Friday, July 4, 2014

Personal Notes--Laclau and Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy

Laclau and Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (2nd, 2001)--Personal notes from my reading in 2014

Ch. 1: Hegemony: The Genealogy of a concept. 
LM (Laclau and Mouffe) begin by tracing the “genealogy” of the concept of hegemony in a review chapter of 3 Marxist responses to cracks that seemed to appear in Marx’s theories.  They believe the idea of hegemony was the result of a series of crises in theory and praxis.

They begin by interacting with Rosa Luxembourg’s analysis of the Mass Strike, specifically, whether it was an effective political tool.  She finds a contrast with the ease of generation of mass strike in Russia with the fragmentization of strikes in Industrial Germany.  She believes that the identity of the working class under capitalism is fragmented and can only be reunited in revolution (10).  In regard to the genealogy of hegemony, LM propose that her seminal moment was the creation of a “subject position” by referring to class as a symbolic unit, not a materialistic economic reality as had been previously thought (11).

Kautsky agrees with Luxembourg regarding the natures of political and economic struggle—they are both unified efforts.  While for Luxembourg they become unified in revolution, for Kautsky they are inherently unified, since the political struggle of the working class is always an economic calculation.  However, his reading of the failure of the collapse of capitalism in Germany, which he assumed was generalizable and the inescapable result of capitalism, was, in fact, a German peculiarity, since history evidences a different path for many other states.  The end of the depression (1873-1896) and the ensuing boom (lasting until 1914), created a crisis in Marxist thinking, since it could not account for the resurgence of capitalism except as discontinuities in an otherwise deterministic struggle towards socialism.  LM define these crises as the pivotal moment in Marxist theorization when subsequent theories tried to explain new trajectories.

The first response they explore is the Marxist Orthodoxy of Kautsky and Plekhanov that emphasizes theory, presuming the end result Marx predicted is a necessary endpoint, despite the temporary appearance of observable “setbacks”.  Concrete examples of capitalism’s failure to collapse are simply temporary points of struggle, as the example of Germany (argument from contingency).  Or there may be the temporary appearance of the failure to form a revolutionary proletariat identity because of nationalism which is only a “screen that hides the interests of the bourgeoisie” (argument from appearance).  The theory predicts the ultimate realization of proletariat identity, so it will eventually happen, and concrete counter-examples are reduced to the abstract: a) “diverse subject positions of a single position,” b) plurality of differences is either reduced or rejected as contingent,” c) sense of the present is revealed through its location in an a priori succession of stages.”  Kautsky differs from Plekhanov by introducing the flexibility of political initiative in creating the space for revolution, requiring the mediation of intellectuals. 

The Austro-Marxists offered a second perspective from the first response, in that they took a Kantian approach, rather than Hegelian, by looking at perspectival, cultural influences, rather than a naturalistic historical trajectory.  Given the diversity of types of workers in the Austrian context, as well as the dual Austro-Hungarian monarchy, there seemed little possibility of a unified consciousness built on relationships of production or national identity.  The remaining possibility is the role of political initiative, as opposed to the economic or simply historical.  In any case, both approaches believed that Marx’s predicted outcome of socialism was inevitably determined

The second response to the failure of capitalism to collapse was the revisionism of Bernstein.  In the first response above, there was an assumption of linearity built on the economic.  Bernstein attempted to emphasize the political as an autonomous sphere, separate from the economic, although LM believe this isn’t fully done until Gramsci.  There is little possibility for the unification of identity in economic terms, since the trajectory of the modern economy is diversification.  The countervailing trend towards unification was “party.”  For Kautsky, discussions of the political were the purview of the intelligentsia, for Bernstein, party became far broader.    

Bernstein did not accept that Marx’s prediction was inevitable, since he did not believe Marx proved his case, since human will/subjectivity was involved, and history is not solely objective.  Add to that, since the political identity Bernstein proposed was a “party programme,” there were ethical decisions that had to be made.  Therefore the process was not purely “scientific” as the determinists proposed.  However, Bernstein also proposed an irreversible evolutionary progression.  For the orthodox, the State was totalizing, and Social Democracy was exterior to the state, so organizing could only exist outside of the State, and overturning the State was the only option.  For Bernstein, the proletariat were part of the State, and social organizing could produce important changes, humanizing capitalism, and making life fundamentally better for workers.  Democratization could transform the state so that it represented all people, and workers became true citizens.  LM disagree with this trajectory, since different subject positions can produce social/political ethical decisions that do not further the cause of the worker. 

