Andrew Robinson - Theory Blog

Friday, October 08, 2004

Social Exclusion in the Work of Laclau and Mouffe (unpublished)

Andrew Robinson

This essay is a critique of the patent lack of “radicalism” of one of the most influential contemporary schools of “radical” theory. Contemporary theory operates in the context of a social system which is fundamentally exclusionary and therefore oppressive. Ruling elites establish their dominance by setting up criteria of normality, acceptability and success, and punishing those who exceed these criteria. To be radical is to be involved in a deep-rooted challenge to this system, as part of a struggle for the emancipation of excluded groups. Laclau and Mouffe claim to be part of “radical” theory, or more specifically, to be “radical democrats”. However, their own approach is highly exclusionary. They explicitly commit themselves to political positions which provide an alibi for practices of exclusion and oppression, usually by declaring these to be constitutive. Their advocacy of social exclusion throws doubt on their radicalism and on their ability to provide an alternative to overtly pro-capitalist ideologies such as neo-liberalism. In this paper, I shall offer a critique of their theories by demonstrating the centrality of their advocacy of exclusion in the construction of their political theory. I shall also examine the probably underlying basis of their lack of radicalism, focusing on psychological presuppositions and alignments which can be deduced from their explicit statements.

Laclau and Mouffe’s advocacy of exclusion follows from their belief in constitutive lack. “Radical democracy” is supposed to be the institutional realisation of an acceptance that lack is the essence of the social. ‘In a modern democratic society… division must be recognized as constitutive’.
[2] Such ideas of constitutive lack are often mistaken for a radical theme because of their association with the deconstruction of the unitary image of the subject. In practice, however, such ideas are conservative, since they suggest that an underlying ontological necessity destroys any possibility of overcoming social problems, especially the problem of social exclusion. The ethical imperative of a politics based on the idea of constitutive lack is an imperative to “accept”, “recognise” and “embrace” antagonism and conflict as constitutive necessities - for instance, to accept the necessity of exclusion and of the construction of an “us” and a “them”. Violence is to be accepted as part of human nature, and as part of something called the “dimension of the political” which is treated in a manner akin to an essence.[3] The political ‘must be conceived as a dimension which is inherent in every human society and that determines our very ontological condition’.[4] Hence, antagonism is something ‘we should celebrate and enhance’.[5] Constitutive antagonism is taken to necessitate in particular the structure of “hegemony”, whereby a particular social group pretends to express the role of the absent universal and thereby excludes other groups. Such “hegemony” necessitates the existence of a state as the expression of this group. The “acceptance” of “antagonism” means reconciling oneself to social exclusion and violence. It should be realised that the idea of “constitutive lack” is not “anti-essentialist” and “anti-foundational” as its advocates would have us believe. The demand that the reader “accept” the underlying truth of ontological antagonism is a reformulation of the Enlightenment imperative to reject falsehoods and embrace the truth, however painful.

However problematic, the idea of the necessity of lack does not necessarily lead to an advocacy of social exclusion. To bridge the gap, one needs to add the further foundational assumption that it is necessary, in spite of the primacy of lack, to construct an illusion of social harmony by arbitrarily imposing one element in the place of the universal. Where Laclau and Mouffe derive this necessity (also described, for instance, as a necessity of order or of social unity) is not clear, but it is clearly linked to the kind of political problems they set out to solve. They define the problems of the present, not in terms of the threat posed to actual people by global capitalism and an ever more violent state, but in terms of a supposedly growing problem of a chaotic mess of pluralisms which threaten the possibility of “democratic” unity and identity. The threat posed by the ‘loss of common premises’ is ‘certainly a danger’
[6] and liberalism is menaced by an ‘exacerbation of differences and disintegration’,[7] an ‘explosion of nationalisms and the multiplication of particularisms’[8] and a problem of ‘growing ungovernability’.[9] It is because of this view of social problems that Mouffe sees a “refusal” to “accept” antagonism as a threat to democracy. She therefore endorses something very similar to the conservative idea that social breakdown is occurring due to decadence. She also endorses the usual solution: that there is a need for a ‘new form of bond’ to ‘infuse a little enthusiasm into our societies’.[10] If my claims about Laclau and Mouffe’s conservatism seem implausible, one should note the enthusiasm with which they endorse many of the views of conservative and authoritarian authors such as Hobbes, Schmitt, Oakeshott, Rorty and Walzer. That the “antagonism” they seek is statist in form is clear from a particular passage where Laclau conceives of force as a way of ‘dealing with a rapist’.[11] Of course, since rape is a form of violence, its existence shows a society to already contain antagonisms; the fact that Laclau only mentions the “force” of the response suggests that the idea of the “necessity of antagonism” actually means the “necessity” of state violence.

