Townshend, J. (2004) 'Laclau and Mouffe's Hegemonic Project: The Story So Far', in Political Studies, 52: 269 - 88.
Laclau and Mouffe's Hegemony and Socialist Strategy was intended to revive marxism, especially in the context of growing decline and the demise of the Soviet system. Political crisis were linked to theoretical crisis [the old intellectualist arrogance], which led to a thorough critical examination of the theoretical foundations of marxism. As was fashionable in the 1980s, this took the form of rejection of essentialism, foundationalism, and grand narratives.
Laclau and Mouffe also had ambitions inside the academy and sought to impose a hegemony of their own. They combined 'a "war of manoeuvre" against the Marxist left and a "war of position" within academia that involved the construction of theoretical alliances and the fostering of young scholars sympathetic to their project' (269). [Stuart Hall!].
[A resume of the main themes in Laclau and Mouffe follows -- see file for a short account]. Hegemony seemed the way forward, despite it being 'another escape clause of Marxist theory' (270) like the ones they had rejected. Derrida was cited in support of the need to write a '"supplementary" to construct a theory of contemporary politics so that "hegemony" became a central rather than marginal concept' (270). Discourses were seen as the result of hegemonic struggles. Class antagonisms were not central. Psychological mechanisms were as important as economic ones, including 'the individual's desire for "fullness", the result of a primordial "lack" of a satisfyingly stable identity [based on Lacan]' (271). This leads to a necessary antagonism with the Other, who blocks this fullness. Alliances can be made with others based on various discourses of equivalence and difference, and hegemonic struggle involves the mobilisation of political force in order to get particular definitions, 'such as "freedom" and "equality"' supported (271).
[Following the usual drift to philosophy], the notion of objectivity itself came into question, since reality can only be known through discourses. In particular, a political programme could never simply represent the immediate interests of social groups -- 'it was inherently symbolic or metaphorical in its attempts to fix meanings' (271). Nevertheless, the concept of plural liberal democracy could focus and number of interests, providing it was suitably radicalised [compare this with the Derrida programme of developing a politics that celebrates difference -- see Fraser's excellent critique].
This position led to a war of manoeuvre against marxism, focused on the debate with Norman Geras [see files]. [The debate is summarised 272 - 4. As an old Popperian, I'm still amazed that discourse theorists are unaware of the argument that real objects can certainly falsify discourses about them, even if we concede their general argument that the more positive meanings supplied to objects must come from discourses].
Townshend's summary of the debate suggests that Laclau and Mouffe did not respond directly to many of Geras's criticisms, especially the argument that we need explanations as well as understandings of meaning. They could have simply suggested that there were different types of discourses, and that their preferred types were just as important. Operating at the formal [philosophical] level simply gets them into trouble, with the differences missed between scientific discourses about truth and those 'such as aesthetics/imaginative or certain political discourses that have a clear symbolic dimension and do not require, or aspire to, agreed methods to demonstrate proof' (274). As an allied point, Laclau and Mouffe to not seem to recognise that some interests can be mobilised around 'mistaken beliefs... the result of ignorance and/or superstition' (274). Just because discourses exist, that is no reason to support them.
The war of position turned more on trying to engage with other academics in order to win support [no actual political strugglers wanted to talk to them?].
Laclau had a number of 'friendly dialogues' with Rorty, Derrida and Zizek, for example [detailed 275 - 9]. For example Zizek thought there was still mileage in the old Marxist-Hegelian concepts to understand modern capitalism, and pointed to the problem of moving from philosophical analyses of discourses to actual political choices of systems, just as did Geras. In particular, the capitalist system as described by Marx should be seen not as some foundational essence but more as a 'positive condition' for concrete forms of political struggle (276): class struggle creates the spaces in which other political activity takes place. Hegel's dialectic could also be used to understand a relation between the universal and the particular (an 'inconsistent composite', for Laclau, 276). [This debate reminds me of the 'aversion against the universal' identified in Lyotard's work by Honneth -- a willful refusal to entertain the possibility that all the apparently diverse and multifarious celebrations of difference in current politics do really have much more in common than appears on the surface]. Townshend suggests that Laclau's argument for the complexity of social class relations [in which he uses rather curious empirical data, seemingly forgetting that this is also produced by a discourse, according to him] should not be taken as a reason for abandoning social class relations altogether
Townshend argues that Laclau's response repeats the same 'preference for contingency' (278), and asks a classic sociological question -- how could or should democracy limit contingency? Another sociological inquiry follows -- how is it that particular contingent patterns and symbolic discourses get 'sedimented' into actual social structures? Laclau prefers 'to dissolve structures into discourses' (279) [philosophy = idealism], which leaves out the role of institutions in promoting or limiting discourses. This leads him into 'some form of utopianism' in the case of his own radicalism.
