Walking between precipices: An interview with Ernesto Laclau

Hegemony vs. reification,
Gramsci contra Lukács .

Platypus Review 2
February 1, 2008
Ashleigh Campi

May 2014: Ernesto Laclau, the post-Marxist Argentine political theorist of populism and democracy, died a little under a month ago. I’m reposting this interview Ashleigh Campi conducted several years ago with him because I think it gets at some of the tensions within Marxist thought and the differential legacy of concepts like “hegemony” and “reification.” To be sure, I’m not really an admirer of Laclau’s work, and consider post-Marxism (a term coined by Laclau and his French colleague Chantal Mouffe) a form of late capitalist dementia, a senility of sorts. But it is one that expresses a broader pattern of degeneration across the board during the 1980s, that is not merely the fault of various intellectuals’ “loss of nerve” or idiosyncratic “deviations.” It reflects an objective political reality that had regressed from the position it occupied even a few decades earlier.

February 2008: Confronting the confusion and fragmentation that wrought progressive politics in recent decades, Ernesto Laclau’s work attempts to theorize the path to the construction of a radical democratic politics. Drawing on Gramsci’s concept of hegemony to devise his own theory by that name, Laclau describes the processes of social articulation that creates popular political identities. By redefining democratic politics as the construction of hegemony, Laclau reminds political actors of the work necessary to construct the plurality of democratic structures vital to any emancipatory political project. In December 2007, Laclau sat down to talk about the use and misuse of Marx’s theories, and what he sees as the essential questions for political theory today. Laclau teaches political theory at the University of Essex and at Northwestern University, in Chicago. .


Ashleigh Campi: In describing the process of uniting disparate social demands behind a common politics, your work argues that the proliferation of social movements and politicization of certain identities in recent decades offers the potential for a deepening of the democratic process and presents new possibilities for social emancipation. Politics is to be understood as process through which demands are articulated by particular identities; immigrants, public-housing residents, the unemployed, etc. Do you see this emphasis on the plurality of political demands as a challenge to the creation of a coherent progressive politics?

Ernesto Laclau: I think we are dealing with two edges of a sword, because on the one hand it is obvious that the horizontal proliferation of social demands in recent decades is enlarging the area from which an emancipatory project can be launched. On the other hand to put together all of these social demands in a coherent project is more complicated than when people thought that there was just one social agent of emancipation which was the working class. For instance, I remember thirty years ago in San Francisco; everybody said that we had all the conditions for a very large emancipatory movement, popular pole etc., because we had the demands of the chicanos, the demands of the blacks, the demands of the gays, but at the end of the day, some of these demands clashed with the demands of the other groups, so nothing happened. There have been attempts like the Rainbow Coalition of Jesse Jackson to put together a plurality of these demands but the task is not easy; the Rainbow Coalition didn’t have a particularly good end. So I think that the dilemma of contemporary politics is how to create a unity out of diversity. That is the political challenge that we are facing today.

Ashleigh Campi: You’ve described the process of radicalizing political demands as the process through which disperse localized claims become discursively linked such that political subjects come to identify themselves in common as the bearers of rights that are not being met by an institutional order. This unity then becomes asserted as the demand for the radical overhaul of the institutional order, or some process of radical reform or revolution. Does this common antagonism provide a sufficient mechanism of unification among ‘the people’ of democratic politics to allow them to carry out the task of self-governance?

Ernesto Laclau: Well, I have tried to argue that all demands taking place in a public sphere are always internally divided. For instance you can have a demand for higher wages, but if it is articulated in some kind of repressive regime in which the demand is not immediately responded to, on the one hand the demand will have its particular content (higher wages), but on the other hand people will see the demand as a challenge to the existing system as a whole. Because of this second, more universal side of the demand, the demand could generate other social demands whose content is very different from the first; for instance, student demands for increasing autonomy in schools will start to form an equivalential relation so that the two demands, higher wages and increased autonomy — which are very different from the point of view of their particularity, come to be seen as equivalent in their opposition to a regime which is challenged by both. Thirdly let’s suppose that you have a third demand: the demand for freedom of the press from some liberal sector. Again this demand is a particularity that establishes the opposition to an existing state and creates some equivalential relations and in this way it constructs what I would call an equivalential chain. Now, at some point you would see not only the individual demand, but the chain of demands as a whole. At that point, because the means of representation of this chain is one individual demand — this demand is charged with the function of representing the whole. This is an example that I have used in my work: the demands of Solidarnosc in Poland. In the beginning there were the demands of a group of workers in the Lenin shipyards in Gdansk, but because these demands took place in a situation in which many other demands were not recognized by a repressive regime, these demands assumed the function of representing the whole. This is what I call an empty signifier. Why empty? Because, if the signifier is going to represent the totality of the chain, it has to abandon its only relationship with the particular demand from which it originated, and it has to represent a vast array of demands which are in an equivalential relationship; so it is less clearly a particularity and more and more a universal, and at the same time it is a hegemonic signifier because it has the function of representing — through its particular body — the universality transcending it. As I see it, this is the process of generation of a popular will as a whole. But as we were saying before there are counter tendencies that go against this popular representation of the collective will. For instance there is the tendency to reduce each demand to its own particularity so that this equivalential effect — the construction of the popular will — is finally defeated. And in the societies in which we live, these two tendencies — the tendency toward universalization through the production of empty signifiers and the tendency towards the particularism of the special demands — create a tension that is the very terrain in which the political is constructed.

