Against populist reason: Ernesto Laclau’s blind alleys


Marked by the political experience of his home country, Argentina, and his involvement in a socialist current of the Peronist movement, Laclau emerged on the intellectual scene as a Marxist in the line of Althusser and Poulantzas, placing the question of ideology at the centre of understanding the specificity of political phenomena.[1] In the 1980s, he began his ‘post-Marxist’ theoretical aggiornamento, conducted jointly with Chantal Mouffe, as a contribution to ‘socialist strategy’ – even if, as we shall come back to at length, socialism appears at best reduced to the status of a sheer component of the ‘radical democracy’ project. This positioning seemed all the more innovative in that it deployed a dense terminology that Gramsci would have described as ‘subversivist’, saturated with terms such as ‘antagonisms’, ‘equivalential chains’, ‘contingent articulations’ and other ‘subjective positions’ that display an ostentatious ‘radicality’. The meaning of this radicality, however, appears, from the outset, profoundly different from what the various variants of ‘socialist strategy’ attributed to it, namely a break with capitalism. Across the chapters of the book, the theoretical foundation that underpins this tradition, i.e. Marxism, is demolished in order to demonstrate its fundamental deficiency, a deficiency that all thinkers and leaders who have subscribed to it are supposed to have shared, despite the diversity of their approaches. Put succinctly, the deficiency comes down to this: as a project, movement and political theory, Marxism rests on the presupposition of a unified social-historical subject: the working class charged with a revolutionary mission. The unity of the subject in question is in turn based on a deterministic vision of social relations, according to which the centrality of class struggle (and class consciousness) is guaranteed by an ‘ultimate determination by the economy’, the founding hypothesis of historical materialism. From this determination, Marxism deduced as a necessary consequence the existence of a subject endowed with a class consciousness aimed at putting an end to capitalism. In a word, Marxism is guilty of ‘essentialism’, the cardinal term of the post-Marxist critique of Marxism, and thus ever less able to understand contemporary forms of subjectivation and political conjunctures. To put it another way, this ‘essentialism’ is simply an attempt, as illusory from an analytical perspective as it is vain in practical terms, to make up for the indeterminacy of the social and the decentring of forms of subjectivation. “Postmarxism”, on the contrary, emphasizes the constitutive role of discursive articulations, radically external to the social and alone capable of overcoming, in a partial, contingent and temporary way, its inherent fragmentation, thus giving rise to singular forms of subjectivation. In this way, the post-Marxist approach makes intelligible the irreducible plurality of political subjects which have succeeded the defunct centrality of the working class, namely the ‘new social movements’ (feminism, ecology, minority movements), while contributing positively to their emergence. What is therefore to be clarified is the horizon which emerges for these movements within the theoretical framework thus defined. What, in other words, is the precise content of a ‘radical democracy’ that intends to integrate the perspective of socialism but equally to go beyond it? More generally, how should we thematize the relationship between a socialism constitutively devoid of unity and this external discursive interpellation, which seems to concentrate within it the political energies of what we are no longer really entitled to call the social totality?

Overthrowing capitalism: between meaninglessness and totalitarian temptation

The publication of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy triggered strong polemics, focusing both on the discursive character of its ‘social ontology’ and on its abandonment of class politics in favour of the ‘new social movements’. Some even saw this as the logical culmination of the refoundation of Marxism undertaken in France under the impulse of Althusser, and continued in Poulantzas’s work on social classes. Others focused on the conceptual ‘extravagance’ of post-Marxism, i.e. its thoroughgoing constructivism, on the basis of a reasonable reminder of the Marxist theses on the determining role of the economy or the centrality of class conflict. The task is then to exonerate these latter from the reproaches of reductionism and remove them from the blackmail of ‘all or nothing’ (complete determinism or absolute contingency, massive ‘essentialist’ continuity or the fluid singularity of hegemonic constructions etc.) to which Laclau and Mouffe subject them.[2] With hindsight, it can be said that these debates illustrate more the decline in theoretical and political energies characteristic of the 1980s than a confrontation remotely comparable with that provoked by the ‘revisionism’ of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The decline of the workers’ movement and the rise of the ‘new social movements’ developing along axes distinct from, or even at odds with, the class struggle, seemed, in any case, to confirm the validity of the post-Marxist turn. The debate thus rapidly shifted onto the terrain defined by Laclau and Mouffe, a purely intellectual dispute on the meaning of ‘radical democracy’ announced by their programmatic work, devoid of any strategic thinking on the issues faced by the Left confronted with the neoliberal counter-revolution.

From the 1990s onwards, Laclau reoriented his argument to go beyond what were perceived as the limits of his earlier approach. The critique of classist ‘essentialism’ appeared in fact as a typically postmodern adherence to the fragmentation of forms of subjectivation resulting from the explosion of particularisms at work in the dominant social logics. The emphasis thus shifted to the modes of construction of a new subject of politics, free of any essentialist presupposition but still bearing a unifying project capable of taking over from the workers’ movement. In these broad lines, this new articulation of the universal and the particular rested on the deployment of an “hegemonic logic” as a means of access to a universal defined as an ‘empty space’, or an ‘empty signifier’. ”Emptiness” here doesn’t nothingness or absence of meaning but lack of a predetermined ‘content’, a lack which a particular tries to fill without ever succeeding.[3] This necessary but impossible attempt is precisely what prevents any ‘closure’ of the perspective of universalization in an ‘essentialist’ sense, after the model of the proletariat as incarnation of the revolutionary class. Recognition of the finitude of the subject of politics also implies rejecting the double postulate of the idea of “emancipation”, understood here in the broad sense that encompasses both the Enlightenment and the socialist tradition that emerged from it: a dichotomous break between a ‘before’ and an ‘after’ separated by a ‘completely revolutionary founding act’ of society, an act necessary for the advent of a future ‘fully transparent’ society that would eliminate conflict and ‘radical otherness’ more generally. The first postulate is refuted in the name of the antinomy between, on the one hand, the requisite ‘radicality’ of this break, which presupposes the existence of a common ‘ground’ before and after the revolution on which the ‘radical’ transformation in question takes place, and on the other, that of the ‘chiasmus’, the discontinuity that separates these two moments and makes them incommensurable.[4] We find here the binary ‘either-or’ of post-structuralist logic – or, in other terms, its radical dismissal of dialectical thinking: the subject either is the essentialized, stable and mythological ‘fullness’ of the ‘classist conception’ or the purely contingent and singular singularity of a temporary ‘subject position’. The notion of emancipation is self-contradictory because it involves both some level of continuity, and hence commensurability, and its negation, i.e. discontinuity, or a leap separating two moments and making the second irreducible to the first.