The means of achieving the “new social bond” include an endorsement of an irrationalist defence of existing traditions which is reminiscent of Conservative Revolution imaginaries. Mouffe in particular tends to do this via a selective reading of the work of Wittgenstein. The import of Wittgenstein’s work is primarily radical, undermining the false “universal” claims of dominant groups by emphasising the dependence of these on particular forms of life. Mouffe, however, ignores this tendency, choosing instead to use the idea of “forms of life” as a pretext to assert that she has a right to embrace existing traditions without offering any reason for doing so. In both Mouffe’s work and Laclau’s, one finds references to ‘our practical life’, ‘our traditions’ and ‘our politics’, as if these somehow prove their validity by simply being ‘ours’. Liberal democracy is justified simply because it is part of ‘our form of life’.
[12] Thus, they directly appeal to their own “form of life” as its own justification, and favour its imposition in a wholly un-Wittgensteinian manner. Mouffe endorses Walzer’s demand that theorist5s ‘stay in the cave’, i.e. in a particular tradition.[13] For Laclau, similarly, social forms are ‘forms without mystery’,[14] and there is no room for a hermeneutics of suspicion to undermine the “traditions” of the existing social system. For both authors, “tradition” is something given in advance, from the outside, by the social system, and it is necessary in order to make all action possible.[15] This conservative attitude to the relationship between the self and the social system is a result of their putting the latter before the former, both ontologically and ethically. One logical conclusion of their appeal to tradition is that Laclau and Mouffe do not think that it is possible for anyone to persuade anyone else of anything by means of rational discussion and/or dialogue. Political questions are not susceptible to rational treatment, and rational argument can only be an appeal to pre-existing shared values constructed on an irrational level.[16] The pursuit of any kind of rational agreement in politics is to be denounced as a denial of the political and as only a step away from totalitarianism.[17] This leaves the way clear for the exclusion of those who fall outside the arbitrarily privileged form of life.

Another consequence is that they attempt to spread their views, not by argument, but by the imposition through ‘ participation in common forms of life’.
[18] Such participation is supposed to produce ‘identification’ with democratic institutions and resultant adherence.[19] This adherence is not to take the form of consent, but only of ‘continuous acknowledgement’ of an ‘obligation to obey’.[20] This makes clear an authoritarian tendency in their work. The idea of ‘participation in common forms of life’ is, like many of Laclau and Mouffe’s phrases, vague and unspecified, but it could easily mean the use of repressive forms of territorialisation and imposed social practices to engineer the kind of “identities” they wish to produce. Mouffe specifically writes of trying to construct particular kinds of identities by setting up the kind of social institutions which produce the ‘conditions of existence of the democratic subject’.[21] This rhetoric is reminiscent of the U.S. intervention in Vietnam, where practices such as saturation bombing, concentration camps, forced urbanisation and defoliation were used to reconstruct the social world so as to produce the conditions of existence of the democratic subject as viewed by the U.S. government. Implicitly, Mouffe is advocating that the state use emotional manipulation and violent territorialisation to limit human experience in such a way as to ensure that people are moulded into the kind of person she advocates. Ontologically, this relies on the idea that social structures are prior to human action, a conception which provides a handy excuse for the violent subordination of the latter by the former. Further, the falsity of this claim is shown by the work of James C. Scott, which reveals that social structures are usually unsuccessful at producing the kind of subject their rulers want. Compelled or manipulated public compliance does not lead to internal affective support but to emotional distance and resultant everyday resistance.

Laclau and Mouffe are strong fetishists of “order”, seeing it as the main goal of social relations. People are supposed to experience the constitutive lack as disorder,
[22] and the resultant pursuit of order is the central goal of the political process. The importance of this theme is clearest in an essay by Laclau and Zac, where they argue that an initial lack of identity necessitates a process of identification. They therefore assert the primacy of the conservative and reactive desire for a founding and guaranteeing social order. They assert this desire to be primary and universal. Politics is, they say, ‘management of the incompletion of society’ through ordering.[23] ‘In a situation of radical disorganisation there is a need for an order, and its actual content becomes a secondary situation’ (MPI 3; c.f. E 44). Radical democracy is to fill this gap, since otherwise, it is open to more authoritarian solutions. The basic demand for an “order” is not to be questioned. Laclau and Zac endorse Thomas Mann’s claim that ‘[o]rganisation is everything. Without it, there is nothing’. Therefore, ‘the principle of organisation’ is ‘the realization of freedom’, or in other words, freedom equals slavery. ‘Freedom is only realised through its alienation’, in the form of ‘law, rule, coercion, system’ and even dictatorship.[24] ‘Order and quiet are good, no matter what one owes them’, and faced with anomie, ‘what would be required would be the introduction of an order, the concrete contents of which would become quite secondary’.[25] ‘We human beings are by nature submissive’, they continue, citing Thomas Mann.[26] Identity itself depends on ‘submission to the Law as the sole source of social objectivity’.[27] One cannot, therefore, depose the role of violent power in society. One can only replace one boss with another.[28] The result of this is that, for Laclau and Mouffe, there is to be no more ‘childish and foolish rebellion’:[29] one is only to rebel in the name of a specific social order which manages the positivity of the social through the imposition of a nodal point.[30] Any order is better than radical disorder.[31] It is important not to question the social order too much, as this leads to identity crisis.[32]

