The defender of contingency

An interview with Ernesto Laclau

2 February 2010
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Ernesto Laclau talks to the Greek journal Intellectum about the uses of populism, why radical democracy has nothing to do with liberalism, and how lack of political competition benefits the far-Right.

Intellectum: In probably your most famous book, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, co-authored with Chantal Mouffe, you attempted to deconstruct both Marxist theory and liberal democratic thought in order to reinterpret them in such a way that they could contribute to a more sufficient understanding of contemporary politics. What is the significance of the concept of identity for the comprehension of modern reality?

Ernesto Laclau: Well I think that the concept of identity can be analysed from different sides. One side would be to identify identity with particularity. There are some difficulties obviously in this type of identification of the two categories. But there are also advantages, because obviously the political problem that presents itself is a problem of general articulation, and general articulation has to rely on some kind of category of identity. So this is the way in which the question of identity emerges today. It can be related to a variety of intellectual contexts, but I think that the essential point is that there are no obvious forms of universality that can replace the notion of identity.

Intellectum: In your first book Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory (1977), you discussed the phenomenon of populism. In 2005 you published On Populist Reason. It seems that populism has remained at the centre of your interest. In a country that is governed by a populist party, what can we assume about the political identity of that people? How is popular subjectivity constructed?

EL: I think we have to introduce a classical distinction: the distinction between populus and plebs. Populus is the totality of the community; plebs are those at the bottom of the social pyramid. A characteristic of plebeian mobilization is that the plebs are on the one hand a partiality within the community, and on the other hand they try to present the totality of the community. So, this distinction is central in all this analysis. The people are, on the one hand, the totality of the community. On the other hand, the people are those at the bottom of the social pyramid who are questioning the totality of the city. The characteristic of populism is that you have always a plebe, those at the bottom, who nevertheless present themselves as incarnating the totality of the community.

Intellectum: In Greece, the socialist wing of the political arena in the 1980s, under the leadership of Andreas Papandreou, adopted a populist policy in order to attract the majority of the Greek people. The same party, twenty years later, under the leadership of Kostas Simitis, followed a policy of institutionalism. How can one explain the reversal of opinions in the same political party?

EL: I do not know how to answer you about this special Greek case but I can comment on the general issue you are addressing. Populism is something that works for a while as a way of seizing power from a traditional leader. On the other hand, you cannot have permanent populism based all the time on confrontation. At same point you are going to have to move to a more institutionalized policy. In Argentina, for instance, at the beginning of the process of Peronism, you had the figure of the descamisados, the “shirtless”, the “Sans-culottes” Argentine. This was the figure of total confrontation with oligarchic power. Later in the history of Peronism, however, you have a transition to what it was called “the organized community”. And the organized community had to achieve some form of institutionalization. So I don’t think one has to oppose populism to institutionalism as two logics that are totally at odds with each other. They represent different moments in a political process. There would be no Papandreou without Simitis. Each requires the other. In some sense, these two dimensions can be reflected the structure of a single party.

Intellectum: You equate populism with radical democracy. To what degree do they coincide?

EL: I think they coincide entirely. By radical democracy I do not understand a political system. By radical democracy I understand that the expansion of the chain of equivalence beyond the limits admitted by a certain political system. You can radicalize democracy through equivalencies, but this is exactly the same thing as creating a popular identity, because the popular identity is created through the chain of equivalence. For instance, you have an interpretation that I think is totally wrong, I mean the interpretation of Zizek, who says: “Well I agree with populism but not with radical democracy”. That is simply to misunderstand what the notion of radical democracy involves. Zizek thinks that radical democracy is some kind of institutionalized leftwing liberal democracy, but there are many more forms of radical democracy that do not pass through the liberal scene.

Intellectum: The concept of “antagonism” that is involved in the context of “radical democracy” constitutes a key concept. Could you clarify the meaning of antagonism using an example?

EL: Take the Sicilian case. A landowner is trying to expel a peasant from the land and the peasant is resisting. The basic argument is that in this type of confrontation you do not have an objective relation between the two poles. The two poles are not the expression of a deeper process that could embrace both; the clash is irretrievable from the point of view of objectivity. You can think of many antagonisms that can be seen in exactly this way. Now, there are forms of relation between adversarial forces in which the space of representation operates as something deeper than the antagonism between the two opposite forces. But there are other situations in which antagonism prevails over a reform of objective representation.

Intellectum: You argue that “antagonism” is constitutive of human society. How do you theorize “antagonism” through the notion of the limit of the social?

EL: Let’s go step by step. Why is antagonism is the limit of the constitution of objectivity? For instance, you have the peasant and you have the landowner. From the point of view of the landowner, the discourse of the peasant is completely irrational; from the point of view of the peasant the discourse of the landowner is equally irrational. So, there is no common measure between the two discourses. So, the moment of the clash is constitutive in a transcendental sense. Now, what is the possibility of there being an objective discourse? It is only possible with the discourse of a third man, who says: “Well, what the peasants and the landowners think is irrelevant because what is happening here is something that escapes the consciousness of the two opposing forces. An objective process, what Hegel calls the absolute spirit. If you have the absolute spirit, the discourse of the third man, then you are going to subsume antagonism into a deeper objectivity. As a result of this, the form of consciousness that the peasants involve in the social antagonism is irrelevant, because the antagonists think that the other is the evil. From the point of view of history, there is a deeper mechanism that explains how the process operates. If there is this third man, this third discourse that is the absolute spirit, then history can be reduced to a deeper objectivity. If there is not that man, then the clashes that constitute history are going to be constitutive in the first place.