Laclau rejects the second postulate, the (alleged) vision of an emancipated as one of pure harmony and transparency on the basis of the need to maintain ‘the very impossibility of the elimination of radical otherness’ advocated by the great narrative of emancipatory salvation. Instead, the radical democratic politics defend the ‘partial and precarious dichotomies constitutive of the social fabric’ of which the ‘new social movements’ are the bearers.[5] It is therefore a question of accepting the ‘plural and fragmented nature of contemporary societies’ and of inscribing this, through the implementation of the logic of universalization outlined above, in a space of equivalence which ‘makes possible the construction of new public spheres’.[6]

It was not until the end of the 1990s and the emergence of increasingly assertive differentiations between thinkers initially grouped, rightly or wrongly, within ‘post-Marxism’ and/or ‘post-structuralism’, that a real debate on these theses could take place. The exchanges between Laclau, Žižek and Butler at the end of the 1990s signal a turning point in this direction.[7] Their often polemical dimension reveals lines of confrontation whose stakes went beyond purely speculative discussions on the “ontology of the social”. Perhaps for the first time after the intra-Marxist polemics of the 1980s, the meaning of a challenge to capitalism was being questioned. The terms of the debate were, again, posed by Laclau: talk of a break with capitalism is merely a signifier devoid of any real referent, and to reason in this way simply a residue of the ‘classist-essentialist’ vision of the social world. The ‘crucial question’, according to him, should be formulated as follows: ‘To what extent is the system systematic?’[8] Again, as before, two antinomic solutions arise: either, on the one hand, belief in ‘endogenous laws of development’ supposedly guaranteeing the ‘destruction of the system’, through its internal collapse or as a result of the no less mythical revolutionary mission of the proletariat; or, on the other hand, an understanding of the systematic dimension as a ‘hegemonic construction’, a fundamentally contingent effect of discursive devices. Posed in these terms, the answer cannot of course be doubted. Who today would still dare to defend a mixture of naive economic determinism and messianic belief in the mission of the proletariat (in any case perfectly incoherent) in the face of the attractions of ‘openness’, ‘contingency’ and ‘plurality of subjective positions’? As a result, Laclau continues, the distinction made by Žižek between ‘struggles within the system’ and ‘struggles to change the system’ is irrelevant: ‘assertions like this mean nothing ... his [Žižek’s] anti-capitalism is mere empty talk... [His] injunctions to overthrow capitalism or to abolish liberal democracy… have no meaning at all’.[9] The idea of questioning both capitalist economics and liberal democracy arouses in the Argentinian theorist a real burst of anger. Žižek is reproached for wanting to return to the ‘communist bureaucratic regimes of Eastern Europe under which he lived’, and thus betraying his own past as a dissident in Tito’s Yugoslavia.

Setting aside these polemical formulations, what are the deeper reasons that lead to this conclusion? Laclau, as we have seen, rejects on principle the ‘dichotomous’ idea of a revolutionary break and the vision of an emancipated society that would overcome the ‘ambiguity inherent in all antagonistic relations’. Denouncing any idea of ‘enclosure’, he defends the persistence of an ‘antagonistic relationship’, which serves ‘to bring both sides into play [in order to] produce results by preventing one of them from winning exclusively’.[10] Social change must now be thought of as ‘shifting the relationships between the elements – some internal and some external to what the system has been’. How should these convoluted formulations be interpreted? The rest of his statement makes it clearer: ‘Questions such as the following may be asked: How is it possible to maintain a market economy which is compatible with a high degree of social control of the productive process? What restructuration of the liberal democratic institutions is necessary so that democratic control becomes effective, and does not degenerate into regulation by an all-powerful bureaucracy? How should democratization be conceived so that it makes possible global political effects which are, however, compatible with the social and cultural pluralism existing in a given society?’[11]

Even more than the necessary maintenance of the ‘market economy’, the usual euphemism for capitalism, of which ‘liberal democratic institutions’ are presented as the inseparable complement and (with some ‘restructuring’) the only possible modality of democracy at all, it is probably the last question that is most revealing of the content of Laclau’s intellectual project. ‘Radical democracy’ is in fact conceived as a process of extension and generalization of liberal-democratic logic to a growing number of socio-political spaces. But beware: this ‘radicalization’ must not cross certain limits, precisely those which, in Laclau’s terms, condition ‘social and cultural pluralism in a given society’, that is to say, in good liberal logic, the market economy and private property.

Already in their 1985 work, Laclau and Mouffe postulated a constitutive tension between equality and freedom, stressing the need to ‘balance’ the former by the latter, in order to guarantee the ‘plural’ character of democracy.[12] This led them to the position, familiar since the diatribes launched by Edmund Burke and liberal thinkers against the French Revolution, according to which the ‘logic of totalitarianism’ is inherent in ‘any attempt at radical democracy’, insofar as its expansive logic pushes it to ‘institute a centre that radically eliminates the logic of autonomy and reconstitutes around it the entire social body’.[13]

If socialism is indeed in line with the radicalization of the democratic project borne by the French Revolution, in particular by its Jacobin wing, its supposed failure can only lead to the demand for a self-limitation of democracy. In the eyes of Laclau and Mouffe, echoing François Furet, ‘Jacobin totalitarianism’ remains the risk inherent in any democratic process, a risk from which the constitution of a ‘common public sphere’ is supposed to protect us.[14] ‘Radical’ democracy therefore, ma non troppo...

