Ernesto Laclau: The most important thinker you’ve never heard of | Jake Scott
There are certain darlings of the New Left: Michel Foucault; Gilles Deleuze; Judith Butler; Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri; Slavoj Zizek. These thinkers have, in ways that are becoming only more apparent, shaped the contemporary political and philosophical dialogue for decades. Foucault’s observations on the nature of power has challenged our collected notions of interpersonal relationships; Deleuze, in his work with Felix Guattari, developed a theory of rhizomatic coordination that activists have internalised, if unconsciously; Hardt and Negri’s proposals for a despatialised, post-territorial politics can be understood as the germ of the ‘open-borders’ push; and the impact of Butler’s claims on the performativity of gender hardly needs elucidating.
I won’t pretend to understand Zizek. I don’t know if Zizek understands Zizek.
Yet one thinker of the New Left exists largely unknown in wider political circles, but his work is by far more important and more influential than any of the aforementioned. His writings, starting in the mid 1970s and continuing until his death in 2014, has formed the backbone of left-wing strategy for decades; the language of the modern left is steeped in his thought, from intersectionality to identity formation; and his partner – both romantic and academic – advises left-wing parties and activists from Momentum to Podemos. This thinker is Ernesto Laclau.
Laclau, with his long-term partner Chantal Mouffe, penned the influential and academically famous Hegemony and Socialist Strategy in 1984, at a time when the Left was scrambling to understand the emergence and radical popularity of Thatcherism. Whilst Stuart Hall and Jim Bulpitt were suggesting such tantalising terms as ‘authoritarian populism’ and ‘Tory statecraft’, Laclau and Mouffe gave more terminologically dense descriptions as ‘subject-positions’, ‘the unconstituted totality’, the ‘unsutured space’, and the ‘radically unstable terrain of the social’. Here is an example of one such paragraph.
The fixity of every social element in the first theorisations of hegemony proceeded, as we saw, from the indissoluble link between the hegemonised task and the class that was supposed to be its natural agent; while the bond between the task and the class which hegemonised it was merely factual or contingent. But, insofar as the task has ceased to have any necessary link with a class, its identity given to it solely by its articulation within a hegemonic formation. Its identity, then, has become purely relational. And as this system of relations has itself ceased to be fixed and stable – thereby making hegemonic practices possible – the sense of every social identity appears constantly deferred.Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (2014: 75-76)
Pretty dense. But whilst Roger Scruton was right to refer to Leftist speak as gobbledegook, designed to frighten and scare the reader into submission whilst signalling the writers’ membership of some Marxist priesthood, Laclau’s terminology becomes less dense when we take a step back and consider his ideological forebears: specifically, Antonio Gramsci.
Gramsci and Hegemony
Antonio Gramsci’s theory of hegemony is widely read in modern academia, since his Prison Notebooks were translated into English in 1977 by Wiley-Blackwell, but one of the most commonly misunderstood. Gramsci, having travelled to the Soviet Union and seen the Leninist vanguard movement succeed, was baffled when similar Leftist movements in Italy failed, and instead the vile historical aberration of fascism took power following the March on Rome in 1923. Whilst the fascist state was quite aware of Gramsci – it declared it ought to ‘stop [Gramsci’s] mind from working for 20 years’ – he was just as studious of it. Writing in and filling over 30 notebooks, and 3,000 pages, Gramsci developed a detailed, if unsystematic, account of power and the tactics through which power could be captured.
Gramsci identifies a dichotomy between two forms of power: “domination”, in which “a social group dominates antagonistic groups, which it tends to ‘liquidate’”; and “intellectual and moral leadership”, in which such a social group “leads kindred and allied groups”. For Gramsci, “intellectual and moral leadership” was the more successful of the two, especially in Western nations, where “there was a proper relation between State and civil society, and when the State trembled a sturdy structure of civil society was at once revealed” (1971: 57, 238). From this we can draw three elements of Gramsci’s thought: the complexity of social relations revealed by “civil society”; the relationship between forces in society; and the process of hegemony.