Ashleigh Campi: Your work offers an attempt to theorize the possibility of a democratic system that can remain open to the constant flux of the social and the possible inclusion of political otherness. Do you see the creation of such a system as the main task of emancipatory politics. Does this participatory dimension ensure the progressive nature of a democratic system?

Ernesto Laclau: I think so. I think that the construction of a democratic system depends on two dimensions that are to some extent at odds with each other, and to some extent are complimentary. On the one hand — democracy involves the extension of the points of rupture through which the underdog expresses itself. This is the horizontal dimension, which is given by the horizontal expansion of demands: the chain of equivalences. On the other hand you have the vertical pole, which is the unification of this chain around some kind of a central signifier. Now these two tendencies are not brought together by some sort of square circle: there is a tension between the two, but the two are necessary in order to construct democratic politics. Let me give you an example: in Argentina in 2001, we had an economic crisis. As a result, many sectors that had been excluded from the public sphere started demonstrating and carried out actions that brought about their entrance into the public sphere: the piqueteros, the occupation of factories, the cutting of routs and so on. On the other hand, there was the political system as such — and at the beginning this horizontal pole negated the possibility of participation in the political system; their motto was, “que se vayan todos” (“out with all of them”), meaning the political class as a whole. This however could not be a lasting politics, because there was going to be one who remained in power, and if this one was elected by nobody it was not going to be particularly desirable. So we arrived to the election in 2003 without popular participation and the election resulted in the most classic party-ocracy; but things turned out all right because the one who was elected was Kirchner, and Kirchner had a project of expansion of democracy. Between the vertical pole of politics and the horizontal expansion of popular demands there was some kind of a process of mutual re-alimentation. The political spectrum has moved far more to the left than it was in 2002.

Ashleigh Campi: I think one could also pose the question: to what extent were those demands that were more integrated into the system under the Kirchner administration actually met? I think this tension you describe is at the root of the debate about co-optation versus participation — along with unification and institutionalization we often see the de-radicalization of many groups. How can one remain critical to the way in which these different social actors become integrated into the democratic process, given the fact that some of their demands are met, and some are not?