Once the totalitarian logic of Jacobinism and its Marxist heir has been overcome, the ‘main political question’ becomes that of a choice between the ‘proliferation of particularisms’ (or their ‘authoritarian unification’, which is only the other side of this) and the ‘new emancipatory projects which are compatible with the complex multiplicity of differences shaping the fabric of present-day societies’.[15] This insistence on the ‘compatibility’ of desirable social change with the structures of existing social relations, referred to by the euphemisms typical of liberalism as ‘pluralism of interests’, is highly symptomatic. The ‘totalizing’ accents of the new problematic, which selectively integrates elements of the classical dialectic of the particular and the universal, do not alter the overall orientation: what is always at issue is to preserve as an asset the ‘complexification of the social’[16] that characterizes the current social order. This is all the more true given that the plasticity attributed to this order is almost unlimited, allowing for a continuous deployment of the ‘always precarious and reversible’ hegemonic process that constitutes ‘the starting point of modern democracy’.[17] In other words, everything happens as if, precisely because of this ‘heterogeneity of the social order’, no structural obstacle limits the opening to permanent challenge of any fixed ‘content’ that is supposed to characterize ‘democratic society’.

It could even be said that Laclau goes still further in taking up the ‘anti-totalitarian’ theme than in his earlier theses. In the 1980s the question was, in good liberal logic, to counterbalance and contain the logic of egalitarianism by that of ‘freedom’. In the conclusion of an essay initially published in 1992, he called for a departure from the totalitarian, dichotomous and eschatological notion of ‘emancipation’ in favour of that of ‘freedom’.[18] Now, however, it was the logic of freedom itself that must be self-limiting so as not to hinder ‘pluralism’: ‘the complete realization of freedom would be tantamount to the death of freedom, for any possibility of dissent would have been eliminated from its bosom’. The conclusion remains fundamentally the same: ‘Social division, antagonism and its necessary consequence – power – are the true conditions of a freedom which does not eliminate particularity’.[19] This is why Laclau states that ‘Though my preference is for a liberal-democratic-socialist society, it is clear to me that if I am forced under given circumstances to choose one out of the three, my preference will always be for democracy’.[20] A democracy which, as we have seen, is posed as inseparable from the ‘competition between groups’ and ‘pluralism of interests’ inherent in the ‘market economy’. Subordinating equality to freedom, and socialism to democracy, is therefore the basis of the argument that sees the relationship between these terms as inescapably antinomic. The ‘new political imagination’ of this ‘radical democracy’, constantly called upon to limit itself, is therefore entirely internal to that of liberalism. We are here, it must be stressed, at the opposite pole from the continuous attempts of heterodox Marxism to rethink the immanent relationship between socialism and democracy, whether that of the late Lukács in ‘The Present and Future of Democratization’,[21] which redefined the socialist project as a democratization of everyday life attacking the very core of the relations of production, or of the late Poulantzas,[22] as whose successor Laclau initially saw himself, who dissected the ‘authoritarian statism’ impelled by ascendant neoliberalism and posited socialism as the only possible future for the democratic gains seized by the lower classes through struggle.

‘Populist reason’, or hegemony as empty formalism

The reformulation of Laclau’s project in terms of ‘populist reason’[23] can be understood as a deepening of his research on the conditions of access to the non-substantial universality of the subjects of politics. Compared with the post-Marxist manifesto of 1985, the change in tone here is more pronounced. At the centre of discussion is now the rationality of politics as the construction of unifying subjects, now named as ‘the people’ , or, rather, of configurations of ‘the people’ that are always singular, constructed in the contingency of conjunctures. To put it another way, ‘populism’ as defined by Laclau is neither a specific regime nor a particular political movement, whether or not it claims this name for itself. Populism does not refer to any predetermined social or political content, it is the very movement of constitution of politics: an empty form that a plurality of ‘contents’ seeks to fill and occupy by a hegemonic construction, without ever exhausting it. Contrary to what its detractors assert when they reduce it to an emotional relation between masses and leaders, this form is rational, it even reveals the profound rationality of modern politics. At its heart lies a process of universalization set in motion by the irrepressible excess of particular ‘democratic demands’ on any given socio-political system, arising from the very heterogeneity of a differentiated society. This excess in turn reveals the irreducible impossibility for a totality to satisfy all the demands addressed to it: at least one of these will meet with a refusal. This opens up the possibility of an ‘equivalential chain’ that allows this particular demand to resonate with others, and to break with the ‘differential logic’ that consists in treating and satisfying each demand taken separately in a serial mode.

The ‘people’ is constituted in this metonymic logic, where the part becomes the name of the whole. This nomination thus becomes the constituent act of politics, attesting to its fundamentally discursive character. But the tension between the logic of difference and that of equivalence remains irreducible: nothing can (or should?) eliminate ‘difference’, singularity. The ‘people’ remains an incomplete totality, arising from the impossibility of ‘closing’ the constitutive heterogeneity of the social by some sort of social engineering – or, we should add, from the historic failure to abolish it in a ‘totalitarian’ way. It is a construction governed by (guess what?) contingency and incompleteness. The immanent logic of this empty form of politics is nothing other than ‘hegemony’, which here receives maximum extension and becomes coextensive with political rationality, or, which amounts to the same thing, with ‘populist reason’.

