11. Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics

by breavman99

laclau and mouffe

This 1985 book was a big deal when I was an undergraduate: I read many essays and articles that made some kind of reference to it. Someday, I thought, I’m going to read that. But I never did. Then, last semester, I read a couple of  essays on socially engaged art practices that referred to the notion of antagonism in Laclau and Mouffe, one by Shannon Jackson and one by Claire Bishop, and so I decided that I would add Hegemony and Socialist Strategy to my comprehensive examination reading list. Besides, I was curious about the concept of hegemony. How did it work? Would it be possible, for example, to imagine a Canada where the hegemonic formation respected Indigenous rights and would never think of sending the RCMP to arrest people protecting their unceded land and water? Or a Canada where the long-term threat of climate change was more important than the short-term gain of selling fossil fuels? Or are such ideas merely utopian fantasies? 

A lot has happened in the more than 30 years since Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics was published, but it’s still considered to be an important book. In his introduction to a recent collection of Chantal Mouffe’s essays, for example, James Martin describes the book as a “slim yet ground-breaking volume” and a “major innovation in the theorisation of radical politics” (1). In their 2000 preface to the book’s second edition, Laclau and Mouffe suggest that most of what had happened since the book’s first appearance has closely followed the pattern they describe in it. “[T]hose issues which were central to our concerns at that moment have become ever more prominent in contemporary discussions,” they write (vii), and their discussion of the hegemonic formation of neo-conservatism in the book’s final chapter certainly does seem to explain much of our political life since the 1980s.

Hegemony and Socialist Strategy is a difficult book, but the preface to the second edition does help to summarize its argument. Laclau and Mouffe set out to deconstruct existing Marxist categories, and they describe their “post-Marxism” as “the process of reappropriation of an intellectual tradition, as well as the process of going beyond it” (ix). That deconstruction uses poststructualist theory to take apart the essentialisms and totalizations of Marxism. So, Laclau and Mouffe, drawing from Michel Foucault, argue that the social is a discursive space, and discourses dissolve the illusion of an immediate or non-mediated access to things (xi). From Jacques Derrida, they take the notion of undecidability, and from Jacques Lacan, the idea that one element can assume a “universal” structuring function within a given discursive field, as well as the importance of “identification” as a category (xi-xii). But their real starting point is Antonio Gramsci’s theory of hegemony. In a hegemonic relation, they write, “a certain particularity assumes the representation of a universality entirely incommensurable with it” (xiii). A hegemonic relation is therefore metonymic: a part claims to represent the whole. Such representations, though, are always reversible and never permanent; they are therefore political, depending on “internal frontiers within society” (xiii). That leads to the notion of antagonism. Society is constituted around the limits defined by antagonisms; they are social divisions that are inherent in society and in politics (xiv). Laclau and Mouffe reject the idea that rational people will come to a consensus about social or political issues. That consensus is impossible, because antagonisms—opposing ideas about what is important or true—define the terrain of the social and the political. The “sacralization of consensus,” they write, is a problem, because it means “abandoning any attempt at transforming the present hegemonic order” (xv)—and that kind of transformation is what they think needs to happen. Such a transformation, however, does not mean abandoning the values espoused by liberal democracy. “In our view, the problem with ‘actually existing’ liberal democracies is not with their constitutive values crystallized in the principles of liberty and equality for all,” Laclau and Mouffe write, “but with the system of power which redefines and limits the operation of those values” (xv). That is the reason their project of “‘radical and plural democracy’” was conceived as a way of extending “the democratic struggles for equality and liberty to a wider range of social relations” (xv-xvi).

For Laclau and Mouffe, there are alternatives to “the so-called ‘globalized world,’” and thinking about that world through the category of hegemony

can help us to understand that the present conjuncture, far from being the only natural or possible societal order, is the expression of a certain configuration of power relations. It is the result of hegemonic moves on the part of specific social forces which have been able to implement a profound transformation in the relations between capitalist corporations and the nation-states. This hegemony can be challenged. (xvi-xvii)

