Andrew Robinson - Theory Blog

Monday, November 15, 2004

LACLAU AND MOUFFE - EXCLUSION (Notes, Work in Progress)


Despite claims to be radical, Laclau and Mouffe's most central belief is in the primacy of lack. Lacanian theorists often claim that this is justified by the fact that it permits a theory of resistance while also rejecting essentialism, and/or that it deepens and extends democratic freedoms by taking a stand against essentialist fundamentalisms. But a close examination of Laclau and Mouffe's political theory shows that the idea of lack reproduces itself in politics as a commitment to a strong form of statism which includes an advocacy of social exclusion. In fact, Mouffe seeks a 'hard edge' to her work (DP 136), suggesting an authoritarian form of toughness rather than an open approach is at work in it.

Laclau and Mouffe specifically link their theory of "radical democracy" to the idea of constitutive lack. Democracy is seen as the social form which realises, or even generates, awareness of this lack (eg. the present is 'dominated y a new, growing and generalized awareness of limits' - Laclau NRRT 3). For instance, for Mouffe, 'In a modern democratic society... division must be recognized as constitutive' (RP 51), and she also writes of 'the primary reality of strife in social life' (RP 113). Also, she states that 'The notion of the "constitutive outside" forces us to come to terms with the idea that pluralism implies the permanence of conflict and antagonism' (DP 33), and refers to 'the violence that is inherent in sociability, violence that no contract or dialogue can eliminate because it constitutes one of their dimensions'; 'erasing' it is 'denial'. In a way, this is simply a transference or application of her general theory to politics, although in relation to both Laclau and Mouffe it should be noted that the concept of "antagonism" and its synonyms are far vaguer than the Lacanian notion of constitutive lack, because it is less clear who or what is supposed to be lacking. The general problems also apply here - the claim that antagonism cannot potentially be overcome is non-falsifiable and is basically a dogma; the resultant concept of "antagonism" is mythical, and its application is a projection; and so on. But there are also specific problems because the transference requires that "the social" has a molar existence, albeit a lacking one; as a result, they have to introduce essentialist ideas about the nature of "the social", mirroring (but distinct from) the claims about human nature discussed in MYTH. (see below on "tradition").

The mode of argument used in relation to the social parallels the broader arguments in relation to lack, and little can be added here to the discussion in MYTH. Antagonism is asserted as primary with little or no backing, or with irrelevant or inadequate backing; opposition is then dismissed as a form of denial, and specific cases are "explained" by placing them within a pre-formed mythical structure. Hence, Mouffe insists on 'the ineradicable character of power and antagonism' (RP vii), 'the constitutive role of antagonism in social life' (1-2) 'all systems of social relations imply to a certain extent relations of power, since the construction of a social identity is an act of power' (RP 141 - NB the assumption that social identity is necessary); 'noncoercive consensus is an illusion' (RP 149); what brings people together also tears us apart, 'Rivalry and violence' are an 'ever-present possibility', 'Reciprocity and hostility cannot be dissociated and we have to realise... that the social order will always be threatened by violence' (DP 131), there is 'a negative aspect inherent in sociability' (DP 132), and so on. Liberalism can then be denounced for an 'incapacity... to grasp... the irreducible character of antagonism' and for resulting 'impotence' (RP 1-2), and it can be accused of trying 'to obliterate the whole dimension of power and antagonism' (RP 140). Lest the anathema of being impotent and in denial is too weak, the bogeyman of totalitarianism is regularly brandished as a warning not to question the primacy of lack (even though Laclau and Mouffe have not yet shown in any detail why they believe claims to fullness to be at the root of totalitarianism, especially since Mao and most fascists openly supported a philosophy of lack).

It should be noted that, despite their ostensible radicalism, Laclau and Mouffe's field of reference contains a surprising number of conservative, communitarian and authoritarian authors. Communitarian criticisms of liberalism are often endorsed with a few qualifiers; Walzer is praised for his insight into "tradition"; Hobbes is seen as a model of understanding of the need for a state; Oakeshott is used as a source of concepts, as is Rorty; Schmitt is used repeatedly to attack liberalism and promote a decisionist politics. To take an extreme example of the reliance on anti-progressive themes: Mouffe wants 'To acknowledge that "the state of nature" in its Hobbesian dimension can never be completely eradicated but only controlled' (RP 6).

Part of the difficulty with what they do is that their theory of the "primacy of the social" (remember: freedom is not freedom of a subject, but rather, a 'structural fault' - Laclau E 18; cf. Mouffe's call 'to think of the collective aspect of human existence as constitutive' - RP 56, and her claim that the political system constitutes identities - DP 100), combined with problems in transferring psychological concepts into social theory and a basically conservative theory of psychology with a strong alibi function (see MYTH), lead to a primary loyalty to the state. As a result, the questions they ask start from the wrong place: instead of attacking how capitalism and the state affect people, they try to solve problems seen as those of "society" or "our tradition", usually in fact problems of the state. So they encode their account from the start as an exercise in social control, in subordinating desire to social production rather than the opposite. If something is "necessary" for the state, it becomes "necessary" per se (see below on statism).

So, instead of starting with problems specific to actual people, they start with an image of "democracy" (treated as an unquestionable good) as "under threat" from various directions (an old McCarthyite device). What Mouffe seeks is a 'solution... to the growing ungovernability of modern industrial societies' (RP 92). According to Mouffe, democracy is imperilled in two ways: by social exclusion ('marginalisation'), and by what she calls 'an apparent excess of consensus' (RP 6); elsewhere, she and Laclau add a threat of totalitarian discourse due to attempts to 'establish a definitive suture' of the social (HSS 186-7). It is the latter which recurs constantly, since (see below) Mouffe thinks exclusion is necessary and desirable. 'To negate the ineradicable character of antagonism' is 'the real threat to democracy' because it hides 'the necessary frontiers and forms of exclusion' (DP 22). Schmitt fears a loss of political unity due to a 'loss of common premises', and Mouffe says this is 'certainly a danger' and that Schmitt's 'warning should be taken seriously' (DP 55). She also sees liberal democracy as threatened by an 'exacerbation of differences and disintegration' (RP 150), 'the explosion of nationalisms and the multiplication of particularisms' (RP 147). This is a classic conservative fear of social breakdown through decadence: Mouffe is accusing liberalism of being too inclusive (in Lance Morrow's overtly conservative words, 'messily tolerant'), and therefore as falling apart because it lacks the unifying force of a collective identity and falls apart into competing groups; behind all this according to Mouffe lurks the spectre of the denial of lack. Even believing that it is possible to reconcile conflicts is a threat to democracy (RP 8). Of all the problems of the present, she does not concentrate on the escalating spiral of state violence, both through police repression and surveillance and through imperialism and war; and she mentions economic issues only as secondary, as a specific content of democracy which should be advocated but is not essential. (see also notes on POLITICS).

So her aim is to revitalise liberal democracy by injecting the exclusionary and decisionist logics it lacks. She seeks 'a new form of bond' (RP 139), reviving liberal democracy by supplying it with 'an ethical and philosophical content' (RP 122). She is confident that radical democracy 'could infuse a little enthusiasm into our [sic] societies' (RP 132).

Of course, Laclau and Mouffe do not explicitly present their views in this way, although it is clearly implicit in what they say. As Lacanians, they deny any significant difference between discussing social issues and discussing individual psychology. So, they insist that their definition of "the political" (as antagonism) is identity-based, even though they label identity-political movements as not authentically political (HSS 152-3). And of course, 'antagonism and exclusion are constitutive of all identity' (Laclau E 52). This statement, true in a sense in semiotics as regards the possibility of identifying a label with a person or thing, is transferred into politics as if there is no difference between classifying an object as distinct from another and carrying out practices of violently constructing an 'us and them' by suppressing actual opponents.

This politics follows through into a fetishism of order and of rules, an irrationalist commitment to ungrounded 'traditions' and a positive valuation of exclusion and violence (see below). Before embarking on this discussion, however, I will note the conservative character of the theory of psychology which fuels such discussions (as this is necessary to explain why Laclau and Mouffe think people can and should accept the extremely grim picture they paint). Basically, they accept a reactive or slave morality tobe the zero point of human thought. Mouffe claims that Lacan has 'shown' the necessity of a master-signifier to which individuals submit, 'founded only on itself' and 'introducing a non-founded violence', without which 'the [discursive] field would disintegrate' (DP 138). (This can be criticised both as invalid as a psychological theory, and for the strange assumption that the master-signifier must arise in a political, rather than an everyday, relation). So 'the most that a theory of justice can aspire to is to cement a hegemony, to establish a frontier, to provide a pole of identification... in a field necessarily criss-crossed by antagonisms' (RP 57). The reactive character of master-signifiers is clearly established by Nietzsche, Deleuze and Perez.

Another reactionary psychological element is a mystifying theory of representation. Because Lacalu "accepts" lack, and because he confuses material and psychological concepts of lack, he is in favour of more, rather than less, 'representation' (E 99). In fact, he portrays substitutionist institutions as an extension of the self: 'the role of the "representatives" will be ever more central and constitutive. But is that really so bad?... in a closed universe in which no representation is required - no democratic competition is possible... [democracy] requires the split from oneself, the need to be represented outside oneself to be a proper self. There is democracy only if there is recognition of the positive value of a dislocated identity' (E 100). Further, representation is necessarily opaque and ambiguous (NRRT 231). Thus, Rawls adopts a theory of representation which allows substitutionists (the two dinosaurs) free rein to claim to be necessary for one to be a proper self; he gives an alibi function to oppressive discourses of self-alterity and effectively naturalises the central mode of repression used to maintain the society of the spectacle. He opposes the view that the self is itself; he is in favour, instead, of the grouping of delusions which allow "leaders" to manipulate others into demagogic movements through identification, projection and other defence-mechanisms.


A particular way in which the commitment to repression, sameness and the state expresses itself is through a dogmatic advocacy of "our tradition". This "tradition" is conceived as having no foundation and being irreducible to rational arguments (as one would expect of a post-structuralist "anti-essentialist" account). However, instead of this awareness being used to limit appeals to "tradition", it is used as an alibi, to assert the necessity of appeals to tradition despite their being arbitrary - indeed, to insist that they take an arbitrary and dogmatic form and do not attempt to present themselves "rationally". As a result, they identify with a particular form of life which is simply taken for granted. This form of life is in effect to be imposed in a totalising way, despite its not having any foundation or rational justification. (The reason for this apparent contradiction is that Laclau and Mouffe do assume it to have a foundation and rational justification, in the form of the basic suppositions of their own theory). Appropriations of authors such as Wittgenstein and Derrida are given a reactionary tinge by the alibi function of Lacanian theory, which means that the revelation of the contingent and unfounded character of each form of life is stripped of all effective critical force. Among other approaches, what is ruled out is the kind of dialogical and self-critical attitude to cultural specificity found in the works of Bakhtin and Gramsci. (It should be noted that Laclau and, more often, Mouffe's approach works on the basis of a rigid binary: either their own position, or a strong rationalism which maintains that there is an ultimate foundation for politics in philosophical certainty, so if she can show the latter to be impossible - which is not too hard - she thinks she has proven her own position).

Mouffe endorses Walzer's demand that theorists 'stay in the cave', i.e. within a specific tradition (DP 63-4). As a result, she thinks that what she terms 'our form of life' can therefore be appealed to directly (i.e. because it is unfounded, it can be asserted unconditionally), and this form of life itself can be used as the justification for liberal democracy (DP 66). What Mouffe wrongly terms agreed judgements about democracy do not need a basis in philosophical certainty; these judgements are justified because they have arisen from history and 'constitute the language of our [sic] politics' (DP 66). Such a view ignores the way in which "our" politics does not emerge from a collectivity at all, but from struggles which are reversible; for instance, "common sense" is often a product of spectacular forms of power and the media-propaganda apparatus. For Laclau, there is no longer room for a hermeneutics of suspicion: social forms are 'forms without mystery' (NRRT 185). As a result of this kind of model, Laclau and Mouffe often slip into the use of a repressive "we", assuming the reader to share a set of core dogmas which are made a condition for dialogue. For instance, Laclau refers to 'our present' (NRRT 205), 'our practical life' as a source of authority (NRRT 182), and 'our tradition and our political culture' (NRRT 130). For Mouffe, "shared" behaviour and arrangements can simply be assumed (RP 16).

The root of this kind of repressive communitarianism is a passive conception of the self which perceives the self as solely a product of a social system to which each person is therefore indebted - a classic version of the Oedipal entrapment of desire, portraying the forces which are trapped (or at best, directed) by the existing system as being generated by it. Tradition is given to one, and it makes all action possible (RP 10), and there is a need for language to be pinned down by a master-signifier to avoid discourse becoming meaningless and psychotic (HSS 112). This view of the system as enablement is partly a confusion of different aspects of social relations; basically, Laclau and Mouffe are trying to justify the existing political system, whereas their argument for the primacy of the social is mostly about the importance of language in constructing identity. (cf. section on COMMON SENSE; Laclau and Mouffe typically exaggerate the significance of politics, which is basically part of the spectacle, in structuring and constructing everyday life and beliefs). It is a habit for philosophers to refer to language as "tradition", but there is a gulf of difference between the "tradition" which says what the words 'King' and 'Queen' means and the "tradition" which says they should be respected rather than (say) beheaded; the latter is clearly thinkable in language, even if distinctly non-traditional. Also, their prostration before "tradition" ignores (in classic structuralist fashion) the ways in which people selectively use and reinterpret "tradition", and how it is sometimes rejected through revolutionary movements (cf. my papers "The Ragged-Trousered Deconstructionists" and "Constructing Revolutionary Subjectivities"). Important counter-evidence to the view of language as something necessarily imposed through the Master-Signifier comes from studies of the emergence of creole languages, which were actively constructed by second-generation migrants out of pidgins and constructed for everyday uses; and also studies of the emergence of spontaneous signing by deaf children whose parents do not use sign-language. It should also be noted that the use of misleading rhetoric such as "shared traditions" or "agreed behaviours" covers up the extent to which the so-called "shared" tradition is a result of practices of violence and terror by powerful groups directed at keeping dissidents silent. Hence, the term 'our insertion in a political community' (Laclau E 62) is very misleading: the political system is not an instance of linguistic insertion but a form of violence. (In fact Laclau and Mouffe do not strictly speaking deny this; see below - nevertheless, it is denied any disruptive force in relation to their theory of "traditions" and "forms of life". A form of life which is imposed by violence is then mystified if it is treated as something which can merely be taken for granted).

One result of the prostration before tradition is that Laclau and Mouffe deny any possibility of persuading someone by rational argument of anything significant. Although usually raised in debates with essentialist varieties of "rationalism", Laclau and Mouffe's position basically involves opposition to the view that "forms of life" can ever be altered through persuasion or discussion (including presumably the possibilities of interaction between "traditions" and "writerly" attitudes to them). (One can contrast here Gramsci's approach, which stresses the importance of "organic", or passionate, aspects of commitment while also suggesting that a dominance of the field of rational arguments gives the ruling class an advantage and leads to its tending to infiltrate its ideology into socialist movements). Their resultant position is effectively irrationalist. A few examples of where this is made clear are: political questions are not 'susceptible to rational treatment' (DP 133); 'argumentation is only possible when there is a shared framework' (RP 144 - as if agreement precedes rather than following dialogue); all rationalism is 'just a step away from totalitarianism' unless it accepts only tradition-specific ideas of verisimilitude and phronesis (NRRT 194); 'a rationalist approach is bound to remain blind to "the political" in its dimension of antagonism' and this has 'very serious consequences for democratic politics' (DP 11); 'no rationalist argument will ever have the slightest effect on anyone who does not believe in universalist values' (E 122-3); rationalism, 'instead of acknowledging the ineradicability of this terrain, tries to find ways of eliminating it' (DP 11); it is dangerous to believe one can dissolve power through rational argument (DP 104); the pursuit of rational communication is 'profoundly antipolitical because it ignores the crucial place of passions and affects in politics' - politics is the limit of rationality - this is a 'fact' one should 'recognize' (RP 115).

The confusion of two kinds of opponents in these arguments is apparent when one considers whether a "recognition" that "passions", "affects" and the like play a role in politics actually requires that one drop any attempt to pursue conflict-resolution in any particular case. Any significant role for affects tends to undermine approaches which suggest there is a unitary rational unity which already grounds moral thought; it does not necessarily rule out the use of "rational" arguments to attempt to resolve conflicts. The question also arises of why, given the choice, one should opt for (irrationalist) democracy instead of rationality. Also, there is a problem that Laclau and Mouffe denounce "rational argument", yet use it constantly.

So what is the alternative to arguing rationally? Mouffe says thatone should try to to secure 'our [sic] democratic institutions' not through rational or liberal argument, 'but by creating forms of identification with them' and thereby spreading them as widely as possible (RP 151). She would replace 'sophisticated rational arguments' (notice the condescending anti-intellectualism) with attempts to construct 'identification with democratic values' (DP 70). She wants to ground democracy not in rationality but in 'participation in common forms of life' (DP 12), which amounts to tautology unless it means repressive territorialisation. Laclau also wants to defend democracy through 'communitary construction' instead of rational argument (NRRT 194). Amazingly, Laclau and Mouffe have actually managed to find a more essentialist approach than that used by liberals, defending social structured by their mere existence. What they are effectively advocating is that the state simply ignore rational criticisms and use propaganda and the manipulation of emotions to secure support for itself. "Democracy" is to construct a foundation it knows it has no right to by delusional identifications (the self = the state) and public performances of mass conformity. In fact, neither Laclau nor Mouffe specify exactly how they conceive such processes of propaganda as occurring, beyond the level of saying that it must involve "practices, discourses and language games" (what doesn't?!); they do not specify what practices could be used, except that it apparently must not include "rational arguments" (though of course, these could also be described as a "practice, discourse and language-game", and even as one favoured by the western "tradition"). Methods which come to mind as possible alternatives include: manipulative propaganda, trickery, scapegoating, stereotyping, scaremongering, mythical and connotative rhetoric, the misrepresentation of existing systems to ensure they are supported, and practices of violence and repressive and exclusionary territorialisation. I have found no specific statement in either Laclau's or Mouffe's writings which rules out any of these "practices, discourses and language-games" as a legitimate means of constructing support for a "democratic" state.

Matters become even more sinister when Mouffe specifies that she does not want to secure consent for a democratic regime, but only a 'continuous acknowledgement' and a recognition of an 'obligation to obey' (DP 95). In other words, the purpose of using sinister discourses and practices is to ensure that everyone obeys and submits to the state. This effectively means that Mouffe wants to ensure a repressive territorialisation of people's actions to ensure a superficial unity around a coercive apparatus. Other terms she uses are: 'constitution of an ensemble of practices', 'availability of democratic forms of individuality and subjectivity', and the mobilisation of 'passions and affects' to secure 'allegiance to democratic values' (DP 95); creating 'the conditions of existence of the democratic subject' and creating the kind of people she wants 'by multiplying the institutions, the discourses, the forms of life that foster identification with democratic values' (DP 96), seeking a 'passionate commitment' and not an 'intellectual foundation' (DP 97).

The general idea seems to be that, since Mouffe (wrongly) assumes that society (as an ensemble of practices) is prior to people, altering society will automatically alter people; therefore, instead of trying to change people's minds by persuading them, she plans to impose a social system because once imposed it will then "construct" people to be the way she wants them to be (which sounds very like a totalitarian project). Her rhetoric sounds very like that used by the American army when it invaded South Vietnam, slaughtered civilians, rounded people up, bombed villages and forced people into cities and concentration camps - a process which was intended to do the same as Mouffe's proposal, to reconstruct the social world so as to create 'the conditions of existence of the democratic subject' (whereas the traditional village communities America aimed to smash were unconducive to the American-preferred variety of "democracy"). Implicitly, Mouffe seems to be suggesting that the state should use force and bribery to constrain the limits of human experience in such a way as to ensure that people are moulded into a model of emotional alignments which is supportive of the state (cf. Brinton's "The Irrational in Politics" about how capitalism does precisely this). Mouffe's "democracy" is a kind of 1984 democracy, where the state makes opposition to itself impossible by totally territorialising and controlling social life - a behaviourist "democracy" imposed through action. Furthermore, as Scott's work shows, the imposition of a social system does not produce automatic libidinal investment in it; it produces superficial, syncretic and extractively-motivated conformity to a "public transcript" accepted only because of the violence with which it is imposed.