In Laclau and Mouffe’s schema, order is necessary yet impossible. People constantly strive for it, but it can only be achieved in a temporary and contingent way, through the effective hegemony of a particular ordering discourse. The construction of this discourse requires, as part of its attainment of hegemony, the exclusion of particular groups, which are identified with “disorder”. As a slight qualifier, I should add that they tend to prefer (bourgeois liberal) democracy to authoritarian forms of social ordering, but this preference is a secondary one, within a broadly statist project. Democracy is the lesser evil because it involves a less sharp differentiation and a possibility of changing rulers,
[33] but such lesser-evilism is hardly the stuff of radicalism. Democracy needs exclusion because, otherwise, the ‘will of the people’ cannot take shape.[34] Democracy must therefore include a little bit of undemocratic violence, or it cannot exist.[35]

There is slippage in Laclau and Mouffe’s work between the idea that exclusion is unavoidable and the idea that it is desirable. They do not merely assert as a matter of fact that exclusion exists; they also assert that there is an ethical imperative to endorse and embrace it. In its weaker form, this is presented as an imperative to accept the truth of the way the world is. One should not, for instance, ‘disguise’ the ‘reality of conflict’,
[36] and one should abandon the ‘dangerous liberal illusion’ of dialogue which ‘renders us incapable of grasping the phenomenon of politics’.[37] This form of the argument is almost positivist in its insistence on the external reality of what it advocates. What is important is that one ‘acknowledges the real nature of [the social world’s] frontiers and the forms of exclusion they entail, instead of trying to disguise them under the veil of rationality or morality’, or in another passage, ‘coming to terms with’ the ‘nature’ of society.[38] In these cases, the ethical imperative to engage in violence and exclusion is disguised underneath epistemological claims. In other cases, however, it arises directly. The irreconcilable nature of the goals of democracy is taken to be its ‘principal value’,[39] and ‘new political frontiers’ are an ‘urgent need’.[40] Division and struggle are not merely a fact but an ‘ideal’.[41] Social transitions are and should be painful, and Laclau is ‘very much in favour’ of ‘the dimension of violence within reform’. He adds that ‘[a] world in which reform takes place without violence is not a world in which I would like to live’.[42]

The construction of a hegemonic group requires the exclusion of some particular group, which is identified with “disorder”. A democracy must always be the possession of a specific people or demos, and ‘cannot be based on the generality of all mankind’ . It requires distinctions.
[43] Inequality, however ‘unpleasant… to liberal ears’, is necessary in all societies.[44] ‘There will always be a “constitutive outside”, an exterior to the community that is the very condition of its existence’. Therefore, one should accept that ‘there cannot be a “we” without a “them” or “consensus” without “exclusion”’, and ‘the issue can no longer be the creation of a fully inclusive community… [W]e have to come to terms with the impossibility of a full realization of democracy’.[45] ‘What is beyond the frontier of exclusion is reduced to pure negativity - that is to the pure threat that what is beyond poses to the system’.[46] Democratic community ‘hinges on the possibility of drawing a frontier between “us” and “them”,’, and it ‘always entails relations of inclusion-exclusion’.[47] The aim of politics, and of Laclau and Mouffe’s own project, is to construct a “we” by excluding a “them”.[48] Mouffe in particular uses the idea of a friend-enemy division, which she derives from Schmitt, as a basis for criticising liberalism. It is not, however, liberalism’s exclusionism which is the target, but its “denial” of exclusion and “concealment” of political frontiers.[49]

