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The ‘socialist strategy’ of Laclau and Mouffe: the hegemonic baby of discursive social antagonsism and the murky bathwaters of post-Marxism

01.28.09 | 5 Comments

(Absurdly long post alert (3800 words) with some layout difficulties as result IT illiteracy.  Word version available here.) 

Now then, there’s no time like the woefully overdue, as they say, so let us turn, dear reader, to this foolishly promised matter of the partial defence of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, and the ideas they set out with loads of really hard words in their now fairly (in)famous Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, if you’re into that kind of thing. 

Let’s begin in the 1980s, which is when they wrote their book (1st edition published 1985). 

In the 1980s, as the end of the Soviet bloc neared its end, and as the Right took even securer hold of the institutions of power, in the UK and the US, it was mighty fashionable to dismiss Marxism as a failed experiment.  And in the UK, Laclau and Mouffe were really very fashionable.  Most of all, they were real live continental (well French and Argentinian) intellectuals, and they probably smoked gauloises and turned their collars up moodily while turning slowly into rain-filled nights and walking over bridges.  So it is understandable that their book should have been quite a hit in Britain.  It was new, it was ‘sexy’, and it chimed with a British Left which at that time was:  

a) still pouring over Antonio Gramsci as the other new continental find, as he’d only been translated into English in the 60s and taken a while longer to get picked up by a wider readership   b) basing its resistance to Thatcherism on the development of ‘Rainbow Coalitions’ in ‘New Urban Left’ settings like London, Sheffield and Manchester (Liverpool took a rather different path). 

But why did Chantal and Mouffe end up here in the first place?  Well, in his response to Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, Norman Geras (now of normbog fame but back then of Norman Geras fame) certainly touched a nerve:   

‘We cannot help wondering how far their recent trajectory may have been influenced by a range of factors which they would doubtless prefer to overlook; the pressures upon them of age and professional status; the pressures of the political time and environment we have been passing through, not very congenial, in the West at least, to the sustenance of revolutionary ideas; and then the lure of intellectual fashion, a consideration not be underrated by any means (Discourses of Extremity, p.61) 

Indeed, such was the reaction by Chantal and Mouffe (Post Marxism Without Apologies, New Left Review, Nov/Dec, 1987) to what they felt was an attack on their personal and intellectual integrity, I can’t help wondering myself whether there was just a touch of ‘The intellectual doth protest too much’. 

Indeed, the critical realist in me (some might say the cynic) – the admirer of Thomas Kuhn’s then honest and groundbreaking attempt to come to terms with scientific and by extension all intellectual process must always be seen in historic and social context – sees Laclau and Mouffe’s turning up in England as a perfectly ‘understandable’ attempt to go with the new paradigmatic flow then in course, in a country where Marxist thought looked beaten to a pulp even more than on the continent.  The other connected reason, more important for my analysis here, was that their brand of intellectualism stood little chance of making headway in France, where people understood all that stuff better. 

In other words, they weren’t quite up to French premier league intellectualism any more, what with the all the talent available, so they moved to the less pressured English league.  They seem all too aware of this, with the first sentence of the preface to the 2nd edition:

‘Hegemony and Socialist Strategy was originally published in 1985, and since then it has been at the centre of many theoretico-poltico discussions, both in the Anglo-Saxon world and elsewhere’ (p. i).

Frankly, I’m not sure where ‘elsewhere’ is, though they may mean Scandinavia where the Anglo-American tradition of political science and philosophy tends to lead the way. 

This starts to get us to the heart of the matter – what’s bad about the book, but what’s worth having another look at. 

My main premise here is that, Laclau and Mouffe’s now infamous attack on ‘essentialist’, ‘reductionist’, ‘economist’ Marxism, was actually all just a bit of clever book marketing.  They knew that stuff would be popular amongst the New Urban but Still Not Well Enough Read forces massing their rainbow colours in and around the Labour party, just as they knew that Gramsci was all the rage then, what with him being Italian, having been in prison a lot, and a bit easier to understand than Althusser or Lukacs (see also useful articles such as this one at A Very Public Sociologist).  The book spends most of its time on this marketing strategy, and no publicity is bad publicity, as they say.  They must still be secretly grateful to Geras and to Meiskins Woods for making their stuff so popular. 