The importance of passion in Laclau and Mouffe's work should not be underestimated. Indeed, the need for passionate rather than superficially cognitive commitments if a social relation is to be effective is one of the ideas behind the concept of antagonism. At one point, Mouffe directly identifies antagonism with passion (DP 103). While I don't object in principle to this, it is important to draw distinctions between different kinds of libidinal investments. Passion structured around a master-signifier used to repress a supposed lack is passion structured in a reactive way. Active desire is a more potent force for stoking passion, and less liable to be channelled in authoritarian ways (I also believe it is preferable for a number of other reasons which I do not go into here). Therefore, social analysis should aim to overcome reactive structures of desire, and therefore to alter and redirect (not simply to articulate) passionate commitments. (Gramsci emphasised the importance of a new philosophy "becoming organic", one aspect of which is the development of a felt, as opposed to a solely cognitive, commitment by "masses of people". cf. also Deleuze, Reich).

Also, there is no reason why "passionate commitment" should be seen as incompatible with rational support for a view; this is one of the purposes for Gramsci's project, and if someone experiences of passionate commitment as irrational, they are likely to see it as an undesirable "symptom" (as in neurosis). Mouffe seems to be denying that it is possible to convince anyone of anything through argument. Furthermore, what does a "passionate commitment" lacking rational support look like? One sees this kind of belief often enough among the large number of populists, bigots, militarists, anti-"crime" fanatics, Sun-readers and assorted others whose unthinking commitments are rendered almost invulnerable to argument through character-armouring and arrogance. This is hardly the kind of model which would lead to a stable "democratic" society, and a "democracy" made up of such people is not a valuable political system anyway.

Furthermore, Laclau and Mouffe allow themselves to be limited by existing traditions, rather than transforming these for the better. In HSS, they want to treat existing social logics as 'structural limits' (HSS 190). This position of tailing, rather than changing, existing beliefs exerts a conservative pull on their work. So the politics they propose is one of articulation of existing beliefs, not a transformation of these; hegemony is conceived as having the role of linking subject-positions together discursively (HSS 168-9), an example being neo-liberalism, which operated by redefining democracy (HSS 171-2). The social field is conceived as having the capacity to transcend, contaminate, deform and destroy theory (NRRT 205), rather than the other way around; in other words, it destroys people's ideas, rather than people's ideas transforming the world. (Gramsci in contrast saw the social field as constructed by particular implicit theories or "conceptions of the world"; this may well be one reason why Gramsci was a revolutionary whereas Laclau and Mouffe are reformists).

Further, it should be noted that Laclau and Mouffe insist on the specificity of the "political" as a field, giving it a reified and ahistorical status. Even though it is supposed to be only a "language-game", it is given the status of an essence which is somehow inevitable: to see it through the lens of another language-game such as ethics is wrong, and there is an 'antagonistic dimension which is proper to the political' (DP 134). The political must in particular be kept distinct from the moral (RP 147). This is tantamount to saying that politics must operate in immoral ways, and that there can be no "moral" limits on political activity, whereas political activty in contrast can limit and reduce the role of "morals". This is significant since the state can usually claim to represent "the political", whereas those standing against it have recourse to "moral" arguments. Indeed, Laclau and Mouffe seem to be knocking down one by one all the various barriers to the state doing whatever it likes: it is not to be limited by rational argument or by any kind of morals, nor by people (whom it constructs), nor (as I shall show below) by specific needs, desires or rights. In the political sphere, the essentialisation of lack into a myth of "lack-ness" turns a theory of contingency into a theory which gives unlimited power to an agent which can identify itself with the essence.

The model of social openness on which Laclau and Mouffe's model of political construction is based is deeply flawed because it misrepresents structures of desire. Their advocacy of repressive territorialisation depends on a conception of desire as a blank slate or a negativity. Yet such a model would suggest that any social practice can in principle be desired, and would become so if sufficiently widespread as a "form of life". In other words, people exposed solely to a slave system would be unable to think outside this system and would therefore be happy slaves. This is contradicted by Scott's work and by actual studies of slavery. That slaves (and serfs, etc.) are able to think outside their social system suggests that desire has an active component which cannot be reconstructed around lack. A similar case is that the discourse of rapists is modelled on an illusory image of women; most rapists adhere to the "rape myth" (i.e. the view that women enjoy being raped). Yet experiences of rape victims do not conform to the way they are thereby "constructed". One could also assert other examples. (Have Palestinians become what Israelis think they are? Did German Jews become what the Nazis said they were? etc.). Again, this suggests that people do not simply fit into socially-assigned roles; people do not become what the symbolic system says they are, except for internal psychological reasons. (This becomes important below, when I discuss the fetishisation of "order" and the refusal of rights).

Also, the sphere in which Laclau and Mouffe see their discourse operating consists mainly of elite and organised politics. This sphere is not intensively invested with passions in most circumstances (there are a few exceptions, usually involving populists). An example of the kind of "traditions" and "forms of life" which might be said to interfere with the possibility of rational argument, to produce radical antagonisms and/or to construct identity is the differences involved when Lapps speak of, and directly experience, 30-40 different varieties of snow, whereas English-speakers conceive of only one variety. The "discourses", "practices", "language-games", "forms of life" and "traditions" which construct identity are not primarily those with which people have superficial contact, but those which operate in everyday life. To demonstrate this, one could consider what effect the election of Hague instead of Blair would have had on spoken language, everyday communications and people's sense of self. I doubt there would have been any effect at all (especially an effect as radical as that involved in reconceiving snow in terms of 30-plus different types). What does "new Britain" really mean? It is a soundbite which exists only in the spectacle. Britain was not really made new when Blair was elected. Commitment to politics today is superficial; even in terms of antagonisms articulated in a rightist way, these are more likely to involve issues such as "crime", international conflict and ethnicity than issues which lead to party-political competition. (Until and unless a "Mindless Thugs Party" is on the verge of winning an election, there is no way the antagonisms surrounding "crime" can be located primarily within politics in the statist sense; rather, antagonism arises at the intersection between the repressive wing of the state - itself several degrees removed from politicians' rhetoric - and groups which fall outside the state entirely). It is also doubtful how much influence the state really has in everyday life. Most of its influence occurs in the form of violent and disruptive intrusions, or overcoding of practices. Apart from its terroristic and elitist roles, its main significance is psychological: it acts as a reassurance and guarantee to people whose mindset is exceedingly essentialist. Within this state, the role of politicians is itself superficial; even politicians and political theorists do not really live and feel the ideologies they propose, in most cases (eg. the "two-jags Prescott" fiasco). If Laclau and Mouffe want intensive passionate commitments to emerge in politics, they have to alter the articulations between politics and everyday life.

Actual commitments usually focus on everyday lifeworlds (even when articulated by "the spectacle"). Furthermore, there is no reason to assume that these commitments are primordially pragmatic, since Geertz says that "primitive" peoples usually have a knowledge of their entire immediate environment, not only the useful or threatening parts. This suggests that relations with the object-world and with other people "overflow" their overcoding by reactive libidinal structures, creating connections through flows and schizzes with an open-ended series of objects and others.

Crucially, the essentialism of lack leads to a mistaken and self-contradictory inference. Laclau and Mouffe state that it is impossible to have certainty, and dangerous to pursue it; it is only possible to have verisimilitude. However, if this is so, one should not seek a social order which requires certainty for its existence. Yet this is precisely what Laclau and Mouffe's support for the state involves: the construction of a universal "we", a universal coercive apparatus and a singular "tradition". (Logically, contingency should lead to a resistance to intensively territorialising forms of power and attempts to construct a rhizomatic world with no centre or master-signifier). If one has no valid basis for doing something, then one should not and/or cannot keep on doing it; it is not a valid gesture simply to say one will keep on doing something one knows to be invalid because it is "traditional" (especially if the "tradition" in question justifies violence and oppression). The gesture only makes sense if the "tradition" is conceived as precisely the fixed point which Laclau and Mouffe claim they do not believe in. Verisimilitude rules out certainty; yet the state requires it. How do they square the circle? By a Schmittian short-circuit: they posit an unfounded certainty based on an arbitrary decision (see below). They thus put an anti-democratic gesture at the core of democracy. What this reveals is that the state is for Laclau and Mouffe an unconditionality, and that it is more important than any particular group, person or desire; or in other words, that they posit the desire to subordinate to the state as lexically prior to all other desires.


One way in which Laclau and Mouffe's commitment to authoritarian statism manifests itself is through a commitment to "order" as a good above all others. Basically, their entire account of hegemony is about how "order" is constructed out of other concepts. The role of politics is to construct an apparent social order out of the disorder of floating and unarticulated signifiers. Fo Laclau, the lack in society must necessarily be experienced as disorder, disorganisation and deprivation (E 94). However, in a Lacanian theory this lack is, of course, irreducible and constitutive. Nevertheless, Laclau and Mouffe give a primary role to the desire to fill the resultant gap by constructing an order. Politics, say Laclau and Zac, is the 'management of the incompletion of society' (MPI 37). For Laclau, 'the construction of society is an impossible task, of which human beings never tire, however' (NRRT 5). As a result, they end up seeking a unity they know in advance tobe impossible, in what amounts to a labour of Sisyphus. The "universal", the social system, is impossible but must still be pursued; it is an objet petit a, necessary but unachievable, present through its absence and therefore present as an active force only when it operates through contingent representations which are 'constitutively inadequate'. 'As a result, the systematicity of the system, the moment of its impossible totalisation, will be symbolised by particulars which contingently assume a representative function'; the particularity in question will then adopt 'a hegemonic role' and be split between itself and the function it expresses (E 53). (It does this through mythical devices such as empty signifiers, since the gesture involved is a misrepresentation of itself). This approach involves positing order to be primary over all other goals, and also unachievable; so the most important goal is that something (anything!) adopt the role of ordering the social.

Laclau and Zac present the clearest statement of the basically Hobbesian logic involved here. They begin with an article of faith: there is an initial lack of identity, and therefore one needs to identify with something (MPI 3; of course, this doesn't follow, and the mythical nature of this kind of argument is discussed in the section on MYTH). As a result, they assume the (conservative) desire for the existence of a social order which founds and gives an external justification for identity and choices is a universal desire (MPI 3; it is of course a reactive desire). Therefore, the desire for order is primary and unconditional; Laclau and Zac think that order is more important than what the content of a particular order is. 'In a situation of radical disorganisation there is a need for an order, and its actual contents become a secondary consideration' (MPI 3; NB there is a need held by whom? - NB also, since lack is irreducible, isn't there always a situation of radical disorganisation?). Laclau's excuse for his conservatism is that radical democracy has to fill this gap first, otherwise there would be a chaos which would invite 'authoritarian solutions' (MPI 5) - a repetition of the standard excuse whenever self-professed leftists adopt rightist discourse.

Laclau and Zac endorse Thomas Mann's claim that 'Organisation is everything. Without it, there is nothing' (MPI 11). Therefore, they assert that freedom realises itself through 'law, rule, coercion, system' and even dictatorship (MPI 11). They describe 'the principle of organisation as the realization of freedom' (MPI 12), in a clear instance of doublespeak. (Note that "organisation" here means "hierarchy"; this is important given that most anarchists also call for "organisation"). 'Freedom is only realised through its alienation' (MPI 12) and 'Freedom that fulfils itself in coercion is still freedom' (MPI 13) - a handy excuse for reactive desire and a clear instance of doublespeak. They specifically relate their ideas to those of Hobbes, with organisation operating to fill a real nothing, as well as to Lacan's idea of the subject as constitutive nothingness (MPI 14). So people do, and should, accept the Law because it is Law, not because it is rational (MPI 15).

Faced with anomie, argue Laclau and Zac, 'what would be required would be the introduction of an order, the concrete contents of which would become quite secondary' (MPI 15). As a result, order transcends all else as a moral good: 'Order and quiet are good - no matter what one owes them', and no matter what the agents of power do; this view is specifically directed against 'childish and foolish rebellion' (MPI 15). They found such claims on an image of people as sheep: (citing Mann again) 'We human beings are by nature submissive. We need to live in harmony with outward events and situations. We need to come to terms with power' (MPI 16). This submissiveness does not have a fixed content (16), though it does seem to have a fixed form. Because there is no single generating cause of social effects, power is the root-cause of society (MPI 17-19). Identity results from identification, 'submission to the externality of the Law as the sole source of social objectivity' (MPI 23). For them, 'order in society can only be constructed along Hobbesian lines', even though the result cannot be an absolute ruler (MPI 23). There must, therefore, always be a violent power; one cannot depose violent power, but only replace one boss with another (MPI 27). They prasie Hobbes for raising the issue of order as such, against the state of nature, as opposed to an (extensional, non-mythical) comparison of specific orders (MPI 35). As a result, political conflicts are for Laclau and Zac conflicts to fill the role of the provider of order (MPI 35-6). (However, they hint - on p. 22 - that the state of nature is not entirely chaotic, although clearly it is this image of it which fuels their approach).

** ADD SECTION The issue also arises in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy pp. 188-9.

There are also examples in Laclau's "Emancipation(s)". For instance: 'people need an orderm abd the actual content of it becomes a secondary situation' (E 44). He also states that he agrees with Hobbes regarding the need for any order, since this is better than 'radical disorder' (E 62). Mouffe's use of a quote from Schmitt, which contrasts a 'disorder' or Hobbesian state of nature with a state which 'imposes its order' (DP 54), suggests that she shares the same view. Schmitt fears a loss of political unity due to the 'loss of common premises', and Mouffe says that this is 'certainly a danger' and Schmitt's 'warning should be taken seriously'; pluralism must have limits and society must have 'homogeneity' and 'commonality' (DP 55).

Laclau's theory of hegemony inverts Gramsci's, having more in common with the use of the term in realist I.R. For Laclau and Zac, one is hegemonic if one shows oneself to be a realistic force able to organize and manage (control?) 'the community' (MPI 16). They also claim that the decentring of society necessitates political ordering (MPI 37). It is important not to question the social order too much because this leads to identity crisis (HSS 126; NB here how politics is given a central role in the social). Further, they claim that a discursive construction only succeeds if it reconstitutes the positivity of the social (HSS 189).

As a slight qualifier, it should be added that these authors propose democracy as a lesser evil; they definitely do not support all and any possible social order, and would not support (say) a fascist regime in preference to a democratic one. For Laclau and Zac, for instance, democracy widens the conditionality of the acceptance of rulers, splitting order in general from its specific contents. As a result, specific rulers can be put on trial and judged even though the need for order is never questioned (MPI 36). But such lesser-evilism is hardly the stuff of a radical theory, let alone an emancipatory one. Clearly this is very much a case of choosing between bosses, within the spectacle; the system as such is never challenged, and "democracy" is limited by its discursive dependence on "order". Furthermore, such a view would seem to suggest that any order - even fascism - is worthy of support provided that better orders are not available; it is better to have any order, even fascism, than disorder, even though the orderly genocide of fascism is more lethal than the bogeyman of disorder; and also that a "democracy" should use any and all repressive and authoritarian measures to ensure that the much-feared disorder is kept at bay. (Laclau and Zac also argue on the same page, that their view is conservative because they say revolutionary violence can also order society. i.e. because leftists can also become bosses).

It is almost superflous to point out the authoritarian, statist and oppressive logic of such a defence of "order". This is the logic of those who would say, 'at least Mussolini made the trains run on time'; those who will accept that "there's nothing happening in Chechnya" because the Russian government says so; those who turn a blind eye to brutality and murders by the police, to imperialism, torture, abuses in prisons, killings and genocide because the alternative would be to risk the loss of order. Basically, Laclau etc. are sanctifying as absolute the reactive and reactionary assumptions of those who have a fear of freedom: those who, in Trevor Pateman's terms, have given up hope for satisfaction and settled for security instead.

The Real is (see MYTH) a myth. This mythical status is extended to the "generalised disorder" Laclau and Mouffe so fear (which is, in effect, the Real of "society", if "society" is conceived as a "self"). Even if Y's act is experienced by X as disorder, it is necessarily in fact a result of Y's symbolic system, so the cause of Y's act is a particular "ordered" belief-system and not "generalised disorder". No particular "disorder" is a result of "generalised disorder" or the "state of nature", which do not exist. As a result, one is never faced with "generalised disorder" or pure anomie. (What is often misperceived as anomie is the specific atomising logic of the society of the spectacle as a system of social control; i.e. what Sartre calls "seriality", a form of social ordering which does not have an immediate "group" dynamic). Further, it is unclear how people are supposed to become aware of "generalised disorder", or why it is seen as such a threat. The choice between "order" and "generalised disorder" is itself internal to "order", and is not really a choice at all; "generalised disorder" is a bogeyman/spook.

The validity of the primacy Laclau etc. attach to order is dependent on two assumptions: firstly, that the drive for a social order (ANY social order) is primary over all other drives, desires and needs, in every particular case, for all (valued) people in all (valued) instances; and secondly, that it is right (or necessary) that this is the case. (This seems to imply the existence of a reactive character-structure in which anomie or radical disorder is identified as an overarching evil, and the good is defined as the absence of this evil). If "order" does not meet this condition, it is itself conditional. Even assuming that most people want order (which is itself an articulation of several subsections: organisation, hierarchy, absence of violence, etc.), it is by no means obvious that it always trumps other desires and needs; for instance, if X lives within a highly orderly society which, however, does not provide X with enough to eat, X is likely to value "having enough to eat" over the survival of order, even if the alternative is radical disorder. Or at least, X would think this assuming that X is not suicidally committed to order. Is one really to accept that people do not and should not put on trial a law which would murder them? What use is protection from murder if it is achieved through murder? To support Laclau etc.'s model, one would have to accept far more than that organisation is useful or even necessary (for an end); organisation in the sense meant by anarchists might not even qualify as organisation in the Laclauian model, and anyway, it is a means to achieve particular ends. This reversal of the Lacanian position on the relatuonship between order and its content also arises in Deleuze (via the concept of "making social producton subordinate to desiring-production") and Sartre's "fused group".

The kind of cases Thomas Mann raises are not necessarily about order as a good in itself at all; if people want "order" as a secondary good because primarily they want (say) effective food distribution or a functioning sewage system, this is not the kind of desire for order which Laclau etc. are discussing (because the content of order would in this case be conditional on its meeting these specific demands, and also because the specific demands are particular and in principle can be met). If, for instance, people prefer a functioning government to a state of civil war because it leads to a stable food supply, the demand that the government provide a stable food supply then becomes a condition for its existence (and, in effect, a basis for claims to "rights" and the like); if the government ceases to effectively guarantee food to any particular person, that person loses any duty to the government and any basis for libidinal attachment to it, and it can validly be overthrow even if this leads to "generalised disorder" (which then becomes no worse than the government). Crucially, any such specific basis would eliminate the idea of disorder as a generalised evil, replacing the striated space of a master-signifier with a comparison of social forms on the basis of how well they meet a demand external to them and defined by the self (though of course I am aiming for a more extensive rejection of hierarchy than simply its being made conditional on basic needs). For order to be primary per se, it must be based on an irrational primacy, which would presumably have roots in individual neuroses (not "the nature of the social").

At times, Laclau and Mouffe suggest that "order" is not really an unachievable goal at all: if generalised disorder is a real situation, and if the demand for order increases with the generalisation of disorder, as is suggested in HSS (93), the word "order" must express a quantitative goal which is at least partly achievable. Even if pure order, so to speak, is impossible in such an account, the concept nevertheless expresses something which is achievable; so (say) "a tolerable level of order" might be achievable, and after that point the goal of "order" would recede. The structure of the description in this passage would also apply to concrete, meetable needs; for instance, one could easily argue that the less food is available, the more the demand for food overshadows other political demands, and the more likely is support for a regime which can provide enough food, regardless of its other characteristics. This does not at all prove that "enough food" is unachiavable; rather, its achievability is structurally necessary for the argument. One might differentiate such a case from a "clinical" case in which an individual has a permanent and insatiable desire to eat - a case which is structurally closer to the "Lacanian Real"; in such a case, a partial satisfaction of the desire would have no significant effect on it; it might also be interesting - and disturbing - to compare actual instances of crackdown culture and deviance amplification. If the demand for "order" has the exceptional and unspecifiable character Laclau etc. give it, it is insatiable, and the partial "orderings" by "hegemonic" forces would have no significant political effect. If the demand has an effect of providing a force of coalescence for hegemonic politics, it must be a demand which is at least partially satiable (or, in cases where the supported "order" is in the future, it must be believed in good faith tobe satiable, not to express an impossible desire). I suspect Laclau etc. are using their preferred structural logic of the dynamic "tension" to cover the structurally simpler idea of a quantitatively-layered and partially-satiable desire, while at the same time incorporating assumptions which depend on the irreducibility of the desire for order.

