sábado, 26 de febrero de 2011

Interrogating post-Marxism: Laclau and Mouffe, Foucault, and Žižek

By Matthew Nash
Thesis submitted to the faculty of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State
University in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts
Political Science.
Dr. Chad Lavin
Dr. Janell Watson
Dr. Timothy Luke
November 18, 2009
Blacksburg, VA
Keywords: post-Marxism, ideology, hegemony, Ernesto Laclau, Michel Foucault,
Slavoj Žižek Interrogating post-Marxism: Laclau and Mouffe, Foucault, and Žižek
Matthew Nash
According to Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, our postmodern era and its correlate
political problematic requires a shift in positing socialist strategy. Their wager is that by shifting
away from essentialist Marxism, and towards a post-Marxist theory of hegemony which they
adapt from Gramsci, the analytic for overturning contemporary hegemony will take the form of a
radical democratic politics. My contention is that in shifting away from essentialist Marxism
through their post-structuralist deconstructive stance, Laclau and Mouffe overstep and make their
analytic for socialist strategy impotent. In order to show where Laclau and Mouffe have gone
wrong I use primarily the work of Michel Foucault and Slavoj Žižek in order to demonstrate
how a post-structuralist theory of ideology need not be a post-Marxist theory of ideology. iii
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Capitalism Disavowed 1
Theoretical Deadlock 3
Safeguarding Orthodoxy 8
Positing the Continuous 11
Ideology in the Postmodern 14
Moving Beyond the Deadlock 17
Chapter 2: Radical Contingent Historicism 19
On Historicity 22
Bracketing Foucauldian Distinctions 26
Leveling Historical Processes 33
Maintaining a Critical Politics 38
Chapter 3: The Dimension of the Real: From Reformism to Revolution 42
Over-rapid Historicization 45
Traversing the Fantasy 47
Chapter 4: An Insufficient Strategy 54
The Universality of the State 55
The Horror of the State 57
Direction 61
Works Cited 63 1
Chapter 1
Capitalism Disavowed
In Slavoj Žižek's article in the London Review of Books, "Resistance is Surrender" he sets
out the parameters for the options available to the Left today. He argues, "[t]oday’s Left reacts in
a wide variety of ways to the hegemony of global capitalism and its political supplement, liberal
democracy” (Žižek 2007). These ways include many recognitions of the futility of the struggle
against hegemony at present, and several maneuvers to avoid confronting concentrated power.
Among these are: reformism, or resistance from the ‘interstices’, or bombarding the state with
infinite demands. Other positions do not view the struggle as futile, and instead try refocusing
the field of struggle on every day practices, or enacting the determinate negation of capitalism, or
taking “the ‘postmodern’ route, shifting the accent from anti-capitalist struggle to the multiple
forms of politico-ideological struggle for hegemony, emphasising the importance of discursive
re-articulation” (Žižek 2007). For Žižek, all “these positions are not presented as a way of
avoiding some ‘true’ radical Left politics – what they are trying to get around is, indeed, the lack
of such a position" (Žižek 2007). This last attempt, Ernesto Laclau’s ‘postmodern’ route is the
one which will be analyzed here.
The focus of the present writing is an interrogation of the postmodern shift from class
struggle to the multiplicity of ideological struggles (race, gender, etc.) for hegemonic space,
using Laclau and Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy as its exemplar. The question then
to be asked is, how is post-Marxism and radical democracy—as terms that embody this shift—
an effort to cover up the lack of such a position? The answer is found in Laclau’s presentation of
his theory of hegemony. This writing seeks to clarify exactly where Laclau has gone wrong,
what from a theory of hegemony should be salvaged, and what should be left behind. In order to 2
do this, Laclau's work will be positioned primarily against the work of Michel Foucault and
Slavoj Žižek, to flesh out exactly what would qualify simultaneously as both a productive theory
of ideology and, not a direction towards a hegemonic 'true' radical Left politics in the
postmodern era, but a direction which aims at addressing the source of this ‘lack’ of a position.
The inquiry to be undertaken is then, to what extent can a supplementation of the favorable
aspects of Foucault’s theory of discourse and Žižek’s theory of ideology serve to bring a
concrete critical position to Laclau’s own theory?
My position is that there are some aspects of Laclau’s axiomatic ontology which are
adequate to posit a direction for socialist strategy today, but that there are also clear failures
which may or may not be inherent to the theory. It is the purpose of this thesis to see if the
necessary supplementation to the theory undermines key tenets of the theory, or whether they are
compatible. Politically, this thesis is in an effort to better apprehend the current problematic of
how to strategize a socialist movement today ideologically in the countries in the advanced
phases of capitalism and liberal democracy. What I will set out to prove is that Laclau’s theory of
hegemony is insufficient, in that it does not politicize the economy, but that if one can reassert
the importance of economic determination using that theory, one will have a view to achieving a
truly radical democracy with the proper historical trajectory in mind. Thus the two main
interrelated aspects to be addressed are political (radical democracy/post-Marxism) as well as
theoretical (theory of hegemony/Discourse Theory). In order to set up these successive critiques
I think it first necessary to flesh out a sufficient background to the theory of hegemony. This will
take the form of: moving beyond the current literature, giving the historical background which a
theory of hegemony disavows, and finding the direction the paper takes as a result of these
factors. 3
Theoretical Deadlock
Why then use Foucault and Žižek to critique Laclau in a direction that advocates socialist
strategy? In short, because these author’s’ theories have tenets which allows for a progression
beyond entrenched positions in theory. In Beverly Best's "Strangers in the Night" she identifies
an "almost conventionalized opposition " between Marxist and Post-Marxist positions, with the
concern that a reification of dichotomies associated with each position has generally led to
"instances of stagnation in social/political/cultural theory" (Best 1999 p. 1). Best has tried to
breach the conceptual impasse which has stemmed from this deadlock between Marxist and postMarxist positions, articulating a conjunction of Laclau and Fredric Jameson. But still, this
impasse seems to persist. Indeed, we find today that contemporary Marxists will accept many of
the terms on which Laclau distances himself from traditional Marxism, accepting the general
necessity of moving beyond orthodox essentialist Marxism. However I claim they refuse the
term ‘post-Marxism’ because of this shift to the postmodern relativity of ideological struggles,
the shift away from the primacy of class struggle (Eagleton 2007 p. 219). This refusal, or at least
warranted hesitation, can be best exemplified by attitudes towards Laclau and Mouffe's
Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, and Laclau's subsequent writings more broadly. I would argue
here that this anxious posture by Marxists is due primarily to the aforementioned postmodern
shift to the contingent struggle for hegemony, which I claim is a result of Laclau's disavowal of
the "'necessary' relation between forms of consciousness and social reality"—as this dissolves
any effort to designate agents of struggle (Eagleton 2007 p. 220). Thus the production of the
position of post-Marxism should be thought of as what Fredric Jameson refers to as the
symptomatology of the new mode of production--that is, it can only be understood as situated in
the society of Late capitalism. 4
Jules Townshend maps out Laclau and Mouffe’s efforts since and including Hegemony
and Socialist Strategy as comprising two different moves via Gramsci, a war of manoeuvre and a
war of position. Laclau and Mouffe’s war of manoeuvre is seen at the attempted “demolition of
the ‘essentialist’ core of Marxism” while the war of position consists of building up intellectual
allies and supporters, a more “dialogic approach” (Townshend 2004 p. 275). The demolition of
the essentialist core of Marxism is best seen through the somewhat polemical exchange between
Norman Geras and Laclau and Mouffe. I take this exchange to be the primary exemplar of the
deadlock between Marxist and post-Marxist positions, so it is worthwhile examining on what
points the difference lies. Geras criticizes Hegemony on three related levels, the methodological,
ontological, and the normative. Methodologically, he “stresse[s] explanatory variation in
Marxism from determination to relative autonomy”, asserting that “production and class relations
could be ‘primary’ explaining a ‘great deal’” (Townshend 2004 p. 272).Ontologically he rejects
their denial of the discursive/non-discursive dichotomy, arguing that they elide the distinction
between thought and material reality, which simultaneously denies the existence of any objective
reality to the effect that there can be no check on the truth of discourses. Normatively, he argues
that with the rejection of ‘objective interests’, Laclau and Mouffe cannot identify useful criteria
for “identifying and measuring exploitation and oppression”, hence this sort of relational antiessentialism “could support any kind of politics”(Townshend 2004 p. 273).
In “Post-Marxism without Apologies”, Laclau and Mouffe respond on the same three
levels. Methodologically, they assert the logical incompatibility of determination and autonomy,
and note that ‘relative autonomy’ simply manifests the limit of this incompatibility.
Ontologically they emphasize that the truth or meaning of an object can only be possible in a
discursive context, and reassert that they are not naïve enough to believe that objects exist only 5
within discourse (using here Heidegger’s being, Derrida’s text, and Wittgenstein’s language
games). Normatively, they assert that objective interests can only be discursively construed, but
that one can prefer one type of society over another pragmatically, “preferring ‘for a variety of
reasons’ the ‘verisimilitude’ of a particular alternative that is open to debate” (Townshend 2004
p. 273). As a result of this exchange, certain criticisms were not fully exorcised by Laclau, hence
there exists an unchallenged remainder. Townshend asserts that Laclau and Mouffe could have
been more thorough, that they did not fully exorcise Geras’ claim on the respective three levels.
Methodologically “there could be some form of explanatory primacy of material factors”
(Townshend 2004 p. 274). Ontologically, Laclau and Mouffe’s emphasis on the discursive nature
of truth production did not answer Geras’ effort to get at the testing of “explanation and
causality that appeals to or aspires to objectivity” (Townshend 2004 p. 274). Normatively, their
deconstruction of essentialism does not mean that we cannot apply an uncertain criticism to
foundationalism, that essentialist claims can “be grounded in ‘verisimilitude’ too” (Townshend
2004 p. 274).
Laclau and Mouffe’s war of position takes a less polemical tone, and a more productive
dialogic one, exemplified best through Butler, Laclau, and Žižek’s collection of dialogical
essays, Contingency, Hegemony, Universality. Here, the atmosphere is one in which the
theoretical affinities of post-Marxism are stronger between the three, and the primary goal is to
enhance the theoretical rigor of their respective political projects. Some of Žižek’s primary
criticisms of Laclau are on the historical ramifications of anti-essentialism, as well as the primary
structuring effects of capitalism; the two being seen as coextensive with a view to socialist
strategy. Žižek argues that, 6
Now we’ve reached the state that basically we’ve acknowledged everything is contingent,
everything is historicist, historicized, but this very fact brings us to some kind of–how
should I put it- eternal present of relativization of everything where the proper historical
tension is lost—which is why –in order to continue their struggle, [Laclau and Butler]
have to exaggerate all the time – essentialism is not yet dead, it’s still here, patriarchal
authority is still here – and so on and so on, only in this way can they avoid asking the
very simple question – what if their historicism (in the sense of for Judith Butler every
sexual identity is a historical contingent product, for Ernesto Laclau every political
identity is a contingent discursive product)… to ask the question, but what are the
specific historical conditions of this very view of radical contingent historicism? (Žižek
This sort of view of universal history is strictly correlative to capitalism’s production of
the multiplicity of subject positions from which Laclau founds his radical democratic project.
Thusly for Žižek, Laclau and Butler’s radical contingent historicism must be seen as a product of
a new mode of production. This new ‘Postmodern politics’—while it “’repoliticizes’ a series of
domains previously considered ‘apolitical’ or ‘private’; the fact remains, [..], that it does not in
fact repoliticize capitalism, because the very notion and form of the ‘political’ within which it
operates is grounded in the ‘depoliticization’ of the economy” (Butler, Laclau et al. 2000 p. 98).
