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. Continue reading

Antiurban political economists in Scotland after Smith

James Anderson on
town and country

Image: Painter William Wylde’s
Manchester, from Kersal Moor (1852)

A couple days ago I somehow found myself reading Adam Anderson, Dugald Stewart, Arthur Young, and James Anderson, all lesser economists of the Scottish Enlightenment. This was part of my background reading on the antithesis between town and country.

Last week I posted some classical bourgeois views on the issue. While James Steuart and the French Physiocrats idealized the countryside somewhat, assigning it priority over the emerging commercial and industrial centers of modern Europe, Smith stressed a kind of harmonious reciprocity or equilibrium between the two. Smith stood virtually alone in advocating for the city. His successors in fact opposed his position.

I’m reposting a section of James Anderson’s 1794 article “Of Manufacturing and Agriculture” here to give a sense of the deep conservatism of antibourgeois, anti-liberal aristocrats after Smith. Not until Ricardo and Sismondi were the main lines of Smith’s argument extended in any measurable way. Even then, Ricardo was never as keen on the novelty of capitalist conurbations, and Sismondi succumbed at times to romanticism in favoring “territorial wealth” (agriculture, the countryside) over “commercial wealth” (industry, the town).

The radicalism of Smith’s economic theory comes through especially sharply when contrasted with tracts like this.

William Hogarth's Harlot's Progress, Plate II (1732), in which Molly seduces a depraved Jewish urbanite

William Hogarth’s Harlot’s Progress, Plate II (1732),
in which Molly seduces a depraved Jewish urbanite

Of manufacturing and agriculture

James Anderson

Manufactures are subjected to great variations in the demand at market. Sometimes the orders for those of one sort are so great, that the highest exertions are required for supplying that demand. During this period every thing assumes the most inviting appearance. The master manufacturers have it in their power to enhance the price or diminish the quality. Their profits are great. Every one is anxious to obtain as great a share as possible in this gainful business; he tries to obtain as many hands as possible; journeymen, of course, become scarce, and obtain higher wages; this induces more persons to enter into that business. All is life and bustle; and smiling prosperity brightens every countenance. The lower classes of the people are enabled to pick and cull the nicest viands; for rearing which the farmer gets great prices, so as to enable him to abandon more common articles of produce. Continue reading