In light of recent developments in Europe that have brought questions of hegemony, populism and organisation to the foreground, Toni Negri asks: where does the thought of Ernesto Laclau leave us on this score? The following talk was given at Maison de l’Amerique Latine in Paris, 27 May 2015. Translated by David Broder; see the original French text here.
By Toni Negri
I would like to talk very schematically about what Ernesto Laclau’s work has meant to me, and the dialogue that the two of us had, particularly in recent years. This was a simultaneously close and critical dialogue, marked by evident differences, but it was also characterised by very great respect; and again today I would like to emphasise my esteem for Laclau.
For me, Laclau’s analyses represent a neo-Kantian variant of what we could define as a ‘post-Soviet socialism’. Already in the era of the Second International, neo-Kantianism functioned as a critical approach to Marxism: though not considering Marxism as the enemy, this critical approach did try to yoke Marxism to its own arguments, and in a certain sense to neutralise it. Its attack was directed against political realism and the ontology of the class struggle.
The epistemological mediation of that period consisted of this usage – and this abuse – of Kantian transcendentalism. Mutatis mutandis, and if we now place ourselves in the moment of post-Sovietism, I think that Laclau’s thinking can in part be grasped on the basis of this same movement. We should be clear that here we are not talking about reformism in general – a reformism that could sometimes be very useful, and sometimes entirely indigestible. Rather, it is a question of grasping Laclau’s theoretical and political effort within a given historical context, and thus situating it in its appropriate contemporary dimension.
So let us start from one first point. Laclau tells us that contemporary societies are characterised by the multitudes; but the multitude does not present ontological determinations, and still less – today – rules such as would allow it to preside over its own composition. So only from the outside (albeit respecting its nature) can the multitude be composed. The operation concerned is thus, in a very Kantian sense, an effort at understanding ‘the thing in itself’ – a thing that would not be knowable without the intervention of the ‘form’. The operation is of the order of a transcendental synthesis.
Is it possible – and desirable – for heterogeneous social subjectivities to organise themselves spontaneously, or do they instead have to be organised? This is rather a classic question – it is at the basis of criticism. Laclau’s answer to this question is to say that today there is no longer any social actor ‘for itself’, a universal class (as Marx defined the working class), but nor is there a subject who is the product of social spontaneity, of a self-organisation that could claim to be hegemonic. For Laclau, classical Marxism operated a simplification of the social class struggle under capitalism, and constructed a subject, an actor in emancipation, within which the characteristics of autonomy and centrality coincided. But in the contemporary era this is exactly the terrain that has decomposed – and it is for that reason that a different terrain has instead imposed itself, made up of heterogeneities. Only a political construction can now play on this space of social non-homogeneity (whether homogeneity is understood as something that we would have to presuppose, or we limit ourselves to noting what exists – in either case, this homogeneity has disappeared). So that is what Laclau’s thinking on hegemony proposes to get to grips with. That does not mean that Laclau denies that moments of organised autonomy or strong subjectivities emerging on to the stage of history could exist. But he always uncovers a ‘tension’ among these subjective figures, and in each case he thinks that these subjectivities have to be ‘set in tension’ with one another. Laclau considers this a ‘constitutive’ tension. This is the transcendental imagination in action. It seems to me that Laclau considers the political context like a sort of Janus face, posing the tension between its two faces like a tension between space and time, warp and weft, which every construction of power must traverse and transcend, resolve and determine. Thus hegemony/power emerges.
Second point. It should be clear that the immanence, autonomy and plurality that are constitutive of the multitude are not only incapable of constructing power, but also represent obstacles to the formation of any political ‘scene’. After all, Laclau continues, if society were entirely heterogeneous, political action would demand that the singularities be capable of launching a process of ‘articulation’ at the level of immanence in order to structure the tension that I have just briefly underlined, and to define the political relations among these singularities. But are they capable of doing this?
For Laclau the answer is a negative one. And this negation relates back to a transcendental motor. The articulation is thus necessarily set on a formal terrain; that is, on condition that by ‘form’ we mean not just ‘something empty’ but a sort of ‘constitutive shell’. In fact, Laclau emphasises that if we want it to be possible to envisage an articulation of the multitude, then this requires the emergence of a hegemonic instance above the mere plane of immanence – a hegemonic instance susceptible to guiding this process and able to represent a centre with which all the singularities can identify. I’ll quote him: ‘There is no hegemony without the construction of a popular identity on the basis of the plurality of democratic demands’.
