Andrew Robinson - Theory Blog

Monday, November 15, 2004

LACLAU AND MOUFFE - POLITICS (notes - work in progress)



Mouffe claims at one point to want 'uncompromising thinking on the nature of liberal democratic societies' (RP 117). This turns out, however, to mean uncompromising glorification of liberal democracy, based on a denouncement of any possible alternative as totalitarian.

Laclau and Mouffe's support for liberal democracy (despite occasional throwaway bones regarding the need to "radicalise" democracy or to "challenge capitalism") should not really be at question, since their position is stated repeatedly in so many words. For example:

* one should endorse 'the liberal democratic framework' (E 112)

* 'commitment to the liberal democratic framework' (RP 103)

* liberal democracy is a 'conquest that needs to be protected' (RP 145)

* 'the task is to elaborate the political principles of the liberal democratic form of government' (RP 126)

* 'What we need is a hegemony of democratic values, and this requires a multiplication of democratic practices' (RP 18)

* 'We should not expect the emergence of a completely new type of democracy'; 'liberal institutions are here to stay'. It is 'highly dangerous' to advocate workers' councils because of 'the crucial importance for modern democracy of liberal political institutions' (RP 104).

* 'Liberal democratic institutions should not be taken for granted: it is always necessary to fortify and defend them'. To do this requires 'acknowledging the tension' between liberal and democratic logics (DP 4-5)

* The principle of democracy is universally valid, even if its application may vary (cited Burns 27-8)

* Citizenship means 'to act as a member of a democratic political community', and Mouffe wants 'a more active sense of political participation and of belonging to a political community' (RP 82-3)

* Mouffe wants to defend 'our liberal institutions' (RP 145)

* And she wants a 'Radical-Liberal-Democratic political philosophy' (RP 112)

* 'Liberal democracy requires consensus on the rules of the game' (RP 4)

* Mouffe wants 'a strong adhesion to democratic values and institutions' (DP 69)

* Also wants 'a form of political identity that consists of an identification with the political principles of modern pluralist democracy' (RP 83 - note how on p 84 she states both that this does and that it does not require a shared interpretation of these principles)

* Laclau seems to see democracy as a good in itself, and denounces any society where 'democratic' conflict is rendered obsolete as fundamentally undesirable (eg. MPI 5)

* The 'liberal state' is justified and should be 'defended and consolidated' (NRRT 129) to protect the site of autonomous struggles and proliferating public spaces.

Mouffe is trying 'to strengthen liberal democracy' (RP 2)

* Mouffe asks the very "radical" question: is liberal democracy the just society, or merely a just society? (DP 62 - though she never doubts that liberal democracy is the only just society for the west).

* Mouffe also says she wants to reformulate, not discard, liberalism (RP 83), and further, that even in the case of analytical liberal philosophy, 'there might well be a place for such an endeavour' (RP 147). And of the principle of the priority of the right over the good (Rawls): 'an important principle, which needs defending because it is crucial for modern democratic societies' (RP 64).

It should also be noted that Mouffe's tone regarding democracy borders on the euphoric; she uses a language which is at times almost palingenetic in its excitement about the possibilities offered by this particular abstraction.

NB how the existence of conflicts over liberal democracy is not taken to show that it offers something less than the unity L&M demand: rather, conflicts show that democracy and pluralism are alive (DP 34).

Relationship between liberalism and socialism

Laclau and Mouffe contradict themselves on the issue of whether socialism can be pursued independently of democracy. On one occasion, they say in a joint piece that democracy and socialism do not need each other (NRRT 132); their combination is one of several possible articulations. But elsewheer Laclau says that socialism can ONLY be articulated with other democratic demands (NRRT 223).

Mouffe's line is perhaps clearer. She says that 'socialist goals can only be achieved acceptably within the liberal democratic framework' (RP 105), thus showing that she lexically orders liberalism and (representative) democracy as more important than socialist goals.

In HSS, L&M differentiate their version of "war of position" from any idea of revolution (75), and approvingly quote a source which constructs a binary between democracy and revolution (73). Mouffe wishes to 'abandon the idea of socialism envisaged as a completely different social system' separate from liberal democracy; instead she wants a 'liberal socialism' (RP 90). In this passage, she states that she wants 'a liberal democratic regime' but not 'actually existing capitalist liberal democracies' (RP 90). (see below on how mild her proposed reforms actually are). Her liberal socialism is very much of a statist variety (see RP 91). For Mouffe, the search for a new socialism should be limited to finding a version 'that respects the principles of liberal democracy' (RP 98), which she assumes cannot be improved on. Despite all this, Mouffe still pays lip service to the idea of a critique 'that would enable us to transform' present institutions!

Some more evidence on how "radical" are the changes Mouffe proposes:

* Mouffe wishes to rebuild New Labour based on Michael Walzer's ideas (DP 124-5)

* She also favours a model of democratising the workplace which includes... allowing capitalists and managers "stakes" alongside workers in the management of firms! (RP 98).

Against opponents

Support for "democracy" is so firmly naturalised or dogmatised in Mouffe's theory that she actually uses someone else's failure to support it as evidence that they are wrong. Whether something advances "democracy" or "democratic practices" or the "democratic matrix" is everything for her when she assesses theories (eg. RP 57).

Hence, an argument against the idea of an "ethics of care" (Jean Bethke Elshtain) can be debunked as follows: 'Elshtain fails to provide a theoretical argument that links maternal thinking and the social practice of mothering to democratic values and democratic politics' (RP 79). It doesn't even occur to Mouffe that the absence of the concept of "democracy" might be anything more than a case of failure. Similarly against communitarianism: a politics 'incompatible with modern democracy' is unthinkable (RP 112).

"Democracy" as language or social system?