Indeed, Laclau etc. stake a lot on the idea that "order" and some other concepts have an exceptional status which separates them from ordinary, satiable desires and demands, without showing that this status exists, still less that it must exist. So, if there is an appeal to absent fullness in the case of a demand for "order", or for "emancipation", or when someone says 'Labour is more capable than the Tory Party to ensure the unity of the British people' (HSS 94) which Laclau and Mouffe use as a paradigm-case, Laclau etc. should show how such demands play a different, and primary, discursive role in relation to slogans about the 'growth of the national economy', the 'survival of the NHS' or the 'improvement of workers' pay', all of which are specifiable, concrete and meetable slogans even if their precise meaning is contestable. (The most important slogans of the October Revolution were "land, bread and peace" and "all power to the Soviets" - both of which are very specific and potentially achievable, even if one can question the Bolsheviks' ability, or even intent, to meet them). Compare the phrase 'Labour is more capable than the Tory Party to ensure the growth of the national economy'.

If "order" has a specific meaning (even if this meaning is at a high level of abstraction or is very limited) - for instance, if it is taken to imply the existence of a functioning system of food distribution - one consequence is that it cannot function as an empty signifier. (This is the case even if the specific demand can be met in a variety of ways, and even if many people will accept any of these ways as long as it meets the demand; cf. the case of hunger).

Any account of the libidinal basis for order-fetishism, conceived in such a way as a phenomenon of the psyche, would also have to take account of the existence of people who do not value "order" in the way Laclau etc. assume; further, the correctness or "universality" of those people who fetishise order could not be assumed prior to analysis. Laclau etc.'s approach is based on pathologising people who "refuse" to "recognise" the need for order and the necessary gap in "the social" which results from it, but one could equally well suggest that it is those who uncritically demand "order", even above their own basic needs, whose beliefs and libidinal investments should be changed.

Taken literally, Laclau etc.'s statements would suggest that "order" (or any other empty signifier which expresses the desire for social fullness) is desired for no reason, i.e. it need offer nothing beyond its own signification. 'order is universalised when the experience of a radical disorder makes any order preferable to the continuity of disorder' (E 60). This would require that, for instance, X support "any order" even if this leads to an "order" in which X, or any person known to X, is executed, assassinated, tortured, raped, mutilated, or anything else, or where X's deepest beliefs are suppressed and X's other desires denied any outlet whatsoever (even if the atrocity or prohibition is carried out by the hegemonic agent). If X is indeed prepared to accept this, or if X supports a slogan or movement even though such support implies this position, the reason is internal to X. (However, Laclau wavers between the idea of the desire for fullness as primary in this literal sense, and the idea of, for instance, "order" as a specific and maximisable; see above).

I am opposed to reactive desire for a variety of reasons but I will here specify one or two. Firstly, a desire for "order" or any other empty signifier has the effect of untying the hands of any agent who can claim to embody the signifier. The resultant "hegemonic" agent may then do anything it wants to, using the empty signifier as an excuse ("police moved in to restore order", "new powers are necessary to fight crime"). But with regards to any particular concrete desire or need, the "hegemonic" agent would then be a "meta-threat" so to speak; it would have a capacity to threaten which vastly exceeded that of any particular individual, and someone who accepted its empty signifier would have to submit to its threat without resistance. In this way, even when specific desires are misrecognised in or plugged into empty signifiers, they involve a self-abasement and a negation of desire (i.e. a situation in which desire has come to desire its own repression, has turned against itself and has become inconsistent). In addition to being degrading, and being insatiable (since the desire to repress is founded on the process of desiring-production it tries to destroy), this is necessarily unsuccessful (the repressed returns) because of its basis in active desire. Also, it leads to support for vicious social forces which tend to suppress desire.

Secondly, empty signifiers by their very nature offer nothing. Therefore, there is no characteristic which distinguishes "order" from "generalised disorder" if "order" is an empty signifier. The problem is compounded if social fullness is also impossible, because this means that the opposite is always true. For instance, the situation is always one of "generalised disorder" (as Mouffe hints: 'Chaos and instability are irreducible' - DP 136; cf. Laclau's remark - E 72 - that the articulation of the concept of order is unachievable, which would suggest that its pursuit does not offer any altenative to generalised disorder). As a result, no system of ordering could ever be enough; there would always be a need for more order, and this need would always be unconditional. This would leave two possibilities: the continual pursuit of the same kind of "order", but in escalating forms; or the perpetual and permanent revolutionising of society in search of an "order" which would not be merely a cover for "generalised disorder". While there may be something of this kind operating in escalatory discourses such as anti-"crime" fanaticism (each law which fails to eliminate "crime" is followed by demands for more laws), it could not lead to a stable "democratic" politics. (Clearly Mann's claim, in contrast, refers to exceptional situations, not to a permanent state of crisis). Furthermore, even if an empty signifier such as "democracy" creates an illusion of shared space, it could not lead to actual unity or solutions to conflicts, but only to their concealment; they would no doubt return later in a more violent form. Suppose, for instance, that "democracy" in Northern Ireland means union with Britain to Unionists and union with Ireland to Republicans. The use of an "empty signifier" accepted by both sides would not at all solve the conflict: it would simply shift the political dispute to the level of an administrative one focussed on the interpretation of (rather than the acceptance versus rejection of) a key term. There is no way that social unity - even a partial social unity - can result from the use of empty signifiers.

The "need" for discourses of "order" and the like should also be assessed with reference to Laclau's admission that such discourses require exclusion (see below). For those who are excluded, incomprehension is a starting-point, not a bogeyman to be feared. Laclau etc. must implicitly privilege insiders over outsiders in advocating discourses of "order" in spite of this effect, since otherwise the suffering caused by exclusion would undermine the idea that the pursuit of "order" is good.

Seeing a particular system as "order as such" is necessarily mythical and delusional. In fact, a particular system of domination is never an expression of systematicity; it is a particular social arrangement in which particular people dominate others. As a result, its "hegemonic" status is nothing more than the Emperor's New Clothes. (Keep in mind that for Laclau, social order is unachievable because lack is constitutive; therefore, if radical disorder exists, it exists permanently and cannot be overcome; also, since it merely asserts a form of life to be primary, it cannot construct any more order than preexisted it, because it would seem unjust or even incomprehensible to outsiders). The bogeyman of "radical disorder" is constructed by the system itself, as an illegitimate and sneaky way to discredit other possible systems and to entrench its own power by pretending to be something it is not. The bogeyman is created through mythical and irrationalist misreadings of particular conflicts; for instance, specific "Oriental" societies are perceived as the Oriental menace, or particular subcultures as the threat of "crime" (a category which covers everything from animal liberation actions to tax evasion by the rich). Its role in statist discourse is usually to make the state seem necessary by triggering or stirring up fear (cf. the article "The Politics of Fear" in Freedom). This imaginary benefit of the system is used to insulate it from the actual effects of its own actions; cf. "Operation Margarine" again. (Many people do not fall for this entirely, since they value what the system actually does or does not do, rather than its mythical role). The main social function of mythical subsumption is to replace actual and empirical concepts with mythical ones (which can be neither shown nor falsified and which are received connotatively), which tends to convert active desires structured in relation to specific instances of enjoyment and suffering into reactive desires concentrated in support for a universal repressive force against an imagined daemoniac evil (into which are subsumed actual, vicarious, and imagined threats and causes of harm). Of course, the universal repressive force is not given a justification which refers to the actual, and in fact it gives or provides nothing. Anything it provides, or is desired for, is a feature of its mythical function and the grip this function has on the psyche.

Daniel Singer sees through the myths clearly: ' "Anarchy is one of the most fashionable words of our time. It was flogged in France during the May crisis, though clearly not to death... This abuse of the word should not be confused with any renewed interest in the doctrine of anarchism... the censorious defenders of the established order are not concerned with such theoretical issues. "Anarchy" for them is a synonym for "disorder", and is used with its traditional companions - "nihilism", "mob", and "social envy" - as a verbal first line of defence against the challenge to authority. Its current fashion is an obvious symptom. Those in power do feel challenged. No wonder that the French government in May vociferously proclaimed the threat of anarchy to conceal its impotence and rally support... A revolutionary looking at a political strike draws a similar conclusion from a different angle. "The power of the strike lies in the disorganizing of the power of the government" [Trotsky]'. What the powers that be term "anarchy" is in fact "dual power": the coexistence of two social systems in a situation of conflict (Daniel Singer, Prelude to Revolution. France in May 1968, pp. 232-4.

Beneath the fear of anarchy, there may lurk a fear of anarchy; in other words, the myth of "generalised disorder" may well be an attempt to deny the possibility of a set of social relations which does not depend on rulers. Hence, Laclau etc. want a commitment to "order", or to "democratic" rules (see below), or to some other molar totality, to be seen as the only possible way to avoid a daemoniac bogeyman of 'generalised disorder' and the totalitarian response of intolerance. In fact, "hegemony" can also take the Gramscian form of commitment to a conception of the world; and relations across difference can occur dialogically and via particular areas of overlap, without reference to a prior unity. A horizontal structure of rhizomatic relations, which could include extensive relations of solidarity, could exist without common submission to any kind of "core".

Indeed, Laclau etc. never seem to ask what else could exist apart from the kind of structure they posit; they assume that, because it exists, it is necessary. For instance, he and Zac assert that decentring necessitates political ordering (MPI 37), which clearly it does not. That an order does not exist naturally does not require that one be imposed.

I will finish with another historical reference. Laclau etc. think that one should give up everything to ensure that one has order (or some equivalent master-signifier); it is the zero-point that must be defended at all costs. Someone else said something similar in 1848. 'The worker-republican alliance disintegrated in Toulouse, where a "liberal" councillor told the unemployed that "men who know how to die, weapons in hand, in defence of liberty... [dots in original] know how to die of hunger out of respect for order!" By April, Joly's municipality was resisting strikes and demonstrations' (Roger McGraw, France 1815-1914: The Bourgeois Century, p. 127). Now, 150 years later, Laclau seems to be proposing the same - and claiming it as a breakthrough for radical theory. One has reason to question the position of a "radical" who would side with the reactionary advocates of the bourgeois state rather than workers demanding basic subsistence rights.


Lacanian theories typically involve an ethical imperative in favour of exclusion, although this varies in form between versions which posit that exclusion always exists and which involve an ethical imperative to "assume" or "accept" this (to accept the "truth" or "nature" of the political), and statements which directly value violence or exclusion as a good in itself. In both cases there is a serious problem with why the valuation occurs (keeping in mind that there are strong reasons against accepting exclusion and violence). Laclau and Mouffe engage in a strange combination of "can't" and "shouldn't" arguments.

A particularly strong version of the first kind of claim, the "can't" claim (an ethical imperative to be divisive and use violence in order to show awareness of "the nature of the political", i.e. that one should accept that one can't overcome antagonism) crops up in Mouffe. Mouffe specifies that she does not want an 'endless conversation' with the 'Other', because such an approach is 'unable to come to terms with "the political" in its antagonistic dimension' (DP 129). 'what is missing' in such an endless conversation is 'a proper reflection on the moment of "decision" which characterizes the field of politics' and which 'entail[s] an element of force and violence' (DP 130). This pessimism of the will - giving up on the possibility of dialogue in advance - is effectively a classical naturalisation discourse similar to those used by people who claim that their preferred forms of oppression are "just the way the world is". The "nature of the political" is posited (dogmatically; see MYTH) as a truth, and Mouffe attaches to this truth an ethical imperative to accept it and act on it. In this kind of argument, moral failure is coterminous with epistemological failure (a failure to realise or accept). The rhetoric is almost positivist, though it lacks any substantiation whatsoever. The ethical imperative is an Enlightenment-esque demand that everyone "accept" the "truth". Hence Mouffe's main concern is about ensuring that one 'acknowledges the real nature of its [i.e. the social's] frontiers and the forms of exclusion that they entail, instead of trying to disguise them under the veil of rationality or morality' (DP 105); one should be 'coming to terms with' the 'nature' of society, supposedly so as not to naturalise frontiers and identities (DP 105).

Other examples abound. To take a few:
* 'accepting that conflict and division are inherent to politics' (Mouffe DP 16)
* wants a theory whihc 'acknowledges... that... antagonism and violence are ineradicable' and only asks the question of 'what to do with these' (RP 139)
* In democracy, 'division must be recognized as constitutive' (RP 147)
* 'we need a democratic model able to grasp the nature of the political' (DP 99)
* An 'agonistic confrontation' and a left-right division are necessary for democracy; it is an 'illusion' with 'disastrous consequences' to deny this (DP 9)
* 'coming to terms with the fact that power is constitutive of social relations' (DP 98)
* the existence of different forms of life is a reason, not for tolerance, but for conflict (DP 97-8)
* the idea of transcending the friend/enemy binary through negotiation is 'a dangerous liberal illusion which renders us incapable of grasping the phenomenon of politics' (RP 127)
* a need to abandon the search for liberal-democratic reconciliation (DP 8)
* the idea of creating a distributive system to which no-one could reasonably object is 'dangerously misguided' and anti-democratic, 'false blandness', an 'aversion from reality', a 'disguise' of the 'reality of conflict' (RP 149)
* Mouffe also finds offensive the idea that a just order would be one in which no-one could legitimately destabilize it, because conflict is insoluble (RP 148-9).

The "hard", macho brutality of the "acceptance" of "reality" and the resultantly harsh attitude to victims of exclusion (i.e. an assertion that this is "necessary", which bars compassion) is basically a populist speech-genre usually used by the right; cf. Marcuse's essay on totalitarianism (in Negations) and my paper "Killing with Words" (also Mao etc.). The role of the "acceptance of reality" is the repressive reduction of thought to the present and the resultant elimination of any conception of substantial change for the better, and therefore any transformative praxis.

In these cases, the ethical imperative to engage in violent conflict for its own sake is concealed beneath epistemological claims and disguised as a realisation of truth. In other cases, however, it expresses itself more directly, in terms of a "shouldn't" claim (i.e. one shouldn't try to do away with antagonism and violence because these are somehow good or beneficial). For instance:
* equality and liberty 'can never be personally reconciled, but this is precisely what constitutes for me the principal value of liberal democracy' (RP 110; key word: "value"); Mouffe directly wants 'an aspect of nonachievement, incompleteness and openness' (RP 110; notice the closure of such "openness")
* 'new political frontiers' are 'an urgent need' (RP 118)
* it is not unfortunate that conflict cannot be superseded (DP 33)
* conceiving politics 'must make room for the ideal of division and struggle, for the friend/enemy relation' (RP 114; key word: "ideal")
* One needs friction to function (DP 98).
* 'I am very much in favour of reintroducing the dimension of violence within reform. A world in which reform takes place without violence is not a world in which I would like to live' (Laclau E 114).
* 'there is nothing here to regret. It is in this active process of struggle that human abilities - new language-games - are created' (E 114). (Notice here in particular, the way in which violence seems to have a purging or palingenetic force).
* Transitions between social systems are, and should be, painful (E 114, 116).
* There is also a "shouldn't" in HSS (see HSS 187-8).

Such phrases, though rare, suggest that Mouffe believes in the necessity of lack primarily because she wants such a lack, i.e. that the epistemological claims function to give a more plausible exterior to the basic drive to create conflict (i.e. a reactive structure of desire, in which the existence of "evil" precedes and so is necessary for the existence of "good"). This is clear in the passage above from Laclau, when, following his remarks that a world without violence would be undividable, he adds, 'Thus', that he sees violence and antagonism as 'constitutive of the social' (E 114) - as if the ontological principle follows from the desire for a world in which violence occurs.

To qualify a little: it is not always clear how violent the "violence" is. Concepts such as "antagonism", "violence", "power" and "coercion" can be very weaselly in Laclau and Mouffe's work. Sometimes, all they seem to be saying is that any particular choice involves the nonrealisation of other possible choices. Sometimes, they suggest that real social conflict is necessary, but that this can be domesticated or toned down into a tolerable procedure or process of selection. Mouffe for instance sees a 'common basis for discussion' as a way of offering a possibility to exclude the use of force from politics (RP 129; see also AGONISM). This version is especially common in Mouffe's work. However, some of the rhetoric suggests that it is "violence" and "coercion" in the more specific sense which is meant. For instance, Laclau specifically links his version of the concept of antagonism to the exterminatory violence of the Jacobins (NRRT 21). It is possible that they are not themselves clear on how much "violence" is "necessary", or that they disagree. A more worrying possibility is that they are using arguments involving the more generalised forms of "violence" in an attempt to legitimate the more specific forms. (The demonstrations of the "necessity of antagonism" are few and far between - it is usually asserted as a dogma - but the rare occasions where a demonstration is attempted usually involve extremely broad conceptions of what it involves).

The main examples I have found of an attempt to show the necessity of coercion involves the broadest of the three listed alternatives: the use of force is inevitable because persuasion always involves conversion from one worldview to another, and conversion involves 'killing' an existing belief. Choosing involves repressing alternative courses of action (E 112-3). Therefore, 'One cannot persuade without persuasion's other - that is, force' (E 116). This is then used to suppress possible debates about the role of force in politics (even though these probably do not originate from Laclau's concept of "force" as expressed here): 'persuasion is one form of force' and so it is 'simply not possible' to counterpose persuasion and force (E 113). As a result, conceptual distinctions between violence, proceduralism and persuasion are eliminated. In this passage, "force" and "violence" cover an awful lot: for instance, strikes and sit-ins count as forms of (legitimate) violence (E 113-14). Again in NRRT, a power relationship exists whenever there is a choice, because choice involves the repression of possible alternatives; conversion, for instance, is a power relationship even if voluntary, because it involves the repression of prior beliefs (NRRT 31). This is again the broad concept of force; but the specific examples Laclau gives are all of the more specific kind: colonialism, a ban on trade unions, and Jacobin terror (NRRT 32), and he deduces from thia argument the supposed necessity of a 'violent hierarchy' of groups in politics between groups distinguished by essence/accident or by marked/unmarked terms, as in racism and sexism (NRRT 32-3). Of course, word-labels are arbitrary and "force" can therefore be defined in the way Laclau defines it, but one should not then assume that Laclau has somehow silenced or even entered into existing debates about "force" versus "persuasion". Even if "force" or "violence" is defined as a meta-category which includes persuasion, it is still possible to distinguish within this category between persuasion (or strikes or sit-ins) as "one form of force" and other forms of force, and to distinguish between them and express preferences. For instance, one could accept the phrase "force (in the Laclauian sense) is inevitable" while also taking the position that "persuasion can replace other forms of force", i.e. while taking the dialogical position which Laclau is here trying to debunk. Laclau has not shown anything here; he has simply redefined words. The difficulty is that in most of his work he still uses terms such as "violence" and "force" with their usual connotations, or even to directly express their usual meanings. This means that the above argument only "works" if the word "force" plays the role of a weasel-word. Laclau has not shown the necessity of "violence" defined as (for instance) "non-defensive physical actions intended to harm others' bodies", or "action causing substantial harm to others", or "acts likely to physically injure others", or any other such definition. (Also, since his concept of "force" covers every possible strategy, it is unclear how anything which exists can be anything but a variety of force, and the concept therefore loses any referential meaning since it does not have an Other. "Force" is only meaningful if differentiated from something else). In fact, Laclau wishes to draw a specific conclusion - that the necessity of making a decision legitimates any action which the decision necessitates (E 113) - from the argument. Such a pragmatist conclusion does not at all follow from the simple linguistic gesture of using the word "force" to cover a variety of different actions. (The use of a single word-label does not eliminate differences between the objects subsumed under it; to assume that it does is essentialist). He also wishes to draw the conclusion, which is equally unjustified, that oppression is necessary (since only 'particular forms of oppression can be eliminated' - E 116). Laclau draws conclusions supporting a particular kind of force from an argument which redefines "force" (or "violence", "coercion", etc.) to mean something else.