Challenging that hegemony and elaborating a credible alternative to it are the jobs of the Left, they continue, not managing that hegemony more humanely. Those tasks would require “drawing new political frontiers and acknowledging that there cannot be a radical politics without the definition of an adversary,” they continue. In other words, those tasks would require “the acceptance of the ineradicability of antagonism” (xvii). “Conflict and division, in our view, are neither disturbances that unfortunately cannot be eliminated nor empirical impediments that cannot render impossible the full realization of a harmony that we cannot attain because we will never be able to leave our particularities completely aside in order to act in accordance with our rational self,” they write (xvii). Indeed, “without conflict and division, a pluralist democratic politics would be impossible,” because the moment conflicts or antagonisms were eliminated, democracy itself would disintegrate (xviii). “[A]ny form of consensus is the result of a hegemonic articulation,” they continue, and such an articulation “always has an ‘outside’ that impedes its full realization” (xviii). There is always resistance to any consensus, in other words, because something, or someone, is left outside of it. Moreover, Laclau and Mouffe believe that “a chain of equivalence among the various democratic struggles against different forms of subordination” needs to be created; that is, “struggles against sexism, racism, sexual discrimination, and in the defence of the environment need to be articulated with those of the workers in a new left-wing hegemonic project” (xviii). That’s easier said than done, of course, because of the antagonisms that cut through society—antagonisms or divisions between, for example, Indigenous people whose land is threatened by pipelines, and steel workers whose livelihoods depend on the construction of those pipelines. (I might not be using the word “antagonism” in a technically correct way, according to this book’s argument, but I hope I am.)

The first two chapters of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy set out how the version of hegemony that Laclau and Mouffe present is different from past Marxist theory. In the first chapter, the authors take classical Marxism to task for its essentialism and its belief in a historical teleology, among other things. In the second, they show how their definition of hegemony is different from Gramsci’s. At the beginning of the third chapter, they write that those two earlier chapters have “provided us with something more and something less than a precise discursive location from which to embark” (79). Much of the third chapter attempts to define the key terms in their argument: articulation, moment, discursive formation, discourse, and society. For example, they argue that “society” is not a self-defined totality, nor a valid object of discourse (97), because it is only partially fixed (or, I think, coherent and capable of definition): “If the social does not manage to fix itself in the intelligible and instituted forms of a society, the social only exists . . . as an effort to construct that impossible object” (98). That’s not a surprise, because “[a]ny discourse is constituted as an attempt to dominate the field of discursivity, to arrest the flow of differences, to construct a centre,” and the word “society” is part of discourse, rather than something outside of discourse (98). “[T]he privileged discursive points of this partial fixation,” they continue, are “nodal points”—another key term in their argument:

The practice of articulation, therefore, consists in the construction of nodal points which partially fix meaning; and the partial character of this fixation proceeds from the openness of the social, a result, in its turn, of the constant overflowing of every discourse by the infinitude in the field of discursivity. (100)

Yes, you need to have read some poststructuralist theory to follow this argument, but it’s not impossible to understand: everything—both society and the individual subject—is “penetrated by the same ambiguous, incomplete and polysemical character which overdetermination assigns to every discursive identity” (107-08). However, there are limits to difference: those limits are antagonisms (108). An antagonism is not a contradiction (110), nor is it an opposition (110-11). Rather, in an antagonism, “the presence of the ‘Other’ prevents me from being totally myself,” a relation that arises from the impossibility of the constitution of full totalities (111). In other words, “Insofar as there is antagonism, I cannot be a full presence for myself” (111); “antagonism constitutes the limits of every objectivity”—that is, every opposition—“which is revealed as partial and precarious objectification” (111). This is complicated stuff, and the example Laclau and Mouffe provide doesn’t clarify things much: “it is because a peasant cannot be a peasant that an antagonism exists with the landowner expelling him from his land,” they write (111). I’m not sure I understand that idea: doesn’t the antagonism between peasant and landowner exist prior to the landowner’s decision to expel the peasant from the land? In practice, however, it seems that “antagonism,” as Laclau and Mouffe use the term, is a lot closer to its dictionary definition.