The third response is Sorel’s revolutionary syndicalism.   Sorel proposed the power of social myth to transform society.  His interest was not so much in a society with a certain form, but with the moral qualities that allowed society to flourish.  The diversity of workers in society he calls mélange, and they can only be unified by being willing to establish blocs to enforce economic reorganization.  He became anti-democratic in that it allowed the fragmentation of subject positions, and chose instead, the syndicalist myth, the general strike, for in Marx, the revolution.  The mythical constitution in Sorel’s thought, built to some degree on Nietzsche, could and did go the direction of fascism on the one hand, or the Bolsheviks on the other.  Regardless, he was crucial to the formation of Gramsci’s thought.

ch. 2: Hegemony: The Difficult Emergence of a New Political Logic
The problem of the failure of the working class to come to a unified class consciousness posed a problem for Marxist theory.  Stagism seems not to have played out as predicted, and “hegemony” became an explanation for why this failed to happen.  Plekhanov and Axelrod introduced the term to explain the failure of the Bourgeoisie to carry out the struggle for political liberty, which forced the working class into the struggle alone.  Trotsky built on the idea of hegemony, proposing it as a way to generate a working-class government.

Lenin, as Trotsky, built on the idea of hegemony, especially its ability to link an identity exterior to class identity.  For Lenin, political hegemony involved a representation of interests, in contrast to class identity, which was the field of the relations to production.  In this case, hegemony involved political leadership with a class alliance.  Parties unite under the leadership of one class against a common enemy.  The potential contradiction within Leninist hegemony is that, on the one hand, the vanguard creates a separation between those who lead, and those who are led, and thus tends to be authoritarian, while on the other hand, the political dimension has far more democratic potential than what was proposed in the Second International. 

Thus, two types of hegemony developed.  The first, democratic practice, occurs when stagism is renounced, as well as the necessity of a unified class consciousness.  All people’s interests need to be represented, not just the working class.  The second, authoritarian practice, dominates when the vanguard considers its relation to the masses, simply as pedagogical.  With the rise of fascism, which considered democratic rights to be “bourgeoisie,” popular and democratic visions of hegemony emerged that considered it to be the “democratic reconstruction of the nation around a new class core.”  The rise of the importance of the people as political agents required the idea of class identity be split and fused into a new type of polarization, which is the process of hegemonic practice.  This occurs after the development of new popular and national symbols, and lose their transitionary features to become part of the stable political discourse. 

Gramsci extends the concept of hegemony, emphasizing the importance of the working class building alliances with other groups, representing a broader spectrum of interests.  Further, in a fundamental change from Lenin, who proposed hegemony as simply political, Gramsci extended it to include moral and intellectual characteristics.  The former presumed a transient, interest-based alliance.  The latter constructed actual linkages between groups, generating ideology, creating an organic, historical bloc based on collective will.  In this sense, hegemony had to be articulated and constantly produced through dialogue between groups.  Class, in this sense, does not “take” State power, but becomes State.    This process Gramsci terms the “war of position,” referring to the challenge of creating a new class core around a unified subject position, a never-ending process.   Differing from Sorel, Gramsci’s hegemony emphasized a democratic plurality, while Sorel believed the generated myth was based on class.

In the post-WWI period, the idea of national plans for unity and economic projects were begun, but generated few results until the Great Depression.  The presumption of an economically-based strategy was that revolution, not politics, was the only way to socialism.  However, Planism moderated this idea, and since capitalists were in charge of things, socialists used political means to implement programs to support the poor and strengthen unions.  The larger goal was to create a mixed economy, which would eventually dissolve the need for capitalism.  However, prior to 1945, the class emphasis limited hegemonic articulation, and after 1945, the strength of the Welfare State distorted class lines, so that social democracy became a practice within the existing State, not an alternative to it.

LM attempt to show that classical Marxist theory, based solely on economic position, is untenable from an hegemonic perspective, because of three mistaken assumptions of this position.  First, the assumption that there are endogenous laws of an economy, which is not so, since social relations impact the relationships to production—these laws are not “natural,” but involve numerous and diverse forms of domination.   Second, the assumption that there is a core class nature, which is not so, since fragmentation of class and subject position is clear.  Third, the assumption that the working class has a unique relation to production that makes them inherently aligned with socialism, which is not so, because there are historical interests as well as economic.  Since this final attempt to return to economic essentialism seems to be a doomed project, Marxism shifted to the recognition that socialism was not inevitable, but would depend on the political mediation of intellectuals to provide articulation of the subject position.

Ch. 3: Beyond the Positivity of the Social, Antagonisms and Hegemony
For LM, “hegemony supposes a theoretical field dominated by the category of articulation.”  Thus, they argue that one of the first tasks of understanding hegemony is to understand articulation.  Building on recent linguistic and sociological traditions that explore the concept of constructivism and discourse, LM argue that “articulation is a practice, and not the name of a given relational complex” (93), and, moreover, require specific “elements” that are thus articulated.  Drawing from Hegel, they propose that “identity” is not a fixed entity, but a concept under continual flux, derived from relations and historical dialectics.  This produces a contradiction—Hegel, representing “the highest point of rationalism” (95) is arguing for the importance of reason and intelligible structure, while at the same time laying the foundation for the recognition that structures are indefinitely in flux, and that meaning is derived vis-à-vis cultural production, not a pre-existing, defining essence.