The methodological, ontological, and normative issues which the surrounding literature
raises are, in my view, under-theorized. Whether it’s Jason Glynos and Jacob Torfing works
from the ‘Essex School’, or Slavoj Žižek and Judith Butler’s critiques and rebuttals in
Contingency, Hegemony, Universality—the literature surrounding Hegemony and Socialist
Strategy and subsequent publications has been either what Townshend refers to as the anti-7
essentialist ‘war of manouevre’ or the dialogic theoretical/political ‘war of position’. As noted
above, one of Geras’ claims is that Laclau and Mouffe inadequately deal with the relation
between thought and social reality, subsuming both under the discursive field. Terry Eagleton
shares this same criticism, claiming that they inappropriately deviate from Foucault’s theory of
discourse, resulting in the inability to ask where social ideas come from. This claim has not been
thoroughly unpacked in relation to the work of Foucault and Laclau. This is then one critique of
Laclau and Mouffe’s theory of hegemony. Another critique will deal with Laclau’s leveling of
the field of ideological struggle, attaching no ‘necessary’ relation between social actors and the
systemic effects of capitalism. My response to this will be to see to what extent Laclau’s own
theory, pushed in new directions by Žižek, can provide a critical theory which maintains the
historical tension and allows for the primacy of class struggle. My position will then be an
original sort of combination—to see the ramifications of Laclau’s deviation from Foucauldian
discourse; and to see how Žižek has supplemented Laclau’s own theory of hegemony to great
effect (due to a deeper attachment to Lacanian categories); and the productiveness of these two
critiques in fostering a deeper historical sense of socialist strategy at the level of ideology. The
purpose of the following chapters will be to flesh out what sort of deeper understanding of the
deficiencies and prospects of Laclau and Mouffe’s position can be had, and what direction is to
be taken for a theory of ideology that is properly historically grounded. This will be done
through axiomatic readings of both Foucault’s own theory of discourse, as well as Žižek’s theory
of ideology. Before developing these arguments however, I think it necessary to examine exactly
what sort of historical trajectory surrounds Laclau’s work. We can think of the production of the
Hegemony and Socialist Strategy through a series of inter-related developments. 8
Safeguarding Orthodoxy
In Ernesto Laclau’s short article, “The Philosophical Roots of Discourse Theory”, he
asserts that Discourse Theory (as the philosophical-ontological base for a theory of hegemony
from which Laclau’s political stance is derived from) has come out of three philosophical
developments with one thing in common. Analytical philosophy, phenomenology, and
structuralism had as their object the referent, the phenomenon, and the sign. In taking these
respective objects, these traditions all had “an initial illusion of immediacy, of a direct access to
things as they are in themselves”, but through their development, these illusions had ‘dissolved’,
to the point where “discursive mediations [ceased] to be merely derivative and became
constitutive” (Laclau 2001 p. 1).
Within Discourse Theory, the task is to accurately describe objects with a new awareness
of the nature of the discursive constitution of objects, whether partial or total. Laclau's theory of
discourse has passed through three developments, exemplified with Wittgenstein (analytic
philosophy), Heidegger (phenomenology), and Barthes, Derrida and Lacan (post-structuralist
critique of the sign), with the latter critique of the sign as that which Laclau and Mouffe identify
as the primary foundation for their theory of hegemony. The main tenets of this critique are thus
constitutive of Discourse Theory as “a differential ensemble of signifying sequences in which
meaning is constantly renegotiated” (Torfing 1999 p. 85). This definition is arrived at through
two related movements, first through the deconstruction of structure, and secondly through the
deconstruction of ‘atomized social elements’. That is, firstly, we can no longer talk about
determination—“in the absence of a complete totalization a structure exists only as a field of
signification within which an ambiguous and temporary order is established by a multiplicity of
mutually substituting centres” (Torfing 1999 p. 86). Secondly, the same principle of 9
deconstruction is applied to the atomization of social elements; there can be no totalization by
which the field of identity is exhausted. This is to say, both the character of ‘structure’ and the
character of atomized social elements like the ‘subject’ or ‘identity’ are never eternally fixed,
and always in play.
While Laclau and Mouffe’s philosophical underpinnings certainly seem to offer a theory
which has no determinate political option, they explicitly claim that their politics is one of radical
democracy, thus the move from Marxism proper to post-Marxism. In Laclau and Mouffe's
response to Geras' criticism of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy they rearticulate their historical
understanding of the political coordinates of their post-Marxist intervention. This history
includes Classical Marxism—grounding strategy in the working class, the recognition of the
contingency of this claim, and efforts to remedy. They note three types of responses to the
Second International classic Marxism,
the Orthodox Marxists affirmed that the tendencies of capitalism which were at odds with
the originary Marxist predictions were transitory, and that the postulated general line of
capitalist development would eventually assert itself, the Revisionists argued that, on the
contrary, those tendencies were permanent and that Social Democrats should therefore
cease to organize as a revolutionary party and become a party of social reforms; finally
revolutionary syndicalism, though sharing the reformist interpretation of the evolution of
capitalism, attempted to reaffirm the radical perspective on the basis of a revolutionary
reconstruction of class around the myth of the general strike (Laclau and Mouffe 1987 p.
This predicament of the “uneven and combined development” of capitalism forced agents to
assume tasks more in the realm of hegemony than those of the traditional working class. Thusly, 10
for Laclau and Mouffe, Gramsci’s concept of hegemony led Marxism away from essentialism
and into ‘language games’ and the ‘logic of the signifier’. Due to Communist political orthodoxy
and intellectual repression, the transition to post-Marxism had to look elsewhere for the
intellectual currents from which to strategize. The problem here is that in looking outside that
tradition they are forced to draw on currents rooted in Late capitalism. In responding to problems
within traditional Marxism, with a view to strategy from discursively constructed democratic
subject positions, they miss the point. The point is that (in thinking about the two mass
democratic projects of modernity) both the political imaginaries of the Communist Party and the
nation-state system fell prey to contradictions inherent to the economic and social conditions of
modernity. That, even if socialist strategy today is going to be an ideological one, without the use
of essentializing discourse, it still has to deal with contradictions intrinsic to that discourse. In
this respect Susan Buck-Morss has it right, “If the era of the Cold War is over, it is perhaps less
because one side has “won” than because the legitimation of each political discourse found itself
fundamentally challenged by material developments themselves” (Buck-Morss 2002 p. 39).
Indeed, while Laclau and Mouffe assert the rule for intellectual work as an "obstinant rigour"
which "leaves no space for sleights of hand that seek only to safeguard an obsolete orthodoxy"
they fall prey to the alternative, that is, safeguarding "that ideology known as (post-
)structuralism" (Laclau and Mouffe 1987 p. 79; Eagleton 2007 p. 219). Here we can think also of
Terry Eagleton’s insights into the political ramifications of deconstruction, that Laclau and
Mouffe’s vehement anti-essentialism “provides you with all the risks of a radical politics while
cancelling the subject who might be summoned to become an agent of them” (Eagleton 1981 p.
485). The anti-essentialist contingent historicism which Laclau and Mouffe deploy in
strategizing then lacks its necessary correlative, the insight of a re-construction of discursive 11
arrangements. The logic of equivalence speaks to the hegemonic construction of identity, but it
lacks the adequate concreteness with which to understand forward momentum towards socialist
ends, which mediations are necessary, and which should be bracketed aside.
Positing the Continuous
In putting the post in post-Marxism Laclau and Mouffe fall prey to that which follows
with a ‘break’ from capitalism rather than the continuities which persist in it. Laclau and Mouffe
refer to the “structural transformations of capitalism that have led to the decline of the classical
working class in the post-industrial countries” and the “increasingly profound penetration of
capitalist relations of production in areas of social life” as the most important of the historical
transformations which guide their position (Laclau and Mouffe 1987 p. 80). However, we can
think of two important and overlapping descriptions of the postmodern period—David Harvey’s
and Frederic Jameson’s. Both descriptions treat the term ‘post-industrial’ as invalid, in favor of a
more continuous approach to the transition of capitalism from the ‘modern’ to ‘postmodern’
Firstly, I believe it is worth enumerating David Harvey’s points on the descriptive
features of capitalism (informed by Marx) which can be seen as continuous from the post-war
period through today. While these features may be descriptive of other forms of political
hegemony, the emphasis here is on the underlying continuity of the features of capitalism which
are unchanging in the face of the surface-level change in the mode of production in the transition
from modernity to postmodernity.
1) “Capitalism is growth-oriented. A steady rate of growth is essential for the health of a
capitalist economic system, since it is only through growth that profits can be assured
and the accumulation of capital to be sustained. This implies that capitalism has to 12
prepare the ground for, and actually achieve an expansion of, output and growth in
real values, no matter what the social, political, geopolitical, or ecological
2) “Growth in real values rests on the exploitation of living labor production. […] This
implies that labour control, both in production and in the market place, is vital for the
perpetuation of capitalism.”
3) “Capitalism is necessarily technologically and organizationally dynamic.[…]
[O]rganization and technological change plays a key role in modifying the dynamics
of class struggle, waged from both sides, in the realm of labour markets and labour
control.[..] Furthermore, if labour control is fundamental to the production of profits
and becomes a broader issue for the mode of regulation, so technological and
organizational innovation in the regulatory system […] becomes crucial to the
perpetuation of capitalism” (Harvey 1989 p. 180).
Thus it can be seen that the continuity between the period in which traditional Marxist
analysis had best described, and the postmodern (post-1973) period in which Laclau and Mouffe
have produced their work, rests on dynamic responses to the question of “how the
overaccumulation tendency can be expressed, contained, absorbed, or managed in ways that do
not threaten the capitalist social order” (Harvey 1989 p. 181). If this is where the continuity lies,
wherein does the discontinuity present itself? For Harvey, the transition from Fordism to Flexible
Accumulation properly achieved in 1973 marks the break, not between industrial and postindustrial society, but between the modern and postmodern periods. The postmodern period does
not mean the end of industrial forms of production. Hence this shift is thought of through a
duality not necessarily as infrastructure-superstructure but rather production-consumption. That 13
is, on the production side, the limits of Fordism are made manifest, and more flexible labour
processes, markets, products and consumption patterns, sectors of consumption, financial
services and markets combined with higher rates of commercial, technological, and
organizational innovation emerge. The correlative consumption is marked by an aesthetic
instability, which “celebrates difference, ephemerality, spectacle, fashion, and commodification
of cultural forms”, in short, planned obsolescence (Harvey 1989 p.156).
Fredric Jameson, in a similar vein, finds the economic and cultural preparations of the
postmodern period as chronologically differentiated. The economic preparations of
postmodernism began in the 1950’s, while the “psychic habitus of the new age” demands the
“absolute break… achieved more properly in the 1960’s” (Jameson 1991 p. xx). The
crystallization of these two levels, of the economic system and the cultural ‘structure of feeling’
is thus somehow sedimented in 1973, with the oil crisis, the end of the international gold
standard, the end of wars of national liberation, and the beginning of the end of traditional
communism. The transition from modernism to postmodernism then can only be understood for
Jameson through a series of epicycles, economic, cultural, and their combination. That is,
“people become aware of the dynamics of some new system in which they themselves are seized
only later on and gradually. The dawning collective consciousness of a new system is not exactly
the same as the coming into being of fresh cultural forms of expression” (Jameson 1991 p. xix).
Hence the preconditions for the new cultural ‘structural of feeling’ “pre-exist their moment of
combination and crystallization into a relatively hegemonic style”, a prehistory chronologically
differentiated from the economic one (Jameson 1991 p. xix).
So here we can understand properly the position of Laclau and Mouffe in producing a
work in which the traditional working class of modern, or even Fordist periodization, is no 14
longer viable. However, the celebration of the postmodern late twentieth century as a more
diversified and democratic opportunity for emancipatory discourse involves a misrecognition of
the continuities which persist—the problem of overaccumulation, the containment and
absorption of the contradictions of capitalism, and the persistence of that vampire which “always
rises up again after being stabbed to death” (Žižek 2007). So what is the appropriate theory of
ideology to match this postmodern period?
Ideology in the Postmodern
In Jason Glynos’ “The Grip of Ideology” he rearticulates what both Žižek and Laclau
take as their starting point in contemporary times, notably, the end of ideology thesis. He argues
that, post-1989, we must accept the prevalence of the Fukuyama dream of the end of history, the
end of ideology (Glynos 2001 p.193). There are two paths we can take from this position, either
accept the thesis, and attempt to negotiate political positions from within a liberal-democratic
capitalist order, or on the other hand, view this end of ideology as the example par excellence of
the strength of ideology today. From this latter position we can generate vulgarly two more
positions, that of the more modern attribution of this effect to a false consciousness with an
inherent reference to objective truth, or the only critical position really available to us today, that
of unmasking reality as a historically contingent fiction, and to “recognize that Real in what
appears to be a mere symbolic fiction” (Vighi and Feldner 2007 p. 142). In the first occasion we
can simply think of Marx’s quote in Capital, ‘they do not know it, but they are doing it’, which
rests upon a “kind of basic, constitutive naivety” (Marx and McLellan 1999 p. 45; Žižek 1989 p.