What is crucial here is that the imperative to construct and/or necessity of constructing frontiers precludes the existence of a society without oppression. For instance, ‘[d]estroying the hierarchies on which sexual or racial domination is based will, at some point, always require the construction of other exclusions for collective identities to be able to emerge’.
[50] The good of social unity is supposed to be under threat from a lack of antagonism. ‘Extreme forms of individualism have become widespread which threaten the very social fabric’ and ‘put in jeopardy the civic bond’.[51] Laclau and Mouffe also invoke the threat of “totalitarianism” against opponents. If one does not accept the necessity of exclusion, one is supposedly prone to totalitarian ways of thinking.[52] The ‘bewilderment’ and ‘impotence’ arising from a refusal to accept antagonism is supposed to make it harder to defend liberal institutions[53] and to undermine the efficiency of the social system. The attempt to disguise exclusion ‘creates effects of occultation which hinder the proper workings of democratic politics’.[54] Therefore, for Mouffe, the crucial issue nowadays is ‘how to establish a new political frontier capable of giving a real impulse to democracy’.[55] Because of the structure of definition of social problems, Laclau and Mouffe sacrifice outsiders to an arbitrary practice of social ordering so as to obtain euphoric energy for insiders. They buy the delight of those who receive an exciting illusion of order with the blood of those who are resultantly oppressed and excluded. For the excluded, as Mouffe admits, ‘do not disappear’, and for them, what appears to insiders as a fair and objective order is nothing but a system of coercion and violence. That the state and “political community” depends on such violence does not extend into an ethical critique of the state. Rather, the claim that ‘[n]o state or political order… can exist without some form of exclusion’ is taken to entail the claim that such exclusions are ‘necessary’.[56] It is not taken as a reason for rejecting the idea of “community” and the construction of a “we”, but rather, is taken as an excuse for oppression, because Laclau and Mouffe continue to emphasise the “need” to construct a “we”. Indeed, Mouffe rather threateningly labels the ‘refusal… to construct a “we”’ as a ‘liberal evasion of the political’.[57] The state is above criticism, so the violence necessary to secure its dominance is taken to be pure necessity.

The concern for “order” also expresses itself in other ways. Mouffe in particular places a strong emphasis on rules and on what she calls the res publica, towards which she advocates identification and abject prostration. ‘To be a citizen is to recognize the authority of [political] principles and the rules in which they are embodied’.
[58] People are supposed to ‘accept’ and identify with a language of ‘civil intercourse’ which establishes belonging to the political in-group,[59] as well as to identify with principles and the res publica.[60] People are to ‘fulfil certain public functions and cultivate the requisite virtues’.[61] It is acceptance of rules which is to constitute the unity of democratic society[62] and obedience to rules should for Mouffe be the main focus of political action.[63] People are supposed to ‘accept submission to the rules prescribed by the respublica in seeking their satisfactions and performing their actions’.[64] It is ‘essential to establish a certain number of mechanisms and procedures for arriving at decisions and for determining the will of the state’, which otherwise does not exist.[65] Again, a desire for unity at any cost is the driving force.

Laclau and Mouffe also attach special importance to the state. ‘Citizenship is not just one identity among others’, says Mouffe. It is an ‘articulating principle’.
[66] In other words, the state adopts the position of the master-signifier. The state is not to be one association among many, but is to be given a special status as the representative of the ‘essence of the political’, at the centre of ethics.[67] The state ‘must have primacy’.[68] To deny a role to the state as something ‘different and decisive’, over and above associations, is ‘to deny’ the ‘essence of the political’.[69] The state is to be an ‘object of loyalty’.[70] The identity of “citizen” is to overcode and trump all else, and Mouffe even advocates ‘the love of laws and the fatherland’.[71] Therefore, ‘we must not be led by our defence of pluralism to argue that our participation in the state… is on the same level as our other forms of social integration’.[72] Presumably, she hasn’t noticed that “our participation in the state” occurs at the end of a gun, or a baton; indeed, that unless one is a soldier or a cop, one does not “participate” in the state at all.

Another expression of the same statist idea is the emphasis on what is termed “the Decision”, another theme drawn from the work of the proto-fascist Karl Schmitt. Mouffe in particular openly distances herself from discussion and deliberation, preferring the exclusionary logic of the Decision. For Mouffe, ‘undecidability cannot be the last word. Politics calls for decision’.
[73] The role of politics is to ‘reduce the margin of undecidability’.[74] The political should be ‘the realm of “decision” not free discussion’, a ‘domain of conquering power and repression’ (Schmitt) which does not evade ‘state and politics’.[75] Decisions must necessarily be made by ignoring consequences, motivations and circumstances.[76] This is a worrying theme, since it correlates strongly with the rhetoric of totalitarian political movements. No fewer than three sections of Marcuse’s essay on totalitarianism emphasise decisionism.[77] Laclau misrepresents the need for decisions and dogmas (“facticity”) as a direct result of contingency.[78] In fact, it is only a result of contingency if this remains in the distorted form of negation, with the drive for an essence and a master-signifier persisting after its supposed death.