There is some slipperiness around L&M's concept of discourse: they define it to include practices, but actually only discuss language and "imaginaries" most of the time: in theory they escape the accusation of idealism by extending the concept of "discourse" beyond the ideal, but in practice they falsify this defence by relying only on the "ideal" aspects. The result re liberal democracy is an account which defends aspects of the existing social system without ever discussing social relations. The euphoric hope they derive from "democracy" comes mainly from its ideal, or ideological, component.

* According to Laclau, democracy is NOT a social system; rather, the word signifies a distance from one's own social organisation, a 'process of unlimited questioning' (NRRT 187). Fair enough if he sticks to it but he doesn't: he wants to defend electoral institutions as if these are "democracy", which of course they aren't by this definition.

* The progressive character of democracy is supposedly shown by the way in which democratic discourse (apparently meaning language or rhetoric) progressively expands (HSS 155-6). Apparently regardless of whether actual practices expand, or whether in contrast they contract to keep out the new "democratic" demands.

* L&M imply that they think that law and knowledge are separate from power in liberal capitalism (HSS 186-7)! Which presumably is why hundreds of Asians have been given jail terms for defending themselves against cops in Bradford but not one cop has been prosecuted?

* Laclau simply ASSERTS that democratic societies involve a 'growing politicization of the social' and prefigure a 'new form of civilisation that we are starting to glimpse' (NRRT 192, 196). cf. Mouffe: democracy as dissolution of certainty and as guarantee of freedom (RP 105). But where is the evidence?

The Totalitarian Bogeyman

L&M's argument (reconstructed a little crudely) operates in a very simplistic way:
* Support for liberal (bourgeois) democracy follows directly from "acceptance" of contingency;
* Therefore, anything which does not accept bourgeois democracy must reject contingency and be some kind of totalitarian fundamentalism based on a desire for harmony;
* Therefore, any questioning of liberal democracy is "dangerous".

The problem is that the first step in this chain of arguments is not valid; a second problem is that actual totalitarian systems do not fit L&M's depiction.

For Laclau and Mouffe, support for democracy can be read off directly from ontological concerns. It derives directly from the tension between the universal and the particular (E 65): once the tensional nature of this relation is accepted, one supposedly becomes a liberal-democrat automatically. Supposedly, accepting that power is contingent means saying there is no locus of power and therefore rejecting revolutionary strategies; instead, one should be 'taking advantage' of 'dislocations' in existing institutions to pursue a radical agenda (NRRT 59) - i.e. acceptance of contingency is supposed to lead logically to reformism.

On other occasions, a need for resistance to oppression is short-circuited into a need for democratic discourse. For instance, having stated that opposition to oppression requires a discursive exterior from which oppression can be critiqued, L&M simply assume that this exterior will be provided by the "democratic imaginary": ONLY democratic discourse can lead to struggle against inequality (HSS 154, NRRT 126). So NSM's necessarily rely on democratic discourse (HSS 160).

The central trick here is to (mistakenly) portray liberal democracy as the necessary outcome of a rejection of blueprint-type utopianism. 'The idea of a perfect consensus... must... be abandoned, and the permanence of conflict and antagonisms accepted. Once the very possibility of achieving homogeneity is discarded, the necessity of liberal institutions becomes evident' (RP 104-5). In this passage, the target is workers' councils, clearly showing how it is existing bourgeois institutions and not an expansive ideal of democracy which is central to Mouffe's project. Elsewhere she adds that imperfection necessitates representative democracy (RP 96); that democracy is 'the refusal to suppress [conflict] through the imposition of an authoritarian order' (RP 96); and that there is a simple choice between accepting liberal democratic institutions and pursuing harmony (RP 110), with harmony risking totalitarianism. (The means whereby democracy "accepts" antagonism is by domesticating it as "agonism". See AGONISM section).

Since "acceptance of contingency" leads to support for bourgeois democracy, it follows logically that totalitarianism must result from rejection of contingency (NB how this can mean trying to think democracy without liberalism, or vice-versa, or something else without either). Hence, the 'key to the totalitarian phenomenon' is 'wishing to think democracy in the modern period without liberalism' (RP 121). Put simply, any opposition to liberal democracy is totalitarian. There are 'perils present in certain forms of rejection of liberal democracy', even those, such as the 60s New Left versions of participatory democracy, which are 'profoundly anti-totalitarian'. They are still dangerous, solely for the reason that they see parliament and parties as 'obstacles', liberalism as a capitalist 'facade' and that they 'dream of an organic community' (RP 122). Though 'well-intentioned', such approaches show a 'lack of understanding of modern democracy' (RP 122), i.e. of its alleged nature as dissolution of certainty; 'it is only by virtue of its articulation to political liberalism that the logic of popular sovereignty can avoid descending into tyranny' (RP 122).

Again: there are 'dangers involved in any attempt to renounce liberal pluralism'. 'a rejection of liberal pluralism and the political institutions that accompany it can have very dangerous consequences and open the door to totalitarianism'. 'the consequences of rejecting liberal pluralism must be understood' (RP 109-10). It is 'highly dangerous' to advocate (for instance) workers' councils and participatory democracy because of 'the crucial importance for modern democracy of liberal political institutions' (RP 104).

One has to do very little to fall foul of the totalitarian bogeyman. Not only are workers' councils, direct and participatory democracy, and the New Left under attack, but even something as meek as Rawls's theory of justice. For Mouffe, Rawls's idea of a well-ordered society is 'a dangerous utopia of reconciliation' (DP 29). Keep in mind that Rawls does not ever posit this as an elimination of all conflict, that a well-ordered society includes a variety of comprehensive doctrines and that it is still assumed to have a coercive state, and one will see how little one has to do to be too utopian for Mouffe! To add another example: Trotskyists are 'the last Stalinists' because they use concepts of authenticity and because they supposedly have religious overtones to their outlook (NRRT 237; this is ironic given that, two pages earlier, Laclau praised Rastafarianism for its anti-racist confrontationalism!).