28). Today, however, the strength of the critique of ideology (as a concept) is to be found as a
result of “philosophy’s ‘linguistic turn’ in the third quarter of the twentieth century” after which
we can no longer prop up ideology against “a true objective knowledge—a knowledge that can 15
be grasped by means of a seemingly transparent linguistic medium” (Glynos 2001 p. 193). This
point is most notably evaluated in reference to Foucault’s abandoning of the concept of ideology,
which for him always had to stand opposite something supposed to count as ‘truth’ (Foucault
2000 p. 119). The alternative for Foucault was to speak rather of ‘discourse’ and ‘truth regimes’,
an alternative developed further but also deviated from by the Discourse Theory of Laclau and
Mouffe in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (Foucault 2000 p. 132). But Foucault’s was not the
only position which shared this impetus away from objective truth “Wittgensteinian language
games, Heideggerian post-phenomenological hermeutics, Lacanian psychoanalysis, [and]
Derridean deconstruction […] have all in their way contributed to today’s so-called era of ‘postfoundationalism’” and it was these developments which informed Laclau and Mouffe’s
strategizing (Glynos 2001 p. 193).
Therefore, the category of misrecognition or false or distorted consciousness cannot be
abandoned for Laclau however. In one sense it can, the one that relies on objective truth as
within human reach. But, abandoning the concept in itself is “not an option for theories that
adopt a critical perspective on society” (Cooke 2006 p. 8). For Laclau, false consciousness is the
belief that historically concrete representations can constitute fully the empty signifiers to which
they refer. For Laclau, this is equivalent to essentialism and naturalizing of particular historical
arrangements, the suturing of notions of ‘freedom’ or ‘justice’ to particular objects. Thus,
We cannot do without the concept of misrecognition, precisely because the very assertion
that the ‘identity and homogeneity of social agents is an illusion’ cannot be formulated
without introducing the category of misrecognition. The critique of the ‘naturalization of
meaning’ and the ‘essentialization of the social’ is a critique of the misrecognition of
their true character. Without this premise, any deconstruction would be meaningless 16
(Glynos 2001 p. 196).
Laclau shifts the emphasis from what might be an Adorno-style critique (reliance on an
epistemological arrogance in which a privileged view point is necessary) to an ontological
formal approach. That is to say, Laclau moves from the risk of an ‘ethical authoritarianism’ in
which true consciousness is available only to the theorist, to a view in which true consciousness
is ideological mystification at its best; and within Laclau’s particular post-structuralist ontology,
any effort to fully constitute ‘truth’ is subject to deconstruction. Both Laclau and Žižek use this
formal approach, which “is axiomatic in the sense that it is not susceptible to empirical proof [...]
and can only be judged on the basis of its theoretical and analytical productiveness” (Glynos
2001 p. 195).
The next step then in offering a productive post-structuralist critique of ideology is in its
application. If misrecognition can indeed be identified without recourse to an objective truth,
what sort of behavioral change in the action of the subject can be seen when the ‘actual’ scene of
power is revealed? In other words, “why is it that patterns of (oppressive) behavior persist even
when the contingency that underlies sedimented power relations has been pointed out” (Glynos
2001 p. 199). For Žižek, this problematic has the structure of a fetishistic disavowal. Deepening
the Marxian formulation of “they do not know it, but they are doing it”, Žižek posits “they know
that, in their activity, they are following an illusion, but still, they are doing it” (Žižek 1989 p.
33). That is to say, if the misrecognition is on the side of knowledge (they know not what they
do), we cannot explain why social agents act or fail to act in certain ways which we would have
suspected them to. On the other hand, if the misrecognition is on the side of action (they know
what they are doing, and do it anyway), the story becomes much more interesting. In the same
way that for Laclau the distortion is primary, in Žižek’s Lacanian vein, fantasy, the distortion is 17
what structures our very social reality.
Let us take for example Astra Taylor’s film Examined Life. In it we see Žižek articulating
this very ideological problematic at a garbage disposal site. For Žižek, this location is key to
understanding the fantasy that structures our social reality itself. It opens with Žižek claiming
“this is where we should start to feel at home”… “part of our very perception of reality is that
this [trash] disappears from our world” (Taylor 2008).Thus the only way to confront ecological
catastrophe (as well as the proliferation of other catastrophes that cannot be put in check within a
capitalist system) is through the shift of this very social reality itself, through traversing the
fantasy. Again here we must emphasize again that the trick is not to refer to some truth that will
alter the coordinates of our reality, for a Lacanian a reference to the Real simply means pure
meaningless fiction, as opposed to the symbolic structures of meaning which govern our reality
itself. The trick is rather to articulate struggle on this ideological level itself.
Moving Beyond the Deadlock
The conceptual impasse which Best notes above between Marxism and post-Marxism is
not an arbitrary one. The position of this paper is that the task is to, as she notes, move beyond it.
But while Best’s work emphasizes the affinities and distinctions between the two in order to
move beyond, this work will take the dialog between such positions and attempt to remedy
Laclau’s post-Marxist theory in a way which takes Geras’ criticisms with a large grain of salt. I
will not engage directly with Geras or orthodox Marxism but rather show how Laclau and
Mouffe’s post-structuralist critique need not be as strategically ineffective as it now appears in
distancing itself from the former—that a post-structuralist strategy need not be a post-Marxist
strategy. The criticisms will not be predicated solely upon the Marxist tradition, but will also rely
on a post-structuralist vein, using both Žižek and Foucault. This is an effort to show that one 18
does not have to subscribe exclusively to one or the other, the Marxist tradition, or a poststructuralist critique, but that an articulation can be made with regards to socialist strategy today
necessarily employing both in order to comprehend the direction the Left must take today in
constructing a hegemonic politics which is properly historically grounded. What is the proper
historical grounding then? When Laclau and Mouffe refer to post-industrial society as the
necessary break with the continuity of capitalism, they misstep. Post-Marxism is an effort to
respond to this break, linking a post-structuralist theory to the type of subject positions which are
produced in this period—through the equation of the logic of identity formation to the logic of
the discursive level. However, post-structuralism does not necessitate this link with the postindustrial. If we are to value the insights of post-structuralism for political analysis, the object
must be to attempt this analysis without losing the benefits of the categories of traditional
Marxist analysis—without losing sight of the historical processes—the continuities of capitalism
emphasized by Jameson and Harvey—the continuities which prompted Laclau and Mouffe’s
move away from essentialism in the first place. Hence we can say that with greater attention to
these continuities, the Marxist critique of Laclau today should be, ‘we too want radical
democracy, but we can show you how to do it better’. 19
Chapter 2
Radical Contingent Historicism
In order to flesh out the problematic of Laclau’s theory of hegemony we must roughly
sketch out a schematic for the transformation of the concept of the critique of ideology. In the
first case—as with “classical Marxism”—we have the notion of ideology which is able to be
criticized predicated upon a truth external to that ideology (Laclau, 1996). If we take this through
Foucault’s theory of discourse, we have a notion of discourse which is supposed to appear in its
pure description, immanent to that positivity without recourse any external truth. But the
problem with this, and—exactly what has led Laclau to call this point the ‘death of ideology’-- is
that, with Foucault, “the frontier dividing the ideological from the non ideological is blurred, and
as a result, there is an inflation of the concept of ideology which loses all analytical precision”
(Laclau 1996 p. 2). For Laclau, two things result from this death, the simultaneous historical
incommensurability and the structural equalization of discourses, and the loss of meaning for
terms such as misrecognition, or distortion. But can we not say the same thing about Laclau’s
own theory of ideology, his discourse theory? Terry Eagleton claims that Laclau’s “category of
discourse is inflated to the point where it imperializes the whole world, eliding the distinction
between thought and materiality. The effect of this is to undercut the critique of ideology –for if
ideas and material reality are given indissolubly together, there can be no question of asking
where social ideas actually hail from” (Eagleton 2007 p. 219). So here we have similar
criticisms of the inflation of ideology, and inflation of discourse, respectively. But, I think that
neither of these criticisms get at exactly what is at stake. We must continue through the
transformation of the critique of ideology before we can flesh this problematic out, however. 20
Laclau’s move away from Foucault, and from the ‘death of ideology’, to his own
‘resurrection’ of the critique, involves the assertion that distortion is constitutive of ideology.
“The issue then is not how to eliminate terms such as illusion and misrecognition, but how to
redraw their boundaries through an articulation to a new ontology –an ontology which involves
positing the socio-symbolic order as lacking” (Glynos 2001 p. 196). The opposition is then not
the traditional one, which might be read as the primary meaning and its distortion by power
interests, but “between substance and non-substance” (Glynos 2001 p. 197). “In other words,
epistemological incapacity is transformed into the positive ontological conditions of politics and
political subjectivity” (Glynos 2001 p. 197). So here we can see that for Laclau, the necessary
move from Foucault to avoid this sort of postmodern relativity of positions in which there is only
distortion, where the concept of distortion is meaningless because of the lack of any external
accessible truth, is to shift the ontological terrain. So why is it, that Eagleton claims that this
move “undercuts the critique of ideology”? And why is it, similarly, that Laclau sees Foucault’s
position as unable to critique ideology? The reasons are clearly different. It seems that Eagleton
is criticizing Laclau for the violence his new ontology does to the understanding of thought,
ridding itself of the historical grounds of its own production. Laclau’s criticism is that Foucault’s
discourse offers no critical position, as the relativization of discourses involves no critique of
In this chapter I will argue that the non-requisite theoretical moves which Laclau takes in
order to shift to this new radical-contingent-historicist ontology both damage the critique of
ideology from a socialist standpoint—as well as lack a critically aware position of enunciation.
This is to say that the move from one ontology to the next is analytically valuable, but where
Laclau then went from that intervention is ill conceived. In order to show how this intervention is 21
mistaken I will proceed through a number of criticisms of aspects of Laclau’s theory which I take
to be analytically unproductive. With this in mind, I believe it is necessary to proceed through a
number of issues that can be taken up with regards to Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. The
result of these discussions will hopefully lead to a fuller understanding of what might be the
necessary analytic and critique of ideology for positing socialist strategy today. My position is
that without finding theoretical solutions to these particular issues, Hegemony offers little in the
way of theoretical tools or direction for socialist strategy. These issues will be addressed
according to the following structure:
I) Laclau’s critique of Foucault as the ‘death of ideology’ can be better taken up by
Žižek. In Žižek’s discussion of Foucault’s historicism, he articulates that instead,
one should focus on historicity (Žižek 2007).
II) Terry Eagleton’s critique of Laclau is that Laclau and Mouffe inappropriately
deviate from Foucault in no longer maintaining his distinction between the
discursive and the non-discursive, eliding the distinction between thought and
material reality (Eagleton 2007 p.219).
III) In Etienne Balibar’s Politics and the Other Scene, he argues that considering
every identity as a construct in the same general sense necessitates a leveling of
the variable historical processes. If Foucault can be criticized for the relativization
of discourse, then Laclau can be criticized for the universal historicizing of the
discursive articulation which constitutes all identity, and leads to its relativization
(Balibar 2002 p. 155).
IV) Resurrecting the critique of ideology, Laclau has used post-structuralism in order
to posit a new ontology which resuscitates the critique of ideology today. But 22
from what critical position does one speak, if distortion is constitutive and the
‘constitutive outside’ is not within the socio-symbolic order? Is Laclau’s radical
democratic project which wants to institutionalize this ontology politically viable,
or should we follow Žižek in asserting that there the theory is tied to its politics by
a ‘half-acknowledged umbilical cord’ (Žižek 1989 p.89)?
On Historicity
Laclau calls Foucault’s theoretical move the ‘death of ideology’—but I think we can say
that Laclau falls prey to some of the same problems which he has criticized Foucault for. In this
way, I would like to address a problem central to both Laclau’s theory of hegemony, as well as
Foucault’s theory of power. That is, Laclau falls prey to the same historicist tendencies which
Foucault does. One can see the surface level problem with this assertion. We could say that
surely Laclau and Mouffe do not fall prey to historicism, isn’t the whole point of his antiessentialist deconstruction to render all identities contingent symbolic fictions, to historicize
them? Isn’t it just that, to acknowledge even their own position of enunciation as historically
limited by a specific socio-symbolic discourse? But this universal aspect of the theory of
hegemony is precisely the problem. In doing this sort of universal historicizing Laclau and
Mouffe find themselves unable to account for their particular theory.
