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A Critical Account of Laclau and Mouffe on Populism. Part One.

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A Socialist Critique of Laclau and Mouffe, from Discourse to Populism.

“Enfants, enfants, je vous le dis: montez sur une montagne, pourvu qu’elle soit assez haute, regardez aux quatre vents, vous ne verrez qu’enemies.”

Children, children, I say this to you, climb a mountain, providing that it’s high enough, look in all directions, and you will see but enemies.”

Jules Michelet. Le Peuple. 3rd Edition 1846. (1)

Ernesto Laclau (1935 – 2014) was a political theorist, perhaps best known as a ‘post-Marxist’. The former Professor Political Theory at Essex University, he is attributed the founder of the Essex School of Discourse Analysis, and is best known today for his book on a topic which has recently come to dominate politics, On Populist Reason (2005). The Belgium born Chantal Mouffe, his partner, has, like Laclau, passed the major part of her career in British higher education. Their joint book, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1986) made a splash, as a critique of class based Marxism that tried to deal with ‘new social movements’. Readers of Marxism Today during the period would have been familiar with the two names, as well as the often virulent critiques of their turn. Norman Geras began with an attack on  “a procession of erstwhile Marxists” (Post Marxism? 1987) But since that time Mouffe, like Laclau, seemed consigned to the decent obscurity of the University.

To the surprise of many in the new century Laclau and Mouffe spread their wings much further than academia. Posthumously Laclau has joined the select group of radical thinkers who have passed from youthful left activism, to being considered, not least by some players on the European left, a real influence on practising politicians. Pablo Iglesias, and Íñigo Errejón, have cited the Argentine born academic as an inspiration for the strategy of their political party, the Spanish Podemos founded in 2014. For those of an historical spirit they may indicate that the tie between radical left-wing Theory and Practice, apparently broken by the decades of Stalinism and the Cold War, and rendered even more marginal by the collapse of Official Communism, has been re-forged.

Mouffe was, and remains, very visible, at least in that select part of the political world that reads the Guardian, the New Statesman, El País, le Monde, and other European heavyweight dailies and magazines. Perhaps the high-water moment of her political influence was seen in her dialogue with leading Podemos figure, Íñigo Errejón in 2016, Podemos In the Name of the People. Mouffe has had the ear of the undisputed leader of the largest French left party now represented in the Assemblée Nationale, La France insoumise (LFI), created in 2016 by Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Mouffe and Laclau and Mouffe’s influence on Mélenchon and his advisers, particularly during the 2017 Presidential Election, has drawn the attention of the francophone media. The interest, originating in his personal formation in the Argentinian left,  of Laclau in Latin American populism, and relation to the Bolivarian Revolution – a key theme of the chief of LFI – in countries such as Venezuela drew attention and criticism. (2)

Left Populism.

A degree of scepticism about Laclau and Mouffe’s impact is nevertheless needed. The dispute between Errejón and Iglesias indicates that they are thinkers, and above all politicians in their own right. There are even greater doubts about whether anybody outside his inner circle marked Mélenchon’s left populist L’ère du peuple, Mouffe is clearly heard. Whether her recent suggestion that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is also “left populist” will lead a British audience to follow the “clues” for successful radicalism Owen Jones saw in the 2016 book remains less probable. Left populism has not been able to construct a ruling political bloc through on electoral victory. Efforts to go beyond ‘left’ and ‘right’ in the traditional sense have not been crowned with success. Podemos lost seats in the Spanish General Election, and Mélenchon’s La France insoumise has descended to below 10% in the poll. The Bolivarian Revolution has not turned out well, to say the least. (3)

It remains an attractive speculation that Laclau and Mouffe have created a Mirror for the Modern Left Populist Prince. The issue of Populism, which they have covered for many years, is important at the present. This is only one example of how their works might be mined for insights: “As Laclau foresaw” writes Jade Azim, “the success of populist movements depends on a symbolic signifier that can unite varied demands under a single umbrella.” For Nigel Farage, “The Brexit party’s empty signifier is Brexit, uniting a variety of voters under its banner; Farage loyalists, grassroots Conservatives, George Galloway, and the Communist Party. Its genius lies in its simplicity: an ideologically empty home for those angry at what they perceive as a Brexit betrayal by corrupt elites.” One awaits the response of Corbyn’s inner circle to her proposal that the party counter attacks with, “a unifier akin to “Get On With it”, in the context of winning security for businesses and workers alike..”  Apart from the fact that even the Communist Party of Britain has yet to endorse Farage, what kind emotional affect would tie a voter to this “unifier” – which says essentially, I’m not interested. (4)