The politics which results from these various forms of exclusion can become very repressive. For instance, Mouffe denounces individualism for undermining the social fabric,
[79] and claims that the idea that people have rights separate from social institutions is ‘at the origin of our problems’.[80] People are therefore to have no rights except as something conditional on conformity, and Mouffe endorses the idea of ‘the collective aspect of social life as being constitutive’.[81] Citizenship should involve belonging to a prior social whole, not simply holding rights.[82] Citizens are only to receive equal rights to the extent that they are members of the demos.[83] This is a form of entrapment of desire which operates by positing the state as its origin. Further, Mouffe insists that, since liberty is a product of the liberal state, one cannot criticise this state on the grounds of liberty or pluralism.[84] People are to be forcibly subsumed into a model of the ‘radical democratic citizen’,[85] and the state is to be allowed to trample on individual and group demands so as to achieve this greater good. She reduces ethics, including the idea of human rights, to the role of a politically impotent critique,[86] while in practice the process of social ordering is to have a bulldozer relation to the rights of those it confronts. Mouffe does not see how the absence of a discourse of autonomous and self-posited rights gives the green light for the state to do what it likes. Indeed, she actually encourages individuals to be prepared to give up anything and everything at the behest of the state. Acceptance of contingency is supposed to necessitate acceptance of one’s own limitation and contingency, and this is supposed to establish the state’s right to trample on or interfere with one’s own concerns.[87] People are to ‘accept the particularity and limitation of their claims’,[88] i.e. to accept their own repression by the state, and are to avoid ‘non-negotiable moral values’[89] which could limit state power. Yet the state is also a contingent historical construct. Indeed, it is a relatively recent historical invention, and did not exist for tens of thousands of years of human (pre-)history. This contingency is bracketed, whereas individual contingency is put in the foreground. Thus, contingency does not serve to limit or problematise the state, but rather to strengthen it. This shows how it is an essentialist conception of lack which drives Laclau and Mouffe’s theories, rather than an active and open contingency which applies to all social agents. The state, as representative of the essence of lack, is placed above the logic of contingency.

Laclau argues that freedom must be restricted because it is supposedly terrifying. Therefore, a state is needed to protect us from this radical dislocation.
[90] This is an account based on fear of freedom. Active freedom is rendered impossible by the myth of “constitutive lack”, and the threat of breakdown is to be warded off by the “hegemonic” gesture of constructing an arbitrary master-signifier. Without an excluded group, context would be limitless.[91] But what is so bad about a limitless context? Why not embrace the rhizomatic potentialities of smooth space, instead of running to rulers for protection? For Mouffe, ‘[t]he idea of a common good above our private interest is a necessary condition for enjoying individual liberty’.[92] In other words, freedom equals slavery.

Where has this theory gone wrong? Part of the problem is that Laclau and Mouffe start from the wrong place. They deny any independent existence to human subjects and to desire, instead endorsing the Althusserian myth that people are simply effects of external interpellation by language, which operates outside humans as an objective system. In practice, this means that they endorse the repressive practices through which human desire is trapped by and subsumed into systems of representation. Since people are supposedly effects of external traditions and structures, Laclau and Mouffe assume that persuading people is both unnecessary and impossible; rather, if one changes society, people will change to fit into it. The liberal state is given a special status, with alternatives, such as workers’ councils, denounced as out-of-control particularisms.
[93] They are right that “workers’ interests” can be constructed so as to exclude other groups, but they ignore the fact that the liberal state already constructs “the public interest” so as to serve itself.

Also, in Laclau and Mouffe’s theory, we are assumed to have no autonomous force of our own. Indeed, their entire theory depends on a Lacanian model of psychology which itself embraces reactionary themes and which is, in Deleuzian terms, reactive rather than active in structure. Mouffe claims that Lacan has ‘shown’ the necessity of a master-signifier, ‘founded only on itself’ and introducing a ‘non-founded violence’ without which the discursive field would disintegrate.
[94] For her, the role of politics is to provide such a master-signifier. This is an example of the kind of politics which has been effectively debunked by Deleuze, Guattari and Nietzsche. As Deleuze puts it, ‘there are two ways to appeal to “necessary destructions”: that of the poet, who speaks in the name of a creative power, capable of overturning all orders and representations in order to affirm Difference in the state of permanent revolution which characterizes eternal return; and that of the politician, who is above all concerned to deny that which “differs”, so as to conserve or prolong an established historical order… In [the latter] case, it is negation which is the motor and driving force… Nietzsche indicates the terrifying conservatism of such a conception. Affirmation is indeed produced, but in order to say yes to all that is negative and negating, to all that can be denied… They have a terrifying taste for responsibility, as though one could affirm only by expiating, as if it were necessary to pass through the misfortunes of rift and division in order to be able to say yes’.[95] The “contingency” affirmed by Laclau and Mouffe, with its stress on the “need” for an excluded group and for antagonism, is a “contingency” of the type Deleuze here attacks. While they have embraced on the surface the idea of contingency, the idea that “God is dead”, in practice they fetishistically repeat the actions of worship of the corpse of God: they know very well, yet still they are doing it. Perhaps this is because they have reified lack into a positivity by placing it in the position of God. They have not fully embraced the contingency of desire as a constructive force, that is, as a force which can exceed fixed structures and show its symbolic bottom to the name-of-the-father. Rather, they still seek to entrap desire in reactive structures, and to construct a universal “we” through which desire can be overcoded. This includes identification with the oppressor (e.g. with respublica and the state), a classic authoritarian device which Laclau and Mouffe directly advocate. Identification is a particular kind of neurosis which evades a sense of threat through a quasi-delusional conception of self. Reactive desire (which Guattari also terms “microfascism”) is politically reactionary, and, as Marcuse puts it, the enemy overshadows the friend in such approaches. Violence and exclusion become the driving force behind social relations, as a result of which the positive energies of hope, love and the gift are as far as possible trampled and smashed. Laclau and Mouffe are contemptuous of such positive energies - emancipation can, after all, only be an empty signifier - yet it is from such energies that the possibility of a better world arises. If one believes consistently in contingency, one feels the state itself to be intolerable. Instead of diffusing power through a rhizomatic system, it concentrates it as an exclusive privilege of an in-group posited as universal. The practice is contingent, but the structure is absolutist.