For Žižek, “every version of historicism relies on a minimal ‘ahistorical’ formal
framework defining the terrain within which the open and endless game of contingent
inclusions/exclusions, substitutions, renegotiations, displacements, and so on, takes place”
(Butler, Laclau et al. 2000 p. 111). Instead of this formal historicist framework being the driving
force as Laclau would have it, what sets in motion history for Žižek is historicity. Thus “the truly 23
radical assertion of historical contingency has to include the dialectical tension between the
domain of historical change itself and its traumatic ‘ahistorical’ kernel qua its condition of
(im)possibility” (Butler, Laclau et al. 2000 p. 112). Hence, the difference between historicism
and historicity is that historicism posits the endless field of ‘play’ within the same field of
(im)possibility, while historicity “makes thematic different structural principles of this very
(im)possibility”(Butler, Laclau et al. 2000 p. 112). This very view of radical contingent
historicism shared by Laclau and Mouffe turns into the very ideological closure they had sought
to avoid. Basically the same criticism can be given here of Foucault. As Vighi and Felder note,
“With the surplus dimension of the Real missing, all we can do [...] is […] describe the workings
of discourse and power-knowledge, and feel encouraged by the fact that what we are facing is
merely a historically contingent setting which might have been, and thus could be, utterly
different” (Vighi and Feldner 2007 p. 27).
Why is it then that both Foucault and Laclau, as historicists, miss this key dimension
which reveals the paradox of being caught up in the very workings of the discourse they
describe? For Žižek, the theoretical edifices of these authors lack the concept of the Real, and
this lack in the theory leads them to their inadequacies in linking their theory to a determinate
political option, or an ‘ethico-political act’. On this point Žižek resorts to Derrida to examine
these two cases. Both focus on this position of enunciation as unaccounted for in the theory. In
Žižek’s “Cogito, Madness, and Religion: Derrida, Foucault and then Lacan”, he brings up the
familiar polemic between Foucault and Derrida on the status of madness in Descartes. Žižek
claims, with regards to Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, that Derrida finds the discussion of
Descartes’ Meditations as the key to the entire book—“ the sense of Foucault’s project can be
pinpointed in these few allusive and somewhat enigmatic pages” (Derrida, 1978 p. 32). Derrida 24
argues that Descartes does not exclude madness, but rather brings it to its extreme. In the
Meditations, Descartes asserts that all we perceive is not true, but a universal dream, an illusion.
Yet, in this delusion, I can still think—thus Descartes’ familiar cogito, I think, therefore I am.
Foucault asserts that this understanding is based on the exclusion of madness, with
unreason as its support. “It was in relation to unreason and to it alone that madness could be
understood” (Foucault 2001 p. 83). Derrida’s reproach is that, against this historicism, and rather
through deeper textual analysis, that madness is indeed present in Descartes (Derrida, 1978 p.
34). For Derrida, “the universal doubt, where I suspect that the entire world is an illusion, is the
strongest madness possible” (Žižek 2007). For Žižek, Derrida’s move is that of ex-timacy (a
Lacanian pun on intimacy), rather than direct exclusion. (Ex-timacy is likened by Žižek to the
character of the common Stephen King novel, specifically the notion of the undead. It is easy for
one to speak of the dead, they are simply not alive. However, it is much more interesting to
speak of the undead, that which is alive only as dead. For Žižek, the undead is the monstrous
excess of the living. We can think again here of the distinction between the human and inhuman.
It is not that the inhuman are not human, but rather that monstrous excess that has to be limited
by humanity as such). For Derrida, what reason tried to master is madness as unreason (as the
monstrous excess inherent to reason itself), while for Foucault reason is grounded in the
exclusion of madness. This has the logical form of the distinction between affirming a nonpredicate (unreason) versus negating a predicate (not reason). For Žižek, the more difficult
philosophical task is one of extimacy, this excess inherent to reason itself.
While Derrida reads into Descartes a foundational madness, this abyss of freedom central
to all philosophy, Foucault asserts instead a historical reading which is bound up with power
relations and the non-discursive. Foucault argues that Derrida’s resaying of the text is determined 25
by his inability to think the outside of philosophy, that he is positing “the invention of voices
behind texts to avoid having to analyze the modes of implication of the subject in discourses; the
assigning of the originary as said and unsaid in the text to avoid placing discursive practices in
the field of transformations where they are carried out” (Foucault 1979 p. 417). What can be seen
here is the clear debate between textual and archaeological forms of analysis, which boils down
to the distinction between the discursive and non-discursive form of analysis. Derrida argues that
through archaeological analysis, Foucault cannot account for his position of enunciation, while
Foucault argues that through textual analysis, the historical conditions which allow for such a
text are disavowed.
What then is the solution to this sort of deadlock? It can be found in Žižek’s reading of
Derrida in Contingency, Hegemony, Universality, titled “Against Historicism”. Žižek writes,
We should always bear in mind this delicate Derridean stance on account of which he
avoids the twin pitfalls of naïve realism as well of direct philosophical foundationalism.
[...]What is deeply symptomatic in Derrida is his oscillation between, on the one hand,
the hyper-self-reflective approach which denounces the question of ‘how things really
are’ in advance […] and, on the other, direct ‘ontological’ assertions about how
difference and archi-trace designate the structure of all living things (Butler, Laclau et al.
2000 p. 232).
Thus the paradox between the two levels, that “the very feature which forever prevents
us from grasping our intended object directly is the feature which connects us with the basic
proto-ontological structure of the universe”, the Real. This is what is lacking in Foucault and
Laclau, this paradoxical self-reflectiveness, yet willingness to assert the impossible necessity of a 26
philosophical foundation. Foucault attempts to escape both, while Laclau only attempts to escape
the former.
Bracketing Foucauldian Distinctions
In order to arrive at Laclau’s theory of hegemony in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy we
must first note how such a theory was made possible by post-structuralism. Two related
movements are here worth noting, firstly the deconstruction of structure, and secondly the
deconstruction of ‘atomized social elements’. That is to say that Laclau and Mouffe reject any
structure which is a completely closed totality, in which all of its ‘elements’ are reduced to
‘moments’ of the structure. In such a structure, or system, or ‘articulated discursive totality’, two
characteristics derive. First, “everything is so necessary in it that modification of the whole and
its details reciprocally condition one another” and secondly, “necessity derives […] from the
regularity of a system of structural positions” (Laclau and Mouffe 2001 p. 106). In such a
situation, argue Laclau and Mouffe, no relation can be contingent, or external, as “the identity of
the elements would then be specified outside the relation itself” rendering “the practice of
articulation” impossible (Laclau and Mouffe 2001 p. 106). This then leads the authors to the
conclusion that, if contingency and articulation are possible, it is because this situation is never
the case. But why exactly is this not the case, why can we not speak of a sutured totality? Derrida
argues, “if totalization no longer has any meaning, it is not because the infiniteness of a field
cannot be covered by a finite glance […], but because the nature of the field [of language] […]
excludes totalization” (Torfing 1999 p. 86). Language excludes totalization because the field is
in effect, that of play, or the infinite substitution of centres. 27
For Laclau and Mouffe, the discursive level is constituted by this field of play. Because it
exists in this field of play, an ‘articulated discursive totality’ is only a structure in which the
“transformation of the elements to moments is never complete” (Laclau and Mouffe 2001 p.
106). Its centre is not fixed, but contingent, historical, and therefore precarious. Whereas with
structuralism we had events which were inexplicable in the terms of structures, and therefore
conceived as hazards, or errors—now we have with post-structuralism a more contextual and
relational approach, which emphasizes the ‘structurality’ of structure, its nature that of the field
of language. Within this precarious structure, or ‘discursive formation’ we have a precariously
sutured centre, which can be substituted, and moments of that structure, which are simply
elements which have been subjected to the process of articulation. Furthermore, “the creation of
a relative structural order is conditional upon the exclusion of a constitutive outside which
threatens the relative order of the structure and prevents an ultimate closure” (Torfing 1999 p.
86). So now we may begin to understand how a theory of hegemony might function. Hegemony,
as conceived by Laclau and Mouffe at the discursive level, is the struggle for political power
through discursive re-articulation, the battle for the ideological constitution of identities through
this sort of discursive subjectivization within various particular social formations. In a purely
structural way, we can say that hegemony involves the transformation of elements into moments
of that discursive formation, hence their articulation within the order. As any order necessitates a
constitutive outside, hegemony as an operation involves constant re-articulation, rendering these
threatening outside elements as somehow moments of the hegemonic formation, now seen as
‘necessary’ to its systemic functioning.
Let us take an example from Foucault. In his lecture on psychiatric power from 21
November 1973, he describes the isotopic nature of disciplinary power in order to distinguish it 28
from sovereign power. For a disciplinary apparatus to be isotopic it means that it must have its
“well defined place; it has its subordinate elements and its superordinate elements”, with the
movement in the system produced through a “regular movement of examination , competition,
seniority, and suchlike”, and it is a system in which there is “no conflict or incompatibility
between different disciplinary apparatuses” as they possess these formal properties which allow
the somatic singularity to pass from one apparatus to another interchangeably” (Foucault,
Lagrange et al. 2008 p. 52). However, in this system, “isotopic means above all that the principle
of a distribution and classification of all the elements necessarily entails something like a
residue. That is to say, there is always something like “the unclassifiable”” (Foucault, Lagrange
et al. 2008 p. 53). So, much like hegemonic order in its positivity begets a constitutive outside, so
a disciplinary regime produces this residual set of individuals who cannot be assimilated. The
mentally ill are then “the residue of all residues, the residue of all the disciplines [educational,
military, police]” (Foucault, Lagrange et al. 2008 p. 54). “So the necessary existence of residues
is, I think, a specific characteristic of this isotopy of disciplinary systems, and will entail, of
course, the appearance of supplementary disciplinary systems in order to retrieve those
individuals, and so on to infinity” (Foucault, Lagrange et al. 2008 p. 54). Here we can see
Foucault’s properties of disciplinary power emerging, those of anomie and the norm. This
system is anomizing in that it has its margins, and always has to produce the discarding of
individuals on the margins. The system is normalizing in that it is always “inventing new
recovery systems, always reestablishing the rule” (Foucault, Lagrange et al. 2008 p. 54).
Disciplinary systems are characterized by the “never-ending work of the norm in the anomic”
(Foucault, Lagrange et al. 2008 p. 54). This is how we should understand hegemony. Discursive
formations always have to produce a constitutive outside, a residual, a margin. The operation of 29
hegemony, or what can be called the totalizing effects of ideology, rely on the constant
reincorporation of these residuals, the constant bringing into the fold of ‘elements’, and through
their articulation, resign them to ‘moments’ of that particular formation. For Laclau and Mouffe,
however, these ‘residuals’, are what constitute antagonism. Antagonism is the ‘experience’ that
bears witness to the “impossibility of a final suture” and the limit of the social to the extent that
“the social only exists as a partial effort for constructing society” (Laclau and Mouffe 2001 p.
So we can see here the post-structuralism at work in Laclau and Mouffe’s theory of
hegemony. But to what extent does this theory rooted in post-structuralism and the ‘logic of the
signifier’ bracket aside certain productive distinctions? The one I would like to focus on here is
Laclau and Mouffe’s riding roughshod over Foucault’s own theory of discursive formations—
through their abandonment of the distinction between the discursive and non-discursive. It is
clear in Foucault’s early works and lectures that he placed an emphasis on setting forth an
archaeological method, with his later work focusing on genealogies. While Foucault did indeed
shift the focus of his analysis, he never did abandon his theory of discursive formations which
marked his early work. His later work has been interpreted by Jacob Torfing as performing a
methodological shift, closer to the post-structuralism of Laclau and Mouffe. But I claim that this
sort of interpretation risks making the same mistake Laclau and Mouffe make, and does away
with Foucault’s distinction between the discursive and the non-discursive, on account of the fact
that both discursive and non-discursive practices are structured along the lines of a discourse,
and thusly can ‘only be conceived of as discursive articulations’. My position, and it is one
shared by Terry Eagleton, is that the non-discursive practices may well be organized like a
discourse, but still, they are practices (Eagleton 2007 p.219). Foucault’s aim with his 30
archaeology, and Laclau and Mouffe’s aim with discourse theory are, of course, two separate
strategies. We can clearly see what the stakes are for Laclau and Mouffe are in Hegemony and
Socialist Strategy, the deconstruction of Marxism and its’ supplanting with a theory of radical
democracy. Foucault’s stakes are, it seems, more complex, and perhaps more ambitious. What
then are these stakes?