Incidentally, Mouffe does throw a bone to revolutionary councilists by suggesting the idea of associational democracy exposes the undemocratic nature of elected governments which ignore citizens' needs (RP 99-100). But she still insists on liberal institutions. Her main concrete objection is that direct democracy contains insufficient safeguards for liberties (DP 3).

Also, Laclau and Mouffe don't take seriously the idea that Stalinism could be anything other than a form of socialism, the reason apparently being that they define socialism as merely the prohibition on private ownership in means of production (NRRT 124, 132).


The idea that "acceptance" of contingency somehow necessitates support for liberal institutions is an invalid inference which L&M never really account for. It is easy to compile a list of social arrangements which could be said to incorporate contingency but which look nothing like "liberal democracy". It strikes me, in fact, that "liberal democracy", especially in its Mouffean version, requires quite a strong political "centre", including a centralised identity of citizenship which (in Rawls's terms) "normally outweighs whatever opposes it". In contrast, the identities needed for revolutionary councilism to operate are comparatively far less: there is certainly no need for a belief in harmony (as this term is used by L&M). In a syndicalist society, for instance, difference and antagonism would be inscribed in relations between plural "institutions", not papered over by a unitary "national" centre. Many risks of centralisation involved in the existing system would be removed, pluralism would be increased, and "agonism" would arise in the negotiations and contested relations between different syndicates. Another example of a group which believes in agonism and democracy, but not in liberal democracy, is the Zapatistas. It is hard to see how the EZLN, which refuses to "take power" and which operates on a strongly participatory model with an emancipatory worlview, could somehow be more of a "totalitarian" danger than the corrupt and violent institutions of Mexican liberal democracy.

As regards the rights of individuals, these can be encoded in discourses other than liberalism. Take the following instance from Black Flag (which should not, however, be taken as typical of anarchism in general): 'Anarchists are firm believers in direct democracy. Self-managed federal organisation from the bottom up is a key aspect of anarchist ideas' (issue *****, 23) - direct democracy occurs 'when oppressed people take management of their own affairs directly in associations created in the class struggle' (26); also wants to 'recognise the right of individuals to rebel against the majority when that majority violate the spirit of association, freedom and equality which should give democracy its rationale' (25). 'dissent, refusal, revolt by individuals and minorities is a key aspect of self-management' (25). Here we have all L&M's taboos - classism, direct democracy, anti-liberalism, opposition to representatives - yet clearly no hints of a totalitarian discourse; indeed, this account seems to leave more room for "agonism" and less for monologue and top-down violence than bourgeois systems of representation.

The idea that direct democracy insufficiently protects rights is an old chestnut with very little validity: the liberal-democratic state is itself a major violator of rights and a perpetrator of violence against minorities, as well as being constantly at risk of being taken over by totalitarians. As Barclay suggests, a social system based on diffuse sanctions may or may not be intolerant; this depends on the culture it endorses, and there is no inherent reason why it need be a threat. In contrast, states produce extensive and varied schemas of control and violence which most definitely do weaken rights.
Other examples would include Barrett's essay "Objections to Anarchism", which explicitly casts anarchism in agonistic terms, and Schaff's pamphlet on Marxist theory, where he denies that Marxism is pursuing perfection - rather, it is trying to eliminate unnecessary suffering caused by existing social relations. In all of these cases and others, it is clear that "acceptance of contingency" - with or without further assumptions such as anti-perfectionism - does not at all necessitate support for liberalism or bourgeois democracy.

Incidentally, the concept of "harmony" as used by Proudhon does not mean homogeneity, but rather, means organising society so that diverse and irreducibly different desires and skills are linked to harmless or useful practices and directed away from conflict with each other when at all possible (eg. people who like dirt should take care of sewers). This is most certainly NOT a denial or foreclosure of difference. Indeed, I don't see why the idea of a utopian transformation of society should require the kind of totalitarian baggage L&M attach to it. Perhaps they assume it must involve precise pre-planning of a blueprint based on a conceived essence. In any case, it is clear that there are too many alternatives for a simplistic binary "liberal democracy or totalitarianism" to hold. It is as if L&M were advising someone who is about to stop being a soft cop: "don't stop! You'll have to become a hard cop instead!". But there are more alternatives than simply being some kind of cop.

Another problem is that liberal democracy is not everything L&M think it is. Indeed, their entire account of it is basically an idealised glorification based on mistakenly taking dominant ideologies at face value. Democracy as an ideological construct is all things to all people: order to conservatives, radical change to progressives, etc. But liberal democracy as social system is limited. As Jules Townshend argues, 'democracy, although "it" might recognise its own contingent foundations, is still based upon a set of rules which limit contingency, and what precisely is the argument for preferring this set of rules?' (9). Judged by the actual practices (rather than the rhetoric) of liberal systems, the idea that liberal institutions defend democratic rights through 'the limitation of state power', and that this provides an advantage over workers' councils (RP 105), seems simply absurd. The comparison is here between a strong state system which ostensibly limits itself and a largely non-state system, whereas L&M treat it as a comparison between a weak and a strong state. In practice, liberal democracies can be very repressive (and it is not of much significance that they are not as bad as Hitler or Stalin if the proposed alternative is neither Nazism nor Stalinism). Similarly, there is little evidence that "democratic" societies are becoming increasingly politicised (cf. voter apathy), that they prefigure a "new form of civilisation", etc.

