Ernesto Laclau, theorist of hegemony
Ernesto Laclau's passing away has caused a great stir in the international Left. It has lost one of its most insightful political thinkers. We publish here Íñigo Errejón's tribute to Laclau, a very timely reminder of the urgent actuality of Laclau's life-long reflections on hegemony, left-wing strategies, and the knotty question of populism.
Although I had a few of his books on the shelves of my childhood home, it was not until the last year of my degree that I read Ernesto Laclau, together with his personal and intellectual compañera Chantal Mouffe, for a 2005-6 seminar by Professor Javier Franzé. I remember how dense and complex the fragment of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy struck me as, and I would later return to it pencil in hand. But certainly already it shook up some of my certainties and opened up a field of intellectual curiosity to which I would subsequently devote myself. Some time later, passing through Buenos Aires after a year of living and researching in Bolivia, I bought On Populist Reason, as I was already obsessed with understanding the national-popular in Latin America and passionate about working through some of its ambivalences. This was in 2009. In May 2011, three days after the 15 May protests, I defended my doctoral thesis at the Universidad Complutense, its title being ‘The MAS’s struggle for hegemony in Bolivia (2006-2009): a discursive analysis’. The work of Ernesto Laclau (to repeat: and also Chantal Mouffe) and their neo-Gramscian school of thought played a central theoretical role in my thesis.
A few days ago, introducing an event with the Bolivian vice-president Álvaro García Linera – without doubt the other great mind of Latin America’s era of change – I thought that ‘it’s not easy, presenting someone so much of whose works I have read’. Now I realise that it is even less easy to write the obituary of someone whom I have studied so much, but without having known him.
On Sunday the Argentinian political theorist Ernesto Laclau (1935-2014) died in Seville. He had studied his doctorate at Oxford under Eric Hobsbawm and was lately emeritus professor of Political Science at the University of Essex, where he founded a theoretical school dedicated to analysis of discourse and ideology as practices that contributed to the formation of subjects. Laclau leaves us an oeuvre that represents perhaps the most important among all theoretical developments of Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony.
Ernesto Laclau’s intellectual trajectory constantly crossed disciplinary boundaries (history, philosophy, political science) and rejected the conservative prejudice that there is an incompatibility between scientific rigour and political commitment: in each step he took in his career, his seriousness as an academic was inseparable from his curiosity for and intellectual involvement in the disputes of his time and their possible emancipatory consequences. Laclau’s writing style was meticulous and systematic – but also lively, polemical and convincing.
Passing in his youth from the Partido Socialista youth to the Izquierda Nacional led by Abelardo Ramos, on the basis of a Marxism in dialogue with the popular phenomenon of Peronism (as he put it, ‘Peronism made me understand Gramsci’), the central body of Laclau’s work was oriented toward thinking through the concept of hegemony. He did so through an open discussion with Gramsci based on an original, non-canonical – almost heretical – development of his concepts and the incomplete paths indicated in his works. At the centre of Laclau’s thought were the questions of how the capacity to create consent and legitimacy functioned, and, in particular, how and under what conditions the people at the bottom could overturn their subordination and form a historic bloc directing and organising the political community.
Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985) was the principle work by Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, a book that founded a whole theoretical outlook. In this book, they proposed an understanding of politics as a battle for meaning, in which discourse is not that which is said – true or false, revealing or obfuscatory – about positions that already exist and have been constituted in other spheres (the social, the economic, etc.) but rather a practice of articulation that constructs one or another position, one or another meaning, on the basis of ‘facts’ that can take on very different significance according to how they are selected, grouped together, and, above all, counterposed.
That meaning is not a given, but rather is dependent on clashes and balances, is the basis of democracy and not a threat, as is claimed by the conservative thinking that intends to reduce politics to the management of that which has already been decided somewhere else. In this outlook, politics is neither akin to a boxing match (a mere clash or the arbitration between existing actors) nor a game of chess (alliances, movements and tactics using already-given pieces) but a continual ‘war of position’ – with episodes of movement, but also, of course, the balances of force frozen in institutions – in order to constitute the sides (the identities), the terms, and the battleground itself. To speak of the fragmentation of possible identities and their contingency is not to celebrate particularisms nor the conservative myth of the end of antagonism; rather, it means awareness of the irreplaceable need for politics for the purposes of articulating and generating imaginaries that can unite and mobilise people.