In the revival of interest in Laclau. though with more detail about his views on populism, Phil writes,

Does Laclau offer any insights? Widening the possibility for the co-option of demands is one. Indeed, what we’re likely to see before the next general election is the wholesale adoption of hard Brexit by the Tories, at least for the cameras and papers anyway. But ultimately, getting down and dirty in the guts of populism is what’s necessary. We know the logic, but the logic isn’t free-floating. It is fed. Elaborating the programme for older voters, who tend to power right populism more than any other demographic, looking at the myriad of unsaid demands and grievances the Brexit chain of equivalence scoops up, challenges us to think about ways of co-opting them and neutralising them. It’s a task easier said than done, and one much harder than Laclau’s book, but done it must be if we are to detoxify politics and banish the hard right from political efficacy permanently.

Laclau on Populism

Phil observes that vagueness and a rhetoric that reveals the “materiality of words” lies at the heart of a wide spectrum of populism.  This is to ignore, in Most recent writings, the importance of emotional ‘affects’. It’s is hard to believe that “re-copting” the nationalist rhetoric of, say, the Brexit Party, its cries of Betrayal, its loathing of Europe,  into an alternative ‘left populism’ based on the ‘People’ can avoid giving credence to the super-charged right-wing ideas used.  Indeed this has been a main charge against La France insoumise, which has sought, endlessly, to make its own chain of equivalence work.  Left politics are based on new demands that break from established ideas, not to mention prejudices, and the xenophobia and racism that have fed the Brexit movement. FInally, language is not ‘out there’, the populists produced them within material party apparatuses, amply funded by sections of the hard-right bourgeoisie. They are “popular” only in the sense that a movement like 19th century French Boulangism was, a plebeian movement funded by fractions of capital that supported French monarchism, and anti-Semites engaged in a struggle with ‘Jewish’ capital. (5)

Perry Anderson on Laclau Today.

This is far from the end of the story. Works, from their joint Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985), Laclau’s On Populist Reason (2005) and final writings on ‘rhetoric’, have much wider implications. Mouffe’s essays on political theory, up to Agonistics (2013) the discussion with Errejón, and For a Left Populism (2018) have an enormous range of references, from Gramcsi to Frédéric Lordon.  Are the ideas of Laclau and Mouffe, to cite only a few, on the “empty” and “floating” signifier in the discursive forms that construct the People Against a Them – an Other which Mouffe was to frame in terms adapted from Carl Schmitt as the “Enemy” – guides for radical let alone socialist politics? Perry Anderson, with commendable generosity, has said that Laclau and Mouffe writings of of thirty years ago, which argued for a break with Marxist “economism” and for a “new pluralism” based on radical democracy, and for a “politically constructed collective will” were “augers of the reaction against neo-liberalism”. They anticipated the conditions for the rise of Populism, the present, “when deindustrialisation had shrunk and divided the working class leaving a much more fragmented social landscape and a multiplication of movements, of right and left contesting the established order in the name of the people” – populism, a “bug bear of elites. (6)

The New Leftist remarked critically, if, one may gives him the benefit of the doubt and imagine that he still considers himself  committed to some socialist ideas,  that in Laclau’s On Populist Reason “reference to socialism fades altogether, and populism take over hegemony as the more pointed and powerful signifier of the inherently contingent unification of democratic demands – which in isolation would equally well be woven into an anti-democratic discourse – into a collective will. Bound together by a common set of symbols and affective ties to a leader, and insurgent people can then confront the regnant powers of their society, across the dividing-line of dichotomous antagonism between the two.” Everything becomes an affair of “articulation” joining voices together an attempt to construct a progressive populism embedded in the “national popular” to fight this battle for a “populist rupture”. As Anderson indicated, the People against the Elite, the Oligarchy, comes also in a National Populist guise, the Nations against more enemies than even Jules Michelet could have dreamt up. How these could be articulated into a left movement, other than a ‘red-brown’ or, at best, a ‘Blue Labour’ one that sympathises with them, is never explained. (7)