In Foucault’s inaugural lecture at the College de France he set forth the terms on which
his future research would build. His hypothesis is that “in every society the production of
discourse is at once controlled, selected, organized and redistributed according to a certain
number of procedures, whose role it is to avert its powers and its dangers to cope with chance
events, to evade its ponderous, awesome materiality” (Foucault 1970 p. 218). “True discourse,
liberated by the nature of its form from desire and power, is incapable of recognizing the will to
truth which pervades it; and the will to truth, having imposed itself upon us for so long, is such
that the truth it seeks to reveal cannot fail to mask it” (Foucault 1970 p. 219). Foucault’s task
then, is to analyze the control and delimitation of discourse—both externally and internally—and
to reveal the desire and power at work within it which has been masked for so long. By
externally, Foucault means the non-discursive complexes which determine the conditions of
existence of true discourse. By internally, he means the internal rules “where discourse exercises
its own control”, concerning “classification, ordering, and distribution” (Foucault 1970 p. 220).
With this distinction in mind, it can be said Foucault’s earlier work (The Archaeology of
Knowledge, The Order of Things) will be focused on the internal rules, while his later work
(Discipline and Punish, History of Sexuality) on genealogy will concern the external work of
power and desire. This distinction between external and internal will henceforth be known as the
distinction between the non-discursive and the discursive, respectively. 31
Now let us begin with Laclau and Mouffe’s reading of this distinction. They quote
Rabinow and Dreyfus,
[Clinical medicine must be regarded] as the establishment of a relation, in medical
discourse, between a number of distinct elements, some of which concerned the status of
doctors, others the institutional and technical site from which they spoke, others their
position as subjects perceiving, observing , describing, teaching, etc. It can be said that
this relation between different elements (some of which are new, while others were
already in existence) is effected by clinical discourse, it is this, as a practice, that
establishes between them all a system of relations that is not “really” given or constituted
a priori; and if there is a unity, if the modalities of enunciation that it uses , or to which it
gives place are not simply juxtaposed by a series of historical contingencies, it is because
it makes constant use of this group of relations (Dreyfus and Rabinow 1983 p. 53).
As previously noted, Laclau and Mouffe argue that if these non-discursive complexes are
analyzed (institutions, techniques, productive organization), “we find more or less complex
forms of differential positions among objects, which do not arise from a necessity external to the
system structuring them and which can only therefore be conceived as discursive articulations”
(Laclau and Mouffe 2001 p. 107). My position is that this “only” conception is a huge
bracketing aside of Foucault’s project, and that it in turn renders Foucault’s theory unproductive.
However, if we read Foucault without the overly incessant preoccupations of post-structuralism,
we can see that he uses ‘discourse’ as a particular type of formation distinct from these nondiscursive complexes for a number of reasons, and the productivity of his analysis is an effect of
this distinction and its historic relations between the two types of formations. 32
Foucault’s ‘discourse‘ is an analysis of those speech acts considered serious by their
context. It may be true that the non-discursive complexes do not arise from some external
necessity, but this does not make them discursive in the Foucauldian sense. Foucault seems to
say that these serious speech acts are the product of relations which organize, and that these
relations have the most weight (in his early work), especially with respect to what he wants to
avoid, the perpetuation of the will to truth as we have come to know it. Hence this distinction
which preserves materialism is what enables Foucault to render visible those forms of desire and
power at work in discourse, and to follow Nietzsche, Artaud, and Bataille, in attempting to
“remould this truth and to turn it against the truth at the very point where truth undertakes to
justify the [exclusions it rests upon]” (Foucault 1970 p. 220).
Just as Laclau and Mouffe have set forth their own concept of discursive formations as
distinct from those ‘necessary’ closed structures, so have Dreyfus and Rabinow distinguished
Foucault’s own concept of discursive formations from those formations typical of structuralism.
Both atomistic structuralism and holistic structuralism operate in different ways from Foucault’s
discursive formations. Atomistic structuralism describes a system in which the “elements are
completely specified apart from their role in a system”, while in holistic structuralism “a possible
element is defined apart from the system, but what counts as an actual element is a function of
the whole system of differences in which the given element is involved” (Dreyfus and Rabinow
1983 p. 53). Apart from these typical forms of structuralism we have Foucault’s archaeological
formations, or what Dreyfus and Rabinow call ‘archaeological holism’. Archaeological holism
asserts that “the whole determines what can count as even a possible element” (Dreyfus and
Rabinow 1983 p. 55). 33
That is to say, in determining what counts as a serious speech act in discourse, “the whole
verbal context is more fundamental than its elements and thus is more than the sum of its parts.
Indeed, there are no parts except within the field which identifies and individuates them”
(Dreyfus and Rabinow 1983 p. 55). So we can see, in strict homology with Laclau and Mouffe,
that Foucault’s discursive formations, and furthermore his non-discursive complexes, are
structured along the lines of a discourse. The key difference between Laclau and Mouffe’s
reading of Foucault, and Dreyfus and Rabinow’s reading is that in the latter, the distinction is
preserved through a broader understanding of Foucault’s line of argument as regards discourse—
not simply the structure of discourse. Our task then is to see exactly what this distinction has
allowed Foucault to do analytically, and what the bracketing aside of this distinction has allowed
Laclau and Mouffe to do, in regards to socialist strategy.
Leveling Historical Processes
In Etienne Balibar’s Politics and the Other Scene, in his discussion of ‘universality as
fiction’ he writes,
I want to avoid the common idea that every identity, be it personal or collective, could be
considered a ‘construct’ in the same general sense, because this classical relativistic
view—so it seems to me—leads to a leveling of the historical processes which create and
hierarchize forms of identity and individuality, so that some become more ‘basic’ than
others and form a common background to their becoming complementary or
incompatible (Balibar 2002 p. 155).
One would hope Laclau and Mouffe had shared a similar sentiment, but it is not to be found in
Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. Instead what we find is identities which are never fully 34
constituted, always precarious, and never essential, never natural. What is the effect of thinking
of identity in this way? The effects are exactly that which Balibar seeks to avoid in his own
writing—the elision of the various levels of identity, some more basic than others, and all the
effect of historical processes in some way or another. For being a radical historicist theory,
Laclau and Mouffe’s theory of hegemony offers very little in the way of an analytic which
allows us to assign identities to the confluence of historical processes.
Let us examine a quote by Gramsci.
Two theoretical consciousnesses (or one contradictory consciousness): one which is
implicit in his activity and which in reality unites him with all this fellow-workers in the
practical transformation of the real world; and one, superficially explicit or verbal, which
he has inherited from the past and uncritically absorbed. But this verbal conception is not
without consequences. It holds together a specific social group, it influences moral
conduct and a direction of will, with varying efficacity but often powerfully enough to
produce a situation in which the contradictory state of consciousness does not permit of
any action, any decision or any choice, and produces a condition of moral and political
passivity (Gramsci, Hoare et al. 1971 p. 326).
One can imagine Laclau and Mouffe’s reading this passage—as almost strictly homologous to
their reading of Foucault’s passage in which he separates the discursive from the non-discursive.
They might argue that the ’implicit’ consciousness as an effect of the determinations of
capitalism can only be thought of as discursively construed, and therefore no different from the
‘explicit’ realm of everyday practices, the realm of hegemony—and to keep this distinction
would be essentializing the teleological narrative of the working class. That is to say, 35
‘contradictory consciousness’ would become simply a hegemonic ‘consciousness’. The effect of
this reading is one in which Gramsci’s period of crisis becomes simply the logic of politics—the
impossibility of closure—the kind of period which Laclau and Mouffe seek to institutionalize.
What this brackets aside being able to talk about determination or objective interests in any
sense. Laclau and Mouffe are far too reticent in this sense for their analytic to be productive.
With Laclau “there is no logical and necessary relation between socialist objectives and
the positions of social agents in the relations of production” (Laclau and Mouffe 2001 p. 87). The
relation between the two is a hegemonic relation. Thusly a “variety of other points of rupture and
democratic antagonisms can be articulated to a socialist ‘collective will’ on an equal footing with
workers demands. The era of ‘privileged subjects’ in the ontological, not practical sense—of the
anti capitalist struggle has been definitively superseded” (Laclau and Mouffe 2001 p. 87). What
would a ‘privileged subject’ be in the practical sense? This is a question left unanswered by
Hegemony and Socialist Strategy—which leads one to wonder where exactly the Socialist
Strategy aspect of the book is supposed to kick in. The book’s obsession with avoiding the a
priori and the God-given determinations of a traditional teleological Marxism is bound up with
its failures to posit anything that might look like a strategy. Any nuanced look into determination
and objective interests or subjects in a position to resist are drowned in the logic of antiessentialism. One might wonder if such a nuanced look is possible. Well, it has already been
In Marxism and Literature, Raymond Williams takes up the question of determinism—
which, for those attempting to bring Marxism into a terrain which rejects the teleology as well as
the historical necessity of a deterministic economy, is clearly contentious. Williams sees a
tension within the interpretation of Marx. He looks at two separate quotes from Marx and 36
Engels, “In the social production which men carry on they enter into definite relations that are
indispensable and independent of their will…a definite state of development” and “the mass of
productive forces accessible to men determine the condition of society” (Williams 1977 p. 85).
Through an analysis of these excerpts Williams introduces a distinction into the concept of
determination—he separates’ ‘determination’ into ‘determination as historical objectivity’ and
‘determination as abstract objectivity’. Firstly, historical objectivity as “the conditions into which
at any particular point in time, men find themselves born, thus the ‘accessible’ conditions into
which they ‘enter’” and secondly, abstract objectivity, as the “determining processes is
‘independent of their will’ not in the historical sense that they have inherited it but in the
absolute sense that they cannot control it; they can seek only to understand it and guide their
actions accordingly” (Williams 1977 p. 85). Williams notes that traditionally, opponents of
Marxism have used the outdated sense of abstract objectivity in rejecting economic
determination—and we can see with Laclau and Mouffe that this is the sense which they reject
wholly. This rejection has led to the emphasis on overdetermination, which is closer to historical
The full concept of overdetermination, sees determination as “never only the setting of
limits” but also the “exertion of pressures” (Williams 1977 p. 87). Thusly for Williams the value
in the concept of overdetermination is its effort to avoid the abstract sense—to avoid the
“isolation of autonomous categories but at the same time to emphasize relatively autonomous yet
of course interactive practices” (Williams 1977 p. 88). But here Laclau and Mouffe would
interject, arguing that relative autonomy simply manifests the limit of the logical incompatibility
of determination and autonomy. But Laclau and Mouffe here still fall into the trap of a criticism
of abstract determination—and display their theory’s incapacity to conceive of this limit. We can 37
think of this incapacity on terms of the previously mentioned failure of historicity. In positing a
theory of radical contingent historicism, they manifest the limit of their theory in not being able
to situate it in a historical process which ‘determines’ the conditions of its production, or even in
Foucault’s terms, its conditions of existence. In the same way they are unable to conceive of an
explanatory variation in the more nuanced concept of historical objectivity.
Laclau and Mouffe’s failure to conceptualize determination and explanation of historical
processes within the theory is linked to the failure to conceive of objective interests. Again, this
has been worked out already, by Terry Eagleton. As Eagleton notes, Laclau and Mouffe rightly
reject the conceptualization of objectives interests they subscribe to, as objective interests
automatically supplied to you by your position within the relations of production. However, there
are more nuanced ways of understanding objective interests, and these are more in line with
Williams’ historical objectivity. For Eagleton, objective interests mean “a course of action which
is in fact in my interests but which I currently do not recognize as such”—a phrase which alludes
to the inaccessibility of “valid, discursively framed interests which do not exist for me right
now” (Eagleton 2007 p. 217). Thus, the recognition of these objective interests implies that once
I am in a position to acquire these interests I can then look back upon my previous situation and
recognize that I would have had the current interests at that time if only I had been in a position
to do so. That is, if I had been free of whatever coercion or misrecognition was structuring my
beliefs at the time. Because Laclau and Mouffe, with their anti-essentialist obsession, have been
reticent towards anything ‘given’ or inherent to identities, and interests predicated upon a certain
condition, they again can say nothing practical about strategy today. As Eagleton notes, “If there
is no ‘necessary’ relation between women and feminism, or the working class and socialism, 38
then the upshot would be a disastrously eclectic, opportunistic politics, which simply drew into
its project whatever social groups seemed currently most amenable to it” (Eagleton 2007 p. 218).