The whole "totalitarianism" issue reeks of emotional blackmail. Indeed, it covers over something far more dangerous: L&M portray closure as safety and openness as danger. This is a repetition of the standard refrain of the "culture of fear" which has taken over liberal societies, and which leads people to accept the state's increasing seizure of power in everyday life. Why should the loss of existing limits be seen as a source of threat, rather than as a new freedom to construct something better? This is the old reactive theme of openness as danger - the "evil" of slave morality which is imagined to be behind every opening.

In fact, "democracy" is itself a deeply split and "antagonistic" concept, because it exists in at least two different binaries (with "dictatorship" and "tyranny" on the one hand, and with "anarchy" on the other). Often, it is simply used as a hooray-word y the powerful to legitimate particular institutions and condemn challenges to these (eg. Blair calls anti-capitalists "undemocratic anarchy" and Blunkett accuses judges who oppose starving asylum seekers "a threat to democracy"). Indeed, it is unclear if there is really any such thing as a "democratic imaginary". If there is, it would have to be shown to exist in everyday discourse. Rather, I suspect that "democracy" is a new public transcript in the Scottian sense.

A good example is when L&M say that the liberal state must be defended because of the proliferating spaces it generate (NRRT 128-9). They confuse the actual liberal state with its ideology of civil rights, separation of powers, universal suffrage, multi-party, etc., etc. I can find some excellent remarks by Mumia on how the election of black politicians does not in fact mean black people have any more power, because of the activities of the unelected parts of the state.

In practice, liberal democracy is not the idealised image L&M present. It is not a radical openness, but a choice between pre-packaged commodities (including political parties) structured in such a way as to offer a superficial choice while leaving the most important things unchanged (and unchallenged). It is not a Brave New World without limits or foundations, but a world firmly constrained within limits set by COINTELPRO and their ilk. The army, the cops, the secret service and the big corporations ensure that "democracy" does not exceed these limits - Chile 1973 is a good example. These reactionaries (not to mention the reactionary trends within "common sense") will not merely sit back and wait while Mouffe spreads democracy across society. Parliamentary democracy is primarily a veil for the operation of "undemocratic" forces, including capitalist dictatorship over the private sphere and the repressive wing of the state. What passes for "democracy" today is mostly a regulatory and spectacular system of procedural control. The actuality of state power is against liberal themes such as civil rights (only the judiciary is a little ambiguous), and the separation of powers can only counterbalance state violence if another force is able to resist cops ferociously enough to constrain them. Furthermore, it rests on an alienation of political being from the self (Marx). There are also a long list of atrocities committed by liberal democracies (from the slaughter of innocent Vietnamese civilians to the murder of Carlo Giuliani to the present world trade system to the rise of "the carceral" to the threats of eco-collapse and nuclear war) which L&M conveniently forget. How can openness flourish under the blackmail of law: "conform or else"? cf. also Matza and Reimer on the "police property" issue. So-called "liberal democracy" relies too much on forces which are neither liberal nor democratic. And the crucial question is not whether this criticism of bourgeois democracy is "dangerous", but whether it is true. The claim that liberal democracy is a facade for bourgeois rule is an empirical claim which should be countered as such, not an outgrowth of a perfectionism L&M can only infer. L&M may believe that, empirically, bourgeois democracy is so good that only a fundamentalist could reject it, but the point is to show this to be the case and not merely to assert it endlessly by accusing others of "denial" etc. It is quite possible to want to end the atrocities committed by liberal-democratic states, without in the slightest demanding a totalitarian regime or harmonious homogeneity instead. Of course, it should also be added that cops, armies etc. continue to use a discourse of enmity even while supposedly defending an adversarial system. L&M evade empirical issues by using extra-empirical short-cuts and then using an arrogant rhetoric to silence critics.

Another problem: discourse on "democracy" can often be an excuse for repressive tolerance. It can be a barrier to people resisting bigots and forcing bigots to stop trying to impose dogma and oppress minorities. It can also be a barrier to challenging common sense (eg. Jose Nun) or existing character-structures. Patently someone who is pursuing a radical transformative project cannot also be engaged in representation. Majoritarian models of democracy come dangerously close to a "might is right" theory of politics (majorities as unquestionable).

Liberal democracy does not endorse antagonism but hides it beneath disciplinary and administrative rhetorics. (Does anyone take seriously the idea that the expulsion of Abu Hamza from Finsbury Park Mosque is nothing more than an issue of petty charity-law regulations?). Prisons involve an attempt to hide antagonism very literally, by concealing it from view - and by using extreme violence to do so. Why don't L&M demand that people "accept" the "necessity" of crime as a form of antagonism, rather than endorsing its concealment?

So either/or: either L&M want an extensive democratisation of everyday life, which would require the revolutionary overthrow of most of the existing social system, shattering present institutions; or they are prepared to remain within existing limits, in which case their democracy loses all its "radicalism". (NB also that even liberal democracy can only operate if most people are liberals and democrats which at present they aren't. Too many bigots can ruin liberal democracy by voting other bigots into power). Ultimately, the victory even of the best elements of liberalsism would require the smashing of the illiberal "liberal" state, not to mention the transformation of "common sense". But then again, L&M never take seriously any attempt to turn freedoms and rights in alterity into anything more substantive.

The real totalitarian danger does not come from defiance of the liberal blackmail, but rather, from prostration before the state and the state's resultant ability to arrogate power to itself. It is unclear whether L&M's version of democracy is to include any aspect of inverting existing arrangements so that organisations are subordinate to the socially-actual and institutions are on trial by people rather than the other way around. I doubt it does, because this sounds a bit like "wanting an organic society" and so is presumably "totalitarian". But without such an aspect, the state remains in control and therefore, the risk of totalitarianism is ever-present. The blackmail "opposing liberalism is totalitarian" leads to McCarthyism, i.e. to liberal totalitarianism. Also, it is important to realise that in actual conflicts where totalitarians are involved, L&M's beloved liberal-democratic state often ends up on the wrong side: when L&M's enemies of choice, such as anarchists and Trotskyists, were fighting the Nazis at Brick Lane, Cable Street, Welling, Bradford, etc., the police were acting as the Nazis' lackeys and the liberals were sucking up to the police. This is hardly the way to stay safe from totalitarianism. Also, in some cases, far from rendering antagonisms agonistic, the liberal state tends to turn agonism into antagonism. Marsh et al clearly show this logic at work in terms of police repression of football "hooliganism". Another problem is that "democratic" states often turn into bigotocracies, with the bitterness and vindictiveness of bigots given a very dangerous flavour in its alliance with repressive forces.

