‘Ernesto Laclau: Post-Marxism, Populism and Critique’ reviewed by Will Horner

Ernesto Laclau: Post-Marxism, Populism and Critique

Routledge, London and New York, 2014. 294pp., £28.99 pb
ISBN 9780415870870

Reviewed by Will Horner

About the reviewer

Will Horner recently completed a Masters in European Politics at University College London. His …


As the editor, David Howarth, notes in his Introduction to this comprehensive account of Ernesto Laclau’s key theoretical contributions over a long and distinguished academic career, this volume seeks to capture and evaluate the ‘essence,’ the ‘key concepts and logics’ (2), which have structured the corpus of the late Argentine political theorist from beginning to end. In this regard the volume does a good job of presenting Laclau’s work in such a way that each key concept receives sustained, focused and highly detailed attention before progressing on to the next. As a result the volume is more suited to readers already familiar with Laclau’s general theory but who are looking for greater depth of understanding. The inclusion of a brand new interview, concluding the volume, conducted shortly before Laclau’s death last year, in which he offers perhaps his final response to those engaging critically with his ideas is also very valuable to those seeking the most recent articulation of Laclau’s concepts.

This book comes at an important juncture in the study of Laclau’s work for two reasons. First, the sad passing of Laclau in April last year means this volume is one of the first attempts to present the totality of Laclau’s corpus. Second, it marks not an end but a new beginning for Laclau’s theory, at a time in which the philosopher’s contributions are more relevant than ever and his work is finding increased attention and application. The revival of attention towards the concept of populism, for example, has brought Laclau’s work to the fore considering it’s novel and systematized attempt to define the vague and nebulous term, as well as reclaiming it from derogatory associations with the extreme right and reapplying it as a possible corrective to the failures of contemporary democratic institutions.

The victory of Syriza in Greece in January and the startling rise of the radical, anti-austerity party Podemos in Spain, both of which have been labeled ‘populist,’ has created interest in what Chantal Mouffe, Laclau’s partner and collaborator, has called ‘radical left-wing populism’ to which Laclau’s theories have proved extremely valuable in theorizing. The emergence of these movements has also begun an interesting attempt to use Laclau’s theories of hegemony and populism, not merely as a theoretical tool for our understanding of populist phenomena, but as blueprints for action, as instruction manuals towards building politically potent popular movements. Pablo Iglesias and Íñigo Errejón, founders and leaders of Podemos, have acknowledged their theoretical debt to Laclau and the ways in which his theories shaped their very successful interventions into Spanish politics. Errejón, in a fascinating and reverential obituary for Laclau, wrote correctly that: ‘Ernesto Laclau died when he was most needed, at a moment of uncertainty and the opening up of cracks allowing for unprecedented possibilities.’

Laclau is most commonly associated with Post-Marxism. In this volume Laclau makes clear what he understands this term to mean. The ‘post’ of Post-Marxism, Laclau says, should not be interpreted as an abandoning of Marx, it’s not a ‘leaving behind,’ but an attempt to ‘[deal] with actual aporias deeply ingrained in the heart of Marxism, which forced political thought to go beyond the straightjacket constituted by classical Marxist categories,’ but which stresses that such issues can only be framed ‘within the horizon opened by Marxist theorization’ (258). From the beginning Laclau’s aim was to pursue a thoroughly undogmatic Marxism ready to assimilate theories from any quarter if they helped to overcome impasses and further social progress and political emancipation.

Laclau’s earliest works built on the theories of Antonio Gramsci, an already un-orthodox approach to Marx, by expanding upon Gramsci’s notion of hegemony. Gramsci developed the notion of hegemony upon the simple premise that the bourgeoisie maintains control of the proletariat through culture and ideas, rather than by mere force alone. Accordingly, Gramsci called for Marxists to build a counter-hegemonic bloc which develops a revolutionary project by exercising intellectual and moral leadership over a broad alliance of social groups. The concept of hegemony is a central and consistent category throughout Laclau’s work which, in its most advanced theorization occurs when a broad and diverse alliance of disenfranchised social groups invest a representative role, and thus a position of leadership, in one of the members of the alliance. This one actor, what Laclau calls the ‘empty signifier’, attempts to represent the grievances of these social groups simultaneously. The melding of all these diverse identities and demands creates a new subject, what Laclau calls the ‘people’.

Also very much in line with Gramsci’s emphasis on the creation of meaning as a means of both social control and emancipation, Laclau utilizes the notion of discourse, which he borrows from post-structuralist theorist such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. Together with Mouffe, Laclau’s theorization of discourse gave birth to a distinct school of discourse theory – the Essex School of Discourse Analysis – and redefined the concept in unique and controversial ways. For Laclau discourse is any meaningful relation that constitutes identities. Prior to this discourse had been conceived as encompassing only communicative acts, i.e. speech and writing. But according to Laclau’s new understanding almost anything can be understood as discourse such as physical actions, methods of organization, and events.

These two concepts come together in Laclau’s work on populism. The topic was consistently of interest to Laclau who, coming from Argentina and witnessing Peronism first hand, found theoretical insight in the way Peron built broad popular support amongst society’s heterogeneous groups. He paid academic attention to populism as early as the seventies, but, departing from the concept for many years, Laclau returned with his most well formulated arguments after the turn of the century, when the ‘end of history’ and the alter-globalization movements were posing new questions for struggles against capitalism.

