This chapter asks whether Laclau and Mouffe are the right theoretical partners for thinking about the project of democracy today. It concludes that they still have quite a lot to offer that project, but it also suggests we should be wary of embracing their thought too wholeheartedly, specifically because of their fondness for Gramsci and hegemony, and perhaps also, as a result, their willingness to engage the state and its institutions in the struggle for democracy.
In this reply, we question whether ‘the knot’ is the best way to describe the relationship between the discursive and the material. Our main objective is to show that the discursive and material are co-extensive and therefore emerge from within the same assemblage, prior to any ‘knot’ between them. To develop this idea, we draw on the new materialism of Karen Barad and Jane Bennett, especially their argument for how and why it makes sense to approach the discursive and the material as hyphenated (‘discursive-material’) as well as performatively constituted.
Laclau and Mouffe’s discourse theory has played a significant role in thinking through the political role of knowledge and ideology, without ignoring the significance of the material, also in relation to its post-Marxist agenda and the de-essentialisation of class relations. At the same time, there is a need to enrich discourse theory, by finding a better balance between the discursive and the material, and by providing a better theoretisation of the entanglement of the discursive and the material. This chapter remains grounded in, and loyal to, discourse theory, but aims to learn from new materialism in order to develop a non-hierarchical theory of entanglement, as a discursive-material knot. In particular, it investigates the theoretical- conceptual potential of three concepts, namely the assemblage, the invitation and the investment. This theoretical development also has strategic importance, in that it facilitates a better and more constructive dialogue between different (critical) fields, for instance, between those that are explicitly engaged with discourse theory and new materialism, but also between the emancipatory project(s) that post-Marxism advocates, namely cultural studies and (critical) political economy.
In their groundbreaking Hegemony and socialist strategy (1985), Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe develop a new account of radical politics in which the subjective construction of hegemony establishes political conditions, not the objective historical stages and class contexts of traditional Hegelian Marxism. On this basis, they forcefully justify the ‘identity politics’ of contemporary women’s, African-American, gay, and working class groups and organisations and oppose both the hegemony of the new right and the ‘classism’ and revolutionary orientation of the radical left. In their later work, they elaborate their accounts of hegemony and move in new directions. In On populist reason (2005) and The rhetorical foundations of society (2014), Laclau draws on poststructuralist discourse or rhetoric as well as notions of populism or the masses to show that hegemony involves what he terms antagonism, frontiers or we/they oppositions, equivalential logics, and other elements. By contrast, in On the political (2005) and Agonistics: thinking the world politically (with Wagner, 2013), Mouffe elaborates the notion of the fissured subject which, as she and Laclau argued in Hegemony, was constituted by the antagonisms of diverse social movements or the dislocation of social structures; however, her new accounts of the antagonisms or, as she says, ‘agonisms’ dividing the political field forcefully oppose universal norms of rationality or democracy in order to establish a genuine pluralism on a national and a global scale.
In this paper, I bring Ernesto Laclau’s post-Marxist approach into conversation with the analytical thinker Philip Pettit, who has developed an influential neo-republican conception of freedom as ‘non-domination’. Both thinkers aim to reconfigure power and domination towards more democratic and egalitarian relations and I evaluate the political implications of their respective conceptions of domination/non-domination, emancipation and freedom. I show that despite these common points of reference, the two authors exhibit considerable differences which manifest in their respective conceptions of structure and agency. In the opening section, I compare Laclau’s and Pettit’s respective conceptions of ‘domination’ where I highlight the differences between them in two alternate readings of Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House. In the second section, I examine their respective understandings of ‘emancipation’ and ‘freedom’, and I demonstrate that Pettit does not model his conception of freedom as non-domination on the idea of emancipation. This stands in contrast to Laclau, for whom emancipation remains the focal point of political struggle, despite formal equality, and who maintains the idea of the possibility of a more radical transformation in the underlying structures of society. In the final section, I consider Laclau’s and Pettit’s alternative conceptions of politics where both thinkers place a premium on democratic contest in challenging and overturning arbitrary power. I show that for Pettit political freedom is a mode of contestability within the established institutions, while Laclau’s notions of emancipation and freedom functions at the level of competing hegemonic projects, and this facilitates a form of political struggle that might transcend the existing regime to instantiate a new institutional order. I conclude by amalgamating the respective strengths of both thinkers to provide a multi-layered analysis of contemporary forms of domination to better aid our understanding about the kinds of struggle needed to contest them.
In her chapter, Gulshan Khan highlights some particularities in Laclau’s theorising of domination, emancipation and freedom, through contrasting Laclau’s work with the neo-republican political theorist Philip Pettit. Pettit is largely positioned as a theorist of ‘what is’, while Laclau is acknowledged for theorising the conditions for more revolutionary change. In the reply, it is argued that this difference can be understood in terms of the distinction between ‘politics’ and ‘the political’. While Khan suggests that Pettit’s work can complement Laclau’s in having more to say about concrete ‘politics’, this reply suggests that this lack has also been fruitfully addressed by scholars closer to Laclau within the Essex School. A discussion of theoretical and methodological implications of engaging with this work in relation to the themes discussed by Khan concludes the response.
This reply to Philip Goldstein’s ‘Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe: the evolution of post- Marxism’ makes the case that Laclau and Mouffe’s work is symptomatic of a flight into abstraction that has muted the genuinely critical aspects of the Marxist tradition and failed both to reflect and guide protest movements in the age of neoliberalism.
This chapter first sets out the value of the political discourse theory of Laclau and Mouffe. It argues that this work was central to the development of cultural studies, in its theorisation of social and cultural practices as being part of ‘political discourse’. This confers a dignity, status, value and political importance on cultural practices of all kinds. However, the chapter seeks to probe the limits of this approach to cultural politics, and it does so through a necessarily unusual exploration. First, it takes an example of something ostensibly trivial from the realms of film and popular culture and explores it in terms of Laclau and Mouffe’s categories, in two different ways. The ‘trivial’/pop cultural example is Bruce Lee. Could Bruce Lee be regarded as ‘politically’ significant or consequential? He was certainly an enormously influential film and popular cultural icon of the 1970s, one who arguably ignited a global ‘kung fu craze’. Moreover, Bruce Lee also had his own ‘hegemonic project’, seeking to transform and unify martial arts practices. In this paper, Bruce Lee’s own ‘project’ is first examined in the terms of Laclauian categories. These are shown to be extremely useful for grasping both the project and the reasons for its failure. Then the chapter moves into a wider consideration of the emergence of globally popular cultural discourses of martial arts. However, Laclau and Mouffe’s approach is shown to be somewhat less than satisfactory for perceiving at least some of the ‘political’ dimensions entailed in the spread martial arts culture and practices, from contexts of the global south into affluent contexts such as Hollywood film and Euro-American cultural practices. The paper argues that this is because Laclau and Mouffe’s approach is logocentric, which leads it to look for and to perceive a very limited range of factors: specifically, political identities formed through political demands. However, to more fully perceive the political dimensions of culture, the paper argues that different kinds of perspective, paradigms and analysis are required. Adopting or developing some of these would enrich the field of political studies.