Let us dwell for a moment on the act of nomination, the founding act, which erects the ‘people’ as the subject of politics. It cannot, according to Laclau, be deduced from a conceptual operation (one of knowledge), since that would be tantamount to presupposing the a priori unity of this subject, a unity directly derived from the immanence of social functioning, hence an ‘essentialism’. In other terms, any knowledge of ‘the social”, such as provided, for instance, by the theory of the modes of production or by critical sociology, is irrelevant as far as the logic of politics is concerned. This logic relies entirely on an act (of nomination) that is at the same time integrally constitutive and radically contingent: the ‘heterogeneity’ of the social means that the demand around which the equivalential chain is likely to be woven can emerge at a multiplicity of places (‘points of antagonism’), without any pre-established hierarchy or privileged position: depending on the situation, it can be a workers’ struggle, a national or ‘societal’ demand, anti-racism, ecology or an attitude to armed conflict. To put it another way, the nodal point is itself a stake in the hegemonic struggle, in a discourse which constitutes it ‘ontologically’, and not the derivative or expression of a pre-existing logic of unification, a determined ‘ontic’ content, especially not a supposed ‘determination in the last instance by the economy’.

‘Populism’, understood as the generic process of constitution of the subject-people of politics, thus has a triple dimension:

-- the unification of a plurality of demands into an equivalential chain, which makes particularity the very name of the incomplete totality, without however cancelling out its particularism, thus preventing any definitive or substantial determination fixation of this unified identity. To put it another way, particularities are not suppressed in an indistinct unit but articulated in a chain which is itself the product of a contingent struggle;

-- the drawing of a demarcation line separating two camps, the ‘people’ and their ‘adversary’, it being understood that, here again, this line is not immutable, depending as much on the modality by which popular hegemony is established, and the principle of exclusion that flows from it, as on the capacity of the system to integrate the demands addressed to it by dissociating them from the chain in which they are articulated;

-- the consolidation of the equivalential chain in an identity that is at once a rupture, the emergence of a new singularity through the act of nomination, and the advent of a new arrangement. The hegemonic dynamic borne out of this act of subjectivation responds to a systemic dislocation and inscribes the plurality of demands in the same discursive and symbolic surface. This consolidation is supposed to go beyond the pseudo-dilemma between gradual change (‘reform’) and revolution in the direction of a fundamental but strictly transcendental-formal requirement irreducible to a determined content: that of a choice in favour of an order, a ‘discursive/institutional ensemble which ensures its long-term survival’.[24]

We can certainly recognize in the ‘populist reason’ of the late Laclau a general phenomenology of the political constitution of group identities, which come to the forefront of the historical scene according to conjunctures. But the assumed descriptive and formal character of this approach raises a fundamental question: that of its critical status, that is to say its capacity to orient any given choice. Rejecting the Hegelian-dialectical category of ‘determinate negation’,[25] Laclau explicitly proposes a ‘transcendental’ framework, deducible a priori, i.e. independently of any concrete, empirically given, content, of the form of political logic as such. Self-referential, the discursive construction of hegemony thus becomes the constitutive instance of any political movement, regardless of its orientation. And, even if most of the ‘populisms’ he analyses, from the American reformers of the late nineteenth century to the Italian Communism of Togliatti’s time, and from the Long March of Mao’s troops to the Peronism of his country of origin, are rather ‘left-wing’, the fact remains that they are situated on the same continuum as fascisms or authoritarian and xenophobic movements: they belong, in the strict sense, to the same typology.[26] More precisely, the particular demand that articulates an equivalential chain may as well be anti-Semitism, white supremacism or islamophobia as a demand for an end to racial discrimination, colonial expansionism as much as national liberation, the authoritarian populism of Thatcher and her emulators as much as the demand for an expansion of social rights. The only safeguard is that of a distance from ‘the social’, whose ‘openness’ and ‘indeterminacy’ must be negatively (in the sense of liberalism’s negative freedom) preserved: to remain compatible with democracy, the hegemonic logic must be self-limiting in order to curb any desire to ‘suture the social’, which can only lead to totalitarianism.

Beyond this negative and typically liberal delimitation of democracy, what does the contribution of the hegemonic process amount to? It rests in fact on the construction of a cleavage between ‘popular subject’ and ‘enemy’, which, unfortunately but also inevitably, makes it prone to be contaminated by considerations of ‘content’, always susceptible to totalitarian, i.e. fascist or communist, outbursts. According to Laclau, the ‘democratic demand’ leading to an equivalential chain is qualified as such in a ‘strictly descriptive’, i.e. formal way, without in any way prejudging its content, and in particular its social content. It is democratic to the extent that it is addressed to the system by a ‘disadvantaged person of one kind or another (underdog of sorts)’, which gives it an ‘egalitarian dimension’, or, more precisely, a dimension of ‘equivalence’. Thus, for example, the anti-Semitic statement ‘we are all equivalent as non-Jews’ turns out to be just as ‘democratic’ as the symmetrically opposite statement ‘we are all German Jews’ (excluding Nazis and their ilk). Both fulfil the same function of revealing the impossible completeness of the social totality.[27] This purely formal definition, of which ‘populism’ is the name, aims to expunge from political logic any trace of essentialism, i.e. socio-economic determination. However, even ignoring its rejection of all anti-capitalist aims, this conception precisely fails to capture the specificity of ‘populist’ logic, which consists, as Slavoj Žižek has pointed out, in the fundamental operation of externalizing social antagonism:[28] the cleavage separating the ‘people-subject’ from its ‘adversary’ is immediately conceived as a border opposing an ‘external element’, pathological and intrusive, to a reified ‘people’ demanding a return to the (allegedly) ‘normal’ functioning of the social totality. To take up the examples cited by Laclau himself, what made the Chartist discourse a populist discourse was the fact that it opposed to the body of ‘real producers’ (workers, craftsmen, self-employed) a minority of ‘idlers and parasites’, who monopolized wealth and appropriated the state through restricted suffrage.[29] Similarly, the discourse of the American ‘progressives’ at the end of the nineteenth century, or of the Peronist movement, a humbled common people to minorities of ‘monopolists’, ‘oligarchies’ seen as monstrous growths on a national body that was fundamentally healthy.[30] The watchwords of contemporary ‘populisms’ do not innovate much, pitting ‘people’ against ‘‘castes’ or ‘oligarchies’; even, in contemporary versions of fascism, against ‘globalized elites’ and ‘migratory submersion’ – to quote just two of Marine Le Pen’s favourite targets.