There is a worrying palingenetic faith underlying a lot of L&M's imagery, which is reminiscent of populist political movements including Blairism. The idea that the present, by destroying the past, proves its virility and worthiness of support is never far beneath the surface.

Another problem is that L&M never give a good reason why it is OK to use "democracy" as a central articulatory category, but not OK to use "class". It is certainly not enough to say that the latter articulation is "essentialist", since the two are structurally identical.

NB also the naivety of thinking that all social groups can become a site for social struggle (HSS 192) - as if one can persuade statists to be anything but dominators.

The narrative of the "democratic revolution" is ethnocentric. It is not clear where or who this "revolution" affects, but clearly it hasn't spread very far. This raises the problem of
(post-)colonialism which L&M mostly evade.

The problem also recurs of how one can have a view of democracy 'which is convincing and worthy of allegiance' (DP 57) while endorsing the Lacanian cynicism and not actually believing in its possibility.

Other issues crop up around the idea that there should be a (representative) democratisation of everything from the family and schools to big business and the civil service (RP 94) - this would necessitate a revolutionary transformation of the kind L&M seem determined to avoid; it is also unclear what a "democratised" version of these institutions would look like. One could end up with such abuses of language as children being forced to attend "democratised" schools and workers being forced to submit to bosses alongside whom they nevertheless sit on farcical "democratic" panels.

There is a disturbing tendency for L&M to deagentify the nature of the state (eg. liberalism 'is here to stay', 'what we need' is democratic hegemony, 'this requires' democratic practices, etc.), thereby eliding their own agency in exactly the way they accuse others of doing, and concealing their own arbitrary Decision in favour of the liberal state.

Finally, it should be added that a politics which "leaves everything as it is" is really of very little use to the oppressed.


I add this section for completion, because political practice in L&M is basically reducible to articulation. This in a sense opens politics up by denying a "last instance", but in another sense it limits it: politics is always to tail existing identities and demands to some extent; further, its role is to subsume these in an overarching structure. Altering the identities and demands themselves seems to be ruled out (except to the extent that the articulation itself achieves this).


* All political movements are based on articulation; right from the start, movements are faced with issues external to their immediate concerns (NRRT 230).

There is some danger with this emphasis, mainly because it leaves little room for one to challenge prejudices. If one is always to try to articulate the "new wave" of identities, what if the "new wave" consists of racism and xenophobia, or some such? Is one then to pander to the bigots in order to "articulate" their concerns (as Blair etc. are glad to do)?



L&M have a strong narrative regarding the nature of contemporary societies and the transition to capitalism from pre-capitalist forms, though this is always asserted - never demonstrated - and is often merely implicit. Their model is an amalgam of a quasi-Marxist idea of capitalism progressively overcoming previous limits, a Lefortian model of "democratic revolution" as hailing the entry into an era of contingency, and an image of capitalism as a radically emancipating and deterritorialising force. What is missing is any consideration of the politics of capitalism as a system of oppression.

Before continuing, I should note a strange tailist logic in L&M's (mainly Laclau's) work: a tendency to insist that all normative claims be derived from analysis of current trends in society. His claims must refletc trends within contemporary capitalism (NRRT 41). This assumption gives his work a certain "uncritical" feel: he won't distance himself from the present, he denies the possibility of being in disjunction with it, and as a result, he tends to assume the best about capitalism. This is a problem with trying to get "ought" from "is".

Firstly, it should be noted that L&M have a very problematic and "classical" assumption that 'we' live in a shared lifeworld, the product of a single historical process which provides a common reference-point (cf. Exclusion: Tradition section). Further, it is important to stress that they feel positively - sometimes almost euphorically - about this lifeworld (eg. NRRT 189). They believe "we" are going through an unprecedented period of emancipation and freedom - clearly the image of "permissive" liberal-capitalism which is the target of Zizek's critique. For instance, Laclau writes of a progressive trend away from belief in objective necessity and towards freer societies (NRRT 216). He thinks inequalities have been eliminated from the fields of law, education and the economy (NRRT 125). Also, he adds that the 'nodal point around which the intelligibility of the social is articulated' tends to 'dissolve' in capitalist societies (NRRT 59). Capitalism is more indeterminable than previous societies, and so is less alienated (NRRT 67-8). Capitalism has led to progress, because it generates resistances of a new and fragmented kind (NRRT 52). Control over production is now exercised in a 'democratic and negotiated' way by a multitude of groups, with none of them - not state, capital or workers - as dictator (NRRT 82). Multiple separate struggles are now the norm, as opposed to "popular" us-and-them conflicts (HSS 137). Further, power does not have a centre today (HSS 138: this is basically established through wordplay, which confuses the empirical idea of a dominating group with the idea of a social essence). Democracy is radicalizing; power is decentring; demands are fragmenting; people are becoming less manipulable.

Beneath all this there is a strong binary. Pre-capitalist societies generated fixed identities and for-or-against logics; capitalism generates fluidity and unstable identities (HSS 171).

Mouffe also adds a claim that there is no relationship between liberal democracy and capitalism: liberal democracy is a 'political form of society', 'a specific form of organising politically human coexistence', and the economy is irrelevant to understanding this form (DP 18).