Beneath their advocacy of reactive desire lies a fear of freedom which contradicts their radical pretences. This specific, contingent neurotic structure is mistaken for human nature in general. The idea of the necessity of order is basically a restatement of the old excuse that at least Mussolini made the trains run on time. The primacy of the desire for order is a problematic idea. Would people really think that an “order”, and order, is more important than its particular content, even if its particular content happened to mean that they were tortured or killed? Yet this is exactly what Laclau and Mouffe demand, since they accept that “order” leads to violence and exclusion. Worse, since “order” is an empty signifier, it cannot even be used to hold leaders to account: its primacy has the effect of leaving the tyrant’s hands free. In fact, the concepts of “order” and “disorder” are myths in the Barthesian sense. Human action is always the result of conscious or unconscious motives, so that there is no such thing as radical disorder (only different, and sometimes oppressive, “orders”); as a result, there is no such thing as “order as such” either. The concepts of generalised order and disorder are mythical and ideological ways of refusing to engage with the libidinal and motivational structure of opposing movements. They are an excuse for repression. As Daniel Singer rightly puts it, ‘[w]hat the powers that be term “anarchy” [or disorder] is in fact “dual power”’.
[96] At the root of the idea of “order” as a primary good is the assumption that the human suffering caused by social exclusion is somehow outweighed by the supposed goods achieved through the construction of a “we”. At the very best, this is akin to a sadistic pleasure which is derived from the suffering of others - hardly the ideal basis for an ethical theory to say the least. At worst, it is contradictory, since the necessity of exclusion and the impossibility of completion render the desired goods unachievable in any case. To take one example, Mouffe’s emphasis on rules goes hand-in-hand with a Wittgensteinian theory of rules which leaves them unable to perform the ordering function she assigns them. Another example is that decisionism would necessitate an empty, idiotic and directionless politics, precisely because the decision is arbitrary. This precludes it from having the social effect of ordering and instilling meaning. Not only have Laclau and Mouffe given up on the possibility of freedom and taken up the lesser goal of security, but the security they pursue is unachievable. It is rendered impossible by the very unconditionality of state power which they advocate.

Laclau and Mouffe’s “radical democracy” is a recipe for generalised rightslessness and for a fatalistic acceptance of the state’s violence as an expression of a supposed ontological necessity. One only need imagine the actual effects if the state could publicly justify its actions by appealing to the necessity of antagonism. (“They have no right to complain that we are oppressing them. It is an ontological necessity that we repress somebody, and everyone else should be happy it’s not they who are being oppressed”). Actual people are to be allowed no unconditional claims which could limit the state’s violence. Yet this violence is itself linked to a contingent human desire - the desire for order - which is itself mistakenly posited as universal. The condition for this particular “right” - the “right”, or better, the privilege of having an “order” and a “we”, is that all other rights be made conditional and in some cases be denied. This is not a conflict between essentialism and contingency, but a conflict between two conceptions of desire, and two conceptions of which desires should be posited as unconditional. Laclau and Mouffe give primacy to reactive desire, and therefore strengthen the state over and against oppressed groups. The alternative is to posit active desire as unconditional. The conflict is over which is primary: social production or desiring-production. Mouffe’s collectivism is simply one effect of the way “radical democracy” puts social production ahead of desire, for instance, by fetishising rules. Rule- and order-fetishism removes the smoothness and symmetry from social relations, creating a space which is always-already asymmetrical. The alternative is a smooth space based on rhizomatic relations. Laclau and Mouffe reject all actively-posited “non-negotiable moral values”, yet their own theory is based on the “non-negotiable moral value” of a “radical democratic” social order (since a Schmittian decision is by definition non-negotiable). The choice is not between contingency and essentialism, but between active and reactive values.