The confusion between "can't" and "shouldn't" (the claim that antagonism always constitutes the social and that this should merely be accepted, and the claim that antagonism is a good in itself - the latter suggesting that it is not in fact universal) also arises in relation to the question of whether there can be a society without violence/antagonism. At one point, Laclau effectively says that such a society is possible but undesirable: a world without violence 'is not a world in which I would like to live' because it would have to be either 'unidimensional' or totally dominated (E 114). But he states elsewhere that a homogeneous society, without violence, is impossible. It cannot occur because any hegemonic project is itself necessarily lacking (NRRT 28).

What should be emphasised is that Laclau and Mouffe do not simply believe that exclusion exists; they believe that there is an ethical imperative to support it, and to suppress ethical and humanitarian impulses which revolt against it. Although violent hierarchies 'elicit an immediate ethical response' of trying to invert or even suppress them, it should be realised that, since 'power is the prerequisite of any identity, the radical disappearance of power would amount to the disintegration of the social fabric' (NRRT 33). So violent hierarchies should not be done away with. 'Destroying 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' (NRRT 33)

As regards the first (and more common) version of Laclau and Mouffe's position, there is a central difficulty in terms of a contradiction or confusion between different language-games. As noted above, the central modality of the first type of argument relies heavily on an Enlightenment type of reasoning. "The social" or "the political" is conceived as having an external essence - "the nature of the political", for instance - and the ethical imperative which humans should accept is the imperative to seek out and reveal this truth. Failure to do this is a form of wilful ignorance - for instance, 'a dangerous liberal illusion' (RP 127). The binary is primarily between knowledge, acknowledgement, acceptance, fact, truth and essence ("nature") on the good side, and illusion, foreclosure, denial, repression, wilful ignorance, "blindness", "inability to accept", veiling, disguise and concealment on the bad side; in other words, an essence-appearance binary. However, a large part of what Laclau and Mouffe argue involves challenging and critiquing this kind of logic (especially the version they typify as "rationalism"). This would seem to be a central contradiction. Furthermore, the Enlightenment logic was/is based on a more-or-less optimistic conception of what knowledge (and the rest of the good pole) can deliver; its ethical force depends on a relationship between knowledge and progress. Laclau and Mouffe seem to reject any idea of progress or becoming, which problematises the assumption that "acknowledging the truth" has any inherent value. This kind of issue never arises directly in their work, mainly because the Enlightenment mode of reasoning is expressed rhetorically and connotatively and is not given a direct theoretical expression.

Various attempts are made implicitly to account for the primacy attached to "truth", most of them extremely speculative and weakly developed. One line of argument suggests that politics performs a basic function, and that a "refusal to accept antagonism" is disruptive of this function. Hence, social organisation exists to make action and decisions 'as coherent as possible' and to 'reduce the margin of undecidability' (RP 141), democracy exists to organise coexistence (DP 18), and the recognition of antagonism and violence opens the possibility of asking 'what to do with these' (RP 139). This line of argument is problematic, partly because it involves naturalisation on several levels, eg. naturalisation of conflict as necessarily present unless removed by systems of organisation (which implies ontological individualism), and naturalisation of politics, which is identified with a particular role. Furthermore, if presented directly as an argument, this would be circular, since the acceptance of antagonism is assumed by the argument for it (i.e. the argument for "organisation" to subdue a basic antagonism implies it is already accepted as primary).

Another problem with this kind of argument is that, if one takes its ontology seriously, it rules out any need for "acceptance" at all. In other words, if antagonism is constitutive and all politics is based on decisions, this remains the case whether or not anyone "accepts" that it is the case. Politics will operate similarly regardless of whether or not people accept Laclau and Mouffe's theory. For instance, as Mouffe states, theorists such as Rawls, who she attacks for his commitment to a final rational consensus, necessarily make a decision anyway, in Rawls's case via the concept of the "reasonable". So the question arises of what advantage is to be had by "acceptance" rather than "foreclosure" or "repression" (which according to the ontology, would lead anyway to the missing aspect returning in some other form). The question is especially problematic given that a reflexive awareness of the arbitrary character of decisions tends to undermine their very operation: a decision is made more "decisively" if it is not haunted by the agent's awareness of its arbitrariness. (At one point - RP 120 - Mouffe hints at the view that one has to believe in frontiers to construct them. This would explain why one should "accept" antagonism, but is in contradiction with Mouffe's ontology: if a refusal to believe in frontiers leads to their absence, a non-coercive consensus without frontiers must be possible).

Another line of argument (associated with both the "can't" and "shouldn't" versions of why one should believe in antagonism) is that freedom or social unity (or another good) is under threat unless one accepts antagonism. Hence, one should only call for the elimination of 'particular forms of oppression' and not for oppression per se, because an absence of conflict would mean an absence of freedom (E 116). A society without the 'dimension of violence' would be either unidimensional or dominated, whereas an 'active process of struggle' is a way to create new language-games (E 114). These versions involve a "shouldn't" rather than a "can't", but the same occurs in "can't"-type arguments, to account for why Laclau etc. assume it to be a bad thing to "refuse to acknowledge" antagonism. The "refusal" is taken to lead to totalitarian projects, whereas an "acceptance" would lead to a healthy and stable democracy. Attempts 'to establish a definitive suture' lead to totalitarianism (HSS 187), whereas an acceptance of antagonism opens the possibility for democratic politics. The idea of consensus without exclusion should be 'relinquished' in order to avoid the 'danger' of social closure (RP 146), and the 'myth' of a democracy from which undemocratic (i.e. totalitarian?) practices have been eliminated 'leads to totalitarianism' (RP 18 - this version sounds very like doublespeak). Thus, 'coming to terms with' the 'nature' of society avoids naturalising and essentialising frontiers and identities, and therefore opens democracy up to plural voices and complex power-structures (Mouffe DP 105).. Another version invokes the need for social unity as the good which is blocked by a refusal to accept antagonism. The liberal denial of the 'irreducible antagonistic element', says Mouffe, 'can have disastrous consequences for the defence of its institutions'; it 'only leads to bewilderment' and 'impotence' (RP 140; note the implied reference to the phallus i.e. master-signifier, and the recurrence of macho themes as a result). Mouffe insists this is a problem because of the 'increasing lack of social cohesion in democratic societies' (RP 65). Democracy needs exclusion because otherwise, 'the will of the people could never take shape' (DP 43), and there must be a beyond since otherwise the context is limitless (E 52). 'Extreme forms of individualism have become widespread which threaten the very social fabric' and plural group identities 'put into jeopardy the civic bond' (DP 96). In one passage, Mouffe directly links the two bogeymen: because the situation of breakdown needs solution, a failure to solve it opens space for fascists (cf. similar rhetoric by Blair in Seville on immigration). 'The absence of a political frontier... is the symptom of a void that can endanger democracy' because the void 'can be occupied by the extreme right': the ungentrified antagonism explodes into full-scale enmity rather than being domesticated as adversarial agonism (RP 5-6). In another passage Mouffe directly short-circuits between a statement that something is necessary for the state and a statement that it is necessary per se (RP 145). And in another, she argues for an acceptance of exclusion because an attempt to disguise it 'creates effects of occultation which hinder the proper workings of democratic politics' (RP 146). Elsewhere, she asserts that 'Nowadays, the crucial issue is how to establish a new political frontier capable of giving a real impulse to democracy' (RP 6), implying that her aim is to overcome apathy and generate passionate commitment. She also refers to 'values that can be realized through collective action or through common belonging to a political association', values which 'should be distinguished from morality' (RP 113).

Though superficially empirical, this account is largely asserted. The correlation between liberal democracy and acceptance of antagonism on the one hand and totalitarianism and refusal to accept on the other is not clear from the historical evidence. Mouffe's various arguments with everyone from Rawls to Habermas to Giddens suggest that most supporters of liberal democracy are believers in rational completion. On the other hand, totalitarians frequently use formulae involving "acceptance of antagonism": the necessity of war between races, classes or other groups is constantly active, and Mao (for instance) definitely had a philosophy of constitutive antagonism, as is revealed in his essay "On Contradiction"; cf. Mouffe's repeated references to fascist fellow-traveller Schmitt, and Marcuse's analysis of fascism as decisionist (see below). In addition, there is the problem of arguments involving contingency and openness but which do not involve formulations involving a "necessity of antagonism" (eg. Barrett, Bey, Vaneigem). As regards the desirability of antagonism, this raises the problem of whether whatever good it is supposed to deliver can really be assumed to "outweigh" the harm caused by processes of social exclusion. If, for instance, the right to make a decision to lock others up is an act of freedom, it is nevertheless an act which suppresses the freedom of others and so cannot be described as delivering freedom in general. Not only is the undeclared utilitarian assumption problematic on these kinds of grounds, but it is also problematic to justify oppression on utilitarian grounds at all.

As regards the theme of social unity, I would problematise the assumption that something needed for unity (especially of a statist kind) thereby becomes necessary. The idea of capitalism as being in a state of social breakdown is an illusion constructed by capitalism itself to conceal the systematic working of its own logic. Of course, the absence of a socially-fixed master-signifier makes it harder for statists and others to pretend (in a socially effective way) that they represent anything universal, and an "acceptance of the necessity of exclusion" would be of no end of help to statists trying to reintegrate "society" through a process of gleichschaltung and repressive territorialisation. On the other hand, a refusal to "accept" its "necessity" provides an ethical basis for resistance to such projects. But why, in this case, should one positively value the "proper workings of democratic politics", when "hindering" these workings may help protect people from state violence? (NB also Mouffe's overt use of reactionary phrases such as "the social fabric": the metaphorising of society as a single object or organism is implicitly threatening to people). I am reminded of another issue: in At War with Asia (I think it was this book), Chomsky analyses what he calls the "threshold" against genocide; in other words, American "public opinion" (ordinary people) were sufficiently opposed to certain tactics, such as deliberate and massive bombing of major population centres in a way which would visibly kill thousands, as to make it seem imprudent to generals and politicians to use these tactics (i.e. such tactics could cause mass resistance). As a result, they adopted more surreptitious tactics instead (eg. causing mass famine by bombing dams). Chomsky provides quotes from official commentators showing how aggrieved they were about this "threshold", and how they felt American democracy would have to be restructured so as to eliminate it (which Chomsky paraphrases as, "either the war goes, or democracy goes"). Chomsky, in contrast, praises the progressive role of this far too limited "threshold". Of course, the threshold creates effects which impede the proper workings of the bourgeois "democratic" state and which reduce its efficiency and its ability to construct a "we" around any particular war. Does this, therefore, mean that it is undesirable? Laclau and Mouffe's argument would seem to suggest this. Their arguments could, if accepted, provide a way around the "threshold". ("Exclusion is constitutively necessary; there may be an ethical reaction against mass killings, but this must be resisted, because it fails to recognise the constitutive nature of antagonism and if successful would lead to social breakdown; as long as the American government admits that it is committing genocide and does not pretend to be engaged in a rational or moral project, there is nothing wrong with what it is doing"). But why should the "proper functioning" of this machinery of violence be treated as a transcendent ideal, even if this means exclusion and violence against others? The "values" realized through political exclusion remain at the level of assertion and high abstraction.

When they use "shouldn't" arguments, Laclau etc. tend to invoke two versions of an "other": a society homogenized by force, and a homogeneous but utterly boring "utopian" society. (Zizek goes even further in constantly attacking the "boring" or "suffocating" character of a society without coercion). A coercively homogenized society is not a society without antagonism since it would require a sense of threat to legitimate its apparatus of coercion; totalitarianism is necessarily reactive even in an idealised, resistance-free form (cf. the need to keep the state in a permanent war in 1984). It is unclear why a society which is "harmonious" in the sense of an absence of violent conflicts would also have to be homogeneous in terms of being monotonous. The absence of conflict would not necessarily preclude the presence of "creative" forms of "power" such as love, gifts, play and art. The image of "harmony" in the work of Proudhon is an image of a society in which differences find a release in activities which are beneficial or at least harmless to others; this does not require that people be identical or have a rigid set of universal forms of life. Also, it seems strange to me to value the absence of boredom sufficiently highly that eliminating boredom makes it justified to support repressive and violent practices. Laclau does not advocate any form of libidinal sadism, yet his formulations on the subject of boredom seem to imply that enjoyment can only arise through others' suffering. (I am not here putting a case for a model of a "harmonious" society, or even for its possibility. In my view, the question of its possibility is an empirical question, dependent on the contingent desires and needs of particular people. I don't believe there is any ontological barrier to "harmony", but nor is it possible to construct a blueprint. A blueprint would require information on the abilities, needs and desires of every single human being as well as a resolution of problems regarding relations to the rest of nature. Barring such information - which is presumably unachievable for empirical reasons - an attempt to construct a blueprint is likely to be oppressive, but this is because of its impositional and essentialist assumptions, not because of the goal of harmony. See my remarks to Yannis also).

To accept the view that antagonism is desirable and "harmony" (as qualified above) undesirable, one would have to maintain that, in a (counterfactual) "society" where there were no specific reasons to be unhappy with others and where existing structures were not experienced as a constraint, one would nevertheless feel the need to exceed this "society" by finding someone to offend or some kind of rule to break (and not in creative but nonconflictual ways). This would require an essentialist account of human psychology as necessarily conflictual and reactive regardless of context.

The idea of violence as a healthy, redemptive force does not exactly have a glowing history. It has overtones of all kinds of machismo and right-wing nonsense, including fascism. Even if the assumption is valid, there is no reason why it requires violence against third parties as opposed to some kind of system of differences which leads to (possibly ritualised) fighting and conflict.

It should also be added that the idea that an "acceptance" of antagonism, and therefore of decisionism and exclusion, somehow leads to a weakening of the powerful and an empowerment of the weak is a complete myth. The main reason for this claim appears to be that Laclau etc. effectively taboo the gesture of a particular elite claiming that it is universally valid (as opposed to its being a hegemonic force), although even this is unclear; after all, it is a part of hegemony as defined by Laclau that it must involve a claim to universality. Meanwhile, the argument furnishes the powerful with an even better excuse: for instance, instead of having to defend an ever more implausible claim to neutrality, rationality and fairness, a liberal state could point to the "constitutive nature of antagonism and violence" to excuse every abuse it committed. If this did not work (since its opponents could equally point to this "nature" to justify resistance), the state could use the new, improved Laclauian version of Hobbesianism (see above) to provide a non-rebuttable defence of its "necessity". Therefore, Laclau etc.'s "acceptance of antagonism" drastically reduces freedom, and increases the rhetoric available to a would-be repressive state.

The "freedom" antagonism is supposed to provide is a "freedom" which, by refusing any form of unconditional self-positing (see below), leaves one permanently vulnerable to oppression by a hegemonic alliance which wins majority support or manages to manipulate its way into control of the "democratic" state. For instance, for all Mouffe's attacks on neo-liberalism for refusal to accept the political, she nevertheless includes it on the list of valid conceptions which could be accepted within an agonistic society of adversaries (RP 104). In other words, for Mouffe etc., the point is not to change it, but merely to change the rhetoric of legitimation. As long as an oppressive system can "accept the primacy of antagonism", it can no longer be opposed in any fundamental way. Since this is the case, the claim to be standing up for newly assertive particularisms is invalid, and so is the claim to be constructing freedom.

One connoted aspect of the Laclau etc. project, inherited from its Lacanian origins, is what amounts to a therapeutic function. The account of the acceptance of antagonism, along with the corresponding dangers, threats and advantages, is an almost direct structural application of the Lacanian model of therapy (although minus the actual process of therapy, for which rational argument is substituted). Totalitarianism and anomie are encoded as neurotic symptoms, blamed on the refusal to accept antagonism, and dissolved by such an acceptance. However, even if one accepts the Lacanian model, this is not necessarily a reason also to accept such an application.

Finally, what may well be the actual basis for statism in Laclau etc. is used as an argument in one particular passage: 'the element of physical force cannot be eliminated even in the freest of societies. I doubt that Rorty would advocate persuasion as an adequate method of dealing with a rapist' (Laclau E 113). Laclau is here tapping into one of the deepest, and most insidious, veins of reactive structuring in the contemporary world: anti-"crime" fanaticism. Notice that the mode of argument is an invocation. Laclau does not provide any evidence that rapists cannot be persuaded to stop raping; in fact, he does not even specify at what point he feels force to be necessary. (Is it necessary because someone has raped in the past? If they are active, but not at this moment? Or only if caught in the act?). This is typical of the type of confusion which is involved in anti-"crime" ideology, which often treats retrospective acting-out against "criminals" as if it is equivalent to a defensive action specific to a situation (due to a myth of balance).

Further, this argument presupposes that rape occurs in all possible societies, a claim which is falsified by anthropological evidence (rape only occurs in societies with highly patriarchal structures). Since rape is a variety of physical force, the existence of rape shows that physical force has not been eliminated from a particular society, so that taken literally Laclau's argument is circular. This circularity covers the undeclared assumption that rape necessarily occurs in all societies. But it also shows another confusion which decisively alters the meaning of the term "constitutive antagonism". When Laclau says that physical force cannot be eliminated because it is needed to deal with rapists, he is actually saying that a dominant state is necessary, but his rhetoric is concealing this. (How else does one explain why he does not count the existence of rape as an instance of physical force?).

The peremptory character of this argument demonstrates its underlying structure as an appeal to "intuitive" dogmas, rather than as a reasoned argument. Laclau is actually telling the reader that, unless one is to accept the absence of any generalised repressive agency to punish rapists (he could as easily have specified any other category of "crime"), one must accept the existence of a coercive state and give up the idea of eliminating oppression. This is indeed true, but minus the implicit assumption that the dogmatic support for the state and its logic of punishment is somehow self-validating. The logic of punishment involves an irrational acting-out after the event, which has no useful role except as an expression of libidinal sadism and of claims to privilege. This libidinal sadism requires the existence of the "crimes" it punishes; otherwise, it would have to revert to direct sadism. The entire logic is dogmatic and non-causal. States have existed for millennia and have not yet eliminated rape. Nor have they reduced it, compared to pre-state societies. During this period, states have committed a whole plethora of abuses of their own, including rapes (eg. during wartime). One cause of rape is the patriarchal structure of society (notice that in the west rapes of men by women are unheard-of and castrations rare); this structure is affirmed by the existence of the state, which is nearly always male-dominated. Another cause is the phallic-narcissistic structure of desire (see Reich's Character Analysis), a structure which arises as a result of the Oedipal trap and which is connected to the repression of desire which the state operates to guarantee coercively. Anti-"crime" dogmas are a barrier to a dialogic (or character-analytic) process of social transformation, but this does not show that state violence is necessary. In contrast, it shows that such dogmas must themselves be transformed if a better world is to come into being.


The fetishism of rules (or of "principles" which operate as rules) is a common characteristic of discourses of self-alterity. Liberalism in particular is prone to this conception. Rule-fetishism occurs when "rules" are treated as if they are prior to and outside people, and as if they can therefore have an ethical value, over and above people and other living things. This is a "fetish" in the same way as in "commodity fetishism": something secondary, which results from human action, is given the ethical status of something which is self-active and to which people should submit. It tends to lead to the view that rules, instead of people, matter. Mouffe in particular is inclined to slip into rule-fetishism as an extension of her commitment to order and community.