We can go further: what specifies ‘revolutionary’ movements (in the precise sense of bearers of an overall challenge to the existing social order) is precisely that they are not constituted around ‘demands’, presupposing the Other of a system capable or not of satisfying these,[31] but around ‘slogans’ which target the system by condensing the breaking points of its overall logic as they emerge in the current situation.[32] And this condensation is quite different from the simple ‘transparency’ of a presupposed unifying principle internal to ‘the social', as Laclau suggests in his polemics with Marxism:[33] it combines knowledge of the situation (involving the conceptual tools of historical materialism) with nomination of the political task that corresponds to the singularity of the conjuncture. The slogan, to use Lenin’s terms, crystallizes ‘the concrete analysis of the concrete situation’ in as much as it intervenes to transform it, producing unprecedented effects of subjectivation (of ‘political bodies’) and of modification of the lines of demarcation. In other words, when the actors involved take hold of the situation in order to act and modify the balance of power and the course of events. The ‘word-effect’ thus indicates that the materiality of discourse, which makes it an active principle and not the passive ‘reflection’ of a pre-constituted substrate, goes beyond the division of name and concept, of performativity and knowledge. It refers to their inscription in a concrete situation, their articulation to a chain of practices made up of bodies in movement, relations and processes of production (and reproduction), institutions, acts of language, modalities of action – in short, material practices which cannot be reduced to a formless, unstructured ‘multiplicity’.

This is why the characteristic of ‘revolutionary’ movements, which refer to the class struggle and not to a simple opposition between ‘the people’ and their ‘enemies’, lies precisely in their conception of the subject of politics as a contradictory, non-reified entity. There are ‘contradictions among the people’, in Mao’s terms,[34] the ‘people’ is in fact nothing other than the (structured) whole of its own contradictions.[35] To put it another way, if any political mobilization is, to one degree or another, inevitably inter-class, the hallmark of a ‘populist’ movement is to deny the contradictions inherent in the movement of its internal differentiation. The reference to ‘the people’ ceases to operate as an operator of political unification of subordinate groups and becomes a vector of an ideological neutralization of fundamental antagonism. Hence the decisive role, in properly ‘populist’ movements, of the charismatic leader, who often gives them their name (Peronism, Kemalism, etc.). Contrary to what Laclau maintains, it is therefore the reference to class contradictions which operates to deconstruct the reified unity of the ‘people’ projected by ‘populist reason’, without however reducing it to an unobtainable ‘purity’ of class oppositions, which only makes sense at a high level of analytical abstraction not of proper political discourse. It is also what allows us to analyse the composite character of these forces, to identify their polarities and contradictions, and finally to pronounce on their anti-capitalist potential. A potential which refers to the complexity of the class configurations at work in each situation and not to the simple contingent result of a struggle around a floating signifier.

Hegemony without power?

In its original Marxist elaborations, those of Lenin and Gramsci, the notion of hegemony was from the outset conceived in the perspective of the conquest (and exercise) of power by the historical bloc of subaltern groups and classes as bearers of a new idea of the organization of society and civilization. In this respect, Laclau’s ‘hegemonic logic’ effects a double reversal. On the one hand, as we have seen, in order to avoid falling into the ‘totalitarian’ trap it represses any idea of transforming the structure of socio-economic relations; on the other, and it is this aspect we shall focus on now, it evades the question of the conquest of state power in the name of preserving the flexible and perpetually ‘reversible’ interplay of diffuse powers within ‘civil society’.

In a perspective of hegemonic construction, it seems indeed difficult to be satisfied with limiting the construction of the adversary in the discursively defined field of political confrontation. At one time or another, the very dynamic of hegemony inevitably raises the question of replacing one form, or regime, of hegemony by another. To put it another way, by triggering a dynamic of hegemony, an ‘underdog’ cannot remain in this position forever; there comes a point when, if its undertaking succeeds, it will emerge from its subaltern condition to reach a proper hegemonic position of power.

Laclau certainly refers favourably at times to the vision of Sorel (or a Sorel re-read by the young Walter Benjamin) of a ‘proletarian strike’, distinct from the ‘political strike’ in the sense that it does not aim to ‘change a system of power’ but at ‘the destruction of power as such’.[36] By attacking the ‘very form of power’ it becomes the bearer of a properly universal aim. Yet, despite this praise of anti-power, the populist movements mentioned by Laclau are, in their entirety, movements oriented towards the conquest of political power which have often actually exercised this, in no way libertarian experiments aimed at ‘destroying power’ or building alternative social relations within ‘autonomous spaces’ (supposedly) free from the grip of the state. Peronism, within a variant of which (the PSIN of Jorge Abelardo Ramos) Laclau spent part of his own militancy and which always remained at the centre of his reflection, is a case in point. Suspicion then sets in: are not Laclau’s categories inadequate to their own purpose, that is to say, to the understanding of the dynamic that allows (or not) an ‘oppositional populism’ to succeed, and thus to transform itself into ‘populism in power’?