First, the importance of civil society emerged out of Gramsci’s criticism of MarxismLeninism’s emphasis on the State “as ‘a machine for the repression of one class by another’ [as] defective and ‘economistic’” (Simon, 2015: 69). Instead, the relationship between social forces is more complex than class-reductionism; within the superstructure, two levels can be identified, “the one that can be called ‘society’, that is the ensemble of organisms commonly called ‘private’, and that of ‘political society’ or ‘the State’” (Gramsci, 1971: 12).
Gramsci “identified civil society with the ideological superstructure, the institutions and technical instruments that create and diffuse modes of thought” and consequently “Gramsci departed… from Marx’s equation of civil society with the material superstructure” (Femia, 1987: 26). Therefore, as Simon summarises, the definition of civil society that can be constructed out of Gramsci’s thought as “All the ‘so-called private’ organisations… that are 9 distinct from the process of production and from the public apparatuses of the state”. However, Gramsci does not depart fully from Marx, in recognising that the two classes of labour and capital remain fundamental to all social relations, even if there is a degree of relative autonomy possessed by each class from the relations of production (2015: 71). Where Gramsci does depart from Marx is the rejection of “false consciousness”, which “is problematic for Gramsci since it presupposes notions of true consciousness and reality. These notions are anathema to Gramsci’s view of the mechanics of normative coercion” (Rojek, 2003: 112).
Civil society is a distinct part of the superstructure, but a part nonetheless; “civil society must be somehow distinguishable from the state so that it can be independently conquered… on the other hand, civil society must be linked to the state at least to the degree that its conquest has political ramifications” (Adamson, 1980: 215). It is regarding this question that the relation of social forces is conceptualised by Gramsci.
For Gramsci, the relation of forces can be understood through a three-stage process: first, the “objective”, structural relation in which the social identity of an agent requires that he stand in solidarity with similarly positioned agents (1971: 180). The second, “the relation of political forces” extends the same logic of solidarity throughout the entire class, i.e. the working class, in order to win a degree of equality dictated by the existing structure, for example legal voting rights – but significantly, this does not challenge the fundamental structures of society (Simon, 2015: 28). As Gramsci commented, it is the moment when “consciousness is reached of the solidarity of interests among all the members of a social class… already at this juncture the problem of the State is posed – but only in terms of winning politico-juridical equality with the ruling groups” (1971: 181). Finally, the third stage is “the most purely political stage” as it is the moment when “one becomes aware that one’s own corporate interests… transcend the corporate limits of the purely economic class, and can and must become the interests of other subordinated groups too” (1971: 181).
‘Hegemony’, therefore, is the practice of one of the fundamental classes building an alliance with other classes within civil society in order to maintain or challenge the existing power relations.
Laclau and Mouffe’s Criticisms
However, a criticism mounted by Laclau and Mouffe regarding the essentialism in Marxist theory, expands on what they refer to as “the progressive disaggregation of the civilisation and the construction of another around a new class core. Thus, the identity of the opponents, far from being fixed in the beginning, constantly changes in the process” (2014: 60). What Laclau and Mouffe are referring to here is the break in Gramsci from classical Marxism’s reductionism that considers the eventual simplification of society into two 13 antagonistic camps as foundational (Marx & Engels, 1992).
However, Laclau and Mouffe continue, “this transition to a non-military conception of politics reaches a limit precisely at the point where it is argued that the class core of the new hegemony… remains constant throughout the entire process” and, consequently, “Gramsci’s thought appears suspended around a basic ambiguity concerning the status of the working class which eventually leads it to a contradictory position”. This contradictory position is that the “working class” socio-political identity is either a “historical, contingent character” requiring the class to “come out of itself, to transform its own identity by articulating to it a plurality of struggles”, or the “articulatory role is assigned to it by the economic base – hence, that the centrality has a necessary character” (2014: 60). Thus, Gramsci remains trapped in the problematic of classical Marxism’s essentialism, by attributing to the working class a role determined by the economic base. The implication here is that, while the Right may take on a relational character – and therefore is “reactionary” – the identity of the Left, and consequently social democracy, is fixed and determined by the economic base.