For Mouffe, rules and "principles" are the form of domination ("power") which are compatible with democracy. Her goal is to 'constitute forms of power which are compatible with democratic values', by ensuring that violence (which cannot be eliminated) is 'limited and contested' (DP 22). (see the section on exclusion regarding the weaselly use of the concept of "power" or "violence"). Her fetishism of rules is specifically related to a commitment to slave morality. 'To be a citizen is to recognize the authority of such principles and the rules in which they are embodied' (RP 65). In other words, one is still to bow down before the corpse of God, or in psychological terms, to adopt a reactive structure of desire in which "principles" are allowed to overcode or axiomatise and therefore to trap desire through submission to a master-signifier. For Mouffe, democratic society is a 'societas', an association united only by acknowledgement of 'rules or rule-like prescriptions' (RP 66-7; in Sartre's schema this would make it an "organisation", as distinct from a fused or pledged group). 'To belong to the political community what is required is that we [sic] accept a specific language of civil intercourse' (RP 67 - this would seem to mean that the state is permitted to impose a language, such as Newspeak, as a condition for inclusion). Mouffe is opposed to the idea of purposive associations (fused groups), which she sees as repressive; rather, she thinks that the imposition of a "shared" [sic!!] language and rules 'makes room for individual liberty' (RP 67). Through 'identification with those rules of civil intercourse', people are to acquire 'a common political identity' (RP 67). She wants 'identification' with political 'principles' (RP 129), or in another passage, 'identification with the respublica' (RP 69; i.e. with public rules). She demands what she terms "civic conscience", i.e. 'the requirements proper for all citizens of a liberal democratic regime' (RP 36). Following Skinner, she asserts that it is 'indispensable that men [sic] fulfil certain public functions and cultivate the requisite virtues' (RP 38), a statement which effectively advocates gleichschaltung of the self by the state to construct a model of the self amenable to the state. Specific radical struggles should be subsumed under 'certain rules of conduct' and a 'common political identity' by conceiving of them via a respublica based on liberty and equality (RP ? - somewhere near 69).

The "individual's" relation to the rules, principles or respublica is one of abject prostration. In Mouffe's terms, people are to 'accept submission to the rules prescribed by the respublica in seeking their satisfactions and in performing their actions'; further, the rules are 'What binds them together' (RP 69). Mouffe thinks that 'obedience to the democratic rules' should be the main emphasis of political action (RP 73).

Lest the statist and repressive nature of this conception still be unclear, Mouffe also adds that it is 'essential to establish a certain number of mechanisms and procedures for arriving at decisions and for determining the will of the state' (RP 130).

Despite Mouffe's repeated denial that the tension between "liberal" and "democratic" values can be resolved, her conception of rules appears to do precisely this: 'some limits need to be put on the kind of confrontation which is going to be seen as legitimate in the public sphere' (DP 93). So the rules have a role of constructing a public-transcript space which is repressively delimited. (Notice how the passive-voice and unsubstantiated imperative suggests a connotative basis - perhaps a fear of "crime" or chaos). Her only stipulation to differentiate her model from other repressive forms of statist politics is to insist that 'the political nature of the limits should be acknowledged instead of being presented as requirements of rationality or morality' (DP 93; note the privileging of her own language, despite her insistence on the contingency of language-games, demonstrating clearly how the disavowal of the idea of "final truth" or "foundations" in Lacanian theory is superficial/dishonest and how an essentialist commitment to a strong ontological theory continues to reproduce repressive political tendencies).

Despite Mouffe's (absurd) claim that they increase liberty, her version of rules (which are moral, not "only" a rule of law - see 67-8) are to be given the role of a universal trump-card. 'Citizenship is not just one identity among others'; it is an 'articulating principle' (RP 84) - in other words, it is to overcode and trump specific identities, so that loyalty to the state exceeds all other loyalties. Every concern is 'private though never immune' from the principles of citizenship (RP 84); in other words, the state can reach its tentacles wherever it wishes - while all others are totally vulnerable to the state and its "principles", the state itself can impose its views with impunity. Public rules are also to permit (and presumably limit) how other conceptions may be conceived (RP 67), and Mouffe explicitly agrees with Rawls that a set of public (=state?) norms should be able to dictate which 'conceptions of the good' individuals are allowed to believe in (RP 46). The rules are to be indifferent to truth (RP 68), and therefore presumably can be used to compel people to adhere (in public performance) to false or nonsensical beliefs. Rules are to be formulated so that all conceptions of the world, interests and purposes are subject to the rules 'indifferent' to their 'merits' (RP 68). Therefore, the rules are to be imposed regardless of people's needs and capacities, or even people's ability to obey; such (irrational) imperatives are also to be independent of truth and apparently need not benefit any active or substantive need or desire to be good - though in one passage she links it to a 'need to transform' power relations (DP 22). In one especially sinister passage, matters go even further, with Mouffe apparently advocating 'the love of laws and the fatherland' (RP 120).

It should be added (despite the absurdity) that Mouffe claims that such rules would be 'not in itself a substantive interest or doctrine' (citing Oakeshott; RP 68). This claim is significant since Mouffe's denial that the rules she advocates are repressive is based on the claim that the rules are not prescriptive and therefore that her conception 'respects individual liberty' (RP 72), despite the bulldozer role she gives to the state.

Mouffe rejects the idea that democracy is primarily a procedure, but she does believe that procedures have an important role by somehow conjuring up agreement where none existed before (RP 128-9). She assigns to public rules a broader role, probably connected to the strange idea that one's political status constitutes one's personal identity. Public rules provide 'the "grammar" of the citizen's conduct' (RP 72). However, at the heart of Mouffe's view of institutions is an idea of a split between different spheres. She openly advocates a contradiction between one's 'imaginary', i.e. what one actually believes and demands, and one's 'management of social positivity' (RP 190). In other words, she advocates a public submission to rules, combined with privately-held ideas which one never actually acts on.

To confuse matters a little, Mouffe's model does not assume that public rules lead to a single, homogenized regime. She wants to combine a prostration before rules with a commitment to an interpretative relation to them, although how these elements are combined is unclear. In one passage, she endorses Wittgenstein's claim that 'the multiplicity of uses is too various, tangled, contested and creative to be governed by rules' (DP 72), a claim which would undermine her entire approach. But she then adds that she wishes to 'make it possible to follow the democratic rules in a plurality of ways' (DP 73). She then adds a further set of claims that 'obedience to the democratic rules' should be primary and that democracy is constitutive (DP 74). She then further adds that the nominally common reference to democracy would produce 'diverse forms' and 'will, of course, lead to conflict' (DP 74). In effect, she has taken at least two (maybe three) different positions (that rules are constitutive and cannot be exceeded; that rules set limits, but permit a plurality of readings; and that readings exceed rules and cannot be reduced to them). If uses exceed rules, there is no way that rules can be either primary or constitutive. If, on the other hand, democracy is constitutive, uses cannot exceed it. In another passage, Mouffe demands (vague) principles of equality and liberty which 'give rise to multiple interpretations' of which no one interpretation is "correct", but which nevertheless act as a 'basis of homogeneity'; this is linked directly to an advocacy of procedures (DP 130). In another, Mouffe claims that 'consensus is indeed necessary, but it must be accompanied by dissent', attempting to resolve the resultant contradiction by demanding consensus on 'the institutions which are constitutive of democracy' and the slogan 'liberty and equality for all' (but not on substantive issues of social justice) (RP 113-14).

There are various problems with rule-fetishism, in addition to those outlined in the introduction. Privileging of rules requires an utter debasement of the self. Rule-fetishism leads to the same conclusion as order-fetishism (see section on order), but in a realised form: one could be compelled to submit to any possible rule, whatever its effects on one's own desire, and this is clearly unbearable for anyone with any dignity whatsoever. Rule-fetishism leads to barbarism. People pursuing specific conceptions of the world are subject to attack on grounds which are clearly insufficient. One ends up with a situation where keeping roads free of protesters is treated as "more important" than stopping the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people in an imperialist war. Or where, as in the Dominici case (see Barthes), someone is a victim of state violence through being subjected to an utterly incomprehensible logic. It is no coincidence that Mouffe is an irrationalist, because rules are in effect a substitute for reasons - a way for a violent and irrational state to give the superficial appearance of a rational defence for its actions (usually by appealing to mythical concepts dressed up as "fact").

Rule-fetishism, especially when given a "trump" status, leads to a Kafkaesque world in which rules matter and people don't. "The rules" become an excuse for an arbitrary, uncontrollable violence which menaces each and every individual with the threat that any active construction may be peremptorily destroyed. When this world is also ethically valued, it affords also an a priori immoral status to any assertion of "liberty against the law" and to anything which impedes general vulnerability. As I have already noted, the idea that rules can be valid even if they are uncommitted with regard to truth can lead to situations where truth is prohibited and a system of falsities, or even of logical impossibilities, imposed by decree (cf. some of the east European jokes Zizek has a habit of referencing). The idea that it is valid regardless of needs leads to cases like the one I mentioned in the section on order (i.e. it is good to starve to death out of respect for order). Even if the rules themselves are geared to be inclusive, they cannot be responsive to actual (and changing) needs and desires if their structure is irrelevant to these. Clearly rule fetishism puts social production before desiring-production and so is an authoritarian formation. Even if Mouffe tries to weaken this aspect by calling for the modification of rules via hegemonic struggles, the basic structure is one of repression and hierarchy. (It is no coincidence that the attempt to weaken the authoritarian implications of rule-fetishism leads to the introduction of elements - such as a Wittgensteinian model of rules and a writerly approach to obedience - which are incompatible with it). Another contradiction emerges because many of the specific arguments used by Laclau and Mouffe rely on the spectre of totalitarianism. This spectre can only be invoked in this way because of its inhuman logic, and such an invocation implies that people (not social externalities) matter.

Furthermore, rules, being abstractions, do not directly exist, so the crucial question is: how does the domination of rules over people express itself in social relations? It can only express itself as the domination of one group of people, who claim to possess or "enforce" the rules, over other groups of people. The liberal idea that "no-one should be above the law" is incoherent; for law to exist, there must be a group of people who claim to be its agents, and it is structurally necessary that these agents be in effect above the law (notice how one cannot sue a judge for acting oppressively). The idea that imposed rules are an excuse for the dominance of a particular group is implicit in Laclau and Mouffe's model of hegemony, but they fail to draw this conclusion.

The claim that rule-fetishism is not a substantive conception is, as I have stated, ridiculous. The reason for this is as follows. To be operative, it must have a substantive basis in specific structures of desire. Otherwise, it could not operate. These structures may pretend not to be positive, but they are necessarily reliant on active desire, however indirectly (i.e. even if via reactive distortions). In order for "non-substantive" rules to be put before all else, they must be given a substantive importance within the psyche (though this may be repressed). In other words, there must be a primary (substantive) desire to submit. This desire is almost certainly the usual reactive formation, i.e. fear of repressed desire misrecognized as unintelligible daemoniac forces.

If the principles or rules are conceived as vague and as open to competing readings, it is unclear how they can be seen as a basis for "homogeneity", "social unity", "mutual understanding", conflict resolution or a "will of the state". If there are many different readings, and none of these are "correct", if there is a nominally common referent which produces 'diverse forms' and 'will, of course, cause conflict', what occurs is not a unity but a number of different groups talking past one another while using superficially similar words. If one of them manages to impose a version as the "will of the state", there is nevertheless no good reason why it should win support or even toleration from other groups which share the same rhetoric. The comprehensibility of rules relies on the prior existence of similar forms of life; it cannot construct such similarity (though it may lead to attempts to do so through violence). The only way rules or principles could produce unity is if the superficial similarity deceives people into imagining that this group thinks the same as they do, a deceit which would soon be rendered ineffective once the group's programme is imposed through state violence. (I suspect in fact that the idea that "none of the readings is correct" is not used here to draw the logical conclusion that no reading can therefore be imposed as if it were correct, but rather the view that, since none of them are incorrect, none of them can be resisted if imposed by the state). A "societas" - an organisation united only by rules - is an impossibility if one takes seriously a Wittgensteinian conception of rules. The rules are necessarily an expression of a prior underlying form of life. The crucial point is that, if the rules are imposed universally, they are repressive of other forms of life and arbitrarily privilege the one which they express.

In fact, if one's relation to rules is "writerly", if one interprets them in 'various, tangled and creative' ways, this is not actually a submission at all, and it could not lead to a "will of the state"; rather, each agent would have a self-posited reading of the rules, and the result would be the same as if each agent had different rules. Different forms of life would use the same vocabulary, but the meanings would remain incomprehensible. A commitment to a slogan would involve contradictory uses of it.

Nor is it clear why procedures should construct unity. As Barrett argues, 'If there are two persons who want the exclusive right to the same thing, it is quite obvious that there is no satisfactory solution to the problem. It doesn't matter in the least what system of society you suggest' ("Objections to Anarchism", p. 349). In other words, if a conflict is soluble, it can be decided by those concerned, or they can agree to arbitration. There is no way that a conflict between two (active) desires couldbe made more easily soluble by a procedure. There is only one kind of case where the procedure could work, and that is if people libidinally invest in the procedure itself over and above specific desires. But this requires that the primacy of this desire be established through repression. So instead of A repressing B to obtain an object, both A and B must be mutually repressed; the result would be a general reduction of the intensity of desires and experiences and a generalised fear of freedom. The procedure would also tend to make any conflict involving someone who has not primarily committed to the procedure less soluble, because the advocates of the procedure become fanatical and irrational in its defence. (Such issues inevitably arise since procedures depend on a particular form of life). Procedures cannot conjure agreement from disagreement; they can only impose the will of a third party, who must her/himself be a specific agent (either person or group) similar to A and B.

In general, rule-fetishism does not as Mouffe states politicise, but in fact depoliticises. It reduces the smooth, symmetrical meeting or confrontation between desires with a space which is always-already asymmetrical, in which people are divided in advance into human and subhuman. Desires or acts which exceed the systematic encoding are denied a human status (they become "un-man"); conflicts are simplified into a mythical model where there are only "law-abiding citizens" and "criminals". (Mouffe's version differs from the conservative version only in mobilising ressentiment against some oppressors, instead of solely concentrating on the poor). The fetishism of the rule, its being defined as more important than people, produces the underlying structure of this asymmetry. The asymmetry is directly oppressive, and it also has destructive effects in terms of rendering conflicts insoluble (the "law-abiding" gain an excuse for, or even an impulse to, absolute intransigence towards those labelled deviant).

There is a broader problem in Laclau and Mouffe's work that they vastly overestimate the "organicity" and the importance for everyday life of events and discourses which occur in the specific "field" of organised politics and "public" debate (see COMMON SENSE). As Buber argues, the "political" is in fact a secondary addition onto (or in Deleuzian terms, an overcoding of) everyday social relations. It is primarily a means for a ruling or governmental class to impose its dominance. The resultant public transcript is something which most people adhere to only superficially, and it affects identities mostly in negative ways. Scott's work shows that social relations and personal identity are connected more intimately to "hidden transcript" spaces than to superficially "public" discourses. By advocating a particular public transcript (specifically distanced from what people actually believe, and existing only as a 'management of social positivity', in other words, in Scott's less Blairite rhetoric, a 'performance' for extractive reasons), Mouffe is affirming the oppressive structure of present discourse, the existence of a dominant elite and the colonisation of social space by the society of the spectacle, in which self-alterity is constructed through roles and performances. (This is not to say that the "public rules" must colonise everyday life instead - such an approach would lead beyond the authoritarian state into totalitarianism). Crucially, in both Scott and Buber the "hidden transcript" is the progressive pole of the binary. However, one should also note that any oppressive aspects operative in everyday relations (eg. residual racism in everyday life, or domestic violence) would not be substantially changed by an alteration in the public transcript. There is a danger that a "progressive" public transcript could extend the state in totalitarian directions by trying to colonise everyday life, precisely in order to stamp out such reactionary everyday practices. It is more likely that there would be no effect at all. (How likely is it that the racist police will ever take racism seriously?). In fact, the "repression" from the public space of reactionary discourses may give a boost to populist movements which can then intensify their claim to be speaking a repressed truth. Crucially, Mouffe does not have any strategy to either transform or mobilise everyday beliefs. She seems to share the liberal dismissal of these as secondary to politics and as chaotic and untrustworthy, and therefore repeats the liberal gesture of ignoring and repressing them (in favour of a spectacle of politics). Yet everyday life is the actuality of social relations. (A strategy to transform everyday life would probably include a strong pedagogic and dialogic aspect, and Mouffe does not believe that dialogue is possible).

The concept of "identification" recurs on several occasions, usually as "identification with rules" (or respublica, or principles, etc.). Mouffe's use of this concept, clearly Lacanian in origin, demonstrates the reactionary character of her commitment to rules, because identification with the oppressor to whom one is subordinated is an authoritarian gesture (see Brinton, Reich). Identification is also necessarily delusional, since the self misperceives itself as somehow identical to someone else. (Identification should not be confused with vicarious experience or even with projections based on structures. In an identification, the reactions of the self follow those associated with another agent; for instance, if the state feels threatened, so does someone who identifies with it). Identification is probably closely related to the genesis of discourses of self-alterity; the actual self is negated in the process of confusing itself with others. Actually, it is unclear whether Mouffe means 'identification' literally, or if she is using this precise psychoanalytic term in a vaguer sense; for instance, to mean "acceptance" or "support". It is unclear whether "identification with rules" makes sense as a concept. "Identification" as a defence-mechanism occurs in reference to another agent (for instance, "identification with the father" or "identification with the master"). However, rules are not agents (although they perform the role of agents in rule-fetishist theories). Conceivably, one could perhaps identify with rules if they are imagined to be agents (and ditto with commodities or globalisation), though I find this unlikely; it is more commonly recorded that people identify with rule-"enforcing" agents such as police and soldiers. Indeed, media discourse often tends to construct standpoints in such a way as to encourage people to see things from (for instance) the police's perspective (even visually, by camera angles, etc.). I strongly suspect that the idea of identification with rules is a new variant on the old authoritarian tendency to identify with the oppressor. The repressive and reactive libidinal significance of Mouffe's theory is further confirmed by her unconditional valuation of "homogeneity" and "social unity", her commitment to self-abasement via "submission" (the logic of the sacrifice and the master), and her use of masochistic metaphors ('What binds them together')
when modelling social relations.

The subsumption of radical struggles under 'certain rules of conduct', especially if these are rules of a public transcript and are connected to support for the state, is not as Mouffe assumes a realisation or extension of the struggles. Rather, it is the moment of their recuperation by capitalism and the state and their resultant axiomatisation as one of the series of equivalent
(quasi-)commodities and "lifestyle choices" capitalism offers as carrots to induce submission. Desire is at its most progressive when it is posited unconditionally, against the system of exchange and equivalence.

Finally, it should be noted how little difference there is between Mouffe's position and the present operations of statist ideology. Rule-fetishism is a central theme, not only in the operation of bureaucracies and judicial institutions, but also in liberal and conservative ideologies in both their popular and academic varieties. In fact, what Mouffe demands is not any substantial change (even at an ideological level), but merely a change to a particular technical vocabulary: as long as the limits of the public space are defined as "political" and not as "rational" or "moral", everything is OK (see DP 43). The addition of the magic word "political" makes an oppressive, dangerous practice into something acceptable. It is the vocabulary, not its contents, which Mouffe tries to change (and presumably, therefore, where Lacanian theory invests its emotional and cognitive commitments). The point is very definitely to interpret the world, and no more.


All the previous (and later) sections point towards the view that Laclau and Mouffe are statists, committed to a state which dominates and controls the rest of society. There are occasions where this position is confirmed explicitly.

Mouffe is very enthusiastic to insist that loyalty to the state must be of a special kind, not simply one of a series of loyalties. She attacks 'the excesses of a certain type of pluralism' which would 'see individuals as having no overriding obligations to the state' because the state is simply an 'association' (RP 131). Her basis for this is an appeal to lack as essence: the 'essence of the political' rules out the reduction of the state to the status of an association (RP 131; why antagonism is taken to necessitate a state is never explained). The state is put in the position of a master-signifier. 'Schmitt is right to insist on the specificity of the political association, and I believe we must not be led by the defence of pluralism to argue that our participation in the state as a political community is on the same level as our other forms of social integration' (RP 131). The reduction of the state to the status of an association would mean 'the state automatically disappearing' (131). So Mouffe's 'pluralism requires allegiance to the state as an "ethical state" which crystallizes the institutions and principles proper to the mode of collective existence that is modern democracy' (131). She even endorses Schmitt's idea that the state should be at the centre of ethics, his call for an 'ethics laid down by the State as autonomous ethical subject, an ethics emanating from it' (131).

cf. the following passages:
* 'the need to put some limits to pluralism' due to 'the hegemonic nature of every possible consensus and the ineradicable violence that this implies' (DP 134; NB deagentification)
* There should be a consensus around 'the institutions which are constitutive of democracy' (RP 113).
* 'Obviously pluralism can never be total, since it requires a legal order and a public power... the state can never become merely one association among others; it must have primacy. An associational society needs a state'; the state is therefore 'to police the conduct of associations' (RP 99)
* 'Universalism is not rejected but particularised; what is needed is a new kind of articulation between the universal and the particular' (RP 13).
* The state should not be a 'voluntary association' equivalent to trade unions and churches, but 'something different and decisive'. For Schmitt, and apparently Mouffe, 'to deny this is to deny the political', i.e. to deny 'the essence of the political' (DP 51-2). 'Schmitt is right to stress the deficiencies in the kind of pluralism that negates the specificity of the political association' (DP 53).