I have two main objections to this entire picture: the first is that it is unsubstantiated, and L&M give the reader no good reason to accept it. Secondly, most of it is simply untrue. For instance, the claim that capitalism is leading towards increasing freedom is contradicted by issues as diverse as "welfare to work", "anti-terrorism" crackdowns, police violence, the power of the IMF and the discourse of "globalisation". (I have already run through what is wrong with this notion in more detail in my notes on "CAPITALISM" re ZIZEK, and also in "Zizek's Marx"). cf. also L&M's gross oversimplification of peasant rebellions as 'non-hegemonic' (HSS 138).


Laclau also sees capitalism (accurately) as an uncontrolled force of destruction, but perversely, he sees this as a reason to support it. Hence, he identifies the necessity of structural dislocation with the disruptive force of capitalism on other lifeworlds it renders 'backwards' (NRRT 50). He sees capitalism's smashing of direct production as a good thing, and still thinks its benefits can be 'transferred to the community as a whole'; the loss of autonomy is compensated by gains 'as a member of a community' (NRRT 55), i.e. gains from "civilisation" as a coercive regime of domination. So Laclau demands 'the full acceptance of the transformations entailed by capitalism and the construction of an alternative project that is based on the ground created by those transformations, not an opposition to them. Commodification, bureaucratisation, and the ijcreasing dominance of scientific and technological planning over the division of labour should not necessarily be resisted. Rather, one should work within these processes so as to develop the prospects they create for a non-capitalist alternative' (NRRT 55-6). In other words, substantively speaking the present social world is to be encouraged and left intact. (I shudder to think what L's agenda would involve in a postcolonial context, where the imposition of capitalism is incomplete). Worse: his main hope for a "non-capitalist" version of capitalist society involves regulation by the state, or more precisely, by the E.U. (NRRT 57, 59). And he even praises bureaucracies for their positive role as a disruptive force and as an origin of "political" intervention (NRRT 53). Bureaucracy gives rise to a 'double liberating effect': producing 'new forms of rationalisation' and giving rise to new resistances (NRRT 53-4).

Several criticisms can be made of this:

* Capitalist "dislocation" is a brutal practice of violence and domination. Laclau's glorification of it involves a disturbing palingenetic logic which values change as a good in itself (cf. Blair). Capitalism is in fact an inhuman bulldozer which crushes whatever is in its path unless it is successfully resisted; the state is similar. This is precisely what is wrong with it: it is not at all a liberating force, but a "reterritorialising" one, which imposes its own order by smashing what opposes it.

* Again, there is a lack of empirical support. The actual processes of smashing pre-capitalist forms - eg. colonialism, the slave trade, the Highland Clearances - are covered up as a result. Instead, there is a mythical idea of pre-capitalism as unfreedom and capitalism as unchaining.

* L. also shows a disturbing "optimism of the intellect": I think the totalitarian implications of capitalist and state logics are concealed by L's faith in the incompletion of any possible symbolic system. In other words, capitalism cannot possibly threaten freedom because every system requires individual freedom as its "Real" or "lack". This is naive.


The one occasion when Laclau admits that capitalism is oppressive is when he discusses new social movements. Here, L&M admit that capitalism is expanding and spreading new subordinations (HSS 160). NSM's arise from resistance to such subordinations (161). More precisely, however, they end up reducing actual resistances to being results of the internal progressive logic of capitalism. For instance, youths 'constructed' by consumerism to demand what economic crisis denies them are driven to revolt; add in a lack of social integration and the decline of the family and 'we can easily understand... the rebellion of the young' (HSS 164). Notice how any aspect of an "outside" or "line of flight" vanishes here: conflict occurs within the capitalist horizon.

They also add that NSM's are merely partial and power is neither centralised nor exterior to them (HSS 133-4); also that neo-liberalism successfully articulated NSM demands (RP 123). A lot of this is debunked, at least re the more radical NSM's, by the anti-capitalist movement. It is also unclear how NSM concerns could be seen as articulated by neo-lib. since many of them were radically anti-elitist: eg. to take a sample selection: Right to Work Campaign, CND, animal rights groups, Greenpeace, ANL, radical gay groups such as Stonewall and Outrage, the Black Power movement, the anti-apartheid campaign (all contemporary with the rise of Thatcher). Compare the neo-liberal position, eg. Thatcher's: increased unemployment to cut inflation; continued nukes; continued vivisection etc.; more use of North Sea oil, plus road building; encouragement of anti-immigrant prejudices and some forms of racism; Clause 29; police racism, stop and search; support for apartheid and labelling anti-apartheid movement as "terrorist". Also attempts to ban protests via "public order" laws. There is absolutely no link between neo-liberalism and the new social movements, except oppositionally.

To raise a similar point: L. also repeats Heller's claim that the freedom produced by capitalism produces fundamentalist attempts to renounce freedom. In Laclau's case, this is because he sees freedom as traumatic and enslaving as well as liberating and exhilarating (i.e. freedom equals slavery). So there are 'more radical attempts at renouncing freedom than we have known in the past' (E 19). This is nonsense; there is no evidence that any particular resistance is an attempt to renounce freedom, rather than to resist a particular capitalist subordination (even if to resist by reterritorialising in unfree ways). Worse: it is an excuse for supporting capitalism against resisters (cf. my critique of Heller on Sept.11).


It is absolutely clear that L&M do not want a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. For instance:

* Laclau's "opening" of social struggle means there is no longer to be struggle against the system, but instead, an attempt to articulate "the market" (NRRT 52-3).

* There is no need for revolution, and this is shown by the fact that people in struggles now use this concept less than they used to (NRRT 215).

* There is no longer a need to get rid of capitalism (DP 15).

