The Populist Moment, Chapter 8:
Alain de Benoist
Ernesto Laclau & Left-Wing Populism
Introduction here, Chapter 7 here, Chapter 9 Part 1 here
Translated by F. Roger Devlin
Pablo Iglesias, the leader of Podemos, a populist movement that became (with 20.6% of the vote) the third-largest political force in Spain following the elections of December 2015, said shortly thereafter that one could “define Podemos by saying that we have done everything the Left said must not be done.” He was alluding, of course, to the “progressive” Left and the governmental Left, for there is at least one theoretician of the Left to whom he did indeed turn for inspiration: Ernesto Laclau.
The writings currently available on populism can be divided into two categories according to whether they take a historico-geographic approach (studies of Russian populism, American populism, Latin American populism, European neo-populism, etc.) or a theoretico-epistemological approach. The second category covers various political or economic theories of populism, along with structuralist theories or those limited to seeing in populism a style rather than an ideology. Ernesto Laclau’s “post-structuralist” theory, often called a theory of discursive analysis, belongs to this latter category.
Opposing the contemptuous devaluing of populism which reigns today in the political class, Laclau forcefully champions it. “Democracy today is inconceivable,” he states, “without a certain dose of populism.”
Born on October 5, 1935 in Buenos Aires, where he studied philosophy, Ernesto Laclau was first associated with Left-wing Peronism. While occupying a first teaching post at the University of Tucuman when still quite young, he became one of the leaders of the Socialist Party of the National Left founded by Jorge Abelardo Ramos (1921-1994), Argentina’s future ambassador to Mexico. The author of a monumental history of Latin America, Ramos was not unaware that, contrary to what had happened in Europe, the South American continent never experienced any alliance between liberalism and democracy in the nineteenth century, which explains why populist movements there rarely adopted liberal positions. This is why he proposed using nationalism to heighten the contradictions in which his country was involved. At the beginning of the 1980s, Laclau told El País: “Through Peronism I came to understand Gramsci.”
Laclau moved to England in 1969, where he was invited by the historian Eric Hobsbawm, and there he founded the Essex School, named for the town where he taught after 1972. A professor of political theory from 1986, he developed his theories of discursive analysis in his courses, training hundreds of students from all over the world who were looking for a renewal of radical thought. In the 2000s he would support the Argentine governments of Néstor Kirchner and of his wife, Cristina. He died in Seville on April 13, 2014.
Laclau is recognized all over the world today as one of the most important political philosophers of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Even in France, where he remains less well-known, and got only a weak reception from institutional philosophy, a large colloquium was devoted to him in 2015 in Paris (“Hegemony, Populism, Emancipation: Perspectives on the Philosophy of Ernesto Laclau, 1935-2014”). Since the end of the 1980s, his views have contributed to renewing the Left’s strategic thought, especially in the countries of Southern Europe and Latin America, where his thought is still highly influential. In Spain, the rise of the Podemos movement, which has often appealed to his ideas, has attracted attention to him, but also earned him some criticism. He is the principal theoretician of what is generally called, for want of a better name, “Left-wing populism.”
Laclau, in collaboration with his companion the excellent Belgian political scientist Chantal Mouffe, published in 1985 a book called Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. In it he lays out the basic principles of his doctrine, beginning with what separates him from Marxist orthodoxy. A post-Marxist, he rejects all forms of economic determinism, for this prevents any account of labor processes not reducible to economics. The emergence of new social movements, he emphasizes, show that Marxist categories do not permit a full analysis of contemporary Western societies: present-day fragmentation or diversification forbids us from reducing social struggles to a simple confrontation between the bourgeoisie and proletariat (even if this scheme continues to have a certain validity in various countries of the Third World), all the more so insofar as the repression exercised by power today rests less on domination, always external to the one subjected to it, than on normalization, whose success rests upon the internalization of the norms imposed. Laclau concludes from this that political identities do not result merely from the position of agents within relations of production, nor can they be analyzed according to purely sociological data. So what do they depend on? His answer: on social constructs shaped by “discourse.”