But for all of this guff, this is not the intellectual heart of the book.   That heart, which runs roughly from p100 to p120, actually has little to do with Marxist doctrine.  The heart is a ‘lower league’ attempt to reflect Derrida (and before him Husserl) and Wittgenstein’s phenomenology for a British/Anglo-Saxon audience.   Unable to outdo Derrida on his home turf (indeed by that stage Derrida was unable to outdo Derrida, and had started doing jokes), Laclau and Mouffe seek to interpret him and others (including a very quick stab at Lacan, see p.112) for a fresh market. 

And in itself, that’s no bad thing.  Some of the stuff they get into in this central core to the book is actually quite interesting; I’m interested enough in the notion that meanings and identities remain ‘unfixed’ in a ‘field of discursivity’ (p.111) because all speech-acts can only meaningful within pre-existing discourses, and that in the (un)end everything is (quoting Derrida) ‘discourse, that is to say a system in the central signified, the original or transcendental signified is never absolutely present outside a system of differences. The absence of the transcendental signified extends the domain and play of signification indefinitely.’ (p111) 

I’m also interested in the claim that because (in some measure at least) of this lack of a linguistically viable transcendental signification means that ‘the practice of articulation…cannot consist of purely linguistic phenomena; but must pierce instead the entire material density of the multifarious institutions, rituals, practices through which a discursive formation is structured (p109). I’m interested in these assertions not least because, while I may have a tired old brain and can’t think these things through properly anymore, it seems strange to assert that on the one hand that there is an objective reality ‘out there’ (p.108, ‘common misunderstanding’ a)), but on the other to assert that, because it is linguistically impossible to represent accurately, what with the ever-present antagonistic contestation of meaning, then the notion of a social reality must be discarded for our social theory.  Put more simply, I just don’t get it. 

Perhaps if they went through it one more time, and got back to the real basics of their phenomenology, it might help.  But they don’t; in one of the strangest, but at least brazen, theoretical cop-outs in the history of cop-outs, they state that in a book which is supposed to be about creating a new social theory to replace an old, wrong one: ‘‘We cannot enter here into all the complexities of discourse as we understand it’ (p.107). Why the hell not?  That’s what I bought to the book for.  I didn’t buy it for the chapters of attacks on Marxist orthodoxy – I bought it because I thought I was going to get some theoretical underpinning for a brilliant new ‘socialist strategy’.  What we get instead is a ‘social theory’ which is every bit as ‘essentialist ‘as the Marxism they spend ages kicking holes in.  What does the metaphor of the ‘piercing’ of material reality (quoted above, p/109 of H&SS) actually mean.  In what way is it ‘pierced’.  I’ve read those apparently central paragraphs a number of times, and I still just don’t’ get what they means here. 

What we’re left with, in the end, when the ‘post-Marxist’ packaging is taken off, is a theory which doesn’t quite cut the mustard, though it promises a fair bit; a load of theorizing which has the same inherent conservatism as the ‘all is relational anyway’ Foucault, challenged at European championship level by Habermas (a game I’m still watching), but which claims to be being plaid out in socialist colours. 

But even then, I’m prepared to defend Chantal and Mouffe a bit, because while I think there are dangers for the left here (and I’ll come on to those) I still think some of the stuff they come up with in respect of political practice is, notwithstanding the theoretical fuzziness, useful in its own way. 