There are deeper problems with the views of Laclau and Mouffe. Their exaggerated interest in constructing “popular hegemony” (federating the people as Mélenchon’s supporters call it) and blindness towards what Perry Anderson called the “normal forms of hegemony” that of the dominant classes. But assessing Laclau and Mouffe is not easy. The response leads us from theoretical abstractions that would make an E.P.Thompson belch in his tomb, to some of the thorniest issues confronting the present day left. To begin, but not end, they include the nature of the discourse theory that replaced ideology in their work, ‘rhetoric’ and ‘articulation’ in politics, Mouffe’s sketch of ‘agonistic democracy’ right up to the overlaying of class politics by ‘populism’, national identity and sovereignty. As Mouffe put it, “Introducing her latest book the political theorist Chantal Mouffe writes that post-democracy “signals the decline in the role of parliaments and the loss of sovereignty that is the consequence of neoliberal globalisation.” (8)

This complex of theory, often described as abstract, if not rebarbative, is beyond doubt influential, if hardly accessible to a popular audience.  (9)

It is also profoundly wrong implying a shift and opening to Sovereigntist ideas, and has potentially damaging effects in destroying the historic class and ideological basis of the left.


Next section…..from Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory,  Slavoj Žižek. to On Populist Reason….

 

  1. Page 41 Jules Michelet. Le Peuple. 3rd Edition 1846
  2. There are hundreds of articles on this see :Les dangereux affects de Chantal Mouffe. Laurent Joffrin. 2018 Chantal Mouffe, la philosophe préférée de Mélenchon, Corbyn, Iglesias…  Chantal Mouffe, gurú del Podemos de España y del Frente Amplio: “Hay que votar por Guillier”
  3. La influencia de Laclau y Mouffe en Podemos.  Miguel Sanz Alcántara. One of the founders of Podemos cited in their piece, Juan Carlos Monedero, has stated that the impact of Laclau-Mouffe “populist hypothesis” on the party has been framed a posteriori. See for example  Las debilidades de la hipótesis populista y la construcción de un pueblo en marcha. Mélenchon pays homage a number of times to Laclau and Mouffe in Le Choix de l’insoumission (2016). But it is far from rare for a French politician to garnish her or his intellectual authority with weighty sounding influences.
  4. What Ernesto Laclau can teach us about the Brexit Party. New Statesman. 15th of May 2019.
  5.  See “Boulanger’s appeal as a nationalist was added appeal in the face of disillusionment with the Republic installed on 4 September 1870 and gradually solidified during the 1870s, the Third Republic (1870–1940). To most republicans, especially since 1848, the Republic had meant “the social and democratic Republic,” but the Republic now in power seemed to foster big business and industry. The severe recession of 1882, which hit farmers and increased unemployment, particularly in construction and textiles, increased resentment against the Republic among workers, artisans, and small-businesspeople. This resentment was further increased by a corruption scandal that broke in October 1887. President Jules Grèvy’s son-in-law, Daniel Wilson, who lived in the presidential residence, was selling his influence on the president: payment to Wilson was a sure way to get the Legion of Honor. The president was forced to resign at the end of 1887.” “The affair led directly to a new right. Until Boulangism, nationalism had been linked to the Revolutionary tradition of the levée en masse (the nation at arms) and royalists had disdained it. Now nationalists began to envisage authoritarian methods. In the mid-1880s, under a journalist named Paul Déroulède (1846–1914), La ligue des patriotes (the Patriots’ League) developed a new vision: the way to rebuild the nation was to inculcate obedience among the people and authority among their leaders. Monarchists and other conservatives who had initially disdained Boulanger soon saw the value of this kind of nationalism through Boulanger’s ability to draw popular support. If they could not restore the monarchy, they could use this nationalism to aim at an authoritarian regime based on values of nationalism, deference, and hierarchy. And conservatives learned about mass politics. The Dreyfus affair would further hasten their learning process.”
  6. Gramsci’s Heirs. Perry Anderson. New Left Review No 100. 2016. Socialist Strategy Where Next ? January 1981 Marxism Today. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. Verso. 1985.
  7. Page 80. Gramsci’s Heirs
  8.  For a Left Populism. Chantal Mouffe 2018. Verso.
  9. For an overview see the review of Ernesto Laclau: Post-Marxism, Populism and Critique. David Howarth. by Will Horner.

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Written by Andrew Coates

May 20, 2019 at 12:08 pm

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