Earlier this month the international Left lost one of its most astute political thinkers. Ernesto Laclau, the political theorist who had the ear of the Kirchners, was interviewed by La Nación journalist Diego Sehinkman last November for the ‘Politicians on the sofa’ series.
My ‘meeting’ with Ernesto Laclau – the political theorist whom the Kirchner governments listened to perhaps more than any other – took the form of a telephone call to England, where he lived since 1969.
You have achieved the dream of almost any intellectual, that is, being consulted by a president…
Yes, I have indeed been consulted. I have had an open, cordial relationship with Argentina’s recent presidents.
What is your connection to Cristina Kirchner? How many times a year do you see her?
All this is largely a myth. I have met Cristina three or four times and we had a very cordial relationship. The last time was in 2012. Our conversations concerned the political situation in Latin America, and at one point we also dabbled in theoretical discussion of Althusser. The truth is, I feel very happy with my link to her and, above all, with her governmental agenda.
Do you play a sort of tutoring role, or did you simply exchange ideas?
I am no teacher of hers. It was an exchange of ideas and nothing more than that. Since then, the press has constantly been inventing all sorts of nonsense. They even said that that I am the theorist of the current governmental agenda in Argentina, which is absolutely not the case.
Or maybe you renounce such a title – some might say – as not to be too vain…
Well, I have no vanity in that regard. My work is for all eternity: my vanities are at a wholly different level…
You wrote On Populist Reason in 2005, attributing a key role to the leader. I was thinking about Chávez, Nestor Kirchner, Cristina Kirchner and Lula and the health problems they all had, and asked myself whether populism makes almost superhuman demands on the leader…
Of course it imposes a superhuman role on the leader. But the leader’s humanity is, here as always, a limit on what he or she can do.
Or perhaps the symbolic discourse and the medical one sometimes clash…
We could say, to put it in psychoanalytical terms, that the infinitude of the task and the finitude of the bearers of that task often stand in complex relation to one another.
And here, we get to the point: is Cristina Kirchner’s government populist?
I believe that Cristina Kirchner’s government is populist by vocation and less populist in its deeds. For historical reasons, she could never have been a populist leader in the sense that Perón was. And sometimes she depends more on negotiation with various sections of civil society.
You say that antagonism is necessary. Up to what point – and when does it turn into violence?
I believe in an administered antagonism. If there are institutions within which antagonism distinguishes the Left from the Right and both participate in one same institutional game, then we have a healthier society.
To bring things down to a more vulgar level, have you seen this campaign ad speaking of the division between Argen and Tina, with a village of quarrelling families?
Well, it is probable enough that they are divided, there are moments when everything is divided. Think a bit about the climate that preceded the Spanish Civil War…
A rather startling example!
We are very far from reaching that, today in Argentina. But I believe that division is necessary, within a framework managing this antagonism institutionally.
You spoke of an administered antagonism. In 2011 in front of the Congress there was a protest where they put up photos of journalists and invited passers-by to spit on them.
I don’t know about that episode, it seems probable enough. When the struggle starts to develop it is not easy to control it. But it is here that the leadership of the groups that can place limits on confrontation is really necessary.
They say that Cristina Kirchner is showing signs of stress. Perhaps we might see a less belligerent version of the President?
I don’t know, medically speaking, but politically I do not believe that she is doing anything too extreme.
The model needs to be deepened further?
I do not know if the model needs to be deepened further, what is essential is that it is not abandoned. The Kirchner model has had a certain international echo, and it would be an error to back away from it – a mistake I don’t think she is likely to make…
What would it mean to back away from it?
To start saying ‘yes, but’, making concessions to the Right or start saying ‘yes’ to the IMF’s demands.
But the Government is already thinking about accepting an IMF inspection
Some of this necessarily must come to pass, but I do not believe it has to take place in a way that is especially negative for national interests…
What else would it mean?
Renouncing the redistribution of wealth, which implies a diversification of the productive structure. The Government’s business tax policy is small beer compared with the ones imposed by historical Peronism. Perón organised his whole economic policy in the 1940s and ‘50s counting on a super-nationalised economic system.
Perhaps you fear that they are starting to back away from this model, and that is why you mentioned it to me?
At my old age I am not afraid of anything.
So why did you comment on it, then?
You are the psychoanalyst, it’s up to you to interpret it.
Is Laclau to the Left of Cristina Kirchner?
What do you think?
That you are.
[Laughs] Well, I feel entirely comfortable being in the same space as her.
For you does it cause a stir, seeing the Kirchners leading a national-popular political project and yet themselves being so rich?
The only stir is in my wallet – I’d love to be rich like that! [Laughter]
Lastly: what is your response to those who talk about Laclau writing on Latin America from the comfort of his armchair in London?
My job is to illuminate what is happening in the world. An armchair in London is just as good for that as one in Buenos Aires or Sao Paulo.
We’ll leave it there.
Translated by David Broder. You can find the original version of the interview here.