This poses a problem for hegemonic theory: if “the working class is considered as… the articulatory core of the new hegemonic bloc (Gramsci), its fundamental identity is constituted in a different terrain from that in which the hegemonic practices operate” and therefore, “even for Gramsci, the ultimate core of the hegemonic subject’s identity is constituted at a point external to the space it articulates: the logic of hegemony does not unfold all of its 14 deconstructive effects on the theoretical terrain of classical Marxism” (Laclau and Mouffe, 66).
Finally, then, we return to the statement made above, that ‘identity has become purely relational. And… the sense of every social identity appears constantly deferred.’
The alternative approach to hegemony, formulated by Laclau and Mouffe from their criticisms of Gramsci, focuses on the discursive construction of identities and their constitutive relation to power. Now, bear with me here – this is where the language gets dense again.
Compared to the Gramscian tradition, Post-Marxism argues that hegemony is the process of attempting, but failing, to constitute a universality to act as the signified for empty signifiers. Laclau summarises thus:
What we have, ultimately, is a failed totality, the place of an irretrievable fullness. This totality is an object that is both impossible and necessary. Impossible, because the tension between equivalence and difference is ultimately insurmountable; necessary, because without some kind of closure, however precarious it might be, there would be no signification and no identity.On Populist Reason (2005: 70)
In this context, the “necessary impossible totality” that can act as a signified is the “social” (Laclau and Mouffe, 2014: 90).
The Construction of Social Identity
This theory of hegemony asserts that the social is an unconstituted totality, limited by the absence of unity: “the being or systematicity of the system which is represented through the empty signifiers is not a being which has not been actually realised, but one which is constitutively unreachable”. This means that no single conception of “society” can exist; instead “the social” acts a terrain over which particularities contest its meaning, thus creating a “horizon of exclusion” within which subjects realise their subject-positions. “Subject-positions” means identities within the “horizon of exclusion” that are defined by their relational differences, as the “first effect of the exclusionary limit is that it introduces an essential ambivalence within the system of differences constituted by those limits… each element of the system has an identity only so far as it is different from the others: difference = identity” (1996: 38-39, 52, emphasis added).
Therefore, a subject-position is achieved through the recognition of difference that should not exist; “each group is not only different from the others but constitutes in many cases such difference on the basis of the exclusion and subordination of other groups” (1996: 27). Significantly, the qualifier of “exclusion and subordination” emphasises power in the determination of these identities. This is because the horizon of exclusion is closed by a desire for equality between agents not reflected by true relations – if the difference was considered acceptable, the horizon of exclusion would not close around those agents, and so the struggle for equal power would be irrelevant.
Subject-positions then organise into groups; these group identities, constructed in relation to power, are “nodal-points”. Nodal-points are essential to the theory of hegemony because particularities within the social each undertake “an attempt to dominate the field of discursivity, to arrest the flow of differences, to construct a centre”. Therefore “the privileged discursive points of this partial fixation” act as nodal-points that provide a discursive construction of the social (Laclau and Mouffe, 2014: 98-99).
Whilst in the theory of hegemony each agent will realise his subject-position, Laclau moves beyond the Marxist logic of two distinct and antagonistic camps to note that society “is a plurality of particular groups and demands” (2001: 10); indeed, “the existence of two camps may in some cases be an effect of the hegemonic articulation but it is not it’s a priori condition” (Laclau and Mouffe, 2014: 123). As noted in Section One, this builds on Gramsci’s contribution to Marxist theory by recognising the significance of “civil society”, but where Laclau and Mouffe develop this contribution is by breaking down the barrier between the economic classes and civil society to create a single field of contestation – “the social”. Laclau and Mouffe suggest the creation of a new historic bloc is the “chain of equivalences” between nodal-points. In this, there are two elements: the nodal-points that become linked are oppressed; and the establishment of the chain of equivalences involves tropological cross-contamination between these nodal-points (Laclau, 2001: 5).
