The position outlined in this book is usually described as post-Marxist because it rejects a Marxist economic determinism and b the view that class struggle is the most important antagonism in society. In the final chapter of the book, the project of "radical and plural democracy" was advocated: a democracy in which subjects accept the importance of the values of liberty and equality, but fight over what the terms mean. By drawing on the work of the later Wittgenstein, they argued that social entities only become meaningful through discursive articulation. As such, the meaning of something is never pre-given but is, instead, constructed through social practices. In his more recent works Laclau returned to a topic that was prevalent in his earliest writings: populism.
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Partly in its difficulty Sweet Christmas is difficult an understatement , but also, after much struggle for comprehension, its depth of understanding of populism and how exactly it works. Luckily it is fairly unique. That all goes to say this is a boring work in progress that should be read as such even more than all my other boring posts on books. It is in argument with both work on populism and the masses as well as with thinking around class formation and revolution and agency within Marxism.
As well as with Hegel and Zizek and others. I do not untangle all of these arguments. Could not. I love the concept of hegemony but hardly touch it as constituted here. Life is short and I still wish people had gone with Fromm as their psychoanalyst of choice.
But no. Part I: The Denigration of the Masses Just to give you a taste of the language: As I argue there, the impossibility of fixing the unity of a social formation in any conceptually graspable object leads to the centrality of naming in constituting that unity, while the need for a social cement to assemble the heterogeneous elements once their logic of articulation functionalist or structuralist no longer gives this affect its centrality in social explanation.
So my task, as I conceived it was to bring to light the specific logics inherent in that excess, and to argue that, far from corresponding to marginal phenomena they are inscribed in the actual working of any communitarian space.
My attempt has not been to find the true referent of populism, but to do the opposite: to show that populism has no referential unity because it is ascribed not to a delimitable phenomenon but to a social logic whose effects cut across many phenomena. Populism is, quite simply, a way of constructing the political. If defined as irrational, how then can political theory understand its rationalities?
This block comes from the longstanding academic distrust, fear and sometimes hatred of the masses, the bestowing of all rationality on the individual alone. Within this general decline, any group could degenerate into a crowd. Taine anticipates what will become the established wisdom among crowd theorists —namely; that rationality belongs to the individual, who loses many of his rational attributes when he participates in a crowd.
He likes to compare crowd behaviour to inferior forms of life, like plants or animals, or to primitive forms of social organization. And of course, Laclau argues that there also exists psychology specific to popular identity: Whatever its short-comings, crowd psychology had touched on some crucially important aspects in the construction of social and political identities — aspects which had not been properly addressed before.
But you have to work through a whole lot of difficult theoretical work to get there. The two pejorative propositions to which I referred were: 1 that populism is vague and indeterminate in the audience to which it addresses itself, in its discourse, and in its political postulates; 2 that populism is mere rhetoric. To this I opposed two different possibilities: 1 that vagueness and indeterminacy are not shortcomings of a discourse about social reality, but, in some circumstances, inscribed in social reality as such; 2 that rhetoric is not epiphenomenal vis-a-vis a self-contained conceptual structure, for no conceptual structure finds its internal cohesion without appealing to rhetorical devices.
If this is so, the conclusion would be that populism is the royal road to understanding something about the ontological constitution of the political as such. The categories he describes as central to his approach: Discourse. Discourse is the primary terrain of the constitution of objectivity as such.
By discourse, as I have attempted to make clear several times, I do not mean something that is essentially restricted to the areas of speech and writing, but any complex of elements in which relations play the constitutive role. This means that elements do not pre-exist the relational complex but are constituted through it. Given that we are dealing with purely differential identities, we have, in some way, to determine the whole within which those identities, as different, are constituted the problem would not, obviously, arise if we were dealing with positive, only externally related, identities.
How is this possible? There is a rhetorical displacement whenever a literal term is substituted by a figural one. It is, in other terms, one way of constituting the unity of the group. Obviously, it is not the only way of doing so. There are other logics operating within the social, and making possible types of identity different from the populist one.
This oppositional character is central to all definitions. The requests are turning into claims. Here we have, in embryo, a populist configuration. There is a third precondition which does not really arise until the political mobilization has reached a higher level: the unification of these various demands —whose equivalence, up to that point, had not gone beyond a feeling of vague solidarity — into a stable system of signification This essentially means that multiple groups and multiple demands can be brought together the equivalential chain or articulation in a way that does not eliminate differences, merely connects them together in opposition.
But not necessarily a populist one. Also required is crisis. What was simply a mediation between demands now acquires a consistency of its own.
Although the link was originally ancillary to the demands, it now reacts over them and, through an inversion of the relationship, starts behaving as their ground. Without this operation of inversion, there would be no populism. This happens when …some kind of common denominator has to be found which embodies the totality of the series.