A lot of the references to "community", "society", "order", "hegemony", "universality" and so on appear to be disguised references to the state also. There is also one passage where Mouffe hops from the statement that 'no state or political order can exist without some form of exclusion' to the view that exclusion is 'necessary', with no further clarification (RP 145). Indeed, I would suggest that the state vanishes into the background and is connoted rather than directly denoted in most "radical democratic" work. This may lead to difficulties establishing whether particular ideas refer to the state or not, even on a close reading. It is precisely the assumption that it is "necessary" - that when one refers to "politics" or "antagonism" or to issues around violence, conflict-resolution and community-building, one is referring automatically to the state (without a need to specify this) - which generates this situation. (There is, incidentally, an earlier body of work by Chantal Mouffe from before HSS, such as an essay on Gramsci's concept of intellectuals, which is explicitly technocratic). Compare also the discussion regarding "how Rorty would deal with a rapist" (see above), in which the "necessity of violence" is associated with the supposed necessity of a punitive state regime rather than the existence or nonexistence of individual violence.

For Mouffe, the special status of the state is required for psychological reasons. A state with no special status, a mere 'referee' or 'instrumental' organisation, 'could not be the object of loyalty' and therefore 'loses its ethical role and capacity to represent the political unity of a people' (DP 52).

Mouffe also asserts a 'need for homogeneity', explaining this as follows: 'for, without such unity, there can be no state'; her only difference with Schmitt on this subject is that he sees the unity as substantive, rather than as due to political principles, and so is 'potentially totalitarian' (RP 129; see above on how Mouffe's theory must also be substantive).

She also praises Raz's 'fruitful' approach, in which he claims that the state 'must promote some forms [of life] and forbid others' (RP 126). She also wants to establish limits to state power, but without positing the state's neutrality (RP 127).

Laclau and Mouffe in HSS also give the state an overwhelming role, describing the state as a practice of hegemony; a class or other group becomes state by becoming hegemonic (HSS 69). They also deny the possibility of exteriority in relation to the state (HSS 35). Mouffe also sees the state, not individuals, as the key to conflict resolution (RP 131).

Of course, this statism is yet another excuse for domination and oppression. If the state is not a "voluntary" association, it must presumably be a compulsory one, embodying some variety of last-instance slavery. The state may well, to legitimate its violence towards others, attempt to present itself as something "more than" other social relations, or even as the origin of these (hence its reliance on the order/chaos binary; see above). But this special claim is basically ideological. The state, as one association among many, arrogates to itself the special status of being "primary" (in a bit the way any oppressor can establish a "primary" role by killing and terrorising others).

Furthermore, the population in general does not actually participate in "the state" (though people may imagine themselves to do so via some kind of delusional identification). The state as a group of people is a "special body of armed people" (Lenin), an "organisation with a monopoly on the use of force" (Weber), "a whole apparatus of legislators, prosecutors, attorneys-general, custom house officers, policemen" (Proudhon), "an association of men who do violence to the rest of us" (Tolstoy), "the embodiment of the principle of invasion in an individual, or a band of individuals" (Benjamin Tucker) (NB that these are all extensional definitions in contrast to the intensional model of a state role or function used by Laclau and Mouffe; NB also that there is an alternative, idealist definition of the state, but that this includes so much as to make the association of the state with "antagonism" and "violence" implausible). Unless one belongs to the special organisation which is the state, one cannot logically refer to oneself as part of the state. (Being taxed by, given a vote by, or even paid by the state does not make one part of it, any more than being mugged makes one a member of the mugger's gang, or any more than being given a "free gift" at a shop makes one a member of a retail corporation). So to refer to "our participation in the state" is mystification, and to deny the possibility of an "outside" to the state is even greater mystification. The question arises: why, if one cannot trust other individuals or associations, should one trust this particular association to elevate itself to a primacy in which it becomes less vulnerable to one's own actions? This particular association is especially dangerous because its very position requires that it intransigently assert its own right (or better: privilege) to win at all costs. A state is always a determinate, specific group of people who confront other people (labelled as "individuals" or "associations") on the basis of a claim to ontological privilege, and who therefore assume asymmetrical privileges in ethical terms as well (for instance, an asymmetrical right to commit violence, to terrorise, etc.).

Also, a state of any kind is clearly a form of mastery by a specific group of people, who occupy the "place of power", so to speak. To suggest that this has anything to do with emptying the place of power (Stavrakakis, Newman) or with admitting fundamental antagonism is nonsense. The particular group of people who make up the state are, at any given time, in the position of the master-signifier (provided they are seen as legitimate). "Whoever you vote for, the government always wins". In fact, Mouffe's statism has the feel of a continuation of the foundationalist search for final guarantees. Pluralism cannot exist without a state in Mouffe's argument presumably because pluralism is assumed to require a guarantee.

The danger in asserting the state to actually be (as opposed to imagining itself to be) special is that one gives it a discursively privileged status. So when, for instance, anti-fascists fight the police in Bradford, Indonesian troops fight OPM guerrillas or soldiers stop peace activists from blockading a military base, the two are not compared "as equals", on the merits of their goals and actions (which would in each case favour the anti-state force), but on scales already loaded in favour of the state, which is assumed to have some prior right to win at all costs even when it is entirely in the wrong. This is the logical equivalent of saying, "this specific individual, P.C. Smith, is in fact everybody" (and therefore, "the person P.C. Smith is beating up is nobody"). This is both illogical and dangerous. (cf. the section in MYTH on "empty signifiers").

The idea that an organisation committed to ongoing violence, and defined in Mouffe's own terms as "divisive", can provide the key to conflict resolution is coming very close to doublespeak. (see also above, "rule fetishism", on conflict resolution). Anthropologist Barclay notes that, while the state may reduce some forms of violence such as fights, it creates a great many more such as wars, and these are often far worse. Furthermore, the state's intransigence provides a constant barrier to the resolution of conflicts between the state and others. (Why, exactly, couldn't the recent Hackney siege be resolved by police withdrawing, when such a solution would be possible in IR? Clearly due to the state's arrogance and intransigence - it feels it must win at all costs. I have a quote somewhere on how police's negotiating position was that the man must "take responsibility for his actions" - in other words, accept the state's definition of his position. This is hardly the basis for conflict resolution! And in this case police were praised for theirmoderation!). And the existence of the state increases the odds in conflicts: each side could potentially have a monopoly on organised coercion in some cases. Also, it should be noted that "national" conflicts in their present form would be literally unthinkable without the state. (The alternative "part of Great Britain" or "part of Ireland", for instance, only arises because of statist territorial exclusivity).

Mouffe's case for the state is rarely backed by any substantial argument. Rather, there is an implicit appeal to existing views. Even the usual Lacanian rhetoric can have little impact here, since there is no reason why an idea of constitutive antagonism should automatically lead to a state (although it is a handy excuse for one).

Laclau and Mouffe's remarks are undermined by cases where social organisation has occurred without or against a state. Some "primitive" societies were and are stateless, relying solely on different networks (such as kinship groups) which overlapped and negotiated in a more-or-less smooth space. In addition, dissident movements sometimes have no state-type organisation, or only a very weak one. More broadly, it is unclear why associations "need" the state, legal order and the rest (as opposed to, for instance, operating in a syndicalist way); the state is not a constructive agency but principally a destructive one, and its relation to associations is therefore one of destruction and interference, not enablement. It is true that without the state, there would be no external regulation of relations between individuals and/or associations, but it is unclear why Mouffe should see this as a bad thing. It does not necessarily preclude the emergence of peaceful relations between different groups. In a stateless world, associations may be at some risk from each other; in a statist world, each association is at considerable risk from the state itself. Further, assuming that a "universal" reference-point occupies the status of a common master-signifier in a particular society, there is no necessary reason why it should be the state (as opposed to the church, a "big man" like in parts of New Guinea, an age-grade association, etc.). The essentialisation of the role of the state involves slipping across from a Lacanian essentialism of structure into a more conventional essentialism of content.

As for the argument that a coercive state must exist to maintain the "ethical role" of the state and the "political unity of a people", it is important to realise that the "ethical role" is achieved through the most unethical forms of violence, and the "political unity" is a myth constructed by the exclusion of particular groups (see below). Mouffe never makes clear why the "ethical role" of the state is supposedly so valuable, especially since the state's main role is negative, i.e. it exists to commit violence (therefore, it cannot construct anything). Presumably the ethical role is linked to a reactive structure of desire, since an association which exists primarily to commit violence can only be valued if ascribed in relation to a primary evil.

Laclau and Mouffe nowhere refer directly to any right of individuals even to defend "liberal" and "democratic" principles against a liberal-democratic state (though they seem to support the overthrow of states not of this type). The situation would be clearer if they discussed specific cases more often, but the general implication is that they favour a strong variety of statism, and this weakens their claim to "radicalism" as well as having problematic implications of its own.


The "necessity" of social exclusion has already been discussed above. This "necessity" expresses itself in a constant insistence on the necessity of constructing a (repressive) "we", and, in order to do this, of excluding a "them". (see above on, for instance, how the need for an other in language is used to deduce as a need for a real other).

* 'a political democracy cannot be based on the generality of all mankind'; 'it must belong to a specific people', and equality therefore requires distinctions. Democracy and citizenship require the existence of an excluded group. 'It is through their belonging to the demos that democratic citizens are granted equal rights' (Mouffe DP 40). The basis for the argument in this case seems to be repressive reduction of thought to the present; division does exist, so one cannot do without it (41). If a state allowed an equality without insisting on homogeneity, 'the consequence would be a complete devaluation of political equality, and of politics itself', and further, inequalities would necessarily re-emerge in some other field which would gain a new importance (DP 41-2). It is better to keep inequality within politics, where people at least have 'democratic rights of law-making', rather than allowing it to displace into, say, economics. So inequality, however 'unpleasant... to liberal ears', must be treated as necessary in all societies (DP 42). (Notice the macho "hardness" of this last sentence, and also the dogmatic basis of the entire argument).

* The common good is a ' "vanishing point", something to which we [sic] must constantly refer when we [sic] are acting as citizens, but that can never be reached' (RP 85). 'There will always be a "constitutive outside", an exterior to the community that is the very condition of its existence'; so one should accept 'there cannot be a "we" without a "them" or "consensus" without "exclusion" '. 'the issue can no longer be the creation of a fully inclusive community... [W]e have to come to terms with the very impossibility of a full realization of democracy' (RP 85).

* Laclau also claims that there is a need for a repressive "we" (NRRT 219-20).

* Laclau and Mouffe also endorse exclusion in HSS (136-7)

* 'while politics in a liberal democracy aims at creating a "we"... a fully inclusive political community can never be achieved since... in order to construct a "we" it must be distinguished from a "them", and that means establishing a frontier, defining an "enemy". There will therefore exist a permanent "constitutive outside" ' (RP 114).

* The goal of Mouffe's argument is 'to construct a "we" ' against enemies (RP 84)

* 'the "them" is... the symbol of what makes any "us" impossible', of 'the possibility/impossibility of positivity as such' (DP 12-13).

* there must be 'an exclusion' such that actualising what is beyond the limit makes what is on this side impossible. Limits are always antagonisms (Laclau E 37). "system" requires "radical exclusion": 'this split or ambivalence is constitutive of all systemic identity' (38; deduced from the claim that this must be the case since a system cannot be "pure presence"). But what is excluded can only be 'pure being', not a specific positivity. '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'. Without this exclusion, 'the limits of the system would be blurred' and 'an objective order' would be impossible (E 38); objectivity is based on 'repressing that which threatens it' (NRRT 32). This radical exclusion 'is the ground and condition of all differences', and the being of the system can therefore never be realised and is 'constitutively unreachable' (E 39). There is a positive, active impossibility, something the system needs but cannot produce (E 40).

* Mouffe believes in 'creating a "we" ', and in the necessity of a frontier and an enemy to do this (the reason being the naturalisation of "the political", as if eternal necessities can be deduced from present political systems). Mouffe denounces the idea of a final unity because this would be 'to dream of a society without politics' (RP 50). Thus, 'One should not hope for the elimination of disagreement but for its containment within forms that respect the existence of liberal democratic institutions' (RP 50). There cannot be any "shared" interests, however minimal (RP 50-1).

* Ontological privilege at the root of exclusion: 'I think there is no way to avoid such a situation [of perpetual repression and violence against outsiders] and we have to face its implications' (RP 152).

* In her own terms Mouffe 'acknowledges the impossibility of constituting a form of social objectivity which would not be grounded on an originary exclusion' (DP 11).

* 'The condition of existence of every identity is the affirmation of a difference, the determination of an "other" that is going to play the role of a "constitutive outside" '. In this case, the statement is not demonstrated but merely posited as something 'we' have to 'accept' (RP 2) and which liberalism suffers from an 'incapacity' to 'grasp' (RP 1).

* 'the excluded do not disappear'; for them, 'the "neutral" principles of rational dialogue are certainly not so. Foe them, what is proclaimed as "rational" by the liberals is experienced as coercion' (RP 145). 'It is not my intention to advocate a total pluralism and I do not believe it is possible to avoid excluding some points of view. No state or political order... can exist without some form of exclusion', so frontiers and modes of exclusion are 'necessary' (RP 145).

* Democracy needs exclusion because otherwise 'the will of the people could never take shape' (DP 43). 'a moment of closure... cannot be avoided'; it should only be 'negotiated differently' and the 'paradox' should be 'acknowledged' (DP 43).

* It is a 'vital insight' that democratic community 'hinges on the possibility of drawing a frontier between "us" and "them" ', i.e. 'the fact that democracy always entails relations of inclusion-exclusion' (DP 43). Mouffe denounces liberalism for its 'incapacity to conceptualise' a 'frontier of exclusion' (DP 43) and also denounces appeals to 'humanity' (DP 44).

* 'the defining feature of politics is struggle'. Mouffe cites Schmitt: 'There always are concrete human groupings which fight other concrete human groupings'; 'no final agreement can ever be reached. Politics in a modern democracy must accept division and conflict as unavoidable' (RP 113).

* 'the overcoming of [the] us/them opposition... is an impossibility' (DP 101).

* Political formations only occur via the misrecognition of limits as frontiers (HSS 143-4)

* There always will be a 'dimension of the "we" ' and a 'dimension of the "them" ' (RP 7)

* 'the criterion of the political is the friend/enemy relation' (RP 68). 'Political life... aims at the construction of a "we" in a context of diversity and conflict'; there must therefore be a "them", an "enemy" and a frontier. 'consensus is by necessity based on acts of exclusion' (RP 69).

* To avoid the 'danger' of closure, 'what must be relinquished is the very idea that there could be... a consensus that would not be based on any form of exclusion' (RP 146).

* Mouffe sees a 'refusal... to construct a "we" ' as a 'liberal evasion of the political'. To exclusively fight for minority or group rights is 'to remain blind to the relations of power' and the fact of 'exclusion or subordination' (RP 20).

* re Schmitt: politics is us-and-them; it 'always has to do with conflicts and antagonisms'; it is always beyond liberal rationality and 'indicates the limits of any rational consensus and reveals that any consensus is based on acts of exclusion' (RP 123). The liberal 'attempt to annihilate the political is doomed to failure'; 'the political cannot be domesticated' because it 'derives its energt from the most diverse sources' (RP 123). Mouffe is therefore 'accepting the criticisms Schmitt makes of individualism and rationalism' (RP 123).

Mouffe's appropriations of Derrida and Wittgenstein are of a kind to justify rather than subvert 'violent hierarchy' (on Derrida; RP 141; cf. RP 114; on Wittgenstein, the incompatibility of different forms of life is a basis for conflict, not tolerance - DP 97-8).

Also, the 'need for an adversary' leads to a need for left/right divisions, but Mouffe stresses that this must not mean 'the old slogans' (RP 117-18).

There are various problems with the arguments involved here. Why is the "need for a 'we' " sufficiently imperative to justify exclusion (keeping in mind that the resulting "we" would be merely a myth, since it can never achieve the unity it seeks)? Why is the human suffering caused by exclusion justified by the unspecified gains which result from having a "we"? (It is unclear what desire founds the "need for a we", but it is not anything concrete or active; it is either fear of daemoniac forces or a euphoria based on a claim to have captured all existence). At the very best, what the advocacy of exclusion offers is a pleasure for insiders at the expense of the excluded (akin to the claim: some people enjoy bullying others, and so must be allowed to do so), a pleasure which is elevated to the status of the only form of desire afforded unconditional ethical status. This pleasure is, further, at no small loss to insiders since it refuses any idea of becoming-other.

On a similar subject: why is a "system" necessary? If a failure to construct an "us and them" means that 'the limits of the system would be blurred' and an 'objective order' would be impossible - so what? Why not blur the system's limits and construct an order which is no longer "objective" (since one cannot have an all-inclusive objective order anyway)? And why not 'dream of a society without politics', since societies without politics (or at least without a state) have in fact existed? In general, Laclau and Mouffe tend to assume that if something is necessary for the state to exist, or for a political unity or consensus to be constructed, therefore it is necessary as such - which does not explain why the state or the unity is itself felt to be necessary (and further: why it is still felt to be necessary even when its "intuitive" supports in shared human nature, rationality, the possibility fo consensus, etc. are taken away and it is recognized as nothing but a machine of coercion). They take the "fact" that politics is a certain way as evidence that this way of being must be accepted, ignoring the alternative conclusions either that politics should be changed or that politics should cease to exist. (This is partly an example of the conservatism inherent in the enshrining of present, contingent phenomena as essences. See MYTH).

One should also reaffirm the argument that the point in Laclau and Mouffe is not to change it; the point is an empty affirmation of a theoretical principle, which in fact changes nothing. 'it is very important to recognize those forms of exclusion for what they are, instead of concealing them' (RP 145). Take for instance Mouffe's critique of liberalism. She can criticise liberals for concealing their exclusions - but not for excluding (RP 141-2). She criticises them for "eliding" the political basis of the concepts of the reasonable and the rational and refusing to admit that such rhetoric 'corresponds to the dominant language games and the "common sense" that they construe' and that this language is 'the result of a process of "sedimentation" of a ensemble of discourses and practices whose political character has been elided'... but she then adds that 'it is perfectly legitimate to make a distinction between the reasonable and the unreasonable', provided this be part of a 'critical inquiry' and under 'scrutiny', rather than being 'naturalised' (RP 143). 'Political liberals refuse to open rational dialogue to those who do not accepe their rules of the game'. Mouffe finds 'nothing objectionable about that, provided one is aware of the implications' (RP 144), and Rawls is criticised for his 'incapacity to acknowledge the political nature of the discrimination' around reasonableness (DP 58). Similarly, she denounces Habermas because 'the free and unconstrained public deliberation of all on matters of common concern goes against the democratic requisite of drawing a frontier between "us" and "them" ' (DP 48); since such a moment is necessary, to 'deny the existence of... a moment of closure' must be to 'naturalize' and 'reify' it (DP 49). For Mouffe, a good theory is one which 'accepts the fact that justice is "impossible" ', that law is insufficient and that violence is necessary, but which demands that 'violence' not go 'unrecognized' (RP 146).