Ernesto Laclau: Well listen, Lenin used to say that politics means walking between precipices. You can go to one side of the precipice as opposed to the other side. Cooptation is one possible precipice. If you have some demands that are partially met, and you are integrated into the system, in that case there is cooptation and you have clearly a failure of the emancipatory project. If on the other hand you keep a purely sterile position of protest outside of the system, in the short or long term what is going to happen is that the movement disintegrates because it is reaching nothing: it is a moment of total political sterility. In between these two extremes you have to find a medium way, which is politically effective. In Argentina we cannot say whether this medium terrain has been reached or not. And I don’t know if actually when we speak about these types of processes a definite answer can ever be given. But there is not doubt that the political spectrum as result of the integration of these two dimensions has moved sharply to the left. It is a far more left-wing public sphere than the one we had in 2003. Perhaps the second example that I was going to give you is even more telling: the example of the construction of the hegemony of the Italian communist party after the Second World War. After the Second World War there was a discussion about how to build up party politics in Italy and there were two positions; one position said: well we are the party of the working class; the working class is an enclave in the industrial north, so we have to be the party of the industrial north. The other position (which was more Gramscian, and in the end imposed itself because Palmiro Togliatti, the general secretary of the party, supported it) said: no, we are going to build up the hegemony of the party also in southern Italy, where the working class is very weak. So how should we do that? Well, simply we will transform the premises of the trade union and the party as the uniting point of a set of diverse social struggles. For example the struggle for the supply of water, the struggle against the mafia, the struggle for food cooperatives and so on. So that in the end many disperse demands came together in the same equivalential chain. So there you have the bad possibility that you proposed — these demands on the one hand acquire much more solidity by becoming unified to the communist party equivalential chain — they became more effective. But on the other hand they became subordinated to the communist party general ideology, so the possibility of their sterilization through a party controlling mechanism was there. But at the same time if they had remained disperse and so on they would have had no effect. And in fact in the 50’s and 60’s in Italy the communist party was a powerful mechanism for transforming Italy into a more democratic society, because through this mechanism many parties that were previously excluded from the public sphere became incorporated into the public sphere. Later on in the 1960’s they started having problems because a new set of demands that they could no longer control came to the fore. You had the feminist movement, which in Italy was not like in the Anglo-Saxon world, a movement of students and intellectuals, in Italy it was a popular movement; you had a demonstration of 10,000 women in the streets but they were proposing advocating things that could not enter into the communist project. They were for instance advocating copulation without penetration. And so it was difficult for them [the communist party] to observe that. And at the same time there were wildcat strikes that passed over the trade union organization while the communist party was trying to consolidate the trade union organization. And then there was the student movement in ’68, and so on. The communist party at that time lost the way a bit, and their decline as a hegemonic force in the left started from that period. But in the previous twenty years they had been a powerful force of democratization in Italy. And there you have these two dangers that we were mentioning were quite operative.

Ashleigh Campi: These political demands, when they start out at least, are isolated to specific social instances: to specific times and places. In each instance they respond to different power structures and social problems. We can see how a political demand could be created that would not be of very much use to emancipatory politics because it is very arbitrary or very specific to a particular problematic. In your vision of politics is there room for weighing the content of different demands and prioritizing them?

Ernesto Laclau: I don’t want to give the impression that I am saying that it was simply a subjective failure of the communist party, because the truth is that all of these new types of demands were responding to an objective change in capitalist development. At the beginning of the second post-world war period, you still had the inheritance of the old structure of the working class movement: capitalism was essentially industrial capitalism, the trade unions were essentially industrial trade unions, and around the big industrial cities in the west you had the so called red belts — which were constituted by the trade unions, the communist party and so on — which were the focus of a strong proletarian culture and identity. Now then comes the transition to post-Fordism, firstly the industrial workers start loosing centrality — there is a terciarization of the economy. And so if you wanted to have radical protest, they were not going to come, as in the past, from typical working class values, they were going to come from some kind of imaginary re-aggregation of things: the culture of the young, ethnicity and this set of things, which were totally different in nature. Now the big communist parties in the West, but also the Labor party in Britain, were constituted around the old industrial union identity. At the moment when this new proliferation of demands started they were quite unprepared to meet this historically changing climate. Today the red belts no longer exist, neither in France nor in Italy, not even in Britain; the trade unions have lost all their old centrality. This is where we come back to your first question: you have a dispersal of social demands, a new way in which they had to be put together, and no objective mechanism which ensures that the centrality of what we have called the empty signifier, is going to be linked to a class position. It is going to be linked to the ability of these elements to put together a much wider set of social demands.