All of these definitions are, our authors contend, the necessary theoretical elements “to determine the specificity of the concept of hegemony” (120). “It is because hegemony supposes the incomplete and open character of the social,” they write, “that it can take place only in a field dominated by articulating practices” (120). A hegemonic articulation “should take place through a confrontation with antagonistic articulatory practices”—in other words, “hegemony should emerge in a field criss-crossed by antagonisms,” although not every antagonism suggests or produces hegemony (122). “Thus, the two conditions of a hegemonic articulation are the presence of antagonistic forces and the instability of the frontiers which separate them,” Laclau and Mouffe continue. “Only the presence of a vast area of floating elements and the possibility of their articulation to opposite camps—which implies a constant redefinition of the latter—is what constitutes the terrain permitting us to define a practice as hegemonic,” they write. “Without equivalence and without frontiers, it is impossible to speak strictly of hegemony” (122). However, the proliferation of political spaces, and the complexity and difficulty of their articulation, are both central characteristics of advanced capitalist social formations, in which there is no single political space, but rather multiple political spaces, and therefore a plurality of democratic struggles (123-24). “This is why the hegemonic form of politics only becomes dominant at the beginning of modern times, when the reproduction of the different social areas takes place in permanently changing conditions which constantly require the construction of new systems of differences,” Laclau and Mouffe contend (125). Therefore, “the area of articulatory practices is immensely broadened,” and “every social identity becomes the meeting point for a multiplicity of articulatory practices, many of them antagonistic” (125). When I read that sentence, I thought about banks: everyone complains about service fees and the way the big banks treat their employees, but at the same time, we all have retirement funds invested in them, and so we all have a stake in their profitability—even if that profitability depends on the service fees and exploitation. Maybe I’m completely off base, but our social identities—or at least, my social identity—is a meeting point for those two (possibly antagonistic) articulations: my dislike of the banks and my need for their continuing profitability.

Laclau and Mouffe continue describing and defining hegemony and hegemonic formations for several more pages, but because their argument is abstract, it is difficult to grasp. It is only in the last chapter, where they begin to provide examples, that I started to feel that I knew what was going on. (And, as I review my notes from the third chapter, I’m starting to think I understand their argument—if I had time, I would reread that chapter, but I have too many other books to read to indulge in such repetition.) At the beginning of the last chapter, Laclau and Mouffe argue that we need to accept “the plurality and indeterminacy of the social” in order to create “a new political imaginary, radically libertarian and infinitely more ambitious in its objectives than that of the classic left” (136). “[P]olitics is a practice of creation, reproduction and transformation of social relations,” they continue, and it cannot “be located at a determinate level of the social, as the problem of the political is the problem of the institution of the social, that is, of the definition and articulation of social relations in a field criss-crossed with antagonisms” (137). The central problem, therefore, is identifying “the discursive conditions for the emergence of a collective action, directed towards struggling against inequalities and challenging relations of subordination,” as well as identifying “the conditions in which a relation of subordination becomes a relation of oppression, and thereby constitutes itself into the site of an antagonism” (137). A relation of oppression, they continue, requires “the presence of a discursive ‘exterior’ from which the discourse of subordination can be interrupted” (138)—the way that the words serf or slave “do not designate in themselves antagonistic positions: it is only in the terms of a different discursive formation, such as ‘the rights inherent to every human being,’ that the differential positivity of these categories can be subverted and the subordination constructed as oppression” (138). I’m not sure that is true, particularly in the case of enslaved Africans in the New World: even prior to the French Revolution, which Laclau and Mouffe describe as the key moment in the invention of democratic culture (139), wouldn’t enslaved Africans have understood their enslavement as oppression? “Our thesis is that it is only from the moment when the democratic discourse becomes available to articulate the different forms of resistance to subordination that the conditions will exist to make possible the struggle against different types of inequality,” they write (138), a statement that ignores the revolts of the Diggers, to take one example, or any other struggle which took place prior to the 18th century.

It wasn’t until Laclau and Mouffe began to discuss the hegemonic formation that was constructed after the Second World War that I really started to understand their argument. That hegemonic formation involved a transition to “an intensive regime of accumulation” in which “capitalist relations of production” spread “to the whole set of social relations,” which were subordinated “to the logic of production for profit” through Fordism, the assembly line, and the transformation of society “into a vast market in which new ‘needs’ were ceaselessly created, and in which more and more of the products of human labour were turned into social commodities” (144). “Today,” they continue, “it is not only as a seller of labour-power that the individual is subordinated to capital, but also through his or her incorporation into a multitude of other social relations: culture, free time, illness, education, sex and even death. There is practically no domain of individual or collective life which escapes capitalist relations” (144-45). As a result, numerous new struggles have emerged, expressing resistance against these new forms of subordination (145). At the same time, there were growing levels of bureaucratization, imposing still other forms of subordination, and therefore other struggles emerged against bureaucratic forms of State power (146). “One cannot understand the present expansion of the field of social conflictuality and the consequent emergence of new political subjects,” Laclau and Mouffe argue,