Let us follow, for instance, the discussion of the Turkish example offered in On Populist Reason, which is undoubtedly the most revealing in this respect. According to Laclau, ‘Atatürk’s populism presupposes a seamless community without internal fissures’[37] insofar as it was based on a congruence between a ‘solidarity-based’, corporatist conception of social structure and a nationalism that ‘emphasized a homogeneous identity and the elimination of all differential particularism’. This nationalism shaped the grounded ‘statism’ of the Kemalist project, which extended the area of legitimate state intervention to all social spheres. However, the conclusion drawn from this analysis is quite surprising. Atatürk proved ‘unable to follow a populist route’ because ‘his homogenization of the “nation” proceeded not through the construction of equivalential chains between actual democratic demands, but through authoritarian imposition’.[38] It was ‘only during the War of Independence which followed the First World War that Kemalism relied, to some extent, on mass mobilization’. [39] The weakness of these normative distinctions is obvious: can one imagine a ‘homogenization of the nation’ that takes place without some sort of intervention from ‘above’, i.e. from the state, relying thus only on the articulation of demands from ‘below’? Is there a total discontinuity (or ‘dichotomy’ or ‘chiasm’ and other awful things of that kind) between the Kemalism that existed before the seizure of power and the Kemalism that came to dominate the state, or conversely, should this trajectory not be seen as an exemplary case of the very dynamic of national-populist movements? In short, does Atatürk represent a departure from ‘populist reason’ or, on the contrary, an excellent illustration of its profound truth?

This inability to account for a real shift of hegemony, in the Gramscian sense, from one ruling bloc to its successor, is all the more striking because Laclau invents an opposition that is totally impossible to find in the Italian Communist thinker, between the [process of] ‘becoming state’ of a subaltern group and the ‘seizure of state power’.[40] The aporia of the ‘becoming state’ of a ‘populist reason’ reduced to a formal grammar of the constitution of subjectivities finds its counterpart in the inability to account for the opposite movement, i.e. the logic of disintegration of the populist bloc. According to Laclau, the populist configuration ceases to be operative when the differential-serial logic regains the upper hand and proves capable of breaking the equivalential chain by extracting from it one demand, or by successive iteration several such demands, and integrates it into its logic of managing the social. It is in these terms that the failure of Chartism is analysed, based on the work of Gareth Stedman Jones:[41] the transformation of the policies of the Victorian state from the late 1840s onwards, with the adoption of the first social legislation and the start of the regulation of market forces, rendered inoperative the classical Chartist discourse, which politicized particular demands through a frontal opposition to the state assimilated en bloc to the enemy. By its ability to ‘meet individual social demands’[42] the state broke the equivalential chain, and thus the links created between the working and middle classes and the modes of discursive construction of a hegemonic articulation. From now on, workers’ demands would be formulated in the mode of modern trade unionism, as sectional-particularistic demands, aiming at negotiation within the framework delimited by the action of the state. ‘Bourgeois hegemony’ is thus constructed, ‘infallibly’, by means of the ‘primacy of differential logic over equivalential ruptures’.[43] There would be little to object to in such an analysis, hardly original in fact, except that the characteristic of bourgeois hegemony based on ‘negotiating differential demands within an expansive social state’[44] consists in the fact that it does not integrate ‘individual demands’ in a discrete way, as Laclau would like, but rather equivalential chains, coherent and collective social logics – insofar as they remain compatible with the fundamentals of capitalist relations. What distinguishes the political form of the Keynesian ‘welfare state’ from a simple aggregate of particular concessions to the demands of the working classes lies precisely in the coherence, albeit relative and not devoid of internal limitations, of a class compromise which for several decades ensured the stability of the ‘welfare state’.

This massive reality reveals the profoundly problematic character of the notion of ‘democratic demand’. As a demand addressed to an Other (the system, the state, the dominant group, etc.), it cannot consider its own hegemonic transformation, its surpassing/abolition in a process of ‘becoming state’. Moreover, it can only conceive of the demands in question in the form of disjointed singularities, devoid of internal relations, finding a principle of relation and unification only through a discourse external to themselves, the only one capable of overcoming the supposed ‘radical heterogeneity of the social’. In other words, it does not allow us to consider how the demands in question are anchored in determined social relations and, consequently, the relationship between politics and its socio-economic conditions, which Laclau lumps together under the catch-all term ‘heterogeneity of the social’. This heterogeneity is presented as a quasi-natural datum, which cannot be materially transformed but only re-articulated on a symbolic level, i.e. named differently by means of an empty signifier capable of representing the incompleteness of the social totality. The distance between this position and the reduction of the hegemonic construction to an essentially rhetorical operation becomes thin, and it seems that Laclau crosses it when he makes the capacity of discourses to arouse a certain type of ‘political imaginary’ the determining factor in the outcome of a political struggle.[45] Thus not only does a ‘revolutionary’ political intervention, aiming at the overthrow of the system, become unthinkable, but equally an authentic reformist/social-democratic project, whose hegemonic potential rests above all on its capacity to re-order the fundamental aspects of the capital/labour relationship in a direction favourable to the dominated classes.

The cunning of post-Marxist reason

At the root of the problem we find Laclau’s fundamental ‘ontological’ position, signalling his ‘post-Marxist’ turning point, according to which any thought of social objectivity as an internally contradictory (and therefore transformable) structure is synonymous with ‘essentialist’ postulates, incompatible with the constitutive dimension of symbolic and political articulations. To this conception, which Marxism is supposed to share with other currents of thought, is opposed the thesis that ‘antagonism is not inherent in the relations of production but it is established between the relations of production and an identity which is external to them’.[46] Curiously, this conception of relations of production as external to antagonism leads Laclau to accuse Marxism of wanting to ‘derive [the coherence of capitalism as a social formation] from its own endogenous logic’, itself ‘derived from the mere logical analysis of the contradictions implicit in the commodity form’.[47] This extravagant accusation – it would be hard to find a single ‘Marxist’ analysis, even among those most guilty of vulgar economism, which claims to derive class domination from a simple logico-dialectical analysis of the most abstract forms of the mode of production – serves here as a firewall for an aporia internal to its own construction: its inability to think of hegemonic movements putting into question what Laclau nevertheless thinks as an ‘obvious’ matter of fact, namely that the ‘centrality of the economy... is the result of the obvious fact that the material reproduction of society has more repercussions for social processes than do other instances’.[48] ‘Obvious fact’ but nevertheless unthinkable. This is probably why the ‘name of names’ that is supposed to give the key to political rationality, namely that of the ‘people’, is hardly justified in the end. For either the ‘people’ indicates a kind of protean positivity, guaranteeing a permanence to itself of the ‘popular’ substance, a solution rejected by Laclau – despite his repeated nods at terms such as ‘plebeian’ or ‘underdog’ – because it contravenes the principle of ‘anti-essentialism’. Or, as he explicitly states, we are dealing with a discontinuity between absolutely singular subjective configurations,[49] whose only common feature lies in the continuity of the name conferred on them by the act that constitutes them as subjects of politics. This would mean that the name ‘people’ constitutes the common trait, the only one but in a purely formal sense, of modern political subjectivation as it emerges from the French Revolution to the Long March, from October 1917 to Peronism, from Western Communism in the period of the ‘trente glorieuses’ to current far-right movements. No coincidence then that the work theorizing ‘populist reason’ is content to list quickly concrete ‘examples’, hastily juxtaposed, without dwelling too much on the analysis of specific situations and proper historical sequences.