At other times, they raise radical demands of sorts: Mouffe wants 'anti-capitalist struggle' but not 'total overthrow of capitalism' (DP 111); she also says that she wants a new global movement against transnational corporations conceived as political agents, that she doesn't accept "globalisation" as a horizon and that a belief that one can accommodate corporations' demands is capitulation to corporate power (RP 120). Laclau wants 'self-defence against police violence' and a trade-union agenda extending beyond workerist demands (NRRT 208). Mouffe also denounces neo-liberalism as a threat to democracy (DP 6), though this seems to be indirect, i.e. repressive consensus and the left's acquiescence in it has left a space for populist demagogues (DP 6-7). But this is a poor substitute, and could well be an alibi: this aspect of their work is mentioned in passing and has no lasting effect on their broader writings.

This doesn't stop them making huge claims for their work. In one passage, Laclau states that the danger is not Marxism, 'in which nobody believes', but 'the collapse of all radical tradition' (NRRT 193). Also, L&M claim to be advocating a 'radically libertarian' politics which is 'more ambitious' than the 'classic left' (HSS 152).


L&M can be very sectarian towards Marxism, treating it a bit like an infectious disease. It is supposed to have been totally outclassed and outdated, yet their own replies to Marxists often leave much to be desired.

The issue of whether the economy is dominant "in the last instance" is attacked mainly on dogmatic, metaphysical grounds (eg. NRRT 115). Capitalist attempts to establish the economy as the primary aspect of social relations are not considered. cf. the idea that a force such as cops may try to control an area 'in the last instance' but will, once in control, allow it to operate autonomously (but they will try to dominate if this autonomy exceeds certain limits).

Faced with critics such as Geras, L. always falls back on the idea that Marxists cannot see (or "deny") the contingency of the social. Yet this contingency does not seem to necessitate Laclau's politics. In fact, L's concept of "articulation" leaves space for Marxism or any other discourse to emerge as primary.

Critique of labour-power as commodity (HSS 78): this is very weak. Basically, their argument is that labour-power cannot be made into a commodity because it needs preparing for use. Yet this also applies to other "commodities". Food, DIY furniture, land, machinery, etc. often needs assembling before it is used. On one level L&M are right: the commodity form has to be imposed on labour-power if it is to operate at all (hence "real subsumption"). This is also true of all "commodities": capitalism imposes the commodity-form on objects and people. For instance: land is only a commodity when its commodity status is imposed (usually with truncheons): if peasants occupy land and prevent its being used in the process of capital accumulation, it ceases to be a commodity. Of course, all this is already present in Marx, so it is hardly a "critique" when L&M say it.

L&M try to label Geras's Marxism as religious (NRRT 119). But they are missing the point about how ideological alignments form. In fact, most movements are "religious" by their standards, because an imaginary or symbolic discourse operates as a focal-point; whereas in their own discourse, the focal point is antagonism and/or the present. I don't think they understand the siege mentality that can come from belonging to an oppositional current, as a result of which their account of the history of Marxism is flawed.

A final note: Laclau denies having rejected Marxism. Rather, he claims that Marxism itself broke up (NRRT 201). It seems his opponents are not the only ones "in denial".


L&M only give hints at what kind of politics they support, beyond the overarching assumptions that it must be in some sense "radical", roughly left-of-centre, pro-liberal-democracy and NOT revolutionary. Their core demand in their intellectual project seems to be the demand for "recognition" of "antagonism", not for any particular political agenda.

Where they do specify politics, what emerges is a badly-thought-out variant of soft-left or rightist social-democracy, updated to include fashionable references to NSM's, the E.U. etc. For instance:

* a non-neo-liberal regulaton of capitalism involving redistribution (RP 122)

* 'an alliance with important sectors of the middle classes' (RP 121)

* M's line on work is conservative. Firstly, she treats unemployment as a simple fact, rather than as a political outcome. She therefore defines unemployment as necessary, full employment as impossible, and (ironically given this) still defines work as socially necessary (DP 125-6). Therefore, she problematises neither the capitalist idea of work nor the present situation where people are expected to work but work is simply not available. She does, however, adopt a moderate reformist programme derived from a book by Guy Aznar, Alain Caill‚ and others, which calls for reductions in work, a basic minimum income and encouragement of activity by associations (DP 126). While clearly progressive in its broad outlines, this programme is mentioned briefly, not properly argued for, and not accounted for in terms of how capitalism could be forced to deliver even such moderate changes. After all, the present trend is towards expanding the work-ethic even while there is less and less work. It is also clear that the resulting society would be very much like the present: the state would remain very strong and would deliver Mouffe's desired reforms, and the "market" economy would remain in existence. (Suppose a "radical democrat" party was formed, and that it broke through the transformist party system, media prejudice and "common sense" to take power in elections; the likely outcome would be a capital strike, and the party would either have to radicalise further or give up its transformative agenda). It is also unclear why M. does not put more emphasis on self-assertion by the autonomous "associational" sector, if this is to be the driving force for her new society. This would perhaps be a more effective way of challenging the state and capital's monopolies on power.

* Mouffe's strategy re unemployment would be a 'post-social-democratic answer' pursued through the agency of an 'integrated Europe' (DP 127). (How would the problems of the rest of the world be dealt with? M. never mentions imperialism, etc.).

* M. wants to build a particular kind of unity, which includes anti-racism, anti-sexism and anti-capitalism (RP 18).

* Laclau's demands re economics are: a mixed economy with private and public ownership; no concentration of economic power; institutional mechanisms to ensure everyone a say in economic decisions (NRRT 239). This is contradictory: how is "everyone" to "have a say" in sectors of the economy which remain private, and how is a centralised set of institutional mechanisms to avoid concentrating power?