As a purely heuristic device, the conception of ‘elements’ formed as ‘moments’ may be a bit of stretch for my aged bonce.  However, I do find appealing, even seductive, the more ‘practical’ ideas around how separate bits of language are brought together to articulate concepts that go some way beyond what we can (easily) represent, and in so doing create new ‘political frontiers’ as a key part of hegemonic practice – frontiers beyond which there is a dangerous ‘otherness’ against which the any newly hegemonised section of the a ‘community’ must now defend itself in both the material and language battle. And the reason I – and obviously lots of others – find what I might call this ‘mid-range therorisation’ seductive, despite the underlying epistemology that fits uncomfortably with it, is that it seems to resonate with ‘real life experience’ very well. 

Thus, in my own vaguely activist scribblings, such as here and here, I find myself analysing the way in which my own Conservative local authority manipulates language (and the facts behind the language) to create really quite powerful conceptions of a ‘community’ of decent citizens at prey to the dark (leftwing) ‘elements’ of  ‘political correctness’ and ‘policy wonkdom’, against which only Conservativism can protect us.  Indeed, the Conservatives are able to create an image, through their own subtle use of language, of forces out to corrupt their citizenry with, erm, their subtle use of language.   Laclau and Mouffe’s imagery of antagonistic forces jousting for hegemonic control, seeking to ‘pierce’ (if that is indeed what they mean) the material institutions of power and control, work well here.   And I’m only a beginner……. Those who have grown up as the disciples of Laclau and Mouffe, especially from the Essex

University where they set up based certainly use the techniques passed down in interesting ways.  See for example, this interesting view (Chapter 6, p.70ff.) of how ‘provisionalism’ in

Northern Ireland sought to articulate hegemonised notions of justice with the ‘national question’ so that one could not be interpreted in isolation from the other.  It seems to make sense as far as to goes – as an analysis of how language and language shifts really count fro something. 
Similarly, at one reading at least, and perhaps more convincingly as an example of Laclau and Mouffe’s influence on Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Saxon linked intellectualism, that very clever Marxist bloke Zizek relates the political ‘antagonisms’ amongst ethnic and nationalist communities in post-Soviet Eastern Europe back to the Lacanian notion of the theft of enjoyment (‘jouissance’) by the Other.  But, look closer and Zizek almost seems to enjoy taking the opportunity to ‘nail’ Laclau and Mouffe’s stereotyping of the ‘reductionist’’ of Marxism (this in a book edited by Chantal Mouffe), when he says: ‘It is too easy to dispose of this problematic by pointing out that this is simply the transposition, the ideological displacement of the effective socio-economic antagonisms of today’s capitalism.  The problem is that, while this is undoubtedly true, it is precisely through such a displacement that desire is constituted.’ (p199-200) 

And more forcefully, in his own book he uses the notion of the ‘floating signifier’ as a tool to analyse the way in which the basic tenet’s of ‘communism’ can be used to provide a coherent narrative logic of class struggle. ‘when we quilt the floating signifiers through ‘communism’, for example, ‘class struggle confers a precise and fixed signification to all other elements: to democracy (so called ‘real democracy’ as opposed to ‘bourgeois formal democracy’); to feminism (the exploitation of women as resulting from the class-conditioned division of labour); to ecologism (the destruction of  natural resources as a logical consequence of profit-oriented capitalist production; to the peace movement (the principal danger to peace is adventuristic imperialism) and so on (Sublime Object of Ideology, 1989:88) 

What Zizek is doing then, just like me (only a lot more cleverly) is using some of the mid-range insights of Laclau and Mouffe (and others) to provide almost a visualisation of ideological battlegrounds, complete with moving defensive and offensive positions.  And this is an attractive and heuristically useful thing to have in an analytic armoury, even if the epistemological underpinnings are, as I have suggested, pretty suspect.   