Let me give an example: Marx, in Capital asserted that unemployment is simply a temporary phenomenon that had to be conceptualized in terms of the industrial reserve army. If two workers are unemployed, they are unemployed but they are still functional to capitalism because there is a demand for employment that is more than the request for workers. So the result is that these two unemployed workers are still functional — this is what Marx thought — for capitalism, because they push down the level of wages and increase the rate of profit. Marx thought that project had a limit, which was the subsistence level: if the wages went below the subsistence level, the workers rise and the system cannot work. Let’s suppose that you have two unemployed workers, and these unemployed workers are enough to push down wages to the subsistence level — so they are still functional. Now let’s suppose that instead of two unemployed workers, you have four unemployed workers — in that case these two more are no longer functional because they cannot push the level of wages below the subsistence level. And the more you have unemployed workers, the more you are going to have a marginal mass which is no longer functional in terms of capitalist rationality. Now the evolution of world capitalism has lead to a situation in which the marginal mass of the unemployed in third world countries — even through the disguised unemployment in advanced capitalist countries — is an increasingly considerable section of the population, so that the possibility of defining places of resistance in terms of precise positions in the relations of production is increasingly put into question. For instance in the 1930s in the middle of the world economic crisis, Trotsky said that if unemployment continued the way in which it was at that moment in the capitalist world, one would have to rethink the whole Marxian theory of social classes, because the idea that it is through a precise position in the process of production that the contestation of the system takes place — is put into question, and as a result of this, the centrality of the working class as a homogeneous category was necessarily questioned. Now, everything that has happened since the 1930s goes in that direction — that is to say you have more marginal sectors — in Africa, but also many kind of phenomena in the advanced capitalist countries and you will see that the relative role of the trade unions is constantly decreasing in representing the traditional working class, and that these other sectors are not represented by any kind of corporative organization, but are largely left to an articulation which has to be essentially political. We are living in a different world. I think one can think of globalized capitalism as a force that is marginalizing many people but not necessarily in terms of their position in the process of production. For instance globalized capitalism creates ecological problems, and you can have people resisting the installation of factories in some areas because of the polluting effects; you can have an imbalance between different sectors of the economy created by international finance. So you are in a society that is creating more and more dislocations through the process of globalization. The theory of Marxism finally is a theory of an increasing homogenization of social structure under capitalism. It said, as a result of capitalist development, the middle classes and the peasantry will disappear, and the end of the conflict of history will be a simple show down between a homogenized working class and the bourgeoisie. But this is not what has happened. What has happened is that there is an increasing heterogeneity in the social structure, but this heterogeneity has not brought about a diffusion of social conflicts. What has been generated is the proliferation of points of rupture in capitalism that as a result has brought to the fore the need for creating a unification through political means of what classical Marxism thought was going to be an automatic result of the development of economic forces. So if you look today at the anti-globalization movement or the alter-globalization movement — you see this proliferation of things. In the meetings in Porto Alegre, you see that there are all kinds of specialized workshops: women’s empowerment, homosexuals in California, anti-institutional groups and so on, each with their particular organization and separate issues. On the other hand, there is the attempt to create themes that circulate among all these different groups, creating some kind of global consciousness. Now this is very different in terms of internationalization than the classic internationals of the 19th or 20th century, which were based in the common identity of the worker through the trade union and the parties. Here you have a very heterogeneous social base, but however, some efforts at universalization.

Ashleigh Campi: Accepting that we can no longer see an analysis of wage labor as revealing an inherent contradiction in social reality under capitalism that will lead to a necessary emancipatory movement in politics — would you none the less agree that Marx’s analysis of capital, as a reified form of expression of value continues to be useful in analyzing the organization of social life? To what extent do you see the problem of the universality of the commodity-form in mediating productive activity, and the resultant subordination of other forms of social wealth, as an obstacle to progressive politics?

Ernesto Laclau: I think it is, to that extent I would accept your point, but I want to be precise about what this means. I think there is a logic of commodity production which Marx has clarified better than anybody else, much better than, for instance, classical political economists: Smith or Ricardo. On the other hand, we have to see exactly where the antagonism created by the commodity form lies. I would agree that the commodity-form, and especially the commodity-form as incorporated by capitalism, is the source of strong antagonistic potentials. But where does the moment of antagonism lie? There are two possibilities, which I have tired to analyze in my work. Firstly there is the possibility that the very form of commodity is the source of the antagonism, or there is the possibility that the form of commodity clashes with something which is external to it. Let me explain what I want to say: in some sense, the analysis of Marx leads to the idea that the contradiction between worker and capitalism is to be derived from the very logic of capital. If it is going to be derived from the very logic of capital, you have to reduce the social actors to that very logic. For instance, capitalism doesn’t count as a capitalist with a particular psychological structure etc., it has to count only as a buyer of labor power. And the worker has to be reduced to the category of seller of labor-power — if the antagonism is inherent to the economic form: worker and proletariat. But the problem comes that if you reduce that relationship to the economic form, there is no antagonism at all. Why? Because you can say perhaps, well — there is an antagonism because the capitalists extract the surplus value from the workers. But that is not the description of an antagonism in the least; it is simply a technical way of organizing production. The antagonism only arises if the worker resists the extraction of surplus value by the capitalist. But you can analyze logically the category of seller of labor power as much as you want, and you will not see at any point that the notion of resistance is a logical consequence. So, the resistance comes if you introduce something external to the relations of production. For instance if you say, we don’t want wages going below a certain level because the worker cannot subsist life, cannot send his children to school, so on and so forth. But in that case the antagonism is not inherent in the relation buyer-seller of labor power, but between the relation of production and the way in which the worker is constituted outside the relations of production. In that case two consequences follow: firstly, that the resistance is not an automatic effect of the relations of production and in fact, in different circumstances and changes in the level of wages, workers react in very different ways. Secondly, and this is the most important point, if now we are dealing with the capitalist relations of production, with the capitalist logic and something which is outside it, as it is from the perspective of the worker — there is no reason to think that the only resistance to capitalism is going to come from the worker, because as we were saying before it [capitalism] can create ecological problems, it can create imbalances between economic spheres, center and periphery, and so on. And in that sense you are dealing with more heterogeneous antagonisms to capitalism that have to be created through political articulation, and the theory of hegemony is exactly about the logics of this creation.

