Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics

Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics

by Ernesto Laclau

The arguments and controversies it has aroused are, furthermore, far from abating: the disintegration of the Soviet bloc, the emergence of new social and political identities linked to the transformation of late capitalism, and the crisis of a left-wing project whose essentialist underpinnings have increasingly come under fire have, if anything, made more relevant than ever the theoretical perspective that the book proposes.

  • Language: English
  • Category: Philosophy
  • Rating: 3.88
  • Pages: 200
  • Publish Date: May 17th 2001 by Verso
  • Isbn10: 1859843301
  • Isbn13: 9781859843307

Read the Book "Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics" Online

To elucidate the central argument: Laclau & Mouffe (L&M, henceforth) hold that pre-capitalist societies, including some contemporary third-world countries that have been under-developed by imperialism, naturally bifurcate into opposing camps because of the extremity of the oppression experienced at the hands of the royalists/ imperialists/ compradores. But, claim L&M, when societies experience democratic revolutions, such as those of the French and the American, societies become too complex to bifurcate into two, simplistically class-based camps. It strikes me as extremely ahistorical (and Euro-centric) to say that until the democratic revolutions of Western Europe and the United States, societies were so simplistically divided between the oppressors and the oppressed, that bifurcation along such lines was inevitable. L&M think Marx coped with the complexities of the new society by inventing the theory of class-struggle, by imposing a bifurcating narrative- proletarian v. According to L&M's historical narrative, when capitalism recovered from the economic crisis in the early years of the twentieth century, Marxist leaders sought to re-convince themselves of the inevitability of the socialist transformation. They claim that by the beginning of the twentieth century, European and American capitalism had already achieved a degree of complexity where there no longer was, in the sense that Marx understood it, a working class. Their interests are thus, L&M claim, no longer fully oppositional to that of the capitalist state. First of all, they presume without argument or defense that the methods of political engagement open to workers in western capitalist societies are legitimate and empowering. On a deeper level, even the sub-title of the book, Towards a Radical Democratic Politics presumes that, even if we consider western style representational democracy legitimately democratic, that we consider this a good in and of itself. That democracy is good and that western European style representational democracy is in fact democratic are never questioned by L&M. L&M point out, seemingly thinking it a more radical statement than it is, that class unity is not literal but symbolic- sense the struggles of peasants are not identical to those of the workers, the struggles of women not the same as those of male workers, those of some minorities are different than those of the working class of the dominant race, etc. So we can say, along with L&M, that every revolutionary crisis is never fully natural but the result of competing political discourses that unite different groups under the banner of one interest over another. L&M, again supposedly radically, claim that the interest at play in hegemony is not necessarily class based and can come from any social situation where an antagonism exists. I think that a Marxist could respond to L&M's claim of the arbitrary nature of the hegemonic subject- that it need not be class based- by saying: Okay. L&M posit that white-collar employees are not working-class, but this is an illusion that only holds during the times of comfortable capitalism, such as the years when the book was written. As all politics is ultimately just the game of hegemony for L&M, they describe two different ways of playing the game. But societies as radically different as those of Cuba, the DPRK, and Vietnam could all be described as being led by Leninist governments, and anyone who knows anything about any of those countries understands that the cultural traditions of the relative countries have shaped the way their respective states have developed at least as influentially as anything Lenin ever posited. So, through this more legitimately democratic participation in discourse, the working class is not represented but must present itself in the political sphere. As not all problems can be reduced to class issues, such as the struggle for gay equality, this present class of worker/consumers must then attend to the needs of a given community- such as the gay community, by acknowledging its presence in the discourse- and the discourse is thus transformed by the new presence within it of the gay community. While I acknowledge that any discourse can give way to the impulse to claim that it answers all questions, I think L&M overstate the danger of this impulse. Any negated difference, any element reduced to a moment, has the potential to become a site of antagonism, and it is just these moments of antagonism that call for a hegemonic articulation in a democratic sphere, so as to re-assert, at least momentarily, the totality. Positive identities of subordination, such as slave or surf cannot become sites of antagonism because a slave is not in any way denied a state of being. However, I think L&M mean that situations like slavery give way to bifurcations that are not actually antagonistic. They do not require a hegemonic articulation to maintain the discursive totality because such relations will give way to revolt. While it may be true that slavery leads to bifurcation, not the antagonistic discourse defined by L&M, its status as a democratic institution problemitizes further L&M's claim that representational democracy is uniquely complex, and cannot lead to bifurcated struggles. This creates a crisis for the discourse of democracy that hegemony will have to address, so as to bring the subordinated party into the discourse. This ignores the ways in which struggles not directly addressed by socialism, such as gay rights, have taken root and made great gains in Cuba, and through the participation of its vanguard party, but I have already made this point.