without situating both in the context of the commodification and bureaucratization of social relations on the one hand, and the reformulation of the liberal-democratic ideology—resulting from the expansion of struggles for equality—on the other. For this reason, we have proposed that this proliferation of antagonisms and calling into question of relations of subordination should be considered as a moment of deepening of the democratic revolution. This has also been stimulated by the third important aspect in the mutation of social relations which has characterized the hegemonic formation of the post-war period: namely, the new cultural forms linked to the expansion of the means of mass communication. These were to make possible a new mass culture which would profoundly shake traditional identities. Once again, the effects here are ambiguous, as along with the undeniable effects of massification and uniformization, this media-based culture also contains powerful elements for the subversion of inequalities: the dominant discourses in consumer society present it as social progress and the advance of democracy, to the extent that it allows the vast majority of the population access to an ever-increasing range of goods. (147)

“Interpellated as equals in their capacity as consumers, ever more numerous groups are impelled to reject the real inequalities that continue to exist,” they continue (147-48), resulting in a “‘democratic consumer culture’ which stimulates the emergence of new struggles and the rejection of old forms of subordination (148). At the same time, “‘new antagonisms’” emerge, which “are the expression of forms of resistance to the commodification, bureaucratization and increasing homogenization of social life,” which explains why these new antagonisms “should frequently manifest themselves through a proliferation of particularisms, and crystallize into a demand for autonomy itself” (148). 

That demand for autonomy was part of “the two great themes of the democratic imaginary—equality and liberty” (148). As liberty became more central after the Second World War, it tended to become a discourse of the Right, not the Left. In other words, an antagonism can crystallize in any political orientation: “it always consists in the construction of a social identity—of an overdetermined subject position—on the basis of the equivalence between a set of elements or values which expel or externalize those others to which they are opposed” (148-49). New antagonisms emerge, along with new political subjects, linked to the expansion and generalization of the democratic revolution after the war, and yet those new struggles are not necessarily progressive (152). “All struggles,” Laclau and Mouffe write, 

left to themselves, have a partial character, and can be articulated to very different discourses. It is this articulation which gives them their character, not the place from which they come. There is therefore no subject—nor, further, any “necessity”—which is absolutely radical and irrecuperable by the dominant social order, and which constitutes an absolutely guaranteed point of departure for a total transformation. (153)

The novelty of neo-conservatism in the 1980s, for example, “lies in its successful articulation to neo-liberal discourse of a series of democratic resistances to the transformation of social relations,” including the resistance to the bureaucratic character of the new forms of State organization that arose after the war (153). “That the chains of equivalence which each hegemonic articulation constitutes can be of greatly differing natures is patently demonstrated by this neo-conservative discourse: the antagonisms constituted around bureaucratization are articulated in the defence of the traditional inequalities of sex and race” (153-54). This also explains the shifts in voting patterns—between left-wing and right-wing political parties—that often befuddle political observers. The new right in the 1980s constructed “a new historic bloc in which a plurality of economic, social and cultural aspects are articulated” (154), and even if the result was incoherent, it has lasted some 40 years. “What the neo-conservative or neo-liberal ‘new right’ calls into question is the type of articulation which has led democratic liberalism to justify the intervention of the State in the struggle against inequalities, and the installation of the Welfare State,” Laclau and Mouffe argue. It has done that by transforming the definition of liberty into a traditional, Lockean notion of liberty as “non-interference with the right of unlimited appropriation and with the mechanisms of the capitalist market economy” (156)—not to mention, in the United States, the liberty to obtain as many firearms as one can afford. At the same time, neo-liberalism discredits “every ‘positive’ conception of liberty as being potentially totalitarian” (156), to the point that the word “liberal” has become totally discredited in political discourse in some countries. New chains of equivalence are therefore created by the neo-liberal hegemony: equality=identity=totalitarianism, and difference=inequality=liberty. Neo-liberals attack the one, and affirm the other (158). These chains of equivalence help to create the new hegemonic formation of neo-conservatism or neo-liberalism: “It seeks a profound transformation of the terms of political discourse and the creation of a new ‘definition of reality,’ which under the cover of the defence of ‘individual liberty’ would legitimate inequalities and restore the hierarchical relations which the struggles of previous decades had destroyed” (159). “A series of subject positions which were accepted as legitimate differences in the hegemonic formation corresponding to the Welfare State are expelled from the field of social positivity and construed as negativity,” they continue (160). The only way for the Left to create an alternative, Laclau and Mouffe argue, would be to construct a different system of equivalents, establishing social division on a new basis, by “expanding the chains of equivalents between the different struggles against oppression” (160). “The task of the left therefore cannot be to renounce liberal-democratic ideology,” they write, “but on the contrary, to deepen it and expand it in the direction of a radical and plural democracy” (160). This is possible because “the meaning of liberal discourse on individual rights is not definitively fixed; and just as this unfixity permits their articulation with elements of conservative discourse, it also permits different forms of articulation and redefinition which accentuate the democratic movement” (160). All of this helps to explain, at a theoretical level, the failures of New Labour in the U.K., or of Clinton or Obama in the United States (or, for that matter, Trudeau in Canada): none of them were able to, or interested in, expanding liberal-democratic ideology in the direction of a radical and plural democracy, or creating systems of equivalents different from those of neo-liberalism. Indeed, all of those governments simply accepted those systems of equivalents. 

