Laclau and Mouffe on the Radical Democratic Imaginary

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* - Book: Laclau and Mouffe. The Radical Democratic Imaginary. By Anne Marie Smith. Routledge, 1998



Michel Bauwens, book notes 2004:

-This book is an analysis and defense of the political theory , considered 'post-Marxist', as espoused by Laclau and Mouffe, the authors of 'Hegemony and Socialist Strategy", written in 1985. It was an attempt to come to terms with the ascendancy of Reagan-Thatcher, but also of various new social movements and 'identity politics'.

Chapter 1

Laclau and Mouffe decried the obscolescence of classic socialist discourse, for 3 essential reasons:

   - 1. the ontological centrality of the workers
   - 2. the Revolution as key transitional movement
   - 3. the existence of a unitary will after the Revolution

Their critique was rooted in the following strands of political theory

   - Gramscian socialism
   - liberal-democratic discourse on rights and citizenship
   - post-structuralism
   - 'post-analytic' philosophers ?
   - phenomenology
   - Lacanian psycho-analysis

The radical-democratic imaginary refers to Tocqueville's insight that once equality is discovered in the political sphere, it automatically, over time, seeks to be extended to every other sphere.

   - Tocqueville: "It is not possible to conceive of men as eternally unequal amongst themselves, on one point, and equal on others; at a certain moment, they will come to be equal on all points" (p. 155)

L/M argue for a strategy based on fully extending the potential of democracy (radical democratic pluralism), and in particular, the discourse on rights, the latter is seen as a key to 'recognition'. They distinguish between the relations of subordination, which can be seen as legitimate, and relations of oppression, where subordination is seen as blocking the emancipation of identity, and the whole structure of subordination is therefore challenged.

What has to be retrieved are the democratic moments in liberal theory (the equal legal rights, not capitalist exploitation), and in socialism (but divested from its authoritarian tendencies). Mouffe asserts in this context that Macpherson became a key figure in contemporary political theory, precisely through his work on the radical potential of liberal democracy He is seen as part of the 'retrieval' tradition, which attempts to combine insights of both the liberal-democratic and the socialist traditions. (Retrieval means that Locke's theory of the consent of the people can be retained, while his Eurocentric views on native peoples can be rejected).

Smith goes on to debate which part of socialism would be retrievable. She mentions Connolly who distinguishes inclusive consumption (and goods), and exclusive one. With the former, increased use augments its social value and lowers it costs; with the latter, increased use leads to a loss of value for those already using them, and leads to higher costs. Compare mass transit with private automobiles for examples.

Laclau and Mouffe reject what they call 'eschatological Marxism'. promising a future without tension. They also stress the contingency of history and struggles, so that no universal blueprint can be given. They see socialism as only a 'moment' in democratic theory, and reject the centrality of class struggle, in favour of an acceptance of all emancipatory movements. They find 'capitalism', a weak conceptual tool to analyze various oppressions which are always hybrid and contextual formations. They focus on new ways to theorize the combinatory identities and power relations. They are for a unity of the movements that preserves the plurality and the autonomy of the various agenda's. But the different movements would take each other into account, and be changed in the process.

Chapter 2

L & M's biggest gripe is with essentialism, and in particular with marxism's assumption of

   - 1) universal subjects, and
   - 2) a rational and transparent social order

This post- , rather than anti-marxist critique, takes the form of an anti-foundational theory of politics. They see a link between essentialist logic and authoritiarian practice (in their analysis of Lenin). Lenin posits class as the essence of subjectivity, distinguishing this authentic subjectivity from non-essential attributes which could be 'corrected' by leadership. Similarly, he posits the economic as foundational and the political as derivative. However, they discern openings in Lenin's theory of hegemony and his acceptance of Russia's special circumstances).

If essentialism is abandoned, this would lead the way to the complex negotiations of differences. If foundationalism is abandoned, as well as vanguardism and scientism, then dialogue can take place.

The second chapter also discusses Gramsci as an important inspiration for Laclau and Mouffe. He stressed that struggles were always 'organic', i.e. emerging from concrete historical circumstances. Gramsci also had a great respect for local traditions and common-sense discourse, which shares the same rational kernel as philosophy, and therefore advocated a reciprocal pedagogical relationship between intellectuals and the masses, rather than a one-way teaching of a vanguard party.

Gramsci's argument was that ideology is not just a superstructural epiphenomena, but the only way social relations can be mediated - and hence has a constructive epistemological role, prepares the way for L/M's fully constructivist theory of identity. Structural positions (a propertyless worker, a woman), do not determine an 'authentic' consciousness, only interpretative frameworks do (i.e. subjective positions), and these are always mediated by discourse. Thus, L/M reject 'false consciousness' theory, which assumes we can take 'objective positions'.

Accepting the contingency of the world, emancipatory theory can only be moral and normative, not an 'objective necessity' (as Marx claimed). Solidarity only works through identity, hence social movements are always performative: they create the subject. Hence, political intervention remains crucial. Both hegemonic dominance and local traditions of resistance will determine the likelihood of available subject positions.

The rest of the chapter deals with the Lacanian argument (of the later evolution of Lacan).