An acceptance of exclusion makes life easier for the powers that be, and this is one of the reasons why Laclau and Mouffe support it. Yet such an ineffectiveness is a necessary protection against the barbarism of the system. In At War with Asia, Noam Chomsky shows how the U.S. public’s hostility to overtly genocidal tactics limited the “effectiveness” of the U.S. military’s terroristic tactics.
[97] However, it is hardly clear that this barrier to “effectiveness” is in any sense a bad thing. As a radical, my concern is first and foremost with the victims of social exclusion, and not with ensuring the effectiveness of the system or the security and passionate commitment of those who are already relatively well-off. This puts my radicalism on a collision course with “radical democracy”. The result of order- and rule-fetishism is a Kafkaesque world where rules matter and people don’t. An emancipatory politics is one which resists such a world, not one which brings this world into being or which reaffirms it. Also, contrary to Laclau and Mouffe’s views, the state is not a necessity in a context of antagonism. If people are necessarily prone to conflict, the last thing one needs to do is to elevate one particular group into an asymmetrical position of preponderance from which they can dominate others. For every fight the state manages to stop, it causes another two with its own violence and intransigence. Fights between individuals can be nasty, but wars and genocides committed by states are always catastrophic. Contrary to Laclau and Mouffe’s assumptions, the state is a relatively recent invention and not a fact of human nature. Further, it is not the origin of rights, but a major threat to them. Rights are usually achieved by mass struggles against the state. Even the right to vote was won by movements such as the Suffragettes, the US civil rights movement and the Chartists, and was not an outgrowth of the liberal state itself. Effective liberty is liberty against the law.

The Althusserian model of subjectivity underlying Laclau and Mouffe’s theory is implausible. It is simply not the case that people become what institutions make them become. People frequently resist dominant institutions, using these creatively for autonomous purposes or simply rejecting them.
[98] In any case, elite/spectacular politics is far too disconnected from everyday life to have the kind of ordering effects which they assign it. The “traditions” which construct personal identity, to the extent that any do, are those operative in everyday life, not a state set up over and above the masses, which enters everyday life mainly as intrusion and which has to construct its own psychological basis by instilling fear. Also, it is simply not true that totalitarians deny constitutive lack whereas liberal democrats affirm it. Mao Zedong, for instance, embraces a theory of lack similar to Laclau and Mouffe’s own. There is a certain machismo to claiming to be one of the few who “accept” the terrible reality of constitutive antagonism, but its “hardness” does not necessarily make it either a valid claim or a progressive (or even liberal) politics.

The view that the state is (as opposed to imagining itself to be) special and different from other associations is a way of giving it a discursively privileged status. Thus, when anti-fascists fight riot police in Bradford, Indonesian troops battle OPM guerrillas or soldiers stop peace activists from closing down a military base, the two are not compared “as equals”, on the merits of their claims, but on scales already loaded in favour of the state. The state is assumed to have a prior right to win at any cost, and this is equivalent to saying that a specifiable individual (e.g. PC Smith) is in fact “everybody”. The state, as a “special body of armed men” (Lenin), cannot be something to which all people belong, and the loyalty of those subordinate to the state is always a form of internalised slavery.

In nineteenth-century France, the mayor of Toulouse provoked working-class resistance when he said that ‘men who know how to die, weapons in hand, in defence of liberty… know how to die of hunger out of respect for order!’
[99] It is an irony of history that Laclau and Mouffe should now in effect say the same, even while claiming to be leftists and radicals. Their repeated stress on statist “order”, exclusion and repression shows that “radical democracy” is not a theory directed towards constructing a better society, but a model for reconstructing existing society while retaining and accepting many of its worst features. Their politics is definitely not radical, because it does not involve any kind of transformative challenge to logics of oppression and domination. Rather, the point of their theory is to reaffirm existing structures, but with a new legitimation based on constitutive lack: as Mouffe puts it, ‘it is very important to recognize those forms of exclusion for what they are, instead of concealing them’.[100] Laclau and Mouffe claim that their endorsement of exclusion makes them “radical”. This is effectively doublespeak: an affirmation that “conservatism equals radicalism”. Their purpose is to interpret the world, and no more; and this interpretation serves only to strengthen what the Situationists called the “cops inside people’s heads”, the reactive energies of repression and the superego. But the point for radicals is still, in Marx’s immortal phrase, to change it.

[1] [1]This essay is an extended version of the paper presented at the Political Studies Association conference, 16th April 2003. The author would like to thank Andreas Bieler, Athina Karatzogianni, Mathew Humphrey and Simon Tormey for comments on earlier versions.

[2] Mouffe 1993, p. 51.

[3] Form instance, Mouffe 2000, pp. 130-31; Mouffe 1993, p. 2.

[4] Mouffe 1993, p. 3.

[5] Mouffe 2000, p. 19.

[6] Mouffe 2000, p. 55.

[7] Mouffe 1993, p. 150.