Intellectum: In the last few years, developed and developing countries have been confronting the consequences of economic depression. Do you believe that this could lead to revolutionary action? In other words, could the worldwide economic depression stimulate people’s revolutionary consciousness? If such a perspective seems utopian, what might inspire people to obtain a revolutionary consciousness?

EL: Revolutionary consciousness is the will of eruption with the whole existing system of affairs. Revolutionary consciousness is not something that is inherent in the consciousness of any given nation. People see that at some point they can no longer stand the existing situation and revolt against the existing situation. This is never the result of a single determination. Rather, it is always the result of a new determination of many forces. Althusser said that the Russian revolution was the result of many things, and that suddenly all these forces crystallized around some basic motifs, namely land and peace. In other words, a revolutionary consciousness is always a conjectural accumulation of things. It is not something inherent from the very beginning of the process, in a teleological way. There are many forms of revolutionary consciousness. Revolutionary consciousness has to do with total breakdown or with the necessity for a radical change.

Intellectum: The model of radical democracy maintains the idea of an expanded version of democracy, which involves more aspects of social life, and attempts to constitute and multiply new identities. Yet you have not developed a theory about justice, and it could be assumed that you accept the existence of constituted inequality in democracy. Why is there this absence in your work?

EL: The concept of justice is the typical concept of an empty signifier. What is justice or not in society is open to infinite debate. Justice as a notion is something that has no clear content. But in order to link some content under certain particular circumstances: imagine a debate between a fascist and a socialist around what is a just society. They are going to discuss many possible contents, but they are not going to discuss whether justice is just or not. Because that has to be accepted as the very terrain of the argument; in order for justice to play that semantic role, it should not have any particular content. And the content must be equal to the dialogical effort.

Intellectum: So you think that justice is contingent.

EL: Well, the content of justice is contingent. The category of justice, however, has to be present from the very beginning.

Intellectum: You have invented a new vocabulary (articulation, nodal point, elements etc). What led you to follow this verbal approach? Do you believe that this has contributed to the substance or success of your work?

EL: I think we have provided a new vocabulary of politics that is the result of the radicalization of a set of other innovations in vocabulary, which mainly come from the Gramscian tradition. My intellectual strategy has been the opposite of that of Slavok Zizek, for example. Zizek has not introduced a single theoretical category into political analysis. He has simply taken the categories of Lacanianism and elaborated them. By expanding the vocabulary of the Gramscian grammar, we are introducing a set of new categories to political analysis. The effect of this innovation at the level of vocabulary is at root of what people find interesting or attractive in our analysis.

Intellectum: It is widely believed that your thought belongs to a postmodern frame. Do you accept this characterization? Are you a postmodern intellectual?

EL: It depends on how one defines a category of postmodern. There is certain postmodernity one associates with Baudrillard, with which I don’t identify myself in the least. On the other hand, if “postmodern” is understood not simply as a rejection of modernity, but as a diminution of the epistemological ambitions of the modern project, then yes, in substance you can say that we are postmodern. This distinction I am trying to make is crucial. We are not rejecting the whole project of modernity, but think that the project of modernity is something that should be less than the original formulators of the Enlightenment thought that project ought to consist of.

Intellectum: Someone would argue that the turn to discourse analysis is postmodern.

EL: But what is understood by postmodern? You can understand postmodernity as the rejection of modernity, a view with which I disagree. You can understand post-modernity through the demerit of the ambitions of the modern project, on the basis of contingency, a view with which I agree.

Intellectum:What is your opinion about the rise of the extreme rightwing parties across Europe?

EL: Well, I think that the rise is the result of the fact that people in western Europe feel that they don’t have a political alternative. Clearly, in the past there was a Right and a Left, clearly differentiated from each other. Today, people have the feeling that the differences between the Left and the Right in a traditional sense are minimal. But we have an over-powerful technocracy and this over-powerful technocracy presents new answers, which are either a bit more social-democratic or a bit more conservative, but there is no real difference between them. When people don not fight that from the Left, a system of clear alternatives is going to come from the Right. For instance, many of the traditional voters of the communist party in France today vote for Le Pen. Because he represents the radical alterative vis a vis the existing system. I think that political systems in western Europe are in a profound crisis. The crisis is that in elections people do not feel that there are real alternatives. Unless the Left starts presenting a real system of alternatives, the whole protest vote will probably go in a rightwing direction, towards the populism of the right.

Intellectum: Because you are being interviewed by two women, we would like to ask you something quite personal. How significant do you believe it is for the evolution of a scientist to have by his side – not as a friend but as a partner in life – a great theoretician such as Chantal Mouffe?

EL: Well I feel very happy with Chantal Mouffe (laughs), obviously we have had an intellectual partnership over several years. I don’t think that the gender division between us has particularly mattered, it is too much a relation of equals to speak about a gender division. But in other types of partnership, I can imagine that a gender division plays some kind of role. How this role can be negotiated is always a complicated matter, which is determined by the singularity of the relationship.

Interviewed by Athena Avgitidou and Eleni Koukou

Published 2 February 2010

Original in English
First published in Intellectum 5/2008

Contributed by Intellectum
© Intellectum Eurozine

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