Now we can see how to do a proper reading of Gramsci’s quote on contradictory
consciousness. It may be that first we can assert with Laclau and Mouffe that what Gramsci
means by an ‘implicit’ consciousness, the more authentic one which is hijacked by the ‘explicit’
entails a sort of economic reductionism, is one in which working class interests are automatically
supplied to them by their place in the relations of production. But if we take Williams and
Eagleton, and use determination or objective interests with circumspection, we can develop a
much more nuanced response to the crisis of the working class for Gramsci. We can then assert
that subject positions in the relations of production do have an effect on interests, with more or
less explanatory variation allocated to other historical processes, like those of the ‘explicit’
consciousness. This allows us to talk about a ‘contradictory’ consciousness, and discursively
framed interests as a contestable hegemonic field, without resorting to ‘essentialism’ and yet still
maintaining a kind of misrecognition involved. However, if we subscribe to the abstract
conceptualizations of determinism and objective interests which Laclau and Mouffe do, we risk
exactly the kind of leveling of historical processes which Balibar hesitates to perform.
Furthermore, this leveling is what limits any sort of theory of socialist strategy today, at a time
when practical directions are so sought for.
Maintaining a Critical Politics
I have tried to show in this chapter so far that in the resurrection of the critique of
ideology, Laclau has moved to a critique of essentialism. As a result of this move, a number of
important concepts for a Marxist critique of ideology have been bracketed aside, notably 39
determination, objective interests, and the placing of discourse within its conditions of
possibility, as well as its conditions of existence. For Laclau, an ideological discourse is one that
sees itself as realtight, not acknowledging the ‘impossibility of society’ (Laclau, 2001 p. 111).
This move to anti-essentialism is clearly an important one, which renders any critique of
ideology predicated upon authenticism or the natural as invalid. However, once one has this
radical historicist deconstructive move, what then does one posit? In other words, from what
‘discursively framed interest’ or position can one claim that one has misrecognized their
previous interests or beliefs and rearticulate them as the product of a coercion or blindness. For
Laclau and Mouffe, it seems, the only passage would be from an essentialist position to an antiessentialist position. But as Eagleton notes, deconstruction can serve to legitimate the ruling
ideology by cutting away the grounds from which anyone can speak,
In discovering that “men make history,” the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie kicked out
from under themselves the very transcendental signifiers needed to legitimate that history
ideologically. But this damage could be contained by a simple fact: in pulling out the
metaphysical carpet from under themselves, they pulled it out in the same stroke from
under their opponents (Eagleton 1981 p. 4).
What then, would the determinate political option be? It seems that with regards to the
theory of hegemony itself, there is no necessary political option inherent to the theory. While
Laclau and Mouffe are clearly in the business of radical democracy and deepening liberal
democracy in the democratic direction—there seems no necessary correlate in the theory which
falls on this side of the spectrum. As Žižek notes, there is nothing inherent to the theory that
favors a democratic option over a totalitarian one. 40
In his criticism of Derrida, Laclau emphasized the gap between Derrida’s global
philosophical stance (difference, the unavoidable ‘out-of-joint’ of every identity, etc.) and
his politics of democratie a venir, of openness towards the Event of irreducible
Otherness: why shouldn’t one draw, from the fact that identity is impossible, the opposite
‘totalitarian’ conclusion that, for that very reason, we need a strong Power to prevent
explosion and guarantee a fragile minimum of order? […] However, does the same not
hold for Laclau himself? Why shouldn’t one, from the notion of a hegemony which
involves the irreducible gap between the Universal and the Particular, and thus the
structural impossibility of society, opt for a ‘strong’ totalitarian politics that limits the
effects of this gap as much as possible? (Žižek 1999 p. 239).
The theory’s lack of a determinate political option would seemingly be a blessing if the
ends were ostensibly linked to liberal democracy—but for Laclau, “deepening liberal
democracy” means deepening it in the direction of radical democracy—which for him means
expanding the limits of the ‘political’ in a particular political scene—not necessarily the
prevalent institutionalized liberal democracy. However, this expansion of the space of the
political still rests upon on the de-politicization of the economic—using the liberal state as its
implicit horizon— and hence cannot be conceived of similarly across any given political
system—especially not a liberal order—especially not for socialist strategy. So we can
understand the theory of hegemony along the lines of reformist gradualist politics within liberal
democracy—but not as that which could provide an even more radical socialist strategy which
refuses to accept capitalism as ‘the only game in town’.
What has necessitated this failure in the theory of hegemony to provide a determinate
political option? As noted previously, it is a result of Laclau ignoring the dimension of the Real, 41
ignoring historicity. But I think the more interesting question here is to ask: what would a theory
of hegemony have to do to incorporate socialist strategy as a political task? I have noted one,
incorporating historicity, but the failures mentioned above also would have to be remedied. The
obfuscation of the distinction between the discursive and the non-discursive would have to be rearticulated in a way which maintained historical tension. This then would relieve the leveling of
historical processes which resulted from this obfuscation. In the same way, though, the reticence
that Laclau and Mouffe claim towards Marxism and its categories of explanatory variation have
to be re-incorporated in ways which stress their continuing importance. All this would seemingly
get one back to the merits of Foucault’s own theory, save for the ontological shift. That is to say,
we still come up with a theory detached from its political option. How then can we talk about the
acknowledgement of historicity as leading to socialist strategy? And is Laclau’s ‘resurrection’ of
ideology enough for a critical politics that seeks to uncover not just essentialism, but also
relationships of power? For that we must turn to Žižek 42
Chapter 3
The Dimension of the Real: From Reformism to Revolution
In the previous chapter, I claimed that Laclau and Mouffe’s theory of hegemony offers no
intrinsic political option, that for all its deconstructive criticism, still it seeks to describe any and
all political formations. However, does not Laclau’s own political project of a deepening of
liberal democracy—a rather reformist radical democracy—claim legitimacy on the basis of the
ontological structurality of the political, on the logic of hegemony? In Hegemony and Socialist
Strategy Laclau and Mouffe put forth their post-structural ontology in which antagonism is
constitutive and the impossibility of the final suture of ideology is its result. On these ontological
premises they then link essentialism to totalitarianism, and anti-essentialism to democracy. The
purpose of this chapter is to show in what ways Laclau’s post-structural ontology does not in fact
determine a reformist politics which simply advocates a deepening of liberal democracy—and in
what direction this ontology needs to be pushed in order to determine the return to class struggle
in positing socialist strategy. In order to show how Laclau and Mouffe’s ontological shift
(transforming epistemological incapacity into the condition of possibility for politics) in the
critique of ideology can advocate a determinate position, I will show how Slavoj Žižek has
maintained this same view of ideology in which distortion is primary—yet has linked it to both a
concrete political option and activity through the use of Lacanian categories. The point here is
that even if Laclau and Mouffe can deconstruct totalizing ideologies, if they can assert the
primacy of distortion and the relativization of discourses, they still cannot account for the
persistence of ideological attachment beyond these deconstructive procedures. 43
In Contingency, Hegemony, Universality Žižek argues that “Laclau’s jump from a
‘critique of the metaphysics of presence’ to anti-utopian ‘reformist’ gradualist politics is an
illegitimate short circuit” (Butler, Laclau et al. 2000 p. 101). Where then does Laclau’s failure—
his ‘short circuit’—originate? Žižek claims again that this failure is one of historicity, in this
case, it is the “dialectical paradox of ‘concrete universality’ qua historicity” (Butler, Laclau et al.
2000 p. 101). He writes that if we read Hegel closely, we find that “in so far as every particular
species that fully fits its notion, the very universal notion is transformed into another
notion”(Butler, Laclau et al. 2000 p. 99). Thusly, “in the relationship between a genus and its
subspecies, one of these subspecies will always be the element that negates the very universal
feature of the genus” (Butler, Laclau et al. 2000 p. 99). What does this mean then for a theory of
hegemony? It means, that the form of the political in which one of its subspecies, be it race, or
sex, or class, is constituted, will be transformed upon the universalization of that particular
subspecies. For Žižek, a “radical democracy that was actually ‘radical’ in the sense of
politicizing the sphere of the economy would, precisely, no longer be a (political) democracy”
(Butler, Laclau et al. 2000 p. 100). So here we have the difference between reformism and
revolution. For Laclau, the hegemonic logic implies that a particular subspecies always acts as
the universal genus which masks the absent fullness of society as a sutured totality.
Since Laclau emphatically proclaims the impossibility of society (‘There is no society!’),
the fullness can never be actualized, the universal notion can never actually be filled by its
particular content (Laclau, 2001 p. 111). This then is the dialectical paradox that Žižek refers to,
the particular ‘species’ that fully fits the universal notion of the ‘genus’ is never actualized, “it
simply means that the limit of the impossible would be transposed on another level” (Butler,
Laclau et al. 2000 p. 100). In this case Žižek’s conclusion is that for Laclau, the antagonism is 44
double. It is impossible to represent the fullness of society in actuality, and also “on an even
more radical level”, it is impossible to even articulate this very antagonism that structures society
in a way which infinitely defers its final suture.
Žižek attempts this critique in a more articulate way in his recent book, In Defense of
Lost Causes. Still chastising Laclau for the lack of anti-capitalist sentiment, as well as Laclau’s
ignorance of his own position of enunciation in his theory, —Žižek argues that
Laclau is all too naïve in his critical stance of his assertion of the irreducible gap between
empty universality and its distorted representation. But from the Hegelian standpoint, this
gap can be overcome –not through the arrival of an adequate direct presentation of the
universal, but so that distortion as such is asserted as the site of universality (Žižek 2008a
p. 294).
So here we have again the theoretical failure behind the lack of a determinate political
option. Laclau’s theory of hegemony is not wholly incompatible with revolution according to
Žižek, it simply ignores the obscene aspect of historicism, which is historicity, the Real. It is this
notion of the Real which allows for revolution to be comprehensible, without recourse to simply
a ‘deepening’ of the political in its reformist mode, the Real radicalizes the space of the political
itself. How then does an acknowledgement of the Real necessitate a radical anti-capitalist stance
for Žižek?
One way he describes this phenomenon is through Freudian sexuality. The central event
of the statement “there is no sexual relationship” thus determines the Freudian hypothesis.
Notably that “sexuality is not just one among the possible innuendos of every speech—it is
inherent to the form of connotation as such—symbolic castration sustains the very indeterminacy 45
of the space on which connotations can float around” (Žižek 2008a p. 294). This analogy then is
strictly correlative to the space of the economy today. So here we can liken the Freudian and
Marxist hypothesis to the same basic movement of the Real. “The economy—the social
organization of production (mode of production) is not just one among several levels of social
organization—it is the site of contradiction of the central social antagonism (there is no class
relationship) which as such—spills over into all other levels”(Žižek 2008a p. 294). So for Žižek,
when we talk about ‘true class politics’ we should not think of other aspects of society and
culture such as the expression of politics in music as a secondary expression of the primary
struggle. “It is wrong to say that the ‘central social antagonism’ (“class struggle”) is always
expressed/articulated in a distorted/displaced way: it is the very principle of this distortion”
(Žižek 2008a p. 294). Thus the move from politics to music as such, is overdetermined by the
economic, but an economic cause which is never present in the field of its effects. In the same
way that in Freudian terms we can say, “in the explosion of human symbolic capacities”, that
“this explosion sexualizes sexuality itself” we can say that in the explosion of human productive
capacities, this explosion economizes the economy itself (Žižek 2008a p. 293).
Over-rapid Historicization
So let us return to the problematic of ideology. As Laclau and Mouffe’s analytic claims,
the naturalization and eternalization of historical particularities is to be deplored as ideological.
However, this position is not wholly different from the Marxist one which deconstructs in the
same way, “a state which depends on a concrete historical conjunction appears as an eternal,
universal feature of the human condition” (Žižek 1989 p. 49). However, for Žižek—from his
Lacanian perspective—“the most ‘cunning’ ideological procedure is the very opposite of
eternalization—over-rapid historicization” (Žižek 1989 p. 50). This ‘over-rapid historicization’ is 46
what “makes us blind to the real kernel which returns as the same through diverse
historicizations/symbolizations” (Žižek 1989 p. 50). Laclau is aware of the first ideological
mystification, but not the second. In fact, he is guilty of the second. Hence, Žižek criticizes
Laclau along these lines, implicitly, arguing “the fundamental gesture of post-structuralism is to
deconstruct every substantial identity—to denounce behind its solid consistency an interplay of
symbolic overdetermination—to dissolve the substantial identity into a network of nonsubstantial, differential relations” (Žižek 1989 p. 72). The real kernel which returns as the same,
that which is disavowed in Laclau’s own theory, is for Žižek “the notion of symptom” as “the
necessary counterpoint to [deconstruction], the substance of enjoyment, the real kernel around
which this signifying interplay is structured” (Žižek 1989 p. 72).