So, what is to be done? For Laclau and Mouffe, traditional, oppositional (negative, in their formulation) left-wing politics is not sufficient to create a hegemony: “A situation of hegemony would be one in which the management of the positivity of the social and the articulation of the diverse democratic demands had achieved a maximum integration,” they write (173). Therefore, a radical democratic alternative for the Left “must base itself upon the search for a point of equilibrium between a maximum advance for the democratic revolution in a broad range of spheres, and the capacity for the hegemonic direction and positive reconstruction of these spheres on the part of subordinated groups” (173). Hegemonic positions begin with negativity, with opposition, but they are only consolidated by constituting the positivity of the social. Those two contradictory moments are both required. It is important to avoid utopianism or apoliticism—to avoid ignoring structural limits, on the one hand, or rejecting politics because of the limited character of the changes which are possible within it (174). But at the same time, it is important to avoid limiting the political to positivity alone—to the changes that can be made at present—and rejecting “every charge of negativity which goes beyond them” (174). Some aspect of the utopian impulse needs to remain, because “without ‘utopia,’ without the possibility of negating an order beyond the point that we are able to threaten it, there is no possibility at all of the constitution of a radical imaginary—whether democratic or any other type,” Laclau and Mouffe argue. “The presence of this imaginary as a set of symbolic meanings which totalize as negativity a certain social order is absolutely essential for the constitution of all left-wing thought” (174). In other words, “Every radical democratic politics should avoid the two extremes represented by the totalitarian myth of the Ideal City, and the positivist pragmatism of reformists without a project” (174).

So, is it possible to imagine a Canada where the rights of Indigenous nations are respected, or where a short-term economic reliance on fossil fuels is rejected? Could either hegemony be constructed, and if so, how? I’m still not sure; perhaps either idea is simply too utopian to realize now. Nevertheless, I find the ideas in the last chapter of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy to be very powerful. Take this response to traditional Marxism, for example: 

The discourse of radical democracy is no longer the discourse of the universal: the epistemological niche from which “universal” classes and subjects spoke has been eradicated, and it has been replaced by a polyphony of voices, each of which constructs its own irreducible discursive identity. This point is decisive: there is no radical and plural democracy without renouncing the discourse of the universal and its implicit assumption of a privileged point of access to “the truth,” which can be reached only by a limited number of subjects. In political terms this means that just as there are no surfaces which are privileged a priori for the emergence of antagonisms, nor are there discursive regions which the programme of a radical democracy should exclude a priori as possible spheres of struggle. Juridical institutions, the educational system, labour relations, the discourses of the resistance of marginal populations construct original and irreducible forms of social protest, and thereby contribute to all the discursive complexity and richness on which the programme of a radical democracy should be founded. (175-76)

So who knows? Perhaps the Unist’ot’en land defenders will become a key point in the articulation of a hegemonic formation of radical democracy in this country. We can hope so—even though, of course, the people defending their land in northern British Columbia would likely reject the label “Canadian,” and rightly so: they have their own nation. In any case, I am happy that I read—finally—Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: the complex articulation of hegemony Laclau and Mouffe put forward is fascinating and, potentially, helpful for my own research. In fact, I’m interested in reading the later works of both authors, in which they discuss the rise of populist movements in Europe and elsewhere. That investigation, however, will have to wait. I have other things to read first.

Works Cited

Laclau, Ernesto, and Chantal Mouffe. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Democratic Politics, 2nd edition, Verso, 2014.

Martin, James. “Introduction: Democracy and Conflict in the Work of Chantal Mouffe.” Chantal Mouffe: Hegemony, Radical Democracy, and the Political, Routledge, 2013, pp. 1-11.