If the social context is configured by a dishomogeneous multitude, it is necessary to establish a force that will articulate the different parts of this dishomogeneity, in order to guarantee their integration. Insistence on self-organisation or the reference to preconstituted subjects should not either eliminate or overshadow the need to create common themes and homogenising languages, which can circulate by way of the different local organisations. This articulation/mediation cannot in any case repeat the old model of the traditional ‘strong’ organisations (parties, churches, corporations…). This articulation/mediation must, rather, be approached starting from the notion of the ‘empty signifier’. But as I have just noted, this ‘empty signifier’ does not here signify empty forms of unity – dogmatically attached to this or that precise signified – but rather a ‘constitutive shell’. We are no longer on the terrain of aesthetics or analytics, but on the terrain of the transcendental imagination.
Indeed, there is a moment where Laclau, taking a different approach – almost as if adopting a sort of new musical key – powerfully re-proposes the theme of the ‘floating’ and ‘empty’ signifier, faced with the heterogeneity of the social. Powerfully so – and, if it wasn’t stretching his thought somewhat, I would gladly also say that he also does it in an ontologically productive way.
When Laclau addresses the theme of the articulation of different social struggles, this moment (already present in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy in 1985) represents a model of ‘constitutive antagonism’. Almost a weak form of dual power, which, emerging on a ‘radical’ frontier by way of conflict and disaggregation, at the same time constitutes a synthesis of old rights of sovereignty and democratic rights of self-government. I think that Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson were right to emphasise this. We should admit that in homing in on the idea of a dialectic among conflictual counter-powers, Laclau was interpreting a first turning point – or more exactly, the first appearance of a sentiment common among socialist activists engaged (despite themselves) in a crisis of the Left that has been going on since the 1970s and who refuse to countenance it declining ever further. In these conditions, once we have taken note of the ineffectiveness of dialectical instruments we have to reconstruct a ‘people’, producing its unity – that is what has to be recognised as the political act ‘par excellence’. So in 1985 it was forcefully asked – obtaining a very wide consensus – whether the opening of the social to politics is not less a discursive structure than a ‘practice of articulation’ that constitutes and organises social relations.
But this point of view is very rapidly overturned. I’ll cite Laclau: ‘We can thus talk of a growing complexity and fragmentation of advanced industrial societies … in the sense that they are constituted around a fundamental asymmetry. This is the asymmetry existing between a growing proliferation of differences – a surplus meaning of “the social” – and the difficulties encountered by any discourse attempting to fix those differences as moments of a stable articulatory structure’. So we have to distance ourselves from the very notion of society as a ‘self-defined totality’ within which the social establishes itself. Rather, we have to identify the ‘nodal points’ that produce partial meanings and directions, and which allow this or that formation of the social to take form. This means (and ever more so) rejecting any dialectical solution that is thought on the basis of concepts like ‘mediation’ or ‘determination’. Politics emerges as the problem of the transcendental conditions of the interplay of articulations and equivalences constituted in the social, ‘in which the very identity of the forces in struggle is submitted to constant shifts, and calls for an incessant process of redefinition’.
However, it is difficult to establish the balance of this articulation. It is, indeed, exposed to two dangers. I would like to call the first ‘the drift in demands’ or more exactly the drift in the non-conclusive character of the meeting among equivalences.
On this score we need only take a look at Laclau’s work On Populist Reason, which came out twenty years later, in 2005. Again here his discourse begins with a plunge into the social, and is constructed around multitudinal stimuli and conatus which push toward the political. As Laclau wrote, ‘The smallest unit from which we will start corresponds to the category of social demand’. Naturally, if this demand pushes on the one hand toward going deeper into the logics of identity formation, on the other hand it opens the way to antagonism. The question, then, becomes: how is it possible to transform the dislocated, continually proliferating antagonism into a visible, dual one? Does the ‘chain of equivalences’ not end up amounting to a proliferation whose conclusion we cannot grasp? Laclau himself seemed to be conscious of this: ‘the specificity of equivalence is the destruction of meaning through its very proliferation’. This indefinite character of immanency’s powers risks preventing the transcendental construction of the signifier – in any case, it impedes it.