In other words, exclusion and violence are OK as long as they are openly declared to be exclusion and violence. Nothing really changes; the critique of liberalism has no impact in terms of liberal institutions, but only in terms of how these are to be defended. (It is only the second-level mystification of exclusion which is to be rejected; in terms of my theoretical vocabulary, Mouffe forbids some varieties of mythical discourse but endorses the impositional and invalidatory discourses these cover; though ironically, the gesture of declaring antagonism to be constitutive is itself a mythical gesture, the kind of "naturalisation" or "reification" Mouffe accuses Habermas of). Implicitly, Mouffe claims that violence is not oppressive unless it is mystified. There is no psychological or ethnographic evidence which would point to the view that violence or exclusion is somehow made more tolerable by being openly admitted; if anything, the process of mystification produces possible lines of critique. Laclau and Mouffe's approach would open onto "language-games" of the kind: "it doesn't matter if X is excluded; X has no right to complain, because exclusion is necessary", or "it doesn't matter if X is excluded, because at least for as long as X is excluded, I am not; if I challenge X's exclusion, the necessary exclusion may threaten me instead". Such arguments could silence the oppressed and destroy solidarity if the "necessity of exclusion" were ever widely accepted. In fact, it sometimes seems that Mouffe has no idea what "social exclusion", "violence", etc. might mean, in experiential terms.

Because the point is not to change it, critique is reduced to an empty "ivory-tower" exercise which never translates into a political challenge to the status quo. (There's nothing wrong with structural adjustment policies, says Zizek; if they "work", why not use them? He only objects to how they are legitimated, i.e. to the naturalisation of capitalist economics in neo-liberal language). All the macho insistence on breaking eggs to make omelettes does not end up actually producing any kind of change at all; there is no political or affective commitment to overcoming oppressions which results logically from Laclau and Mouffe's arguments. The "division of labour" between theory and practice - the inorganicity of theory, the absence of any theoretically-informed practice - is reaffirmed. Worse: it is reaffirmed in such a way as to suppress any possibility of dialogue.

Also see above, especially on why exclusion is supposedly necessary.


Decisionism is a variety of explicitly impositional doctrine initially favoured by totalitarian (especially Conservative Revolution) writers and imported into "radical democracy" mainly via Schmitt. Basically, decisionism insists that discussion must be closed by an irrational decision which bars further discussion; the role of the decision is to establish the "properly political" frontier between "us and them". The idea of the decision is a way out of the radical opening established by a claim that all discourses are contingent, by positing an irrational way of putting an end to the flows of contingency and fixing (trapping) meaning and desire within a single system of overcoding. Its psychological correlate is the "Name/No of the Father".

The idea of a "decision" is introduced to attack the idea that contingency requires an opening onto an endless dialogue and a renunciation of the (reactionary) politics of crackdowns, repression and condemnation. 'What the deliberative-democracy model is denying is the dimension of undecidability and the ineradicability of antagonism which are constitutive of the political'. Therefore, deliberative democrats are 'unable to recognize that bringing a deliberation to a close always result from a decision' (Mouffe DP 105). Mouffe wants an approach 'which does not deny the constitutive role of conflict and antagonism and the fact that division is irreducible', but 'undecidability cannot be the last word. Politics calls for decision' and any regime (a regime means that 'all forms of political association have ethical consequences' - see RP 114 on "regime") requires 'a hierarchy among political values' (RP 151-2). 'A political regime is always a case of "undecidable decided" and this cannot exist without a "constitutive outside" ' (RP 152). She also says that social organisation exists to make decisions coherent and to 'reduce the margin of undecidability' (RP 141).

Mouffe writes as if decisions are somehow imposed by the world; the point is 'to give form to the decisions they have to face through political discourses' (RP 116). The political should be 'the realm of "decision" not free discussion', 'the political as a domain of conquering power and repression' (Schmitt) which does not evade 'state and politics' (RP 111). Politics should therefore be a 'realm of opinion', not truth (RP 14), and it is necessarily 'entangled with power' (RP 145). Similarly, for Laclau, decisions made ignoring circumstances, sources of motivation and consequences are the only source of the social (NRRT 193). Elsewhere one finds an insistence on a 'moment of decision' (DP 57; cf. E 113) and 'the necessary moment of closure entailed by the democratic logic' (DP 45). Mouffe also suggests that violence can be directly self-legitimating; 'there is no unbridgeable gap between power and legitimacy' (DP 100).

This is actually understated compared to Schmitt's position ('the rule of law ultimately hinges on an abyssal act of violence (violent imposition) grounded only on itself' - cited Callinicos "Zizek" p. 387), and is substantially less developed than Zizek's "Act". Nevertheless, it has the same active-nihilist logic - albeit in this case connected to a reaffirmatory discourse which allows Laclau and Mouffe to downplay and domesticate its implications.

In relation to Rawls, Mouffe argues that his choice of liberty and equality as relevant criteria 'is the result of a decision which already excludes' (RP 143), but which she does not object to; while Laclau says he wants to drop the rational but keep the reasonable (NRRT 31; the "reasonable" is the main target of my critique of Rawls).

What decisionism amounts to is a reaffirmation of statism. The state is to be allowed to posit arbitrarily the foundations of everything; its self-grounding decision is in turn to ground everything else. 'a liberal democratic regime', argues Mouffe, 'cannot be agnostic concerning political values, since by definition [?!] it asserts the principles that constitute its specificity qua political association' (RP 47). Even though she then specifies that these principles are equality and liberty, if these are posited by the state they do not have the emancipatory character of something constructed by self-activity but become a gift from above. As a result, "liberty" becomes doublespeak: freedom to conform.

It appears that Laclau also believes that basic beliefs (=libidinal investments) are necessarily dogmas: 'an acceptance of the facticity of certain strata of our beliefs is nothing but the acceptance of our contingency and historicity' (NRRT 83). Contrary to its innocuous-sounding title, the concept of "facticity" basically means a dogmatic and unquestionable status (not anything to do with "facts").

Decisionism sucks. No fewer than three sections of Marcuse's essay on totalitarianism link it directly to decisionism (cf. also above on totalitarianism; see "justification for exclusion"). Marcuse calls it an 'irrationalist' view: 'Decisive here is that irrational givens... are placed prior to the autonomy of reason as its limit in principle (not merely in fact), and reason is and remains causally, functionally, and organically dependent on them... it leads to the reinterpretation of the irrational pregivens as normative ones, which place reason under the heteronomy of the irrational. In the theory of contemporary society, playing up natural-organic facts against "rootless" reason means justifying by irrational powers a society that can no longer be justified and submerging in the hidden darkness of the "blood" or the "soul" contradictions recognized by the light of conceptual knowledge. This is intended to truncate comprehension and criticism' (Negations 15-16). Further, violence is excused by Schmitt (says Marcuse) by inventing 'a state of affairs that through its very existence and presence is exempt from justification, i.e. an "existential", "ontological" state of affairs - justification by mere existence' (30-1). The existential appears only as 'something that cannot be placed under any norm lying outside it', and which therefore requires a non-ethical decision. 'Predominantly political conditions and relations are sanctioned here as existential, and within the political dimension it is the relation to the enemy, or war, that counts as the simply and absolutely existential relationship' (31). 'all relationships are oriented in turn toward the most extreme "crisis", toward the decision about the "state of emergency", of war and peace... Sovereignty is founded on the factual power to make this decision' (36). Although apparently irrational, this ideology has a rational role. 'Although these sacrifices are made at the "brink of meaninglessness", they have nonetheless a concealed, very "rational" purpose: factually and ideologically stabilizing the current system of producing and reproducing life' (30). There is surely something disturbing that this attack on what Marcuse explicitly terms "totalitarian" conceptions should read off so directly onto Laclau and Mouffe's (and Zizek's) views. Decisionism has a long history of complicity in totalitarian movements and, as Marcuse notes, tends to stabilise and preserve the existing system of domination. One could add to this the blatant doublespeak of "undecidable decided". So much for both "radical" and "democracy".

An entire rhetoric connoting or denoting external necessity (from deagentifying phrases to the inistence that the situation forces a decision) is used to conceal the fact that the motive to "make a decision" is purely subjective. There is a question which remains unanswered: why can't undecidability be the last word? Why is there some amorphous "need" to impose certainty via a "decision"? (This repeats the problem in earlier sections: there is also no specified reason why the state, or a system of rules, or order, or exclusion, or social unity, etc., should be valued). I see no good reason why negative forms of "power" based on reactive structures of desire (the enemy overshadows the friend, notes Marcuse) should be the only possible kind of social relations, as opposed to active relations based on dialogue and the logic of the gift.

Ignoring circumstances, motives and consequences would lead simply to an empty, directionless and idiotic politics (which may indicate why so much politics is empty, directionless and idiotic, eg. crackdown culture). Even if "decisions" are "necessary", there is no reason why they need be taken in this way. (For instance, a choice of paradigm in a science may be considered a "decision" but it is not wilfully ignorant in this way).

So politics is to be a "realm of opinion", not truth. Marcuse and Pateman have already written excellent critiques of the idea of "opinion", and its function in affirming an overarching repressive regime which axiomatises all the "opinions". The question of whether (to use Pateman's example) the U.S. government cancelled elections in South Vietnam is not a question of "opinion", and a decisionist approach in such a case is mystificatory.

Decisionism may well mark the political consequence of the difference between the two versions of contingency (se MYTH): decisionism results from the need for lack-ness to operate as a positive foundation, whereas an endless opening would be more characteristic of a contingency of the "I-don't-know" kind. From the egg of the reaffirmed essence emerges the snake of decisionist totalitarianism, because an essentialist theory cannot do without the "last-instance" which imposes the primacy of the essence.


The void at the heart of "radical democracy" prevents it from being consistently democratic. Undemocratic practices remain "necessary": 'hegemony will never be complete, and anyway, it is not desirable for society to be ruled by a single democratic logic' - so presumably some undemocratic impulses are necessary. 'Relations of authority and power can never completely disappear' (RP 18). If one tries to apply democracy consistently, this 'leads to totalitarianism' (RP 18). In other words, Mouffe is prepared to condone some degree of fascism within the practice of "democratic" states, on the pretext that it would be fascist not to!

Similarly, Mouffe does not appear to find anything objectionable in the idea that a citizen should be required to die for her/his country if ordered to (RP 80), so even life becomes the property of the state.


The appeal of Mouffe's arguments against liberalism and the "radical centre" are structured in a traditionally dogmatic way, involving an appeal to her own theory as a primary pole, followed by a denouncement of others for their "refusal" or "inability" to "accept" her insights; in brief, she accuses them of being wrong because they disagree with her. (see above on how this involves an implicit "Enlightenment rationalist" language-game of a kind Mouffe superficially rejects). For example:

* attempts to make different private are an 'attempt to annihilate the political' which 'is bound to fail' - 'The political can never be domesticated or eradicated' (RP 111).

* Raz is wrong because he posits 'pluralism without antagonism'. 'a society from which antagonism has been eliminated is radically impossible' (RP 128).

* The radical centre is wrong because it obliterates power (DP 110-11). It lacks 'the dimension of antagonism' (DP 14). She also attacks it for lacking space for contestation of 'shared values' (RP 121).

* Rawls is wrong because he leaves no specific space for "the political", beyond economics and morality. He ignores 'conflicts, antagonisms, relations of power, forms of subordination and repression', and so believes that interests 'can be regulated without need for a level superior to political decision and where the question of sovereignty is evacuated'. Mouffe shares Schmitt's view, which she cites, that liberalism is an 'attempt to annihilate the political as a domain of conquering power and repression' (RP 48-9).

So it becomes clear that Mouffe's denouncement of liberalism is not a denouncement of the repressive regimes of social control embedded in liberal societies. Rather, Mouffe shares the conservative view that liberal societies are too free. For instance:

* She opposes the idea of a neutral state and the reduction of political issues to administrative or technical ones, but her main objection is to the power of experts, not to state repression. She doesn't object to state violence as long as it is explicitly partisan. For instance, she doesn't object to Rawls's theory of the "reasonable" because it is partisan; she only objects to his reliance on RCT (RP 48).

* She denounces liberalism for an excess of 'universality and reference to "humanity" ', and for not enough "us and them", which is 'necessary to subvert the tendency towards abstract universalism inherent in liberal discourse' (RP 44). i.e. she criticises the regimes which have brought the world Vietnam, the Gulf War and Camp X-Ray for being too humane!!

* She endorses Schmitt's attack on liberalism for its 'distrust of state and politics' (RP 122)

* She objects to the liberal state because it is privatised, 'neutral' and 'reduced to economics' (RP 111)! (Was the state neutral during the Miners' Strike?!).

* She doesn't want rid of the repressive aspects of liberalism (eg. its prostration before "the law") but rather, wishes to go beyond these and add even more repressive ideas such as 'public-mindedness' and 'civic activity'. 'The idea of a common good above our private interest is a necessary condition for enjoying individual liberty' (RP 62-3). In other words, slavery equals freedom; people are to be bound by a thousand threads to the state.

Mouffe also, strangely, wishes to articulate 'anti-state resistances' and criticises Rawls for too much 'state intervention' (RP 54). However, it is not the repressive, ethically impositional state she seems to be referring to in this passage, but rather, the welfare state (which presumably is a case of "too much universalism", since it does not make provision dependent on obedience).


As previous sections have suggested, one basic impulse behind the project of "radical democracy" is support for the unconditionality of desires for order, rules and the state. This inevitably has effects on the status of other desires and drives. In particular, the claims of particular people, and other living beings, over and against abstractions such as "res publica", "the community" and "order" must be silenced if the unconditionality of reactive desire is to be asserted. It is in such attacks that Laclau and Mouffe reveal most clearly how their discourse is most definitely not radical, and also where they reveal the discursive consequences of emphasising reactive desire. The usual way in which the primacy of the state is asserted is either by rendering a concept dependent on its conceptual other, or by asserting it to be dependent on the state at a deeper level.

In the case of the concept of "freedom", Laclau renounces any idea of freedom as deterritorialisation: 'the quest for an absolute freedom for the subject is tantamount to a quest for an unrestricted dislocation and the total disintegration of the social fabric'; a democratic society, which negotiates freedom and unfreedom, 'will not be a totally free society' but rather, 'a viable social order' (E 19). There is terror at the heart of freedom, which is based on severe dislocation (E 19). Laclau therefore endorses fear of freedom, and the call for a state to protect people from the "disruptive" force of a lack of anyone telling us what to do. Freedom is a threat. Mouffe adds that the lack of a political frontier leads to a risk of a victory for the far right (RP 5-6) and is also inclined to couch her critique of pluralism by reference to repressive demands such as the Rushdie fatwa (RP 132), suggesting that she endorses the classic populist manoeuvre of identifying openness of space with freedom for evil. Also, Laclau defines freedom in such a way as to identify it with oppression or render it impossible: 'the existence of violence and antagonisms is the very condition of a free soiety' (E 115); subjectivity 'will always be confronted by a partially opaque and hostile society and by a lack that will be constitutive of their subjectivity' (NRRT 193); the primacy of antagonism, however, means that there is 'radical liberty' because power is not limited by an essence (NRRT 36); and the freedom Laclau seeks is not that of a subject, but that of a 'structural fault' (E 18). (NB a real essence would not be a constraint: for instance, a genetic language-acquisition device would not be experienced as a limit on language because it would be internal. It is essentialism, not essences, which limits).

Similarly, the concept of "emancipation" is stripped of its liberating potential by being reduced to the role of a signifier of impossible fullness. The reason Laclau conceives of emancipation as impossible is that he confuses the conditions for the existence of the word with the conditions for the possibility of what the word expresses. Hence, for him, emancipation is only thinkable in relation to an 'other' which is 'real' and 'constitutive', and which prevents the full constitution of the element which is to be emancipated; otherwise there can be 'no break, no true emancipation' (E 2-3). A true emancipation would have to be invulnerable to objective explanation and based on a discourse incomparable to what went before (E 3-4). It would have to be 'its own ground' and share nothing with the prior order (E 4). Therefore, the grounding of emancipation must be 'utterly contingent', an irrational gesture of power with no essential ground; if an emancipation is radical, 'both the founding act and the social order resulting from it become entirely contingent', and there is a chasm separating before from after (E 5). However, he adds, historical 'discourses of emancipation have been historically constituted through the putting together of two incompatible lines of thought': the chasm and objectivism/transparency (E 5). And for Laclau, this split is 'necessary for the production of an emancipatory discourse' , which therefore includes an aspect of foundationalism and of social exclusion: 'we have to conclude that the two lines of thought are logically incompatible and yet require each other: without them the whole notion of emancipation would crumble' (E 6). So 'the condition of true emancipation is... a constitutive opaqueness that no grounding can eradicate' (E 12). (see also section on "TENSION"; weaknesses in this approach include Laclau's failure to express the libidinal basis for the "irrational" act and his failure to show that actual uses of the word "emancipation" conform to the model from which he derives his theory. It strikes me that he is foreclosing possible Deleuzian and Nietzschean "active" meanings of emancipation, i.e., for Laclau emancipation must be emancipation from an evil which is ontologically prior to it and which therefore infects it irreducibly. Also, there is no reason why the prior evil, assuming there is one, should be either real or constitutive; logically, a society could perceive itself as "emancipated" due to the absence of social forms which do not exist but which can be spoken of. Finally, even if an emancipated society could not use the concept of "emancipation", nevertheless the other contents of the concept could operate, but without name; oppression would have become unthinkable. The fact that an emancipated society - or, for that matter, a closed bureaucratic totality - would "distort" language in relation to its present uses is not a case for saying it could not exist, only perhaps for saying that the experiences it would generate are as yet not fully comprehensible).

In general, the rejection of active conceptions of freedom expresses a hostility to openness which starkly contradicts the commitment on paper to contingency and which shows the distance between an idea of constitutive lack and an open social theory. So Laclau says that there must be a "beyond" or excluded group, because otherwise the context would be limitless (E 52). And what is wrong with a limitless context? One could also compare the statement that progressive struggles 'do not tend to converge unless hegemonized actively' (HSS 141). Apart from the falsity of this claim (cf. anti-capitalism), the question arises of why it is so important that they must converge.

Pluralist political projects are attacked for failing to accept that the state generates and so must be primary over all groups. (This blatantly false view is debunked by Buber among others). Mouffe sneakily uses the argument that the identity of each group is not fixed, not as a way to open up existing categories, but as a way to close such categories so as to silence group demands; contingency, rendered as an essence, becomes an affect-block. Since groups have no fixed identity, Mouffe reasons, there cannot be any reason for respecting their identity, and everyone can therefore be forced to be subsumed into an identity as 'radical democratic citizen' (RP 86). Therefore, Mouffe vehemently rejects the demands of those, such as Carole Pateman and Iris Marion Young, who demand an abandonment of universal "public" claims and a recognition of group- and need-specific demands in "public". She counterposes a universalist position: 'the aim of a radical democratic citizenship should be the construction of a political identity', so its role should be hegemonic articulation, not free communication between groups (RP 86). Therefore, the state is to be allowed to trample on specific groups and their demands, for the greater good of creating a common identity.

Similarly, for Mouffe, as for reactionaries down the years, the liberal state's principles 'are what make the existence of pluralism possible', so 'One cannot therefore call these distinctions into question in the name of pluralism' (RP 132). This is exactly the same argument that was used by a government minister to avoid answering questions from Paxman about the war in Afghanistan. The net result of this mode of argument is that the "freedom" the system supposedly guarantees becomes non-existent (or at least conditional on the system).

As a result of the critique of pluralism, Laclau and Mouffe are hostile to workers' self-management. For them, all groups in society should be subordinated to a social level of organisation (i.e. the state) which involves 'all subjects'; they therefore portray workers' self-management as in some sense exclusionary of other groups: 'workers' "interests" can be constructed... [to ignore] ecological demands or demands of other groups' (HSS 178). It is also, however, the case that the state can ignore demands of other groups; indeed, according to Laclau and Mouffe, its project must exclude something - so it is unclear why workers' self-management would be a particular problem. This is an example of a problem which goes back to Hobbes: statists are often prepared to give massive trust to the state, even while being terrified of individuals because they might do some of the things the state does as a matter of course.