Mouffe wanted to engage with more conventional contemporary political philosophy, centred on the notion of 'radical democracy'. She wanted to avoid ethical and moral philosophies in an attempt to understand the political in its own right. Curiously, 'She derived her notion of "the political" from the Conservative/Nazi Carl Schmitt' (279), who had apparently some underlying anthropology based on 'passion - driven human conflict' (279). These conflicts had to be transformed into peaceful politics, based around the '"paradox of democracy" -- the impossible promise to eliminate conflicts, especially between the "logics" of equality and liberty' (279). The democratic appeal of these logics led to a constant challenge of all forms of subordination -- as witnessed by the new social movements.
[This position is then compared with an number of others, such as Rawls, MacIntyre and Habermas, 280-2]. Rawls begins with some liberal utopia rather than with actual politics, with dissent confined to some mythical private sphere [where binding values are being established]. Habermas's hope of rational consensus makes the same error, and ignores the structured basis of social conflict [based on this underlying Nazi anthropology?]. Similar problems apply to MacIntyre's notion of some consensual common good [echoes in these critiques of Lyotard's suggestion that any hope of making social arrangements rational and transparent will lead only to terrorism]. Instead, different interpretations and points of view must be defended, but relativism and nihilism must also be avoided: [this leads to a 'relationist' position, it seems, whereby] we judge notions like justice and equality against 'the standards provided by a particular tradition' (280). Mouffe also flirts with Wittgenstein and his notion of language communities as ways of life [ again, all contemporary idealist philosophers. seem to do this]
Townshend thinks that these arguments were only partially successful. For example why should we, and how can we replace the moral with the political? Why support this underlying anthropology of passions? Rawls and Habermas can both be used to critique existing arrangements [Habermas recommends we do this, rather than see the ideal speech act as a template to be put into immediate practice]. Can relativism be avoided? As usual, 'the question is whether she offers efficient theoretical resources to support her plea for an "agonistic pluralism"' (281). Mouffe also is forced to recommend liberal democracy on the basis that it exists now, instead of even a weak foundationalism. She cannot provide a foundation of another kind, 'for example, a recognition of a "common humanity"' (282). She is left expressing a mere preference for liberal democracy. Her insistence on pluralism also means she cannot simply support political movements that claim to be true, as do the new social movements, despite their potential to develop radical democracy.
Laclau and Mouffe have had success in persuading young scholars to develop their ideas -- the so-called 'Essex School'. It seems these people [properly referenced on 283] have used the ideas to analyse actual specific political ideologies. In the process, they have been forced to develop both 'thick' and 'thin' versions of discourse theory. In the former, discourse constructs the political in the fullests sense; in the latter, it plays an important but not totally constitutive role, which lets back in institutions and socio-economic forces. [Interesting examples follow, 283]. In a thin analysis of a particular new social movement in the UK, an ad hoc alliance aimed at stopping the construction of Manchester airport's second runway, Howarth et al deploy a number of approaches including 'more conventional political science paradigms' (283), and the resultant failure of the protest is seen conventionally as a matter of 'the structural imbalance of resources' (283). Discursive analysis does suggest an important factor, in that the opponents of the protesters had a better 'empty signifier' to rally general support -- the slogan 'Greater Britain, Greater Manchester' (284).
These projects seem to follow a more modest task [in other words less general philosophy]. They do not seem to rule out further analysis to explain why discourses arise, including conventional materialist analyses. However, there is then the problem of integrating these various factors.
In conclusion, Laclau and Mouffe project has had mixed results. Their critique of essentialism only exposed problems in their own position, as above. Townshend wants to return to the argument that we should abandon any universal notion of discourse and talk instead about different types of discourses, including those that are connected strongly with institutions, those that offer symbolic meanings, those that set out to provide scientific explanations. In this sense, the application of Laclau and Mouffe in the Essex School offers some interesting ways forward. Perhaps the concept of articulation might be used to show how the different factors and explanations combine? Laclau and Mouffe also do have general ontological arguments which are important, and they have led to British theorists developing an interest in Continental ones [mostly in the form of important critique]. Nevertheless, their approach cannot completely replace conventional explanations 'otherwise the danger is that discourse theory will follow the way of all fads -- a paradigm that implodes through its own undisclosed fundamentalism' (286).
back to key concepts
back to marxist controversies