The second difficulty is directly linked to the definitive consolidation of the equilibrium, such as it presents itself in the concept of hegemony. Allow me a little parenthesis on this note. Laclau developed his concept of hegemony with reference to Gramsci’s insights. But things are not as simple as that. As Peter Thomas notes, in 1985’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe replaced the political mechanism of hegemony, as defined by the Leninist tradition, with a wholly formal, discursive concept. For Thomas, here we are entering into a Eurocommunist phase of theoretical reflection, which developed in the form of a ‘softened’ Gramsci at the same time as signalling the transition to a post-Marxist radical democratic politics.
Whether or not we agree with Peter Thomas’s point of view, in any case I think that we should recall that Gramsci’s thinking was constructed on the basis of a Marxist and Leninist position for which dictatorship was understood not as totalitarian command, but precisely as hegemony – that is, as the organic construction of a revolutionary constituent power. And it is true that Laclau’s reference to Gramsci is rather weak on this point – because it appears to be more the search for a supposed ‘lineage’ than a true ontological derivation.
Gramsci built his concept of hegemony (from the practice of the Factory Councils to the theory of the new prince) on the basis of the class struggle, preserving a materialist ‘solidity’ and producing a mechanism for creating workers’ power in the communist sense. By no means can Gramsci’s concept of hegemony be reinterpreted by way of the modalities theorised by Norberto Bobbio – as the superstructural product of ‘civil society’, if we take ‘civil society’ in the Hegelian sense of the word.
Moreover, it is strange to see that for Laclau the concept of hegemony – already shorn, we repeat, of the power Gramsci ascribed to it – could be connected to the policies of Togliatti’s Italian Communist Party. That is, the equilibrium between the movements’ grassroots autonomy and the Party – a signifier that is doubtless sometimes ‘floating’ but certainly never ‘empty’ – could still be oriented to the Left because the Party was anchored to Soviet policy. As such, the hegemony/society X axis and the Left/Right Y axis could be kept in equilibrium precisely on account of the impossibility of the ‘signifier’ transforming itself into the state – because the Yalta Agreement prevented it. I repeat: the ‘national-popular’ could only be interpreted in left-wing terms in Togliatti and Italian Communism (notwithstanding all the limits on activity, opposed to the class struggle, that followed from this) because the Communist Party could not reach power, so long as it did not transform itself in such a manner as finally to be able to do so. I think that here the concept of hegemony paradoxically becomes the concept of political ‘centrality’.
In short: the shape and function of hegemony in Laclau seem rather suspect. Rather than analysing how capitalism works, they instead set out how we would prefer that a political society without capitalism functioned – or, indeed, they confuse this for a necessity. And I think that we can say the same for ‘the people’: a breach in the hegemonic bloc that Laclau calls the ‘empty signifier’, the people represent its occupation by a group capable of determining a new universality. But it’s not as clear as that: rather, it seems on the one hand that the people is a ‘drift’ provoked by the struggle among different factions, and, on the other hand, that it ends up representing a new crystallisation of political identities.
The impression I draw from this – and without doubt this is the reason for our disagreements, but, I want to say it here once again, also the motive for our discussions, our debates and our exchanges – is that the empty signifier in Laclau represents a structuralist abstraction that loses sight of an essential fact: that what we here call the ‘empty’ is produced by an exodus and not by a structural modification. And this is what Bruno Cava (a Brazilian activist who has studied Laclau closely) has also quite rightly remarked: ‘If there is one thing that is very much evident today when we consider the current forms of politics, it is the detachment of “the people” from the functions of participation to which it had previously been linked by modern public law. In our situation today, the “empty signifier” is emptied out yet further – it has no hold on the multitude, but it is progressively consumed by strong powers who no longer have anything to do with the people or the nation or all the other fine concepts of modern political vocabulary. As for the movements, their immediate consistency is that of a concrete universality whose function is to suture and to articulate signifiers; but the power resides in the multitude, which is a class concept’.
Yet another consequence. For me it is very clear that Ernesto’s thinking situates itself in a sort of post-ideological era, where the class struggle has to give up its central place in favour of multiple different identities (which can take this place according to various different declinations). But it seems to me that this thinking cannot lead to anything specific when it is placed in the context of the coordinates that I mentioned a second ago: a hegemony/society X axis and a Left/Right Y axis. Within this system of coordinates, this mutation, which deontologises subjects, could very well base itself on singularities collaborating in a transversal manner and construct various social ‘war machines’ on a machinic plane (as Deleuze and Guattari would say). And in no case would these ‘war machines’ be the consequence of the urgent need to consolidate the contours of this mutation within a hegemony or a nation. This mutation could thus be represented as an illusion. We again have to ask ourselves if the empty signifier subjected to these tensions – beyond the fact of it being reduced to a sort of ‘centrist’ figure in the organisation of power – does not undergo a further shift. That is, it immobilises the political process because its dynamism, displaced toward the centre, is now incapable of producing power. Thus the transcendental synthesis is completely deprived of movement.