That the linked nodes are all oppressed is due to the stipulation that subject-positions are defined by differences that should not exist, either “relations of subordination already in existence” or “when social relations which had not been constructed under the form of subordination begin to be so under the impact of certain social transformations”, and consequently are considered to be relations of oppression (Laclau and Mouffe, 2014: 144). As a result, the historic bloc is united because of what each nodal-point lacks, not what they share, based on being excluded from power “because they are all seen as equivalent in confrontation with the repressive regime” (Laclau, 1996: 40).
Once the chain of equivalences has been established, the second principle, of “tropological cross-contamination”, becomes salient. As “the equivalence [between groups] involves that demands cannot be dealt with in isolation from each other… the hegemonic articulation of a plurality of demands can only be satisfied through changes in the relation of forces in society” and so the negative relation of a shared lack of power between groups must be transformed into a positive relation, defined by the pursuit of a shared goal (Laclau, 2001: 10). As Laclau and Mouffe moved away from essentialism, they stressed there is no predetermined direction in which the hegemonic bloc must move. Instead, “the forms of articulation of an antagonism, therefore, far from being predetermined, are the result of a hegemonic struggle” and “there is no unique privileged position from which a uniform continuity of effects will follow” (2014: 152-153). Rather, the constitutive asymmetry of power in social relations, “the unevenness of the social”, results in a struggle in which “various political forces can compete in their efforts to present their particular objectives as those which carry out the filling of [the empty signifier]” (Laclau, 1996: 43-44).
Consequently, the chain of equivalences re-articulates the construction of each nodal-point to align with the demands of each other point, until one emerges as the hegemonic actor (Laclau, 2005: 72). However, it is important to remember that, as described above, the universal can never be achieved. There are two reasons for this: first, the hegemonic formation must necessarily exclude at least one particularity within the social, usually the power-occupying group against which the hegemonic bloc is arrayed; second, as the chain of equivalences extends, the dilution of the hegemonic nodal-point with other nodal-points will eventually empty the hegemonic actor of any meaning (Laclau, 2001: 11). Hence why any hegemonic formation will ultimately fail to constitute the social in its totality.
This reconstruction of the theory of hegemony allows a rectification of the inherent problems of Gramsci’s; if the articulatory practice of the hegemonic class is necessarily constituted by the tropological cross-contamination between nodal-points, the ambiguity over the expression and reception of an ideology falls away. After all, if the nodal-point of each subject-position is a constitutive link in the chain of equivalences that an alliance crystallises around, the dichotomous relationship between expression and reception is proven to be false, and instead we can say that the expression and reception of ideology are the same. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, Laclau and Mouffe move Marxist theory away from the essentialism it is predicated upon by recognising that a binary opposition might exist in politics but it is not dictated by a foundational division (Wenman, 2013: 191). This allows us to move beyond Hall’s assumption in authoritarian populism that the working class is the principal actor that requires representation, and recognise that the working class is merely one of several subject-positions that may even be only incidental in the hegemonic bloc, if it is included at all.
That’s pretty wordy, right? Ironically, theorists so concerned with language seem rarely to make their arguments clearly. But Laclau’s theory can be made simple with a sort of ‘bringing down to earth’ of the terminology used: for instance, rather than ‘nodal-points’ we can say ‘interests’; ‘people’ instead of ‘subject-positions’; and ‘organised activism’ instead of ‘chain of equivalence’ – even if we lose some of the academic nuance in the process. When we say, therefore, that a counter-hegemonic bloc emerges when people align their interests together in the process of building organised activism, we might get closer to a recognisable truth than if I were to write that subject-positions coalesce into nodal-points which tropologically cross-contaminate one another in the chain of difference to articulate a chain of equivalence. And what is the use of academe if not to make intelligible our otherwise self-congratulatory observations?