Althusser’s discussion of complexity, relying on the concept of overdetermination is important in LM’s analysis of articulation.  Though they ultimately reject his frame, they bring in his concept of the symbolic and social dimension of meaning construction.  The assertion is made that “society and social agents lack any essence” (98), but rather, are a series of symbolic relations, constantly in “relative and precarious forms.”  LM argue that, like Hegel, Althusser faces a fundamental conflict—while arguing, on the one hand, that social relations are the product of these symbolic overdeterminations, he later argues that economics can be deterministic of the structural form of society.  It is this conflict that leads LM to reject Althusser’s latter proposition, and problematizing the former, while recognizing his important contribution, and that it is Althusser’s very philosophical disjuncture that helps us understand articulation and thus hegemony.  In doing so, they assert that one of the problems with Marx’s “scientific socialism” is that he relied on an understanding of economic determinism, as well as the objectivity of social categories, such as institutions, identities, and structures.  However, if all of these are open to discursive, and thus non-contingent processes, then it produces a flaw in Marx’s argument.  Thus, “far from a rationalist fame in which social agents, perfectly constituted around interests, wage a struggle defined by transparent parameters, we have seen the difficulties of the working class in constituting itself as a historical subject, the dispersion and fragmentation of its positionalities, the emergence of forms of social and political reaggregation—‘historical bloc’, ‘collective will’, ‘masses’, ‘popular sectors’—which define new objects and new logics of their conformation” (104-105).

LM now link articulation to discourse through establishing a fundamental difference with Foucault.  While the distinguished between “the linguistic and behavioral aspects of social practice” (107), LM reject that distinction, arguing that the two are intertwined reciprocally to such an extent that it is  fruitless to attempt it.  Continuing in this same vein, they reject also the emphasis on the Enlightenment discussion about the nature of the “mental” relationship to ontologies, affirming the reality of the material world.  Thus, it is not “objects” which LM wish to deconstruct, but the recognition that our interactions with objects is mediated through discourses—giving the example that an earthquake is a material reality, but our perception of the meaning of the earthquake, and our responses to the earthquake, come from symbolic relations mediated by histories of discourses, and specifically, our contemporary embeddedness in a series of discourses.  They relate this to Wittgenstein’s language game concept (108).   Thus, our experiences of the world cannot be relegated strictly to the mental, or to decontextualized discourses, but are, at least in part, rooted in some actual material objects, although our understanding of these objects are shaped by our context within our experiences of discourses.  So while they affirm the reality of material objects, they also affirm that “if contingency and articulation are possible, this is because no discursive formation is a sutured totality and the transformation of the elements into moments is never complete” (106-107).  But far from arguing that there is, therefore, no such thing as meaning, they simply propose that meaning is always in flux, and that flux is intentionally directed: “Any discourse is constituted as an attempt to dominate the field of discursivity, to arrest the flow of differences, to construct a centre.  We will call the privileged discursive points of this partial fixation [of meaning], nodal points” (112).  Finally, they define “the practice of articulation” as “the construction of nodal points which partially fix meaning; and the partial character of this fixation proceeds from the openness of the social, a result, in its turn, of the constant overflowing of every discourse by the infinitude of the field of discursivity.  Every social practice is therefore—in one of its dimensions--articulatory” (113).

The latter half of the chapter includes examples of these articulations, and applies them directly to the concept of hegemony.  For example, they argue that, while “sex” is an ontologically real expression of body differences, “femininity” and “masculinity” are social constructions, and are overdetermined, producing inequality for women: “The ensemble of social practices, of institutions and discourses which produce woman as a category, are not completely isolated but mutually reinforce and act upon one another” (118).  Similarly, Marxist discussion about class and workers are the result of social practices and discourses, and the meanings and referents are constantly in flux—in fact, the attempt to convince workers to organize based on their interests, is a social practice that actively constructs the interests themselves (120).  They continue, distinguishing the popular subject position from the democratic subject position:  the former constitutes a binary set of antagonisms, such as the struggle for liberation of the colonized from a brutal colonizing power, representing a fairly clear and delimited antagonism in society.  The latter does not evidence such a pattern, but “emerges within an ensemble of positions, within a relatively sutured political space formed by a multiplicity of practices that do not exhaust the referential and empirical reality of the agents forming parts of them” (132).  Democratic positions are constituted by overdetermined struggles with many social relations converging to generate the antagonisms.  Finally, linking these ideas to hegemony, they depart from Gramsci in a way that rejects his essentialist presumptions, allowing for an argument from the constructivist frame, specifically: “(a) his insistence that hegemonic subjects are necessarily constituted on the plane of the fundamental classes; and (b) his postulate that, with the exception of interregna constituted by organic crises, every social formation structures itself around a single hegemonic centre.” (137-138)