Whereas someone like Althusser is mainly interesting as an episode of Marxist intellectual history, Laclau and Mouffe remain extremely relevant to social struggles today. Unlike dogmatists of the old left, the authors see the value of the new social movements - environmentalism, feminism, anti-racism, gay rights, etc.

Ms Thatcher was a post-structuralist, or the birth of non-politics Through my ratings, reviews and edits I'm providing intellectual property and labor to Amazon.com Inc., listed on Nasdaq, which fully owns Goodreads.com and in 2013 posted revenues for $74 billion and $274 million profits. The authors frame very well what the Right wants and accurately describe an ideology that by 1985 has gained the upper hand (aka 'hegemony') by promoting a crystallized vision of social order and the economy that is the more powerful for lacking any epistemological foundation whatsoever. Democracy - which never gets a proper epistemological treatment (the authors thus betray having a conscience) - demands instead to embrace pluralism and to make alliances across pluralistic struggles (e.g feminism-environmentalism-anti-capitalism) to engage not in a revolution but in a war of position. But denying antagonism in favour of a thousand flowers supposed to bloom is to mistake participation - within the safe boundaries of one's class (non-politics) - for a game that cannot be safe for everyone (politics).

What blocs form and produce a new hegemony depends upon a number of factors: the particular issues which become most salient and lead to groups "choosing up sides" on which position to take with respect to the emergent agenda, pre-existing interests and views characteristic of the group, and the extent to which segments of different groups' views can be articulated together in alliance with other groups to become a bloc. . .a 'wild' antagonism which does not predetermine the form in which it can be articulated linked up: to other elements in a social system." Furthermore, rapid change is possible in a current hegemony. The groups bound together as a bloc may find their articulation coming apart at the seams; latent antagonisms may come to the fore and lead to a rearticulation of interests into a new bloc.

I agree with much of Laclau and Mouffe's argument: about the need to move beyond a narrow focus on Class/State/Economy to connect struggles over multiple antagonisms in multiple sites, and the consequent importance of a strategy of hegemony. Perhaps Laclau and Mouffee would flinch at Lih saying that "the high-level ideological justifications put forth by Mensheviks and Bolsheviks in 1917 and repeated today were not the base but rather the superstructure of their political stands", but Laclau and Mouffe's inattention to the history of the revolution-from-below compromises their arguments - especially where Laclau and Mouffe's assumptions differ from the (incomparably more scholarly) findings of someone like Lih. Closer to my own area of research, a number of Laclau and Mouffe's statements are sweeping and simplistic: "the monolithic transvestite (!) that Marxism-Leninism presented as the history of Marxism", "the construction of a ghetto where the working class led a self-focused and segregated existence", "a clear separation within the masses between the leading sectors and those which are led", etc. Related to this is the inattention which Laclau and Mouffe pay to revolutions in the periphery - though theoretically important to their argument, there is little engagement with the works of e.g. Fanon - and the almost total dismissal of Mao ("near-to-zero philosophical value") and Maoism, despite quite considerable overlaps of interest and their rather greater political significance.

Additionally if you don't really care how this fits into and critiques the canon of elite left thinking, you could just read the last chapter and think about democracy, it is the most accessible, though that's not saying a huge amount!

Bringing Marxism into the current, "Post-Marxist" phase as many of the theoretical modes of analysis popularized during the 60's and 70's were simply unable to stop the spread of the Conservative hegemony that dominated the 1980's. Remember, this book was published prior to the 24-hour news cycle that currently dominates the cable networks. This section is poigniant for the simple fact that when this book was published in 1985 the West was at the height of Conservative-Hegemony (Reagan and Thatcherism).

Hegemony is hugely engaging in the parts where it doesn't get bogged down in its own theoretical complexity (a problem mostly confined to chapters 2-3) and leaves even those fundamentally skeptical of the fine points of Laclau & Mouffe's 'radical democracy'-project with questions on the social nature of Marxism that can't be dismissed out of hand, but rather should be incorporated. Chapter 1 traces the development of the revolutionary subject, from Marx's (purportedly) teleological view of the proletariat as inherently destined to make the revolution, to Rosa Luxemburg's constructivist view, Sorel's mythological blocs and, finally, Lenin's anti-essentialism in which classes cán take up, but are not confined to, their historical role. For instance, they take the example of effective worker resistance (leading to laws against child labour, power abuse, etc) as proof that change happens outside the 'mechanistic' scope of capitalist accumulation; one must wonder, though, how they see this as falling outside the scope of the contradictions inherent in capitalism, already theorized by Marx himself. Hegemonizing, fine, and it's true that revolution is not the only moment where a hostile system can be forced to change; however, and despite never overtly pointing to specific institutions or concrete tactics, their idea-based War of Positions seems to remain confined to the level of discourse - which in reality translates to parliaments, protest marches and not a whole lot else.

I don't want to define myself, but post-Marxist is a pretty accurate descriptor, and this is the movement's premier manifesto.