Since this common denominator has to come from the series itself, it can only be an individual demand which, for a set of circumstantial reasons, acquires a certain centrality Let us remember our Solidarnosc example, above. This is the hegemonic operation, which I have already described.
There is no hegemony without constructing a popular identity out of a plurality of democratic demands. So let us locate the popular identity within the relational complex which explains the conditions of both its emergence and its dissolution.
Two aspects of the constitution of popular identities are important for us. First, the demand which the popular identity crystallizes is internally split: on the one hand, it remains a particular demand; on the other, its own particularity comes to signify something quite different from itself: the total chain of equivalential demands. While it remains a particular demand, it also becomes the signifier of a wider universality. On to the nature of populist leadership. A second problem that is not completely solved in the literature on populism concerns the centrality of the leader.
How do we explain it? In my view, this kind of explanation is useless. The leader is in some ways like the empty signifier. A necessary focus. A world of theory I work with very little. This is a handy summary of how far we are though: A final and crucial dimension must, however, be added to our analysis. But in discussing the constitution of popular identities, we are dealing with a very particular type of whole: not one which is just composed of parts, but one in which a part functions as the whole in our example: a plebs claiming to be identical with the populus.
But finally we are ready to bring it all together. I see social logics as involving a rarefied system of statements — that is to say, a system of rules drawing a horizon within which some objects are representable while others are excluded.
A political logic, however, has something specific to it which is important to stress. While social logics consist in rule-following, political logics are related to the institution of the social.
Such an institution, however, as we already know, is not an arbitrary fiat but proceeds out of social demands and is, in that sense, inherent to any process of social change. This change, as we also know, takes place through the variable articulation of equivalence and difference, and the equivalential moment presupposes the constitution of a global political subject bringing together a plurality of social demands.
I see this moment of vagueness and imprecision — which, it should be clear, does not have any pejorative connotation for me — as an essential component of any populist operation.
There is a tension between the differences among the multiple demands and the particular demand, but neither can fully stand in for the other so this tension must be present and balanced to create movement. Laclau makes the really interesting observation here about how often it is not precisely the content of D1 that matters to individuals, but its form, ie its radicalism.
This explains why so many of the left seemingly quite easily can swing to the right — the swing in support for the New Deal to New Conservativism for example. This is undoubtedly my favourite sentence for style and verve. So forget Hegel. I do myself feel a desire to make this all a little more material here, root this in concrete oppressions. But this wider definition makes more sense of the rise of Trump and the revolt of the still-well-to-do-though-not-as-well-to-do-as-before masses. This is a political process and upends Habermas and Rawls who see representative democracy as politicians representing the will of the people presuming that to be pre-existing when in fact it must be constructed.
This is why populism can fit within both totalitarian and liberal democratic regimes. And again, it does not arise without crisis. This is so prescient of our current conjuncture. So some degree of crisis in the old structure is a necessary precondition of populism for, as we have seen, popular identities require equivalential chains of unfulfilled demands.
Without the slump of the s, Hitler would have remained a vociferous fringe ringleader. The system is less well structured, and requires some kind of periodical recomposition. In that case, the populist forces challenging it have to do more than engage themselves in the ambiguous position of subverting the system and, at the same time, being integrated into it: they have to reconstruct the nation around a new popular core.
Here, the recon-structive task prevails over that of subversion. On the contrary, it is the result of a complex construction process which can, among other possibilities, fail to achieve its aim.
I think they do. This designates not a given group, but an act of institution that creates a new agency out of a plurality of heterogeneous elements. For this reason, I have insisted from the very beginning that my minimal unit of analysis would not be the group, as a referent, but the socio-political demand.
That is why populist reason — which amounts, as we have seen, to political reason tout court breaks with two forms of rationality which herald the end of politics: a total revolutionary event that, bringing about the full reconciliation of society with itself, would make the political moment superfluous, or a mere gradualist practice that reduces politics to administration.
Let us move now to the other angle: the partiality of the universal. This is where the true ontological option underlying our analysis is to be found. Whatever ontic content we decide to privilege in an ontological investment, the traces of that investment cannot be entirely concealed. The partiality we privilege will also be the point that universality necessarily inhabits. Or, rather: does the latter oppose a non-transparent medium to an otherwise transparent experience, so that an irreducibly opaque non- representative moment becomes constitutive?
The psychoanalytic category of overdetermination points in the same direction. Whether nationalism, for instance, is going to become a central signifier in the constitution of popular identities depends on a contingent history impossible to determine through a priori means.
This politics and process of construction centres around a socio-political demand. Through this a portion of the larger population articulated around this demand comes to argue it represents the whole — the universality of the partial. Number 3…whew.
Laclau On Populist Reason