Ch. 4: Hegemony and Radical Democracy
 LM end by bring the conversation to their primary target—discussing the importance of democracy, interrogating the concept of democracy, and constructing a critique of the Right and the Left in their failure to further either equality or democracy.  They begin by recognizing that Marx’s vision of a proletariat, produced by the relations of production, with a linear trajectory of collective consciousness and revolution, has simply not been seen—instead, western societies developed “the corporatization and separation of those sectors which should ideally have been united ‘among the people’ (150).

They affirm, with Foucault, that “wherever there is power there is resistance” (152), but argue that political resistance, whose goal is to end relations of subordination, are the result of specific discourses that allow such collective action, but are not a “natural” effect of subordination.  They distinguish subordination, as a fairly banal series of hierarchical relationship, that arguably occur with consent and tacit approval, contrasted to oppression, which is subordination that generates antagonisms, and finally domination, which is when the subordination relationships themselves are perceived as illegitimate, and typically require a discourse external to those relationships in order to be recognized as illegitimate (154).  They emphasize that collective action for change often comes from these externally derived discourses.  They provide the example of mid-1800s when a labor movement developed, but rather than following the trajectory that Marx predicted, of rejecting the entire system of relations of production, they followed a “reformist” path, which, for Marx, was a step backwards. 

They describe that something the “new social movements” have in common are a differentiation from “workers’ struggles” (159), but that they also draw from a democratic impulse for equality (161).  They cite a pivotal moment, when Fordism became the dominant economic process, when “intensive” capitalism transformed all of social life—“culture, free time, illness, education, sex and even death.  There is practically no domain of individual or collective life which escapes capitalist relations” (161).  They continue, that the demands for equality, and specifically, the subsequent implementation of the Keynesian Welfare State, created a far greater role for the state in the lives of the public, as well as creating the need for a large bureaucracy, producing a “double transformation”—that of capitalism/commodification and of bureaucracy.  This led to the development of resistance not only to inequality in a class sense, but resistance to bureaucratization, generating movements for autonomy, liberation from the state, and demonstrations of individual uniquenesses—this from both Right and Left.  By the time of the Reagan-Thatcher era, neo-liberalism had been successfully constructed as a form of resistance against the impositions of the state, and the importance of the free-market for liberty.  They invoke Stuart Hall, saying, “Thatcherite populism ‘combines the resonant themes of organic Toryism—nation, family, duty, authority, standards, traditionalism—with the aggressive themes of a revived neoliberialism—self-interest, competitive individualism, antistatism.  In the case of the United States, Allen Hunter shows that the attack of the New Right on the Welfare State is the point at which the cultural and economic critiques come together” (170)

They remind the reader that the rise of the New Right, exemplified by Hayek, and libertarians, such as Nozick, are able to gain dominance because of a successfully constructed and implemented discourse that speaks to the popular concerns, generating “a new historic bloc” (176).  They emphasize that if one’s goal is to find the one objective answer, one will fail, and that the essentialist presumption is a primary obstacle in moving forward into a product discussion for the Left (177), which can only be overcome by abandoning the belief “that there are  privileged points from which an emancipatory political practice can be launched” such that the left can engage in a “complex process of convergence and political construction” (174).  They also note that the Left’s concern with individual liberty has become a hindrance to the process, especially in the sense of the concept of “possessive individualism,” or that “the rights of individuals as existing before society, and often in opposition to it” (175), taking a stance against the idea of “natural rights” (184), arguing that rights come from the state.

As they conclude, they assert that “The task of the Left therefore cannot be to renounce liberal-democratic ideology, but on the contrary, to deepen and expand it in the direction of a radical and plural democracy” (176)—the last section of the book explores this idea.  For example, they tie this back into socialism, by recognizing that democracy will require some kind of socialism, in that the capitalist relations of production generate fundamental inequality—but that socialism does not inherently entail democracy (178), so democracy must take precedence, and represents far greater range of processes to generate equality.  Further, to generate public credibility for a new/revised discourse of equality, specifically, a “democratic equivalence” to the discourse generated by the Right, the Left must develop “a new ‘common sense’” of what constitutes equality (183).  They emphasize that this will require a balance of both liberty and equality (184).  They end, saying “the field of the political as the space for a game which is never ‘zero-sum’, because the rules and the players are never fully explicit.  This game, which eludes the concept, does at least have a name: hegemony” (193).


  1. Thank you so much for this fantastic and thorough summary.

  2. Very helpful. Thanks!