The difficulty of this construction in giving an account of its own position of enunciation, in other words its lack of reflexivity, and therefore of critical content, becomes all the clearer. Laclau sometimes claims that he is merely ‘describing’ demands, proposing a ‘typology’ of self-referential, contingent and singular political processes, while at other times he resorts to what can only be described as an attempt to determine the processes in question by means of tendencies attributed to social evolution, and thus to a form of objectivity that pre-exists the discursive operations of social constitution.[50] This raises the question of the coherence of the criticisms addressed to Marxism. For either Marxism is simply outdated, as an adequate theorizing of a historical moment that is now over, that of a society that is ‘more homogeneous’ than the one we live in,[51] or it had an ‘essentialist’ vice from the outset, because it was based on an erroneous social ontology (reductive, deterministic, teleological, etc.).

It can certainly be said that Laclau has never denied ‘a historical effectiveness to the logic of differential structural positions’, contenting himself with distinguishing this from the idea of an ‘infrastructure that can determine, by itself, the laws of movement of society’.[52] But how can we then relate the discourse-centred ‘social ontology’ which underpins his entire approach to this allusive sketch of a theory of historical change? Laclau seems to admit that it is indeed ‘globalized capitalism’ that constitutes the label under which can be ‘subsumed... the interrelated conditions’ that are ‘causing the balance to tip increasingly towards [social] heterogeneity’.[53] And he goes on to stress that ‘We can no longer understand capitalism as a purely economic reality, but as a complex in which economic, political, military, technological and other determinations – each endowed with its own logic and a certain autonomy – enter into the movement of the whole. In other terms, heterogeneity belongs to the essence of capitalism’.[54] This thesis is hardly original and, to quote Marc Saint-Upéry, leads us to ‘wonder whether we really needed all this theoretical machinery to arrive at such unimaginative conclusions’.[55]

This apparently paradoxical recourse to a social ‘ontology’ that is as trivial as it is incompatible with populist reason can only be understood as an attempt to attribute content, an appearance of concreteness, to categories that have sunk into a bad abstraction. By a final ironic twist, it is a kind of ‘spectral Marxism’ of a particularly evolutionary and historicist variant – in other words, a ‘vulgar’ Marxism in the precise sense in which Marx described as ‘vulgar’ the political economy that succeeded the ‘classics’ (Smith, Ricardo), which comes to haunt a ‘post-Marxism’ determined to liquidate the very idea of revolution.

Translated by David Fernbach


[1] Cf. Laclau’s first book in English, Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory, New Left Books, 1977; reissued Verso, 2011.

[2] Cf. Ellen Meiksins-Wood, The Retreat from Class: A New ‘True’ Socialism, Verso, 1986 and Norman Geras, Discourses of Extremity: Radical Ethics and Post-Marxist Extravagances, Verso, 1990. See also the response of Laclau and Mouffe, ‘Post-Marxism Without Apologies’, New Left Review I/166, November-December 1987, pp. 79-106.

[3] Cf. notably, Ernesto Laclau, Emancipation(s), Verso, 2007 (1st edition 1996).

[4] Ibid. p. 4.

[5] Ibid. p. 17.

[6] Ibid. p. 65.

[7] Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Žižek, Contingency, Hegemony, Universality. Contemporary Dialogues on the Left, Verso, 2000. It should be remembered that Žižek’s first works in English appeared in the Verso ‘Phronesis’ series edited by Laclau, and that he was often cited as a mere idiosyncratic Lacanian by the leading figures of post-Marxism.

[8] Ernesto Laclau, ‘Constructing Universality’, in Contingency, Hegemony, Universality, p. 293.

[9] Ernesto Laclau, ‘Structure, History and the Political’, in Contingency, Hegemony, Universality, p. 206 and ‘Constructing Universality’, ibid. p. 290.

[10] Emancipation(s), p. 28: ‘ambiguity as such can never be resolved’.

[11] ‘Constructing Universality’, in Contingency, Hegemony, Universality, p. 293.

[12] Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, Verso, 2014 (1st edition 1985), p. 168.

[13] ‘Structure, History and the Political’, p. 186.

[14] Emancipation(s), p. 65.

[15] Ernesto Laclau, ‘Identity and Hegemony’, in Contingency, Hegemony, Universality, p. 86.

[16] ‘A democratic society is not one in which the “best” content dominates unchallenged but, rather, one in which nothing is definitively acquired and there is always the possibility of challenge’, Emancipation(s), p. 100.

[17] ‘As society changes over time this process of identification [of the empty signifier] will always be precarious and reversible and… different projects or wills will try to hegemonize the empty signifiers of the absent community. The recognition of the constitutive nature of this gap and its political institutionalization is the starting point of modern democracy’, ibid. p. 46.

