Laclau and Mouffe on Hegemony

Laclau, Ernesto and Chantal Mouffe. 1985. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Toward a Radical Democratic Politics. 2nd Edition. London: Verso.

The authors situate their book with what they perceive as a crisis of Marxism in the mid 1970’s, and they position themselves and their intellectual offering as a Post-Marxism. Their project is very explicitly a Marxism beyond class that, for them, requires a rethinking of the political and the social. They claim that “deeper levels of contingency require hegemonic—that is, contingent—articulations” while the “notion of the subject before subjectification establishes the centrality of the category of ‘identification’ and makes it possible, in that sense, to think of hegemonic transitions which are fully dependent on political articulations and not on entities constituted outside the political field—such as ‘class interests’” (xi).

Their premise around crises of Marxism is that class as an “objective” economic category has not corresponded with social consciousness of the category as a basis for political mobilization. They see the concept of “hegemony” reappearing in the Marxist tradition whenever there is an attempt to resolve this non-correspondence in praxis. However, they maintain that the failure to seize upon the political possibilities opened up by the concept of hegemony has rested on a crude economism, a politics of class essentialism, and a teleological view of history. Hegemony, for them, poses the possibility that “unity between agents is then not the expression of a common underlying essence but the result of political construction and struggle” (65).

In the final pages of the book they note, “It is only when the open, unsutured character of the social is fully accepted, when the essentialism of the totality and of the elements is rejected, that this potential [that of hegemony] becomes clearly visible and ‘hegemony’ can come to constitute a fundamental tool for political analysis on the left” (192-193). In its previous iterations, hegemony, they claimed, retained not only a class essentialism, it was also presupposed as undemocratic—one class or sector “leads” another. This is especially true in Lenin’s formulation of the concept that they claim already had the seeds of authoritarianism within it.

For Laclau and Mouffe, class is never an a priori formation to the realization of hegemony; any subject position is already caught up in hegemonic relations. They say a priori, essentialist notions of class have hobbled Marxist praxis for too long. They make a chain of links between economism, stagism, classism, essentialism, stateism, and failure.

Moreover, class does not seem to them to be the most fruitful avenue for building hegemonic articulations among and between subjects, who are always multi-positioned. The trick is for these positions to articulate—be expressed/created and conjoined—into an ever-shifting (hegemonic) historic bloc that can formidably fight within the collective antagonisms of democracy. They believe that a socialist-oriented hegemonic bloc can shift liberal democracy toward radical and plural democracy for a more just and egalitarian society. A chain of equivalents accomplishes the evolving solidity of these hegemonic articulations: in other words, anti-capitalism, anti-sexism, anti-racism becoe to be understood as equivalent and necessary parts of the same struggle. Of course, as these struggles come into contact with each other, they also change in mutual reciprocity, so articulation is a multi-directional joining and refining of forces.

But that’s not all. The real work of an alternative hegemony consists in shifting the terms of political discourse and creating a new definition of reality; this, they claim, is the real process of building hegemony through articulations of various subject positions, and this is not necessarily mediated in/by the state itself. “Clearly, when we speak of here of the ‘political’ character of these struggles, we do not do so in the restricted sense of demands which are situated at the level of parties and of the State. What we are referring to is a type of action whose objective is the transformation of a social relation which constructs a subject in a relationship of subordination” (153). This is why they emphasize Gramsci’s notion of a war of position as so central to their project. They claim that Gramsci’s war of position is a revolution; or, at least, that revolution is internal to the war of position.

Clearly, their arguments fundamentally rely on particular notions of “subject” and “discourse.” They use “subjects” in the sense of “‘subject positions’ within a discursive structure.” “Subjects cannot, therefore, be the origin of social relations—not even in the limited sense of being endowed with powers that render an experience possible—as all ‘experience’ depends on precise discursive conditions of possibility” (115). Discourse, meanwhile, is defined very broadly: “This totality which includes within itself the linguistic and the non-linguistic, is what we call discourse. In a moment we will justify this denomination; but what must be clear from the start is that by discourse we do not mean a combination of speech and writing, but rather that speech and writing are themselves but internal components of discursive totalities” (From “Post-Marxism Without Apologies”). Discourse makes subjects, and not the other way around.

I find their arguments compelling, though not without its problems. Fealty to Gramsci is not the issue, particularly since they are explicitly seeking to go “beyond” the Sardinian. I think their broadening of the concept of hegemony and the attempt to build into it ideas about subjectivity and discourse are important—setting aside compatibilities with how Gramsci perceived these issues. My main problem involves the sort of Althusserian discussion of “levels” (political, economic, social). Not only would Gramsci reject such divisions (cf. his work on base/superstructure), but also in a more important regard it seems rather inconsonant with their own explanations of social change and articulations. The strategic results (shortfalls in my view) of these divisions become evident when they begin discussing neoliberalism and democratic (radical or otherwise) politics. Neoliberalism clearly articulates these “levels” into an intractable-conjoined political, social and economic program, Laclau and Mouffe’s suggestions seem to disable analysis of such formations and the making of an equally intractable alternative.


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