Ashleigh Campi: In approaching politics, do you think we should understand capitalism as representing a historically specific, reified form of social relations that poses a challenge to the greater social control over production? In confronting the ubiquity of the commodity form in capitalist social relations, should we think of our politics in terms of a radical break with capitalism, or should we look toward other forms of social organization for the root of the problem, and possible solutions?

Ernesto Laclau: There are several questions there. Firstly, social control is control by whom? Because if it is an instance that one calls the state, the question is to what extent this state is a representative of the social will or to what extent this state is some kind of institutional excrescence which is separated from the social will, because the question is how to constitute a social will, and how to have this social will crystallized in an institution. The attempt to think that automatically the state represents the social will lead to the whole disaster of the Soviet experience. So if one thinks of a more democratic mediation of the social will, the problem is how particularity and universality can be combined in such a situation. I completely agree that savage capitalism, in which the mechanism of the market controls everything is a disaster as much as the bureaucratic state of the Soviet system. But the whole problem, which is the problem we have been discussing from the beginning, is how this social control is going to be constituted: through what kind of institutional mechanisms, how the will of the people will act, how you supersede the opposition between the particularism of the different wills and the different social elements. So we are in the center of a hegemonic project.

Secondly, let’s go to a category like reification; I totally reject that category. But the reason is that that category is part of a whole scheme: the category of reification was invented by Lukács, actually, although it is some ways present in Marx in the analysis of commodity fetishism. But basically the problem of Lukács was that he saw that the workers were not directly advocating socialism: that in many cases, workers could be co-opted into the system. And he said they had reified consciousness, which he called false consciousness. There is, he said, a distinction between the materiality of the class in which this process of reification operates, and the consciousness of the proletariat, because it is not in the class as a materiality — empirical workers — it has to be crystallized in an instance different from the materiality of the workers, which is going to be the party. So the party plays the role of fulfilling the class-consciousness of the proletariat. The point is that in order to speak of reification, alienation, true consciousness, you have to have the notion of a contradiction which is at the level of the relations of production which is exactly what we were putting into question before by saying that there is a moment of heterogeneity, because to say alienation means that you had to have something as a true consciousness.

If you compare, for instance, Lukács and Gramsci, you immediately see the difference. For Lukács the agent of revolutionary change, or emancipatory change, not necessarily revolutionary, is the working class. For him the position of the worker in the relations of production is what destines the worker to be a revolutionary or emancipatory agent. Now the problem was that he saw that the workers as empirical agents did not live up to this emancipatory project, which their position destined them to. Now he said they are alienated because they have been reified by capitalism, and so between the place where the consciousness of the proletariat is constituted and the materiality of the proletariat as a class, there is going to be a gap. So this makes necessary the instance of the communist party, and the communist party had to be the true embodiment of the class-consciousness of the proletariat that the proletariat as a class cannot develop. Now the position of Gramsci is completely different: globalized capitalism creates a multiplicity of conflicts, and the task is to bring about this consciousness in something that would be a revolutionary, an emancipatory project, but this emancipatory project does not have a privileged point of anchoring as it does for Lukács, in the relations of production. So this hegemonic construction — the construction of working class hegemony, is a necessary process related to a class position within the relations of production. This construction means that you are bringing together a set of heterogeneous elements, through which capitalism creates different types of imbalances and dislocations, around a center. The argument works in a completely different way than in Lukács, and there is no place there for categories such as alienation or reification. |P

3 thoughts on “Walking between precipices: An interview with Ernesto Laclau

  1. Pingback: Ernesto Laclau on the State | Paths to Utopia

  2. Pingback: Non-identity and negation | The Charnel-House

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