[8] Mouffe 1993, p. 147.

[9] Mouffe 1993, p. 92.

[10] Mouffe 1993, pp. 139, 132.

[11] Laclau 1996, p. 113.

[12] e.g. Laclau 1990, pp. 130, 205; Mouffe 2000, p. 66.

[13] Mouffe 2000, p. 63-4.

[14] Laclau 1990, p. 185.

[15] Laclau and Mouffe 1985, p. 112; Mouffe 1993, p. 10.

[16] Mouffe 2000, p. 133; Mouffe 1993, p. 144; Laclau 1996, pp. 122-3.

[17] Mouffe 2000, p. 11; Laclau 1990, p. 194; Mouffe 1993, p. 115.

[18] Mouffe 2000, p. 12.

[19] e.g. Mouffe 2000, p. 70.

[20] Mouffe 2000, p. 95.

[21] Mouffe 2000, p. 96.

[22] Laclau 1996, p. 94.

[23] Laclau and Zac 1994, p. 37.

[24] Laclau and Zac 1994, pp. 11-12.

[25] Laclau and Zac 1994, p. 15.

[26] Laclau and Zac 1994, p. 16.

[27] Laclau and Zac 1994, p. 23.

[28] Laclau and Zac 1994, p. 27.

[29] Laclau and Zac 1994, p. 15.

[30] Laclau and Mouffe 1985, p. 189.

[31] Laclau 1996, p. 62; compare Mouffe 2000, p. 54.

[32] Laclau and Mouffe 1985, p. 126.

[33] Laclau and Zac 1994, p. 36.

[34] Mouffe 2000, p. 43.

[35] see Mouffe 1993, p. 18.

[36] Mouffe 1993, p. 149.

[37] Mouffe 1993, p. 127.

[38] Mouffe 2000, p. 105.

[39] Mouffe 1993, p. 110.

[40] Mouffe 1993, p. 118.

[41] Mouffe 1993, p. 114.

[42] Laclau 1996, p. 114.

[43] Mouffe 2000, p. 40.

[44] Mouffe 2000, p. 42.

[45] Mouffe 1993, p. 85; compare Laclau 1990, pp. 219-20.

[46] Laclau 1996, p. 38.

[47] Mouffe 2000, p. 43.

[48] Mouffe 1993, p. 69, 84.

[49] e.g. Mouffe 1993, pp. 141-2.

[50] Laclau 1990, p. 33.

[51] Mouffe 2000, p. 96.

[52] e.g. Laclau and Mouffe 1985, p. 187.

[53] Mouffe 1993, p. 140.

[54] Mouffe 1993, p. 146.

[55] Mouffe 1993, p. 6.

[56] Mouffe 1993, p. 145.

[57] Mouffe 1993, p. 20.

[58] Mouffe 1993, p. 65.

[59] Mouffe 1993, p. 67.

[60] Mouffe 1993, pp. 129, 69.

[61] Mouffe 1993, p. 38.

[62] Mouffe 1993, pp. 66-7.

[63] Mouffe 1993, p. 73.

[64] Mouffe 1993, p. 69.

[65] Mouffe 1993, p. 130.

[66] Mouffe 1993, p. 84.

[67] Mouffe 1993, p. 131.

[68] Mouffe 1993, p. 99.

[69] Mouffe 2000, pp. 51-2.

[70] Mouffe 2000, p. 52.

[71] Mouffe 1993, p. 120.

[72] Mouffe 1993, p. 131.

[73] Mouffe 1993, pp. 151-2.

[74] Mouffe 1993, p. 141.

[75] Mouffe 1993, p. 111.

[76] Laclau 1990, p. 193.

[77] See Marcuse 1998.

[78] Laclau 1990, p. 83.

[79] Mouffe 2000, p. 96.

[80] Mouffe 1993, p. 95.

[81] Mouffe 1993, pp. 110-11.

[82] Mouffe 1993, p. 33.

[83] Mouffe 2000, p. 40.

[84] Mouffe 1993, p. 132.

[85] Mouffe 1993, p. 86.

[86] Mouffe 1993, p. 140; c.f. Laclau 1996, pp. 56-7.

[87] Laclau 1990, pp. 83, 125; Mouffe 2000, pp. 21-2.

[88] Mouffe 1993, p. 151.

[89] Mouffe 1993, p. 6.

[90] Laclau 1996, p. 19.

[91] Laclau 1996, p. 52.

[92] Mouffe 1993, pp. 62-3.

[93] Laclau and Mouffe 1985, p. 178.

[94] Mouffe 2000, p. 138.

[95] Deleuze 1994, p. 53.

[96] Singer 1970, pp. 232-4.

[97] See Chomsky 1970.

[98] See Scott 1990.

[99] Magraw 1983, p. 127.

[100] Mouffe 1993, p. 145.


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