For Laclau any social struggle is a question of ‘demands.’ It is only with the aggregation of many demands into a ‘chain of equivalence’ that populist movements begin to take shape. This aggregation occurs through the articulation of a populist discourse which claims to champion the ‘people,’ thus (discourse being the constitution of identities) defining a new collective subject. This new subject is antagonistic to ‘the elites’ and a political frontier is created. Political leadership of the ‘people’ comes in the form of an actor capable of representing the diverse demands of the chain of equivalences. Laclau says the success of this actor’s ability to represent such diversity is dependent on its own lack of a specific identity. In discursive terms it is an ‘empty signifier,’ one with no specific content of its own but which can ‘unite heterogeneous elements into a singular identity’ (14).

Howarth divides Laclau’s work into three key phases: an initial attempt to ‘develop a Marxist theory of ideology and politics,’ drawing mainly from Gramsci and Althusser. Second, an engagement with post-structuralist philosophy which results in a distinctly Post-Marxist theorization of the Gramscian concept of hegemony that, as Howarth puts it, breaks ‘decisively with the residual determinism and essentialism of the Marxist paradigm’ (1). And thirdly, the development of this Post-Marxist approach by incorporating elements of Freudian psychoanalysis and deconstructionist philosophy, via engagements with the work of Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida, respectively. Howarth also identifies the three key concepts which run through Laclau’s work as: discourse, hegemony and populism, referring to them, using a thoroughly Laclauian term, as ‘nodal points of his theoretical contribution’ (2).

Howarth breaks the volume up into three parts. Part I, ‘Post-Marxist political theory: discourse, hegemony, signification,’ deals most prominently with Laclau’s theorisations of the concept of discourse, and the related terms, dislocation, ideology and empty signifiers. Part II, ‘Analysing Populism,’ deals with Laclau’s unique theory of populism, including his earliest theorization ‘Towards a theory of populism’ (Chapter 6) as well the crucial essay ‘Populism: what’s in a name?’ (Chapter 7). Part III, ‘Critical Engagements,’ presents a collection of Laclau’s engagements with the works of others. Laclau’s entire career contained a willingness to engage publicly with other contemporary academics. As Laclau stresses, ‘each historical period [contains] a plurality of intellectual paradigms and it would be a mistake to enclose oneself in one’s own approach without confronting it with what is taking place in alternative currents of thought’ (270).

Whilst structuring Laclau’s work in this way achieves its goal of isolating the nodal points of his work and devoting sustained attention to each in order, it does have the down side of making reading the volume from cover to cover a repetitive and heavy task. The first two parts are dense with theory (often the same theories in slightly different formulations) and Laclau’s writing style is by no means easy and devoid of complicated terms from diverse areas of philosophy and Marxist theory. In fact, Laclau draws often from such a huge range of thinkers that it can be difficult to keep up. ‘Dislocation and capitalism, social imaginary and democratic revolution’ (Chapter 2), for example is a lengthy essay in which Laclau references the following, non-exhaustive, list: Freud, Aristotle, Spinoza, Marx, Trotsky, Lefort, the Book of Revelation, Lactantius, Plato, Hobbes, and Polybius. No doubt it is an essay crucial for understanding Laclau’s concept of dislocation but it’s inclusion at the beginning stresses to us that this is a book for those already familiar with Laclau and Post-Marxism who wish to roll their sleeves up and get stuck into the finer details of Laclau’s work, rather than for those seeking a gentle introduction.

It is the third and final part of the volume that proves the most interesting. Not because it is any easier for those uninitiated in Post-Marxist terminology, but because it is where Laclau responds directly to his critics. It includes engagements with the works of Derrida, Hardt and Negri, Schmitt, Agamben and Rorty. A very entertaining engagement with Žižek is also included in Part II. These engagements are just as helpful for grasping Laclau’s theories whilst also offering Laclau the opportunity to clarify the finer points of his arguments in light of a certain criticism leveled at them. Their inclusion at the end of the volume seems entirely logical according to Howarth’s structuring of Laclau’s work but new readers of Laclau wouldn’t suffer from beginning with this third part of the volume before returning to parts I and II for greater clarification and theoretical detail if they wish.

Howarth’s interview with Laclau which concludes the book is particularly interesting. As the book’s Acknowledgments page records, Laclau passed away during the final stages of editing this volume. Thus the interview is perhaps Laclau’s final opportunity to engage substantially with remaining critiques and questions. For example, an ongoing dispute is over the capacity of hegemony to account for horizontal and autonomous movements. This can largely be characterized as a dispute between Laclau and Mouffe on the one hand, and theorist drawing more from Hardt and Negri – post-hegemonists – on the other, who argue that hegemony is at best prone to authoritarianism, or at worst an explicit validation of it (Laclau address Hardt and Negri specifically in Chapter 10: ‘Can immanence explain social struggles?’ (2003)). In the interview Laclau addresses these concerns directly and with greater specificity than before by stressing that populism (and by association hegemony) depends on both horizontalism and verticalism. These comments are very valuable for academics seeking to explore in greater detail the split between hegemonists and post-hegemonists. Laclau also covers the development of his key concepts hegemony and populism over time, Howarth’s suggestion that his work can be divided into three basic phases (with which Laclau is very much in agreement), the role of jouissance and affect in discourse, the concept of antagonism, and Laclau’s first philosophical, then personal, disagreements with Slavoj Žižek, amongst others.

16 July 2015

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