[18] ‘We can perhaps say that today we are at the end of emancipation and at the beginning of freedom’, ibid. p. 18.

[19] ‘Structure, History and the Political’, p. 208. Žižek noted the strict parallelism with the Kantian position of the necessary limitation of human capabilities as a positive condition of freedom. See Slavoj Žižek, ‘Holding the Place’, in Contingency, Hegemony, Universality, p. 320.

[20] Emancipation(s), p. 121.

[21] New Hungarian Quarterly 26, no. 97, pp. 100-14.

[22] Nicos Poulantzas, State, Power, Socialism, Verso, 2013 (1st edition 1978).

[23] Ernesto Laclau, On Populist Reason, Verso, 2005.

[24] Ibid. p. 89.

[25] ‘We are not dealing here with “determinate negation” in the Hegelian sense: while the latter comes out of the apparent positivity of the concrete and “circulates” through contents that are always determinate, our notion of negativity depends on the failure in the constitution of any determination’, Emancipation(s), p. 14. In this rhetorical sleight of hand, everything happens as if this ‘failure’ could mysteriously happen without a term in relation to which it is posed as a failure, and which ‘determines’ it.

[26] ‘There is no political intervention which is not populist to some extent... I shall locate apparently disparate phenomena within a continuum which makes comparison between them possible’ (On Populist Reason, pp. 154 and 175). It should be noted that the level of populism of an intervention has nothing to do with its content or orientation, but only with the ‘extension [attained] of the equivalential chain unifying social demands’, ibid. p. 154.

[27] ‘[T]hese demands are formulated to the system by an underdog of sorts – there is an equalitarian dimension implicit in them… their very emergence presupposes some kind of exclusion or deprivation’, ibid. p. 125 (Laclau’s emphasis).

[28] See Slavoj Žižek, ‘A Leninist Gesture Today. Against the Populist Temptation’, in Sebastian Budgen, Stathis Kouvelakis and Slavoj Žižek (ed.), Lenin Reloaded: Toward a Politics of Truth, Duke University Press, 2007, p. 81 ff.

[29] On Populist Reason, p. 90.

[30] Ibid. pp. 201-8 and 214-22. The way in which the signifier ‘national’ is inserted into political discourse undoubtedly serves to reveal cleavages that are much deeper than the spectrum of variations within the same ‘populist’ matrix suggests.

[31] ‘This initial experience is not only, however, one of lack. Lack, as we have seen, is linked to a demand which is not met. But this involved bringing into the picture the power which has not met the demand. A demand is always addressed to somebody’, ibid. pp. 85-6.

[32] Cf. Lenin’s famous text, ‘On Slogans’, in Collected Works, vol. 25, Progress Publishers 1977, pp. 185-92, and the indispensable commentary by Jean-Jacques Lecercle, A Marxist Philosophy of Language, Haymarket, 2009, pp. 97-104. .

[33] On Populist Reason, p. 98.

[34] See Mao Tse-tung, ‘On the correct handling of contradictions among the people’ (1957) available at

[35] Which, by the way, allows us to draw a dividing line between the key notion of Soviet discourse: the ‘whole people’ (according to the 1977 constitution, the Soviet state was supposed to be that of the ‘whole people’ and no longer the ‘dictatorship of the urban and rural proletariat and the poorest peasantry, the ‘establishment’ of which was posed as ‘the fundamental problem of the [1918] constitution’, nor ‘the state of workers and peasants’ as formulated in the 1936 constitution), and the ‘people’ of Lenin, Gramsci or Mao, which designates the political forms of tendential (and only tendential) unification of subordinates in a given configuration of class contradictions, i.e. in a conjuncture.

[36] Emancipation(s), pp. 31-2.

[37] On Populist Reason, pp. 209-10.

[38] Ibid. p. 212.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid. p. 261, note 27.

[41] Gareth Stedman Jones, Languages of Class: Studies in English Working Class History 1832-1982, Cambridge University Press, 1983.

[42] Ibid. 92, emphasis added by Laclau.

[43] Ibid. p. 93.

[44] Ibid. p. 92.

[45] Laclau asserts, for example, that the advantage currently held by right-wing forces over the left is due to the fact that the former move at the level of a ‘political imaginary of a certain type’ while the latter have withdrawn into the moral discourse of rights, or that the lasting defeat of the Republicans in the United States depends on a ‘drastic rearticulation of the political imaginary’, ibid. p. 138.

[46] Ibid. p. 149.

[47] Ibid. p. 235.

[48] Ibid. p. 237.

[49] ‘History is rather a discontinuous succession of hegemonic formations that cannot be ordered by a script transcending their contingent historicity’, ibid. p. 226.

[50] Cf. for example: ‘we inhabit a historical terrain where the proliferation of heterogeneous points of rupture and antagonisms require increasingly political forms of social reaggregation’, ibid. p. 230. Admittedly, Laclau is quick to point out that these are not ‘underlying social logics… [but] acts, in the sense that I have described’ (ibid., Laclau’s emphasis). Nevertheless, this trend of increasing complexity is irreducible to the indeterminate contingency of discontinuous and singular acts, hence the need to refer to the category of ‘capitalism’ (cf. also: ‘a globalized capitalism creates myriad points of rupture and antagonisms’, ibid. p. 150) and even to conclude with this astonishing expression of ‘essentialism’: ‘heterogeneity belongs to the essence of capitalism’ (ibid. p. 230)!

[51] For example, in this formulation: ‘Our societies are far less homogeneous than those in which the Marxian models were formulated... The dissolution of the metaphysics of presence is not a purely intellectual operation. It is profoundly inscribed in the whole experience of recent decades’, Emancipation(s), p. 82.

[52] Ibid.

[53] On Populist Reason, p. 230.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Marc Saint-Upéry, ‘Y a-t-il une vie après le postmarxisme?’, Revue Internationale des Livres et des Idées 12, July 2009, available at