This is a weakly-defined mish-mash of elements derived from a variety of sources and cobbled together into something which is not historically organic and has no hope of becoming so. It is hard to see where L&M see the energies and social forces coming from, which could initiate the politics they want. Rather, one seems to have a wish-list of particular themes with no particular link to each other except that they all offer a meek "radicalism" without passing over into a revolutionary project.

NB also how "the enemy" remains operative even in radical dem.: 'those who do not accept the democratic "rules of the game" and who thereby exclude themselves [sic!!!!] from the political community' are still "enemies" not "adversaries" (RP 4).


Laclau claims to be 'Deconstructing law' in the same way as Derrida (see E 74). This seems to mean an endorsement of Wittgenstein's claim that every use of a rule modifies it, and that in each case 'the rule is in fact a different one, in spite of its "family resemblances" ' (NRRT 208-9). However, this doesn't stop him supporting legislative institutions such as parliament. In Mouffe, one can even find a demand for a rule of law (RP 98), something clearly impossible on such a Wittgensteinian reading.


L&M's philosophy affects their politics in many places and in diverse ways. For instance:

* Their politics is very much an emotional one, not based on rational persuasion. The transformation of enemies into adversaries, says Mouffe, 'is more a sort of conversion than a process of radical persuasion' (DP 102); further, the main aim of her politics is a 'passionate commitment' (DP 97) or deep-rooted libidinal investment. (Of course, such passionate commitments are very unlikely given that L&M's politics is based on a cynical distance which effaces such commitment, and given that they have an "arbitary ideology" and a badly-conceived political agenda).

* Laclau directly identifies pragmatic conceptions of truth with democracy (NRRT 196). This idealisation of common sense is an effect of his broader commitment to pragmatism.

Three problems with L&M's politics can be added, which result from their underlying philosophy:

* If there is no way of establishing general topographic categories, as they claim (HSS 180), how can one tell a democratic, radical, etc. politics from any other kind?

* L&M clearly wish to draw political "capital" from their claim to be "radical", but this claim is more theoretical than political: it means digging deep in terms of theory (see esp. NRRT 28-9).

* Their reliance on history is undermined by their relativism. For L. 'there is not an in-itself of history' (NRRT 122). So how does one know what the present conjuncture demands or offers? Yet such knowledge is necessary for Laclau's method.


* It is worth noting that, despite their nominal commitment to anti-racist etc. positions, L&M state that racism, sexism and class inequality always threaten equality (NRRT 125), suggesting that they see these phenomena as ineliminable.

* L. misunderstands totalitarianism as hegemonic (NRRT 238).



* Mouffe's main objection to Rawls is that he presents a 'political decision' to exclude as a 'moral exigency' (DP 24). She endorses Rawls's view 'that there cannot be pluralism as far as the political association are concerned', so some conceptions 'are to be excluded. I have no quarrel with him on this point' (25). Anything else would undermine the state. Her only objection is that he calls his exclusion "moral" when he should call it "political": 'to be properly formulated, such a thesis calls for a theoretical framework that asserts that the political is always constitutive' (25). Again: she denounces Rawls for making a concealed decision - though not for the decision itself which she sees as necessary. It is just that it 'must be envisaged as a form of political intervention in a conflictual field, an intervention that implies the repression of other alternatives' (RP 152). This is a very moderate critique which endorses the worst of Rawls and asks only for a change in terminology. She exposes the concealment, but then endorses the violence it conceals.

* Hence, she also uses her standard line on Rawls: he is 'unable to recognize the nature of the political', he can't deal with 'conflict, antagonism, relations of power' and he evades 'the question of sovereignty', 'the need for a superior level of political decision-making'. She attacks his belief in 'a rational solution to the question of justice' as a 'rationalist denial of the political' (RP 113).

* M. strangely - and wrongly - assumes that Rawls's model requires that pluralism eventually be superseded and disintegrate (DP 32) - in fact, Rawls assumes "reasonable pluralism" to be a "general fact" which can never be changed.

* M. thinks that, by insisting on constitutive lack, she - unlike Rawls - can 'provide a convincing argument for justifying the frontiers of his pluralism' (DP 26).

There is another difference between Rawls and Mouffe which she doesn't mention: his primary goal of systematisation aims for a degree of completion which Mouffe does not; her own preference for change and conflict is at odds with his belief in a more fixed form of closure. Nevertheless, they share more than they disagree about, i.e. they share a commitment to the state and to a centralising violence used to construct a unitary political order.

Mouffe also denounces liberalism more broadly for an 'incapacity to conceptualise' a frontier of exclusion (DP 43).


Mouffe is sometimes quite vicious in her criticism of the Third Way; on one occasion she terms it a 'disease' and a 'virus' (RP 113), clearly a language of enmity rather than adversarity. However, her basic criticism of it is... surprise surprise, that it obliterates power and refuses to accept the fact of constitutive antagonism (DP 110-11).


Laclau criticises Derrida because he wishes to deny the idea that an ethics of openness to the other can be derived from constitutive openness; indeed, he denies that any specific injunction can be derived from this (E 77-8). His problem is probably that there is a lack of a "need" for a master-signifier in Derrida's work.



Myth is necessary, says Laclau: the mere fact that something appears as an embodiment of fullness can be enough to ensure its acceptance because it is 'the discourse of an order', i.e. 'a credible alternative to a crisis and a generalised dislocation' (NRRT 66). eg. Nazism. But not everyone accepted Nazism (eg. Jews). Only an order which meets prior unconditional demands can be accepted by a group; populist ideologies such as Nazism are actually very sneaky in terms of pretending to be identical to people's existing "common sense".


According to Laclau, politics is 'constitutive of the social link' (E 69)

Lacanian pragmatism mainly serves to perform a role of removing barriers to government action - for instance, Zizek's "why not?" regarding structural adjustment.


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