Before we get into enjoyment, I think it necessary to take this point-counterpoint of
deconstruction-Real/historicism-historicity once again into the economic realm. “[C]lassical
political economy is interested only in contents concealed behind the commodity-form, which is
why it cannot explain the true secret, not the secret behind the form but the secret of this form
itself” (Žižek 1989 p. 15). So again we find that the secret of the commodity form itself can only
be approached by bringing Lacan’s Real into the equation—which for Žižek is quite odd—
because Lacan himself based his notion of ‘surplus-object’ (Real) on Marx’s surplus-value. The
Real of capitalism cannot be gotten to through a deconstructive approach, it needs a Lacanian
In socioeconomic terms, one is tempted to claim that Capital itself is the Real of our age.
… it is ‘real’ in the precise sense of determining the structure of the material social
processes themselves: the fate of whole strata of the population, and sometimes of whole 47
countries, can be decided by the ‘solipsistic’ speculative dance of Capital, which pursues
its goal of profitability in a benign indifference (Vighi and Feldner 2007 p. 130).
How then does this ‘real’ determine the structure of material social processes? Vighi and Feldner
argue that for Žižek, what allows the mode of production to act as the Real is the “mechanism of
foreclosure” at work in commodity fetishism—a foreclosure which sustains the entire logic of
capitalism. How does this foreclosure function? “[A]ny knowledge, or discursive field, hinged
upon a mechanism of foreclosure, which is therefore its fundamental kernel, its disavowed
‘truth’. This means that the reality into which we intervene is always-already the product of our
intervention” (Vighi and Feldner 2007 p. 129). In Žižek’s words this means that “in his
particular-empirical activity the subject of course presupposes the ‘world’, the objectivity on
which he performs his activity, as something given in advance, as a positive condition of his
activity; but his positive-empirical activity is possible only if he structures his perception of the
world in advance in a way that opens the space for his intervention—in other words, only if he
retroactively posits the presuppositions of his activity, of his ‘positing’. This ‘act before the act’
[…] is a purely formal ‘conversion’ transforming reality into something perceived, assumed as a
result of our activity” (Žižek 1989 p. 218). Thusly for Žižek, the commodity “is not merely the
embodiment of social relations, but it actually represents an uncanny object endowed with
magical/religious powers—and the more people deny this dimension, the more they are caught in
the spell of the commodity” (Vighi and Feldner 2007 p. 132).
Traversing the Fantasy
It is from this ‘spell of the commodity’ which we can get to the Lacanian concept of
enjoyment, or rather, which links the psychoanalytic process to the critique of ideology, one with 48
a determinate political option. In order to make this connection, I will briefly summarize Žižek’s
tracing of Lacan’s development of the symptom. First we have the analysand, the psychoanalytic
subject, which presents with a symptom. The aim of psychoanalysis is for the analyst to interpret
the symptom, and give meaning to it, as the symptom is always addressed to the analyst. As the
interpretation is made, and the analysand is made to verbalize this interpretation of his symptom,
and thus be relieved of it, he is cured. The first problem that occurs here is that in certain cases
the symptom persists beyond interpretation. This leads Lacan to add a second characteristic to
the symptom, not only is it a coded message addressed to the analyst (or the big Other) to which
meaning is conferred, it is also how the subject organizes its enjoyment—which is why it persists
beyond interpretation. From here Lacan designates a new distinction, between symptom and
fantasy, which divides the previous ‘symptom’ into two processes rather than one: interpreting
the symptom, and going through the fantasy. The first step involves the former interpretation of
the symptom, and the second involves going through the interpretation to the fantasy (as the
kernel of enjoyment) which blocks further interpretation. Subsequently, “we must accomplish
the crucial step of going through the fantasy, of obtaining distance from it” (Žižek 1989 p. 74).
Thus the second problem arises for Lacan, as even through distancing themselves from their
fantasy-formation—the key symptom still persists. So here we have a symptom which persists
through both steps in the process, interpretation of symptoms, and going through fantasy. Lacan
answered this problem with the concept of sinthome. The sinthome is the symptom which is “our
only substance, the only positive support of our being, the only point that gives consistency to
the subject”; it is the way we ‘choose something (the symptom-formation) instead of nothing
(radical psychotic autism, the destruction of the symbolic universe)’ through the binding of our
enjoyment to a certain signifying, symbolic formation which assures a minimum of consistency 49
to our being-in-the-world” (Žižek 1989 p. 75). Thusly the completion of the Lacanian
psychoanalytic process is identification with the symptom, or when “[t]he patient is able to
recognize, in the Real of his symptom, the only support of his being” (Žižek 1989 p. 75).
So how does this process function in relation to ideology today? In order to understand
this correlation I’d like to take the example of a practice called ‘shopdropping’, which is part of
the sort of culture jamming anti-corporate/anti-advertising campaigns which exist marginally in
New York City. Shopdropping is the practice by which artists-activists try to rejoin the labor and
the product which have been ostensibly separated when we simply go to supermarket to purchase
products. These activists set up workshops in which they show individuals how to create new
labels for products such as two-liter bottles of Coca Cola. In these workshops, they create new
labels for these Coca Cola products which maintain the barcode, but instead of original showing
the corporate label—these shopdroppers re-sleeve the original item with their newly created label
that depicts the original conditions of production of the product—for example, an image of a
woman in a factory where it is bottled. They print out their respective labels with the barcode
remaining the same as the original product so that the consumer will unwittingly purchase the
item with the ‘shopdropped’ label and bring it home. Not only is this in an effort to rejoin the
human element of the labor process and the product itself, it is also a way for art to disrupt the
commercial world. What then, is the effect of this practice? On one side, those individuals
involved must know they’re not exactly putting their bodies upon the wheels and gears of the
machine. On the other, the consumer can surely see the effect of ‘shopdropping’ –the shock of
seeing the relations of production, conditions of production, or humanity behind the
commodity—whereas before there was simply a product. 50
The problem here corresponds to Žižek’s analysis of commodity fetishism, that “on an
every day level, the individuals know very well that there are relations between people behind
the relations between things. The problem is that in their social activity itself, in what they are
doing, they are acting as if money, in its material reality, is the immediate embodiment of wealth
as such” (Žižek 1989 p. 31). This is why supermarkets such as Whole Foods embrace this sort of
practice (shopdropping), and not only embrace its appearance of ‘subversiveness’, but use that
to reel in those ‘socially responsible’ yuppies who have both the finances and the will to
purchase quality foods with labels depicting its authentic conditions of production, and feel good
about it. They can embrace it because it is in fact, counter-subversive. Of course, Whole Foods
does not embrace the practice of shopdropping itself—simply the marketing effect its type of
labeling has. What is the effect of this re-labeling of the shopdroppers? To show the authentic
origins of products so far removed from their original production. Do we not see more and more
this sort of imagery in products at these sorts of supermarkets? In appearing to conform to the
demands of the consumer in offering these sorts of products with ostensibly socially responsible
origins, they appeal to this deconstruction of the product and the commodity. The problem then
is that, while the commercial process appears to become more transparent, as individuals
rationally know the “relations between people behind the relations between things”, still they act
as if they are guided by that initial illusion. This is then the necessary link to the psychoanalytic
process. Even though we distance ourselves from the fantasy formation— even though we
acknowledge its masking of the real state of things, still, we act as if we did not know. Therefore,
even if we do not take seriously the form of the commodity, the form itself—the fantasy
formation—still structures our reality. 51
Again, this is why the anti-essentialist critique of ideology is insufficient, because it does
not ask us to do more than distance ourselves from the fantasy, it only asks us to ‘shopdrop’ as
such. The psychoanalytic approach is thus the necessary correlate. In short, there are “two
complementary procedures of the ‘criticism of ideology’”: one discursive/deconstructive; and
one which aims at “extracting the kernel of enjoyment, at articulating the way in which—beyond
the field of meaning but at the same time internal to it—an ideology implies, manipulates,
produces a pre-ideological enjoyment structured in fantasy” (Žižek 1989 p. 125). It is this latter
procedure that corresponds to Žižek’s tendency towards revolution rather than reformism. In
only distancing ourselves from our fantasy, we still maintain the function of capitalism as Real
through our approach to the “spell of the commodity”. Again, the secret of the commodity is not
in the relations behind it, but in the form itself. So we can say that, in reaching his indeterminate
political conclusion, Laclau has merely deconstructed, or interpreted the symptom and gone
through the fantasy, but has not yet identified with the Real of his symptom, or sinthome. If he
had identified with the sinthome, the Real of capitalism, he would have reached the conclusion
that Žižek has in regards to historicity and the doubling of universality. Žižek would have us
overidentify in a monstrous way with the form of the commodity itself, no longer having this
cynical distance towards our belief, but rather embracing it, and as such realizing its role as that
which “assures a minimum of consistency to our being-in-the-world”, and thus, giving ourselves
the ability to renounce this sinthome which is penetrated with enjoyment (Žižek, 1989 p. 75).
“This is why Žižek never tires of repeating that today’s crucial (and extremely problematic)
ethical choice is between Bad and Worse: we either stay with our symptom (bad) or we try to
annihilate it (worse). His ultimate ethico-political injunction is that we need to find a way to 52
bring about the worse outcome, the only one from which the symbolic/ideological field can be
radically resignified” (Vighi and Feldner 2007p. 138).
So here we have three ways in which Laclau’s failure to necessitate a determinate
political option is made manifest by Žižek in showing the other side of the critique of ideology.
First, through a theory which is only linked by a ‘half-acknowledged’ umbilical cord due to an
inattention to the double universality at work in his own theory; second, through an ignorance of
the flip side of ideology—over rapid historicization; and third, with being unable to account for
those who distance themselves from ideology, but still believe more than ever. All these failures
are so many ways of being blind to the dimension of the Real in its many forms.
In thinking about ideology then we have Laclau and Mouffe’s initial move in Hegemony
and Socialist Strategy of giving a post-structuralist critique of ideology which offers radical
contingent historicism/deconstruction/anti-essentialism/primary distortion as its basic procedure.
Through this procedure, we have the breaking down of the essentialist core of Marxism, as well
as the removal of the traditional Marxist categories which allowed for the weight of historical
processes, variable identity formation, and the primacy of class struggle. As their theory does not
attempt to re-construct these analytic abilities for the critique of ideology, it is far from innocent
in its post-structuralist move. Instead, the theory of hegemony offers a universal thesis about the
structure of the political, theoretically ignoring the dimension of historicity/Real—politically
refusing to acknowledge/historicize their own theory as rooted in the continuities of capitalism—
the overaccumulation tendencies which exist beyond the post-industrial period in which Laclau
and Mouffe set as their ‘necessary’ break with Marxism. Chapter 2 was meant to give direction
to how to posit a necessary analytic for socialist strategy, through pointing out the theory of
hegemony’s failures—which were primarily a result of a relentless radical contingent 53
historicism. In this chapter I have attempted to show the other side of the critique of ideology.
That is—if Chapter 2 was an analysis of the deconstructionist/historicist aspect of the critique of
ideology—Chapter 3 is an analysis of over-rapid historicization, the other side of the critique of
ideology. I have attempted to show how this dimension is totally ignored by Laclau, and
theoretically has lead to an unnecessary political link to reformism and the deepening of liberal
democracy. I have tried to show the many ways in which Slavoj Žižek has given constant
attention to this dimension in Laclau’s work—for the reason that it allows for the primacy of
class struggle to be re-asserted within the same ontology—albeit with a more Hegelian reading.