Here I arrive at the last crucial point: the historically determinate concretisation of the transcendental form.
The empty signifier operates at a national level. I think that for Laclau it was impossible to admit a cosmopolitan discourse, even as a horizon. Power needs a national identity in order to be able to possess a real consistency, having eliminated every fixed point. Even with globalisation, and even as the power of the nation-state declines, the concept of the nation-state cannot be abandoned. To abandon it would mean situating ourselves not only on a hardly-realistic terrain, but a dangerous one. Without national unity, the horizontal expansion of social protest and the verticality of a relation to the political system would be impossible. And Laclau insists that the experience of Latin America in the 1990s and 2000s provides ample confirmation of this.
For my part, I have a wholly different reading of this. There are some of us who think that the progressive movement that swept across Latin America at the turn of the century has been very strongly implicated in what we might describe as the transcendence ‘toward the outside’ of the national box within which each of the continent’s states was constrained by US domination and its imperialist values. It has been moving ‘toward the interior’ of Latin America that the horizontality of the movements has fully expressed itself on a large scale, sometimes anticipating and sometimes following a new continental spirit that has driven certain popular governments and allowed them to transcend any form of chauvinism. And chauvinism is reactionary in the Latin American tradition as in the European one.
We should recognise that Laclau’s nationalism gives no ground, here. In reality this goes back to his early works – I am thinking of his 1977 Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory. As against Althusser, indeed, Laclau maintained that the working class has an irreducible national specificity; and he exalted the Peronist experience, which he saw as having had ‘undeniable success in its work constituting a united democratic-popular language at the national scale’.
According to Stuart Hall, it is this nationalist choice that makes Laclau’s discursive position run the risk of losing all reference to the material practice of the class struggle and its historical conditions: the power of these conditions is so to speak ‘neutralised’ by the reference to the national context. We cannot consider society a totally open discursive field, and then on that basis fix political hegemony on a national-popular horizon: such an operation can only produce an assault on Fort Apache by the other social forces in play – as indeed was the case in Argentina. The consequence, in my view, is that Ernesto’s schema once again shows that it only stands up if it takes a ‘centrist’, governmental form. It cannot avoid offering itself up to a positivism of sovereignty exercised by a centrally acting authority. Again, here it is a formal transcendence that materially poses the question of power and justifies it.
We could however remark that particularly in Ernesto Laclau’s last works, the transcendence of command gradually ceased to be represented in exclusively national terms and in the name of an over-encumbering state centralism. I believe that here we can even find a certain self-distancing from the concept of Hobbesian origin according to which it is the power itself that has to form the people. And yet a paradox emerges, here: if the transcendence of command and the Hobbesian temptation are attenuated – in particular because there are still growing power irregularities in social relations in the contemporary world – this ‘impossible transcendence’ is materialised anew in Laclau. This time it is not sought out, but rather found, no longer constructed but imposed by the very mechanics of transcendentalism. In place of the multitude, the transcendental approach ever more sees a ‘full’ signifier consolidating by way of the emergence of a people – and thus founding politics. Is it that here we have a passage from criticism to something that would belong much more to the order of objective idealism?
I would like to make a few concluding points. Ernesto Laclau brilliantly shows that the people is not a natural or spontaneous formation; on the contrary, it is constituted by representative mechanisms that translate the plurality and heterogeneity of singularities into a unity. And if this unity becomes a reality through identification with a leader, a dominant group, and in certain cases an ideal, then despite everything this conception seems to owe much to a certain ‘aristocratic’ idea reworking the deepest-rooted and most enduring themes of the modern history of the state. Perhaps this is where we find the confirmation of this turn from criticism to objective idealism, which I mentioned just a moment ago. The central role that Laclau ascribes to intellectuals and communication in political organisation is telling, in this regard. The concept of the ‘organic intellectual’, so dear to Gramsci, is here entirely left behind, while the autonomous function of the intellectual as an auxiliary force in the construction of hegemony – or leadership? – is clearly asserted. Strangely, however, that is exactly the thing Ernesto refused to do throughout his life as a democratic and socialist activist, and we must absolutely recognise the total probity and courage of this refusal. But then why do we have this unity of ‘the autonomy of politics’ and intellectual leadership?