The upshot is this: Laclau’s concern was to articulate a ‘radical democracy’, and all his work was dedicated to that effect, carried on by his partner Chantal Mouffe. Laclau famously advised the governments of Chavez’s Venezuela, and other left-wing governments across South America. At its heart, Laclau’s theory is about constructing an alternative relationship between identities that can challenge the existing power structure, in such a way that there are a multitude of pressure points applied to the regime simultaneously, but coordinated by a leading identity that is able to foster solidarity between identities so one will not accept its demands being met without others’ demands being met.
Echoes of Laclau
And in the modern world, we can see echoes of Laclau everywhere. We hear that ‘trans rights are human rights’, and that ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’, never mind that the inverse is just as true, that justice anywhere is a challenge to injustice everywhere.
Consider, for instance, the Pride flag. No, not that Pride flag, the new Pride flag; the one that has morphed from a relatively recognisable rainbow-stripe that stood for sexual identities, to one that incorporates a triangle of not only non-sexual but non-mainstream identities (such as transgender and non-binary) but also ethnic minorities and, curiously, something called ‘intersex’. British readers will remember also the television infomercial from last year in which a rainbow (with self-declared “new colours”) trounced around the streets of London offering vague platitudes to inclusivity and diversity.
‘Pride’ means very little these days: a century ago, English speakers might have told you that pride meant a sense of self-worth and came from achievement or a sense of communal solidarity. Of course, this was the seed from which the early Gay Pride movement emerged – a sense that homosexual people ought not to feel ashamed for their sexualities, and instead could find a sense of pride in their community – but this has changed. Some would saw ‘transformed’, some would say ‘developed’, some might say ‘twisted’, but the point remains the same: ‘Pride’ does not mean what it used to. Even a decade ago, the concept of ‘Pride’ was only marginally associated with a socio-political expression of sexual identity; yet, as I say above, it no longer means even that, but an amorphous collection of sexual, racial and ‘intersex’ identities. There is never smoke without fire, and it is the smouldering embers of Laclauian thought below the hot air that fuels the argument the ‘Pride’ movement is now about anything except straight, white males.
Another, equally fascinating Laclauian activist alliance is that one coalescing around climate change. Of course, we have the infamous Extinction Rebellion, who have welded their climate alarmism to anti-capitalism with such deftness that it made perfect logical sense for the XR thugs to shatter the windows of HSBC’s London offices. Perhaps because HSBC was making too much of an overture to Black Lives Matter, but then BLM have also made it clear that a climate crisis is a racist one, according to their logic. There is a certain truth to the claim that climate change affects the poorest the most, but it’s indicative of BLM’s overtly Marxist logic that that must necessarily mean non-white people. As time goes on, we will no doubt hear that homosexuals suffer more from climate change than heterosexuals, though I wonder where transsexuals and bisexuals will fit into this schema.
As I have explained above, the Laclauian formula of the emergence of social identities and counter-hegemonic bloc requires that multiple, otherwise unassociated social identities build a cross-identity alliance that exists to challenge the power of the hegemonic powerbase. At the centre of this bloc, as I say, is the concept of ‘empty signifier’ – a phrase or concept that is ‘filled’ with meaning by the broad socio-political demands of the many nodal points that form the counter-hegemonic alliance – the ‘chain of difference’. Whilst each nodal point has a necessary articulation of its political and popular demands (there is a difference but not one that is particularly relevant at this point), the process of building hegemony is to articulate those demands as aligning together – think ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ – and turn that sense of difference into a positive association by bringing those demands into line behind one foremost demand – the ‘chain of equivalence’.
In many ways, this makes a lot of strategic sense. If a large alliance of multiple different groups fails to articulate its demands coherently and in such a way that that alliance can throw its whole weight behind it, it will fracture and disperse under the incredible weight of the existing hegemonic formation. In a 2001 article for the journal Constellations, ‘Democracy and the Question of Power’, Laclau made this very point: he discussed the emergence of multiple popular demands in major American cities in the 1960s and 1970s, but the state was able to deal with these demands in ‘an administrative fashion’, to the effect that the ‘existing regime’ was able to splinter the separate groups off, and effectively neutralise the threats posed to its regime – as far as Laclau was concerned.