In a similar, but rather more blunt way, Martin Smith (straightforward British politics analyst of an unfussy critical realist bent), also says:

 ‘Power does not just exists in conflicts between cabinet and Prime Minister but, as Foucault suggests, it is in every situation and relationship as actors develop belief systems, strategies and alliances in order to exchange resources and achieve goals.  There is no need to adapt a discourse or post-modern approach to see the core executive as a field of micro-politics, where power is exercised through a mullitude of agencies and coherence imposed through the ‘adopted of shared vocabularies’ (p33) 

And in this pithy debunking of Laclau and Mouffe’ stylish but actually unnecessary trappings of post-modern relativism, Smith at once attests to the usefulness of the analytic neatness, even usefulness of their ‘mid-range’ conceptions and imagery of social antagonism, but also points to the lasting weakness. 

For what Smith gets, and Laclau and Mouffe don’t seem to get too well, is that in the end it’s very material power and resources that count, and that all the discourse stuff is interesting, but compared to the real stuff, interesting frippery.  

Laclau and Mouffe’s work helps us analyse how power is played out at a discursive level, but does not tell us much about how deeply it is embedded in the capitalist institutions they refer, nor how, ultimately, their ‘socialist strategy;’ is going to change it. 

At one point, towards the end of the book, Laclau and Mouffe look as though they are going to acknowledge this limitation, and if they did, 189 pages into the book, I’d like the preceding 189 pages a whole lot more.   Here, they draw a distinction between ‘a strategy of opposition’ and ‘a strategy of construction of a new order’ (p.189).

 While the book is useful in helping us draw out and therefore oppose some of the discursive strategies for ‘superstructural’ hegemony of capitalism, while I’d even concede that there may be useful insights into the way the Left might creative a superstructural hegemony of its own using the same kind of discursive antagonistic methods (to bring about ‘intellectual reform, as Gramsci would put it), the authors finally show their true colours in the last pages of the book, as they attempt to outline what they think might constitute a ‘new order’. 

First they set up the ‘straw man’ of ‘orthodox Marxism’ for one last bit of knockabout: ‘Every project for democracy includes, as we have said, the socialist dimension – that is to say the radical abolition of capitalist relations of production; but it rejects the idea that from this abolition necessarily follows the elimination of the other inequalities’.  

Well there may be ‘orthodox’ Marxists out there who truly believe that the abolition of capitalist production modes will suddenly remove all inequalities overnight, as opposed to being the single most important mechanism in the struggle to remove such inequalities, but I’m not one of them and I don’t think they’d find too many around if they looked.  As Norman Geras has said eloquently enough, for Laclau and Mouffe there are no shades of grey with Marxism – it’s either the whole cheap stereotype of Soviet dialectical materialism – or it’s not Marxism, while in their own theorisation there’s plenty of room for flexibility. 

But then we get to the nuts and bolts of their new order.   Who’s their key hero in showing us the way forward? It appears to be Robert Dahl (p.185), the American godfather of pluralism, who by 1982 at least got as far as acknowledging that the might of multi-national corporations’ power might have gone a tidgy bit too far. 

As they acknowledge ‘It is not liberalism as such as such that should be called inot question, for as an ethical principle which defends the liberty of the individual to fulfil his or her human capacities, it is more valid today than ever’ (p184). 

Here, they simply don’t seem to want to acknowledge that liberal capitalism might not have much of an interest in ‘ethical principles’ to any greater extent than ther ‘discursive’ use to control the masses in their own interests, and that its much greater interest is in wielding power.   

Nor is it interested in whether or not this proposed new order produces ‘another individual, an individual who is no longer constructed out of possessive individualism’ (ibid), as long as that kind of thing doesn’t go too far, thank you very much. 

That, it seems to me, is the key point of Dave Semple’s recent excellent article on ‘radical minorities’.  While Peter Tatchell and Co. tinker round the edges with Laclau and Mouffe style ‘subject positions’, the capitalist mode-friendly and now deeply embedded ‘family values’ of 2000’s Britain at large continue as was, strengthened in their own ‘subject position’ even by their very Daily Mail-reinforced ‘otherness’ to those others. 