All this was in an effort to demonstrate how the post-Marxism of Laclau and Mouffe, in their
reticence from essentialist Marxism, have disavowed the driving factor for their move away from
essentialism, the ostensible change in the capitalist mode of production from the modern to the
postmodern periods. The two results of this disavowal is clear, the theoretical reification of the
hegemony of global capitalism and its supplement, liberal democracy—as well as the
invalidation of the theory as a viable analytic for socialist strategy. 54
Chapter 4
An Insufficient Strategy
The previous chapters have been an attempt to flesh out a discussion of what I believe are
the key issues to be addressed for a post-structuralist, Marxist theory of hegemony—one with
socialist strategy as its political aim. The object is to return to Laclau’s theory of hegemony all
those things that it lost through its reticence towards both the categories of essentialist Marxism
and the ‘death of ideology’—as well as restore to it the theoretical basis for a determinate
political option. The theory as its stands without addressing these issues will remain impotent,
and politically vacuous. In regards to socialist strategy, there exists a problematic still with
regards to questions of the role of the state. In the introduction to Chapter 1 I gave Laclau’s
postmodern route—the move from class struggle to the multiplicity of ideological struggles for
hegemony—as the object of analysis for this thesis. But in Žižek’s identification and parceling of
those many ways in which academics have tried to theorize struggle today in light of the
hegemony of global capitalism and liberal democracy, there is a demarcated line between those
who accept the hegemony, and those who seek to resist it—albeit in different ways. If this
‘postmodern route’ of the theory of hegemony was to resist global capitalism and its supportive
state power—what then is Laclau’s understanding of resistance to state power today? One would
assume that in the call for a ‘deepening’ of liberal democracy in the ‘democratic direction’ – a
number of things are taken for granted. Notably, again, while Laclau’s theory which ‘deepens’
democracy within the liberal democratic order—which hails the newly emergent multiplicity of
political subjectivizations which emerge in postmodernity, it still relies on the fact that we “do
not ask certain questions (about how to subvert capitalism…about the constitutive limits of
political democracy and/or the democratic state as such)” (Butler, Laclau et al. 2000 p. 99). Thus 55
we have a particular domain of the state, that which has precise interventions in the economic,
which remains unpoliticized. Why then has the theory of hegemony taken this more reformist
stance towards the state?
The Universality of the State
In order to understand this ‘deepening’ of democracy and avoidance of state
confrontation we have to look once again to the politico-philosophical origins, this time to the
origins of Laclau’s conception of a ‘people’. In his recent book On Populist Reason, he writes,
The articulation between universality and particularity which is constitutively inherent to
the construction of a ‘people’ is not something which takes place just at the level of
words and images: it is also sedimented in practices and institutions.[…] [O]ur notion of
‘discourse’ […] involves the articulation of words and actions, so that the quilting
function is never a merely verbal operation but it embedded in material practices which
can acquire institutional fixity. This is the same as saying that any hegemonic
displacement should be conceived as a change in the configuration of the state, provided
that the latter is conceived, not in a restrictive juridical sense as the public sphere, but in
an enlarged Gramscian sense, as the ethico-political moment of the community. Any state
will manifest that combination of particularism and universality which is inherent to the
hegemonic operation (Laclau 2005 p. 106).
So we can see here that Laclau takes his cue from Gramsci, for whom there is a
particularity which claims to constitute universality, while this universality can exist only in its
particular embodiment. This articulation of both instances—between universality and
particularity which is “inherent to the construction of a people” is a theoretical move shared by 56
both Gramsci and Laclau. What then for Laclau is the wrong philosophical move? He notes two
instances, the Hegelian instance and the Marxian instance. “For Hegel, the sphere of the state is
the highest form of universality achievable in the terrain of social ethics: bureaucracy is the
universal class, while civil society—the system of needs is the realm of pure particularity. For
Marx, the situation is reversed: the state is the instrument of the dominant class, and a ‘universal
class’ can emerge only in a civil society that is reconciled with itself—one in which the state …
has necessarily to wither away” (Laclau 2005 p. 107). For Laclau, the problematic part of both of
these scenarios is that the universal dimension and the particular dimension are kept separate,
and never articulated together, thus the actors involved never constitute ‘a people’. But what is
left out of this reading of Gramsci, Marx, and Hegel? The confrontation with the state. This
confrontation is left out philosophically through Laclau’s operation on one level of universality.
What do I mean by this? Well, in Etienne Balibar’s discussion of fictive universality he
articulates this point by tracing the development from hegemony of religious universality to
political universality. Balibar argues that Hegel’s “dialectic of history had no other object than
precisely explaining how one great historical ‘fiction’, that of the universalistic church, could be
substituted by another historical ‘fiction’, that of the secular rational institutions of the state […],
with equally universalistic aims” (Balibar 2002 p. 156). The credit to both the Hegelian and
Marxian readings is that they show the limit of the imagination of this level of universality. With
the Hegelian, we have universality as the political form of the state, with more or less play of
religious attachments and memberships within this form. With the Marxian, we have a
universality which is predicated upon the idea that universality is only attained outside the state
form. The merit of the two former readings is that they involve the state in a way which is
viewed as precarious. Laclau asserts that his theory of hegemony works with any given political 57
order, arguing that “there are many more forms of radical democracy which do not pass through
the liberal scene”, but this theory still necessarily relies on an avoidance of state confrontation,
existing within only this one form of universality—the form of the state (Avgitidou and Koukou
2008 p.88). This stance towards the state is not simply one grounded a disavowed history of the
development of the capitalist state, but also a product of the relativization of struggle within the
theory of hegemony. Within the theory, there is no ‘necessity’ for socialist strategy to rely on a
Marxist state takeover and ‘withering away of the state’. Due to this ‘contingency’ of the
particular struggle which is raised to the level of the universal, any concrete confrontation of
state or state apparatuses—of any techniques or mechanisms— get subsumed by the formal logic
of hegemony and the discursive functioning of ideology. The site of universality for Laclau is
always that of the state. Therefore, any particular hegemony which discursively constitutes that
site necessarily operates within this framework. Within this framework, the socialist struggle can
never get beyond the form of the state, as it is the universality of the state which allows the
formal logic of these particular struggles to operate.
The Horror of the State
In his lecture from Security, Territory, Population on 1 February 1978, Foucault
makes the point that there is a fascination with either the love or the horror of the power that the
state exercises. One of the manifestations of the horror of the state is the reductive view which
reduces it to functions such as “development of the productive forces and the reproduction of the
relations of production” (Foucault 2009 p. 109). In this view—the state maintains a primary role
as the apparatus which needs to be attacked. This, Foucault argues, is ill conceived. He claims,
“the state […] does not have this unity, individuality, and rigorous functionality, nor […] this
importance” (Foucault 2009 p. 109). What our attention needs to be turned to, or “what is 58
important for our modernity”, is not the state’s takeover, but rather the ‘governmentalization’ of
the state (Foucault 2009 p. 109). Okay, that is all well and fine. But, if governmentality is
important for our modernity, how is it manifest? “[G]overnmentalization of the state is a
particularly contorted phenomenon, since if the problems of governmentality and the techniques
of government have really become the only political stake and the only real space of political
struggle and contestation, the governmentalization of the state has nonetheless been what has
allowed the state to survive”(Foucault 2009 p. 109).
So in the first, hypothetical view, we have a reductive state which sought only to
maintain and create the relations of production in a given society—what might be called the
Althusserian view of the state. In Foucault’s view we have a state which seeks to maintain its
own stability through governmentalization with “population as its target, political economy as its
major form of knowledge, and apparatuses of security as its essential technical instrument”
(Foucault 2009 p. 108). So if the implicit problem for Foucault, for our present, is
governmentalization of the state –where then does resistance lie? If what is to be attacked is not
this reductive view of the state as the concentration of power, but rather the ‘techniques’ and
‘tactics’ of governmentalization — where does power lie? I would argue that today, this
‘governmentality’ with stability as its object is what is taken to be the form of the state already—
and thus the state is seen as the contested arena for those decisions of the management of
population. However, while this sort of view of the state is surely valid, it need not entail the
reticence towards confrontation of the state as a strategy. That is to say, the shift from a view of
the state with an aim which directly serves the ruling classes by maintaining the relations of
production—and thus represses, to one in which the state operates from a distance with certain 59
mild interventions—a more productive power—does not necessitate a view of the state as a sort
of neutral hegemonic tool without a high concentration of power invested in it.
So we can see that, in contemporary times, it is not necessarily this reductive view of the
state maintaining and reproducing the relations of production, —but rather that this
governmentalization of the state is already accepted as ‘real-political’. Thus the question
becomes, if we seek to avoid this game of population and stability and government, what then do
we have recourse to? Do we then have to practice an anarchic resistance from the interstices,
pointing out inability of the state reach our demands? Does complicity with the state, or seizing
state power, simply renounce any universal ethical call for universal demands/ struggle —on
grounds that it is steeped in governmentality? I think not. Is not the class struggle, unlike all
those particular struggles struggling to deepen democracy within a liberal democratic container,
antagonistic to this very form of the political itself? I think this problematic of whether or not to
ruthlessly take state power, due to the success, growth, and relative stability of liberal democracy
and global capitalism since the 18
and 19
centuries, has caused what Foucault might refer to as
a ‘block[age] for historical reasons’ (Foucault 2009 p. 101). That is to say—these successes have
led to the present reticent view of state takeover in Laclau’s work—and the naturalization of the
form of the liberal democratic state as the form of universality. If there is one lesson to be
learned from our present economic situation, it is that the governmentalized state has always had
a role in shaping how the overaccumulation tendencies of capitalism are to be expressed—and
how these expressions are simply more deferrals of consciousness of its contradictory nature.
This is why the postmodern discursive re-articulation which Laclau and Mouffe advocate as
resistance to global capitalism and liberal democracy offer little in the way of strategy. It is a
resistance which seeks to deepen liberal democracy in the democratic direction, —but there is 60
something inherently wrong with this strategy; —it still maintains the ideological distance of the
economic from the political which is characteristic of liberalism. It is a resistance which takes
global capitalism and liberal democracy as a given. It is a resistance which does not confront
state power, acknowledge the primacy of the economic, or necessitate concrete political action.
Worst of all, the theory itself becomes the ideology of that which it purports to strategize
against—making it a prime example of the ‘necessary’ relation between material historical
processes and ideas which the theory disavows—offering a universal thesis about politics which
cannot comprehend its own grounding in the phase of late capitalism. So here we can understand
why the turn to post-Marxism and Laclau and Mouffe’s radical democracy is one of the
particular responses to this hegemony, but not a valid response for the Left. If we do not take
seriously the continuities of capitalism as that constant which underlies the theoretical changes
from the modern to the postmodern periods, we risk overlooking what has returned as the same
in the new, and we risk the type of theorizing which universalizes the present circumstances,
disavowing any connection to the concrete historical circumstances which led to that
theorization. Laclau and Mouffe’s theory of hegemony operates on a level which forgets its own
conditions of production, forgets the Left’s political defeats, and forgets all those material factors
of the” increasingly profound penetration of capitalist relations of production in areas of social
life” which led to their theory in the first place (Laclau and Mouffe 1987 p. 80). If discursive rearticulation is going to have any merit—it has to keep in mind the ways in which to remain
analytically productive while maintaining a self-aware and critical political position.
The goal of this writing is to bring to light all those failures inherent to Laclau’s theory of
hegemony in order to better understand why post-Marxism—as embodied in Hegemony and
Socialist Strategy and subsequent works –has not taken root as a viable text for positioning
socialist strategy today. I have argued throughout that without certain necessary tenets of
Laclau’s theory of hegemony being supplemented by Foucault and Žižek, the theory fails to give
concrete political direction or the critical ideological analysis that might lead to one.
This has been the result of a number of theoretical moves on Laclau’s part. In waging a
theoretical war against essentialist Marxism on post-structuralist grounds—Laclau has
obfuscated and made impotent key Marxist categories of determination and objective interests,
as well as eliminating any necessity of class struggle as the fundamental social antagonism—all
this without attempting to rearticulate a post-structuralist version of the primarcy of these
categories. In performing an ontological shift from traditional ideology and Foucauldian
discourse analysis to a post-structuralist ontology and critique of ideology—Laclau sweeps aside
the necessary distinctions for critical political analysis of ideology—eliminating Foucault’s
distinction between the discursive and the non-discursive. As a result of this move, the historical
processes of identity formation are leveled—rendering any critique of ideology ultimately
groundless. All these results are borne of this ontological shift—but what about the shift itself?
In looking at this new ontology—this anti-essentialist theory and critique of ideology—
we find that Laclau ignores the flipside of ideology noted by Lacan, over-rapid historicization.
This particularly fatal mistake results in Laclau’s lack of a posited critical politics inherent to his
theory, his disavowal of the historical contingency of his own theory rooted in the society of Late
Capitalism, his ignorance of the primacy of class struggle, as well as his ability to see beyond the 62
state form of universality itself. In moving beyond the deadlock between essentialist Marxism
and post-structuralism, a re-articulation must be made which accounts for and remedies these
failures. And in positing socialist strategy from a non-essentialist discourse, one must account for
their position of enunciation while actually strategizing action with explicit ends. 63
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