The change in the Pride flag is a study in Laclauian counter-hegemony. The empty signifier of ‘Pride’ was articulated in line with the nodal point of homosexuality, but the extension of the chain of difference to, first, transgender identities, then non-binary identities, last year to black and ethnic minority identities (mostly in response to the BLM movement – also a study in Laclauian counter-hegemony, as I show below) and now, apparently, extended to ‘intersex’ communities (which supposedly exist in the plural) – the empty signifier may now be as full as it can be, but it certainly is no longer just about gay people. Instead, the articulation of ‘Pride’ has stretched across the power-excluded nodal-points to move from a sense of pride in the homosexual identity and community to, first, an articulation of homosexuals as inherently excluded from the institutions of power, and subsequently an alignment of the nodal point of homosexuality to other, power-excluded nodal points.
What should be done?
There is no denying, in my mind, that Laclau is one of the most influential theorists of activism in the contemporary period. His study of democracy-as-populism-as-hegemony has been extraordinarily perceptive in peeling back the curtain and seeing how activist groups can work together to achieve their goals.
This is not to say Laclau, as a leftist, cannot be listened to by those on the right. Increasingly there are rumblings of the need for a ‘right wing Gramscianism’, but that would inevitably fall into the problems inherent in Gramsci that Laclau rightly highlighted: material determinism and the presumption of a fixed social field in which all behaviour occurs. So, should the right adopt a ‘right wing Laclauism’? Well, yes and no.
In many ways it already has been experimenting with this. When the Donald Trump 2016 campaign got truly underway, you saw the fascinating emergence of ‘LGBT for Trump’ and the claims that LGBT people were safer if their Second Amendment rights were protected. In the wider Republican party, Laclauian analysis can help to explain the increasing overtures given by the Republicans to the growing demographic of Catholic Hispanics, who share their religious ideals with the ‘Moral Majority’ – but this can only help, not satisfy, that explanation. Every one of us has multiple identities in ourselves, and we are not merely one or the other, which has always been the issue posed at election time, of whether economic demands will win out over identity concerns (see Reagan’s famous ‘Is it easier for you to buy things in the stores?’ 1979 campaign video).
In Britain, meanwhile, the conservative movement is facing a problem with the recent victories in Red Wall areas, as the diverse demands of South Eastern Middle Class Tories – more likely to be materially secure, and culturally liberal – clashes with the new Midlands and Post-Industrial Working Class Tories – more likely to be materially insecure, and culturally conservative. None of this is to say whether the Tories will embrace the growing ethnic minority vote, which is religiously conservative but sceptical of how welcoming Britain will be for them.
In many ways, the right has been experimenting with a Laclauian project for a while, but it needs to be conscious of the inherent warning in Laclau’s theory: that if a chain of equivalence extends too far, the original nodal point will empty of meaning as it tries to be too many things to too many people – see Theresa May’s ill-fated 2017 General Election campaign.
Regardless, intellectual conservatives need to be more aware of Ernesto Laclau. He has shaped the activist world more than we give him credit for.
- Adamson, W. (1980), Hegemony and Revolution, California: University Press
- Femia, J. (1987), Gramsci’s Political Thought, Oxford: Clarendon Press
- Gramsci, A. (1971), Selections from the Prison Notebooks, London: Lawrence and Wishart
- Laclau, E. (1996), Emancipation(s), London: Verso
- Laclau, E. (2001), ‘Democracy and the Question of Power’, Constellations, Vol 8 (1), pp. 3-14
- Laclau, E. (2005), On Populist Reason, London: Verso
- Laclau, E. & Mouffe, C. (2014), Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, 3rd Edition, London: Verso Books
- Marx, K. & Engels, F. (1992), The Communist Manifesto, Oxford: University Press
- Rojek, C. (2003) Stuart Hall, London: Polity Press
- Simon, R. (2015), Gramsci’s Political Thought: An Introduction, London: Lawrence and Wishart