The lessons that Laclau and Mouffe and their followers should have picked up from Stuart Hall, whom they have a tendency to draw in as one of their own, but I think mistakenly, should have been better learnt.  What Hall does is to show how early Thatcherism cleverly articulated the piggy-bank/handbag economics of the New Right’s monetarism with ‘traditional’ Tory values of English family life and the suburban castle where no-one has to be confronted by ‘society’ if they play the game.  This thirty or more years embedding of power, is what Dave picks up in his article, but which Laclau and Mouffe – with their lack of understanding of material as well as discursive power, played out over generations rather than in synchronic figurative schema of social antagonism where everyone has the ‘liberty’ to be as antagonistic as each other – would miss.   

Not only do they miss the point about the materiality of power – it’s as though they’d never read C Wright Mills or even Steven Lukes on the matter when they Anglo-Saxonised their intellectualism – they also miss out, through their reliance on liberal imagery’ of the importance of time – that history matters to the embedding of power (see also Paul Pierson on this for a very thorough view). In the end then, this failure to deal with the material reality of capital liberalism is what lets the book down, and even, I want to suggest, makes it dangerous to the left – at least unless it is used as opportunity rather than threat. 

For a weak conception of power in relation to individual freedoms leads on in their work to the primacy of the ‘subject position’.  In their view, it is enough simply to want to be ‘another individual’ (op cit) – to be different from the rest of the crowd; this desire is enough to give you a legitimate position as part of this mysterious radical project of emancipation. 

But what are the consequences of such a seemingly open and noble approach? Well, let’s take some real life example, and for ease let’s refer them back into recent blogoland/internet discussions. 

First, George Monbiot gets to be part of this new ‘socialist strategy’.  Never mind the fact that he thinks recession is a really good thing because it’ll make the workers expect less – his subject position is that of radical environmentalist, so that good enough for the radical project we’ve got going. 

Peter Tatchell’s in, because he’s radical (see above).

The Spice Girls are in, because their subject position is that of strong women standing up for themselves (I know it should be Girls Aloud maybe, but I’m quite old). 

Oh, and the Tories are in, at least the Red Tories, because at least some of their subject position, as discursively set out, puts them in the radical camp. 

Indeed, with no hint of irony, those good radicals (they probably used to be ‘lefties’ but they’ve got a new more modern subject position) at the National Coalition for Independent Action) suggest that the mainstream Tories might be a part of their new radical project for their emancipation from the state, while (with lots and lots of irony) Tom Miller points to the way the Tories are right now adapting their subject position to be part of the whole thing.  Yeah, right!. 

The examples are light-hearted perhaps,  but that self-appointment as radical is the very real consequence of Laclau and Mouffe’s vision  for change – in the end, we call ourselves different things but the power structures remain.   

I’m not suggesting that Laclau and Mouffe and their acolytes have been a principal cause of the drift of the left, over the last thirty years, away from the material reality that what needs to change is control of means of production.  Not enough people read their stuff.  What I am suggesting is that the Left now needs to get serious about challenging the discursive subject-position, rainbow coalition-inspired relative irrelevances of the ‘softer’ left; such approaches may have been ok in the 1980’s, when you could argue that it as the only survival tactic to the British Left at least, but we live in a different world now.   Indeed, Laclau and Mouffe even seem to recognise that in the preace to their 2nd edition (2000) when they acknowledge Several voices have been heard recently calling ‘Back to the Class Struggle’ p.xviii), before going on to defend against anything quite so absurdly orthodox Marxist.  And as Dave Osler says much more recently, the battle-lines actually suddenly look so much clearer now, and concepts of surplus value and the exploitation of labour are back with us. 

If we – the left that still think Marx’s basic critique of capitalism was right – can use Laclau and Mouffe, in just the way I’m sure they’d love, to create an appropriately antagonistic position towards the softer left which either never knew or has forgotten that stuff, then we should be suitably grateful to them for the opportunity, just as we should to Dave at Though Cowards Flinch for proposing what is now a might timely reappraisal 

As I said, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy is not a book without use – just not the use the authors intended. 


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