The concept of "rights" is a particularly favoured target of attack, for reactionary reasons (i.e. that "rights" are gifts from the state and so cannot exceed the state). Examples:
* Rights are derived, not from individuals, but are delivered on a plate by 'a certain type of political community' (RP 56).

* Inscription in social relations grants rights (RP 97).

* Mouffe wants to reject any idea of rights prior to community, apparently because the idea of rights is historically contingent (RP 100).

* Mouffe seems to endorse the idea of 'no rights without responsibilities' (RP 111), i.e. the reactionary statist overcoding of rights as conditional on conformity, i.e. as privileges.

* 'It is through their belonging to the demos that democratic citizens are granted equal rights' (DP 40).

* Rights, says Mouffe, require a particular social regime, and liberal democracy 'is not - and cannot be - agnostic concerning the political good' (RP 31-2).

* Citizenship should go beyond 'the simple possession of rights', and involve a view of the social as constitutive of the individual (RP 33).

* Without 'frontiers' and a 'demos', 'no real exercise of rights could be possible'; therefore, rights cannot occur through 'total closure and total dissemination' and cannot be universal (DP 10).

Mouffe apparently still wishes to keep some conception of rights (RP 33), but she dislikes any idea that they are derived from "individuals". She seems to agree with communitarians that the image of an individual with rights prior to society 'is at the origin of our problems' (RP 95). Liberalism is so concerned with protecting the individual from the state, it 'cannot grasp the collective aspect of social life as being constitutive' (RP 110-11). The "problems" Mouffe invokes are: 'Extreme forms of individualism have become widespread which threaten the social fabric', and ethnic, religious and moral identities further 'put into jeopardy the civic bond' (DP 96; NB the S/M rhetoric again). So Mouffe wants to 'conceptualize liberty other than as the defence of individual rights against the state' (RP 36). (i.e. tends to identify with the state and let it off the hook). Disturbingly, Mouffe seems to be in favour of a collectivism even more repressive than that which is widespread in present society, and her main fear is that individuals might escape control by the social system.

As regards human rights specifically, Mouffe again uses the anti-perfectionism of Lacanian theory as an excuse for state violence; she advocates 'Refusing to reduce the necessary hiatus between ethics and politics', 'between the ethics of human rights and the political logic which entails the establishment of frontiers with the violence that they imply'. The ethical should restrict itself to the role of mere 'interrogation' of the political, and human rights remain unachievable (RP 140). In other words, the state is to be allowed to violate human rights in order to establish frontiers, and the ethical is to turn into an alibi for its actions. Similarly, for Laclau 'there will always be exceptions to... universal validity'; universality cannot be applied in an analytical way because of its special discursive function (E 56). All principles are particulars and therefore unable to fulfil their universal function even if formulated as universal (E 57). This is another excuse for the state's hypocritical failure to be consistent about the rights it claims to believe in (cf. Marx in the 18th Brumaire re liberalism taking away in the exception what it grants in the "right").

Mouffe explicitly poses as a defender of the existing system against outsiders. For instance, she has an aggressive project of defending the 'democratic revolution' by forcing others to accept their place. For instance: 'we now have to make Muslims accept' the 'relegation of religion to the private sphere' (RP 132). The "we" in this case is presumably western and non-Muslim, and its mode of action is to "make" - to force - not to persuade. (Mouffe doesn't specify methods, but presumably her attitude is pragmatist and therefore BAMN). In other words, she accepts the reproduction of colonial structures of domination. (This is likely also to reaffirm the "other" she rejects: Fanon says that colonial pressure increases intransigence). Laclau similarly states that it is 'absurd' to reject western universalist values, and denies that their character is western (NRRT 187-8).

The general approach to where individuals should stand in the work of Laclau and Mouffe is a stance of blocking, negating and restricting; individuals are to prostrate themselves before the state, order, rules, etc., under the guise of accepting contingency (which always seems to be contingency of people in relation to the state, never vice-versa). So 'recognition of limitation and contingency' should include distancing oneself from one's own values, recognising these to be contingent (NRRT 83) and therefore, presumably, accepting the state's right to trample on or interfere with them. One is to accept that every belief one holds is liable to be contested and refuted at any time (NRRT 125) - though not presumably by rational argument (see above), implying again that one should be receptive to state rhetoric. People are not to be allowed any kind of unconditionality; 'the relation between social agents becomes more democratic only as far as they accept the particularity and the limitation of their claims; that is, only in so far as they recognize their mutual relation as one from which power is ineradicable' (DP 21; Mouffe - DP 22 - also claims that a failure to "recognize" this is a claim to represent the totality, when it need be no such thing). In effect, this means that one should submit to the power of the state without complaint, under the pretext that one's own claims must necessarily be limited by an external force. She also thinks it is good that 'no victory can be final' (DP 15), i.e. presumably that the state can retrench any right it is forced to concede. Mouffe specifically wishes to avoid 'non-negotiable moral values and essentialist identities' (RP 6). She also sees democracy as abandoning guarantees and denying 'mastery of the foundation of society' to all agents, which means that she demands a generalised submissiveness: people are to 'recognize their mutual relations as ones from which power is ineradicable' (i.e. accept their own repression as inevitable), and 'accept the particularity and the limitation of their claims' (RP 151. Limitation by whom? - the state, though Mouffe as so often does not say this). Elsewhere, enslavement by the system is taken to be the condition for freedom. 'The idea of a common good above our private interest is a necessary condition for enjoying individual liberty' (RP 63).

Beneath all this is an assumption that people are basically blank slates and can become whatever the system demands. For instance, any position is articulable to any other position, including to capitalism (HSS 169). The net result of Laclau and Mouffe's theory is a dulling of awareness of oppression (which is, after all, "necessary" according to them). For instance, the role of the "public sphere" in oppressing women is not taken to discredit it or the tradition it arises in (RP 71). In another "anti-essentialist" sidestep, Laclau and Mouffe try to deny that all subordination is oppressive; they say it would be oppressive only if one had a concept of human nature (HSS 153 - though they cannot then account for why they want subordination to be perceived as oppression).

Therefore, Laclau and Mouffe's theory is a recipe for general rightslessness and for fatalistic submission to the demands of the state as expressing a supposed ontological necessity. Individuals and groups are to be resigned to the state's violent interference with their identities, beliefs, morals, ways of life, etc., on the grounds that these are "contingent" anyway, so people have no right to defend them; there are to be no "non-negotiable moral values" as people are to adopt a position of libidinal distance from their beliefs and to accept the last-instance primacy of the social system. But there is a sneaky trick here, for the refusal of active desires or even unconditional needs to individuals is supplemented by a view of the state which makes its own demands unconditional. For instance: it is not contestable in liberal democracies that popular sovereignty must be limited (DP 4). This is an example of a "non-negotiable moral value" if ever I saw one. If Laclau and Mouffe believed consistently in contingency and anti-essentialism, these demands would equally have to be rendered conditional; perhaps the state would have to accept that the demands of individuals and groups pose an absolute limit to what it can do. Of course, the desire for order is also given an unconditional status (see above), so the role of Laclau and Mouffe's theory is to deny all unconditionals except the one they advocate.

In fact, there is no reason why a belief in active desire, and in needs, desires and other unconditionals which arise from specific people (not from the existing system), need require any conception of essences or human nature. Such positing is disruptive of "society" as a molar totality, and therefore tends to break down this pseudo-totality into something more responsive to desiring-production; this can use, but does not require, an essentialist concept of "the individual" as the source of rights. Rather, Laclau and Mouffe's position requires belief in a negative essence. Also, in order to posit that no unconditionality can arise from within an "individual", they would have to go beyond discourse analysis and actually advocate a strongly "idealist" philosophy, i.e. that everything which exists is purely a construct of ideas and has no material component, and therefore is infinitely reconstructible by purely linguistic means. (Their declared version is weaker, i.e. that material and ideal aspects are indistinguishable because linked in discourses and forms of life; discourse is not exclusively linguistic or ideal). Otherwise, the material component within individuals (in Deleuze, desire) would act as a possible block and limit on what the state could legitimately or effectively demand. Further, the view that there can be no rights except as a result of the system's discourse, and that all identities are infinitely articulable, would appear to suggest that it is possible (for example) to positively identify with being a victim of genocide or to enjoy being tortured (is this possible through sadomasochistic discourses? - perhaps), or to survive indefinitely without food, etc. In fact, people as a distinct element in social relations disappear entirely; even writerly reading is not considered. (NB there is no historical case of a group accepting systematic subordination; there is resistance of sorts in all cases, with the possible exception of those involving totally broken people in particularly extreme prison camps).

Politically, the process of rendering rights conditional on the system is reactionary because it gives ethical primacy to the state and therefore concentrates power. "No rights without responsibilities" is a dangerous Blairite/populist principle which leads to "rights", or rather privileges, only for insiders and which is destructive of the idea of rights as such. Effective rights are never delivered on a plate by the system; they are forced out of it through resistance. "You only have the rights you fight for" (SchNews). cf. several cases I cite in RTD's; for instance, slaves posited that a master's "duty" (eg. to treat slaves fairly) is a slave's "right", and peasants in Sedaka turned zakat into a "right". Laclau and Mouffe's discourse tends to block such assertions of rights and therefore weakens the position of oppressed groups and individuals. The whole gist of the idea of "accepting the particularity of one's beliefs" points towards a submission to the system as the origin of all existence (as the latest embodiment of the corpse of God) and a tendency not to posit needs or desires as unconditional. The result of this would be to make people more manageable, which would take away the bogeyman of "excessive individualism" and leave the path open to an Orwellian future.

The issue is not about essentialism versus contingency, but about which group of people, in a contingent situation, can posit its own demands unconditionally. Instead of spreading this ability in a diffuse way through a rhizomatic system, Laclau and Mouffe reserve it as an exclusive privilege for the state. On the other hand, if one believes consistently in contingency, opposes final guarantees and reduces ideas to irreconcilable forms of life, one would oppose the state as an unmitigated evil: a group which posits its own unconditionals in such a way as to totally subordinate all other groups, and for which, furthermore, this subordination is itself a central goal. It is in this kind of case that the difference between contingency and negative essentialism becomes important: "no-one with mastery of the foundation" does not seem to mean "get rid of mastery of the foundation", but rather, means that "no person may contest the mastery of the foundation by faceless institutions". A state like in Kafka's "The Castle", where one can never reach the centre of power yet the image of this centre operates nevertheless, is the kind of arrangement which would seem to result from a Lacanian politics; whereas the implications of contingency are that one should do away with centres and rely on rhizomes instead. Instead of the "mastery of society" belonging to no-one, Laclau and Mouffe hand it to the state as the embodiment of negativity as essence (they simply deny it to "individuals" and "groups", two series from which the state is excluded).

The entire Lacanian paradigm gives a strong impression of the abandonment of the pursuit of satisfaction in favour of the lesser goal of security. Yet this is an empty security. "Accepting contingency" before the state, people are to be left entirely vulnerable to its violent and impositional activities. The result is an empty psychological security resulting from identification with the state, which can deliver neither substantive security (one is protected from little gangs by submission to a big one) nor satisfaction. In particular, personal autonomy is entirely destroyed. This is dangerous, even though the liberal model of the rational autonomous individual is invalid. Ethics has its roots in libidinal phenomena, and these are internal to what is mistakenly termed "the individual". Although desire overflows "the individual" and constructs relations with other people and objects, it in no sense derives from "society" or any other kind of overarching totality; rather, such totalities can only exist by distorting and inverting desire so that it desires its own repression. The view that rights come from the state is a case of Oedipal/authoritarian overcoding: the state claims retrospectively to be the origin of what in fact it draws upon. (Rights are, of course, relational. But relations can be initiated through the self-positing of desire. Also, where mutual activities affirm rights, they usually do so over and against the state, which has no interest in yielding its hierarchic superiority by giving equality to others). The image of rights as derivative from society is an illusion constructed by confusing two senses of the word "society" (i.e. Mouffe assumes it means society as a totality delivers rights from above, whereas in fact the construction of rights is a bottom-up process, "social" in the sense of relational rather than of "society" as totality).

The positing and achievement of rights (like all expressions of desire) is contingent. Does that make it invalid? Surely not. For Laclau and Mouffe happily accept the unconditional positing of "order" as valid, even though they admit that it, too, is contingent. Ditto with "us and them". The only difference is that "rights" and "workers' self-management" are examples of autonomous and
active positing, whereas the positing of "order" or "us and them" already refers primarily to a negativity, i.e. is reactive and subordinating. Active desire is non-contradictory, open to potential satisfaction, and is at the root of reactive desire, so it is better to posit actively than reactively.

Worthwhile liberty is "liberty against the law". A freedom which is not posited unconditionally over and against the system is an empty freedom, because it is revocable at any moment at the whims of an elite which decides whether the "objective conditions for freedom" still apply or not.

The liberal state is not what makes pluralism possible. This is clearly shown by the failure of totalitarian regimes to suppress dissent in everyday life (cf. Gramsci on "black [sic] parliamentarism"). Pluralism arises in everyday life; it is not constructed by the state. When the state bans it, it simply displaces it into "administrative" or "cultural" areas.

Again, the issue arises that, whatever psychological drive compels people to support the state and the "necessity" of order and identity, it cannot be sufficient to justify the facts of normalist, colonial, etc. violence by states and authoritarians, or the Orwellian dangers of statism, or the fear, terror and incomprehension which reactive structures often produce. Reactive desire is a dehumanising force. (I get the constant impression that Laclau and Mouffe identify so strongly with insiders that they have no idea what "exclusion" means to the excluded - for instance, to prisoners, the psychologically different, or the colonised. If they did, their orientation might be rather different. Zizek, in contrast, has some idea, but as alibi.).

The idea that there can be "no final victory" seems to be a source of hope for Laclau and Mouffe. Yet it also implies that, for instance, racism cannot be eliminated. Since the elimination of racism would make for a better world, this is a pessimistic assumption. Indeed, one is left with a liberaloid politics due to this assumption: minus the struggle to overcome racism, there is only the management of "race relations" which remains; and also "industrial relations" instead of class revolution, etc. Further, Laclau and Mouffe's approach would seem to rule out the active use of concepts such as "human rights" as part of a struggle against state violence. One is presumably to accept state violence as "necessary", and human rights are to be pushed onto the horizon, as "fantasmatic supplement" or alibi. Laclau and Mouffe are so "radical", they (presumably) think that nothing can be done to stop Israeli massacres of Palestinians or the torture of prisoners at Camp X-Ray.

The articulation of radical movements frequently occurs, but not necessarily with submission to the state as a core orientation (cf. the alliances of Earth First! in America with steelworkers to take on Maxxam). The statement that social movements do not come together unless hegemonized (in Laclau's sense of this term) is simply untrue. Indeed, Laclau and Mouffe's approach suffers from a tendency to deagentify social movements and "subject-positions". Movements come together if, and only if, the people taking part in them are able to establish links with each other. The belief that these links must rely on a master-signifier is simply an unfounded dogma.

There is also no reason to assume that the state is the only, or best, solution to problems with particular identities. For instance, workers' self-management may conceivably lead to ecologically destructive actions, oppression of non-workers, or illiberal measures against workers as "individuals"; but this is not a case against it, since such developments could be prevented by particular "articulations". What there could not be is anyone claiming to decide from above what the proper distributions between groups should be. But the state has hardly proved very effective at protecting individual freedom or the environment anyway. It is revealing that the problem has been posed in the way it has, as if a mere possibility of wrongness rules out workers' management, whereas the state is not questioned. Suppose one asked instead (for instance) "who is more to be trusted to look after the unemployed: a series of self-managed workers' syndicates, or Blair's "welfare to work" gang?" or "who is more to be trusted with the environment: workers, or Bush and his oil cronies?". Perhaps then, the mere possibility of problems in a society of workers' self-management would seem less of an issue.

To conclude, the net result of Laclau and Mouffe's work is that they provide pragmatic excuses for the violence and inconsistency of the existing state. By denying unconditionals to "groups" and "individuals", they hand them over to the state, which somehow escapes the "contingency" which binds everyone else into a permanent pessimism of the will. The result is a philosophy of generalised rightslessness which would, if socially effective, strengthen the state and weaken the oppressed.

NOTE TO THIS SECTION: Mouffe also makes a slightly different claim that positing new rights requires that one deconstruct old ones (RP 70). This has different implications and is preferable to her other formulations. Nevertheless, it is true only contingently, not a priori. It may not be true in a context of general rightslessness, or when different claims are not in direct competition. (The main case where I give it plausibility is with regard to the capitalist claim that private ownership of resources used by many people is a "right").


Laclau and Mouffe claim to be "radicals", but closer inspection suggests that this is based on a gesture of the kind: "radicalism equals conservatism"; or a redefinition of "radicalism" to include what are more usually conservative or authoritarian themes. The assertion of the necessity of state violence, of conflict, of repression, of social exclusion, of "us and them" rhetoric, and so on, is hardly radical in any meaningful sense; it rules out the possibility of a substantial transformation of society. The use of the label "radical" is a cover for taking positions which are no such thing - for instance, believing in the necessity of exclusion is taken to be radical (HSS 136-7).

Laclau and Mouffe tend to rule out the possibility of a substantially better world: for instance, a permanently peaceful world. For them, there is no difference between a world in which everyone agrees or negotiates solutions through dialogue, and a totalitarian regime in which public pseudo-agreement is imposed by force. The assumption that the former is merely a fantasmatic cover for the latter is little more than a dogma, and covers the way in which Laclau and Mouffe themselves reproduce authoritarian and totalitarian themes. Instead of struggling against the impositional and exclusionary discourses which are the actual basis for totalitarian fantasies of wholeness (i.e. their claim to include "everyone" is based on tautology: everyone who matters i by definition included), they endorse this logic and oppose instead the goal to which it is connected. The ideological role of the rejection of an idea of a better world is to construct a fatalistic pessimism of the will which gives up on substantial change in advance and satisfies itself with reinforcing and strengthening the existing political system. The logic of autonomously positing desires or even demands is radically negated. Against Laclau and Mouffe, I would stress that the point is still to change it, and, while I cannot say whether certain kinds of social arrangement are or are not possible in advance (this is an empirical question), the present is sufficiently intolerable to necessitate radical transformation. Any urge to hold back this transformation by insisting that the evils of the present are "necessary" is a chain set up by the system, a "cop inside one's head".

One also finds places where radical impulses and demands find a voice in the work of Laclau and Mouffe, but they are constantly overcoded and held back. So, there is a need to stand up to ruling-class power (DP 15); to side with "democratic" forces in struggles around 'gender, race, class, sexuality, environment and others' (RP 7); 'leaving this space of contestation [of identity] forever open' (DP 56); an ideal of 'self-assertion' (RP 124); to 'make room for the contemporary proliferation of political spaces and the multiplicity of democratic demands' (DP 17); to recognize 'everything that had been excluded by the concept of Man in the abstract' (RP 13); and to assert rights based on difference, which cannot be universalised (RP 13). But such phrases, without a politics and a psychological theory suited to them, are at best empty and at worst alibis which trick people into supporting a conservative politics. How does one have "self-assertion" alongside a belief in a common good transcending the self, or make room for the proliferation of spaces by demanding that some be excluded and the rest subsumed into "citizenship", or keep identity open by closing it around the state, or assert rights beyond universality while also declaring that the state (as universality) is the root of all rights? (Laclau and Mouffe cannot even explain from within their own theory why they support progressive struggles around race, gender and so on).

What drives this theory is not openness and contingency; it is a specific essence conceived as encompassing openness and contingency. As a result, the essentialist logics of repression and imposition - in short, the bulldozer state and its allies - remain active in the theory. Their theory denies the contingency of its own basic structure and of the ideas (eg. order) and institutions (eg. the state) which it holds most dear, even while demanding that everyone else sacrifice everything else to the state on the grounds of contingency.

The 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. The only thing "radical democracy" liberates people from is the hope for a better world. Without this hope, no doubt the administrative mechanisms of the "democratic" state would function more effectively, and people would have a stable sense of belonging to an eternal social order. The effect for people living in such a society who accepted such a theory would be subordination. Despite superficial similarities, this is not a theory akin to those of Foucault, Deleuze, etc.; it is more akin to those of Rawls, Charles Taylor and Carl Schmitt. It is a justification for state violence.


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