I have often ‘re-played’ this confrontation between my own thinking and Laclau’s over the last twenty years. I will say candidly now, just as I had the opportunity to put to him directly: I think that while his thinking is very forceful, his conception of populism is less the product of a reflection on power than a reflection on the concept of ‘transition’ and power in the transition – in the passage from one era of its organisation to another. Laclau’s populism is the invention of a mobile form of mediation, of and in the transition of political systems – above all the Latin American ones, if not only that. A form that I continue to consider a ‘weak’ one – not conceptually, but for the reality that it is observing, and because this ‘void’ that it takes as a problem is often less a ‘void’ to be filled than an abyss it risks failing into.
And this ‘weakness’ is further accentuated by the fact that Laclau simultaneously refused to open his work to an ontological inquiry, and thus to give sense to the emergence of the new; but also, because he admits that the governance of a transition must necessarily be constituent, this uncertain constituent dimension ends up paradoxically repeating the models of modernity. In particular, it denies any emancipatory tension. In truth, to the extent that Laclau is willing to place himself in this tension between spontaneity and organisation, but at the same time effaces the material dimensions of the class struggle, he ends up reprising some rather problematic aspects of European public law. For example, when Carl Schmitt took on the question of social movements, he defined their shape precisely by recognising that these social movements constituted the plot of the popular composition of the state – a recognition from above of the below, which politicises society for the purpose of constructing a national identity. I am also thinking of the manner in which Schmitt defines the site of political representation as the ‘presence of an absence’. An absence that always has to be filled, if the state is to exist; a presence that always has to be emptied-out, if the state is to stand super partes. So to what extent is the ‘empty signifier’ the repetition of Schmitt’s model of representation?
I am well aware that these questions are probably improper interference: for Ernesto, certainly, these were simply instruments that could be recuperated from the archive of European public law. Because the importance – or further, the greatness – of Ernesto’s thought does not so much consist of a capacity to resolve the problem of the empty signifier, or conversely (I will formulate the same problem seen from the Right, if you will) to refuse to resort to the class struggle and social conflict in order to fill it. Rather, it consists of having lived the problem from within. This floating signifier that he saw in front of him – this ‘thing’, this ‘machine’ – was not the old model of the state that we knew in the form of the modern state, but something new. Here there is a constituent tension extending, acting, expressing itself on the terrain of the crisis of the modern democratic state. It is not a matter of discovering this state that we have been subject to up till present, but of constituting a new one. Of inventing a new empty signifier for a radically democratic transition. Here, criticism in its original sense its exultant – meaning, not so much an axis for the transcendental construction of the state, but a problematic investment in its crisis.
I think that this set of points (which we could summarise, I think, as ‘what our debate owes to Ernesto’ – and it owes a lot to him – as well as ‘what difficulties Ernesto’s thought poses us’ – and I think that I have explained what points this disagreement crystallises around) – is the set of points that we ought to be working with when we today see certain astonishing, not to say improper, usages of a thought like Laclau’s.
When, for example, people try to put a sort of ‘hat’ on real movements and refuse to see that this hat itself poses a problem – not its size but the hat itself; or when, in order to purify the movements’ always somewhat ‘dirty’ vitality, we take the image of the old Italian Communist Party as a model of listening to the people speak and giving it direction – as is everywhere increasingly commonplace, for the European and Latin-American Left. Of course that is not enough to dissipate or obfuscate the extraordinary vitality of what Laclau’s work gives us to think about: still-open questions, sometimes questions that need to be reposed or reformulated, but always with this need to rise to the level of the problems posed. That is a need that Laclau made his own, and we ought to be infinitely grateful to him for that.
- Ernesto Laclau is the author of, amongst other works, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (with Chantal Mouffe), New Reflections of the Revolution of Our Time, Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory, The Rhetorical Foundations of Society, On Populist Reason, Contingency, Hegemony, Universality (with Judith Butler and Slavoj Zizek), and Emancipation(s).
- Antonio Negri is the author of over thirty books, including Political Descartes, Marx Beyond Marx, The Savage Anomaly, The Politics of Subversion, Insurgencies, Subversive Spinoza, and Time for Revolution, Books for Burning and, in collaboration with Michael Hardt, Labor of Dionysus, Empire and Multitude.