This power is hegemony: the capacity of a group to present its particular agenda as incarnating the general interest (a particular that builds a universal around itself), a contingent relation that is always incomplete, contested and temporary. It is not only a question of leadership nor a mere alliance of forces, but rather the construction of a new meaning that is more than the sum of its parts. The hegemonic force produces a moral, cultural and symbolic order within whose terms and on which terrain the subaltern layers and even its opponents must operate, this now having become the common sense that cannot be challenged except from a position of absolute exteriority condemned to irrelevance.
‘Floating signifiers’ play an important role in this model, similar to that of the high ridges from which one can dominate a battlefield. They are the symbols or names that bear legitimacy but are not anchored in a determinate meaning, and as such can serve as catalysts or standard for the joining-together of fragmented groups and neglected demands that become a political ‘us’ with a will to power – which always requires the definition of a ‘them’ who are held responsible for whatever problems exist. This is not a descriptive operation, but rather the generation of meaning.
However, it was without doubt with regard to the ‘maligned’ concept of populism that Laclau acquired his greatest media and political impact. In On Populist Reason he analysed the elitist and substantially anti-democratic premises that stood behind the identification of ‘the people’ with ‘the base passions’ that can be ‘excited by demagogues’, and postulated that the threat to contemporary democracy did not come from its plebeian over-use but rather from its oligarchic restriction by minorities who are free of popular control. Continuing in this vein, he proposed a conceptualisation of populism radically different from its vague, pejorative media usage. He understood this word not as a specific ideological content but rather as a form of articulating popular identities – typical in moments of crisis, institutions’ loss of capacity to absorb pressure, and discontent and the dislocation of previously-existing loyalties – by way of the dichotomisation of the political space setting a ‘plebs’ that asserts itself as the only legitimate ‘populus’ in opposition to symbolically-grouped elites. A new border is thus drawn across the political battlefield, depicting a new ‘them’ in opposition to which a popular identity is produced that casts aside the metaphors that previously divided the people. In each case, the ideological significance of the populism depends on the nature and the management of this border.
This conceptualisation of populism made Laclau’s categories a crucial reference point for understanding the experiences of political change, the formation of national-popular governments and state reforms in Latin America in the early twenty-first century. But at the same time, it was also the cause of this ‘late Laclau’ being ignored or facing hostility in Spain, despite his intellectual influence and academic recognition in Latin America and elsewhere in Europe. It should be remembered that the Latin-American experiences expanding democracy and social inclusion faced both the hostility of conservative thinking and incomprehension among the majority of the Left, for whom populism is a falsification of – or more or less harmful distraction from – already-established certainties.
As Marco d’Eramo also had to remind us in his article ‘Populism and the New Oligarchy’ (New Left Review II/82), in Europe we are passing through a significant moment where just as the oligarchic offensive is on the march, with the impoverishment of the people and elite disdain for iteven as an instance of legitimation, so too increase the accusations of ‘populism’ against any display of discontent or demand that the many ought to play a role in public affairs. A Latin-Americanisation of southern European politics, drawing closer to its discussions and for the first time setting its compass to the South – not to copy, but to translate its experience – can reformulate and draw on that continent’s arsenal of concepts and examples. That is, a Latin-Americanisation that takes place from above but also from below. It is no secret to anyone that no recent political initiative in Spain would be possible without intellectual cross-pollination, learning from the living processes of change in Latin America, and an understanding of the role of discourse, common sense and hegemony – which clearly owes to the work of Laclau, among others.
Ernesto Laclau died when he was most needed, at a moment of uncertainty and the opening up of cracks allowing for unprecedented possibilities. He was needed in order to think through the challenges of the sedimentation of the plebeian and democratic irruption in the states of Latin America, and, in Southern Europe, to face the challenge of how to convert the majority’s discontent and suffering into new popular hegemonies. He leaves us to face this task ourselves – not alone, however, but with living categories and an open, rich seam of audacious, radical thinking that we must study, translate and take beyond its boundaries, just as he did with the ideas of Antonio Gramsci, finding unsuspected allies, unknown gaps and unforeseen potentials. He, together with many others, has sown seeds enriching the intellectual and political wealth of a Latin America that has expanded the horizon of the possible and showed us that politics can mean creation, tension and opening – and also an everyday, plebeian art-form. A Latin America that shows that sometimes, with more audacity and creation than essential truths, with more research than dogmas, with more insolence than guarantees and manuals – sì, se puede.
Doctor and researcher in Political Science at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, and director of strategy and communication for Podemos.
You can find the original version of the obituary here.