within them - on to a theory that demanded the underlying dynamics of history were based around the privileged position of the working-class as the revolutionary class, assigned by the meta-narrative of economic history. Although Marxism always reverted to this privilege, it became clearer and clearer that 'there is no revolution without a social complexity external to the simple antagonism among classes' (1372).

2. Laclau and Mouffe spend the first two chapters of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy examining these various attempts with a critical eye. The most sophisticated version, as the title of the book itself suggests, is Antonio Gramsci's hegemony. Like many, the theory evokes a complex relation between Marxist necessity and historical contingency, and re-evaluates the sphere of ideology. Perhaps most importantly, it reorientates a Marxist understanding of identity.

In Gramsci's 'historical bloc', a single group can articulate a set of ideas and values which magnetise other groups around it, negotiating an identity which traverses several social locations through intellectual and moral leadership. At any one historical moment, it is not actors or subjects constituted by some deterministic historical schema, but actors or subjects born out of the contigency of hegemonic articulation which take centre stage. According to Laclau and Mouffe, the vocabulary provided by Gramsci (hegemony, articulation, bloc)
[displace] the Leninist perspective: the relational specificity of the hegemonic link is no longer concealed, but on the contrary becomes entirely visible and theorized. The analysis conceptually defines a new series of relations among groups which baffles their structural location within the revolutionary and relational schema of economism. At the same time, ideology is signalled as the precise terrain on which these relations are constituted (1507)
However, even Gramsci ultimately falls short because he re-inscribes an 'economist and classist limit' (1697) in his theory. For all the suppleness and indeterminacy of hegemony, Gramsci still ascribes to an ultimate 'structuring of economic space' (1706) that assigns the working-class a privileged identity. This identity is forged from the entirely separate economic logic of classes. According to Laclau and Mouffe, therefore, Gramsci's version of hegemony - like Althusser's 'determination in the last instance' - cannot help but fall into a dualism whereby a rational substratum of material or economic necessity stubbornly persists, and more complex theoretical structures always end up implicated as merely contingent and inessential.

3. Seeking to destroy this last 'redoubt' of economism and classism, their answer is to advance the logic of hegemony further: to the point where a broadly 'structuralist' schema of society (from Marx) is overturned to what we can clearly identify as a post-structuralist schema of the social. ('Social' rather than 'society', because the latter would imply the closure of a totality which poststructuralism disallows.)

This is the topic of the book's intricately complex third chapter (which, to be fair, I'm not sure I fully understand, but still!) In this alternative schema, no identities are constituted through a priori categories from 'outside', such as the classes of standard Marxist orthodoxy. Rather, every identity is relational or differential. But, as with Derrida's analysis of diffĂ©rance, a formation made up of objects which gain their meanings from differences with other objects, which in turn gain their meanings from difference with other objects (and so on, and so on), can never fully stabilise meanings. In Laclau and Mouffe's term, the social space can never be 'sutured', and no identity within it is fully 'present': it is unstable, non-identical with itself, its relational existence overrun with a surplus of meaning. If relations around a point changes, then that point changes. Hegemonic articulations are partial stabilisations of the relations between identity-points which make 'society' both possible and impossible: 'the practice of articulation...consists in the construction of nodal points which partially fix meanings; and the partial character of this fixation proceeds from the openness of the social' (2378).

This theory of non-sutured social space abolishes and collapses some of the difficult dualisms that had problematised earlier Marxist theories: for example, politics and economics can never be clearly separated as two different logics (2537) and the materiality of ideology is conspicuously affirmed: 'propositions are also a part of the real' (2594).

This might become clearer if I offer a handful of more concrete examples from the book. Humanism, for instance, cannot be considered as anything founded on a human essence, but rather as a sign 'regularly dispersed' across several discourses which emerge at a certain point in history: religious, juridical, social.

In the colonial situation, Laclau and Mouffe appear to follow a common deconstructive/postcolonial analysis, showing that a series of apparently determinable differences which identify the colonizer (dress, language, skin colour, customs) are in fact a chain of equivalents which cancel each other out because they mean the same (='racial difference'). What this empty sequence conceals is the fact that colonial identity is purely relational, purely negative, purely circular: 'the colonizer is discursively constructed as the anti-colonized' (2679).

 Finally, we might take the analysis of British white working-class identity (2938-41), which shows how the dynamism of relational identity. The subjectivity of white labour is overdetermined by racism and anti-racism towards immigrants, which has knock-on effects, the book suggests, on both trade-union and ultimately state policy, which in turn 'rebound[s] upon the political identity of immigrant workers themselves' (2941).

Trying to allocate humanism, colonisation or white working-class identity a fixed identity prior to their articulation as part of an unstable and differential 'social' space is to ignore the fact that no identities are a priori or fixed or unitary and all identities are relational/unstable/multiple.

4. Social space must be partially stabilised through hegemonic articulations, but that suggests it is also partially unstable. The book lends privilege to the instability that becomes legible through antagonism, which is when a relational identity fractures, and where the mutual definition of 'I' and 'not-I' reaches a kind of crisis: 'insofar as there is antagonism, I cannot be a full presence for myself. But nor is the force that antagonizes me such a presence: its objective being is a symbol of my non-being and, in this way, it is overflowed by a plurality of meanings which prevent its being fixed as a full positivity' (2620). Incidentally, it is important to note that antagonisms are not a clash between two positive distinct groups, but between two mutually constituting identities within discursive space:
a conjuncture where there is a generalized weakening of the relational system defining the identities of a given social or political space, and where, as a result there is a proliferation of floating elements, is what we will call following Gramsci, a conjuncture of organic crisis. It does not emerge from a single point, but it is the result of an overdetermination of circumstances; and it reveals itself not only in a proliferation of antagonisms [my emphasis] but also in a generalized crisis of social identities (2841)
Despite the presence of strategies (e.g. Disraeli's two nations ideology) which attempt to smooth over antagonism, the book holds that antagonisms multiply in the more complex socio-political situations of modernity when compared to the past: diverse class struggles, colonial struggles, feminist struggles, struggles of migration, struggles inside and outside the conventional state etc.

The final chapter of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy aims precisely to position their post-Marxist model of 'hegemonic articulation' as the response to the complexity of the modern. Obviously, this involves abandoning the the Marxist idea of a deterministic process with the working-class as the 'subject' of history and emancipation. Laclau and Mouffe's politics cannot take the working-class as a subject: in fact, the relational model and hegemony means that politics cannot be tied foundationally to any subject or identity.

Instead, the idea is to engage politically at moments of antagonism within the unsutured social, enacting a hegemonic articulation across as many of these antagonistic points as possible. Crucially, the mechanism for this is no longer purely socialist: whilst they hold that any emancipatory struggle must include a socialist imperative against capital, it cannot be exclusively reduced to socialism. In its place, they hail a more radical democracy, given that the democratic impulse (to run demands for liberty and equality along axes of equivalence, from one sphere and group to another) is considered the best way to unify antagonisms in a movement that preserves both solidarity and plurality.

Of course, the open logic of hegemony demands that the Left are not the only ones trying to master the relations and rifts around democracy: neo-liberalism also attempts to create a 'historical bloc' in the name of the democratic, exploiting and working across the same ideas to create an individualistic/conservative order. But Laclau and Mouffe hold faith that the very fluidity of the democratic mean it is the best - the only - way of magnetising ' agents' (3669) within a plural, relational and unstable discursive field which can no longer be analysed under an a priori category of 'society in general' (3662). This, for them, is hence the ideal of and for
modern socialist politics.
* Ernest Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (London: Verso, 1985). References are to rough Kindle locations.

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