For Laclau, the social realm should first of all be considered a discursive realm, not only in the strictly linguistic sense, but in the performative sense of a bond between words and actions allowing the establishment of “signifying totalities,” as in the case of Wittgenstein’s language games:
The heir of Saussurian structuralism, Laclau borrows from him the idea that there are no positive terms in language, but only differences: a thing is only what it is within relations that distinguish it from another. He extends this linguistic theory to the analysis of social facts in order to privilege a political approach to the game and to the articulation of differences.
The social implies articulation, and “identitarian construction is a part of the grammar inherent in a language game.”
Since all societies rest upon an unavoidable tension between difference (particularities) and equivalence (community, the common good), social identity is constituted at the meeting point between equivalence and difference. Equivalence allows one to go beyond the opposition between the universal and particular. The universal is one of those “empty signifiers” we are destined always to miss, but which are no less indispensable for determining the horizon toward which all action inevitably is directed. “Empty signifiers” are general thematics open to a pluralism of interpretations and to the conflictual game of hegemonic constructs. Social and political identities are the product of the “empty signifiers” they have endowed with meaning [investis]. This means the plural, indeed fragmented, character of contemporary societies must be accepted as long as we inscribe that plurality within a logic of equivalences allowing the construction of a public sphere.
The leading idea here is that political identities, which are always collective, are never given a priori but rather constructed from discursive practices, thus allowing for the appearance of a collective will. For Laclau, any social practice has a meaning and constitutes a discourse which expresses its [the meaning’s] political potential, which resides in its capacity for a break, i.e. its capacity for distinguishing itself from the dominant system not merely as difference, but as contradiction.
Politics, finally, cannot be understood without taking its autonomous character into account, starting with two key concepts: antagonism and hegemony.
Contrary to those who regularly announce the end of politics, whether following a “final” revolution or by aligning the government of men with the management of things, Laclau affirms the autonomy and primacy of politics, which leads him of course to reject liberalism with its methodological individualism and its pretention to axiological neutrality, but also the communicational logic of a Habermas, or Michael Hardt’s and Antonio Negri’s theory of “multitudes.”
The idea that antagonisms are inherent to social domains so that they appear as the very condition for the structuration of society has particularly been developed by Chantal Mouffe, who works at the University of Westminster and is one of the most celebrated representatives of “Schmittianism of the Left.” Her thought does in fact owe a great deal to Carl Schmitt. “It is because there exists a form of negativity that cannot be overcome dialectically,” she writes, “that one can never arrive at full objectivity, and that antagonism is an ever-present possibility.” Recognizing radical negativity implies renouncing the deadly dream of a homogeneous social space, for such a space will never exist: there is no form of politics which will disarm all antagonisms. This amounts to saying that the conflictual dimension must be institutionalized.
Conflict being inherent to politics, the latter is essentially undetermined. Thus, Laclau rejects the idea of an ultimate foundation of political action, along with the “essentialist” idea of a perfectly reconciled society, transparent to itself, where antagonisms have disappeared (which amounts to saying there is no conceivable society beyond division and power). He proposes understanding politics, and thus also democracy, “starting from its conflictuality-in-principle, and thus from its existential instability. . . . Politics does not, then, function as a representation of a pre-existing natural or social reality, but as the constitution of that reality by the articulation of different actors within movements with hegemonic pretentions.” Politics is the basic tool of a collective existential refounding. It is thanks to politics that the emancipatory act can become an act of instituting, i.e. a founding act.
Politics can therefore never in the last resort amount to technical problems which expert managers would have to resolve, but calls for decisions between incompatible alternatives — something which liberal thought has never been able to understand because of its irresistible tendency to conceive of objectivity as inherent in things themselves. Politics implies conflict, and conflict implies pluralism, which in its turn implies a sovereign political decision necessary for putting an end to indecision [indécidabilité]. Democracy, as Chantal Mouffe says, “presupposes recognition of the agonistic dimension of politics, and this is why we can only protect and consolidate it by clearly admitting that politics always consists in domesticating hostility” without trying to make it disappear. Domesticating hostility means creating an “agonistic” form in which opponents are not enemies, nor mere “competitors,” but adversaries.
Stating that social division and antagonism cannot be eradicated amounts to affirming that all social objectivity is the result of a phenomenon of establishing frontiers. It is in this (always contingent) displacement of frontiers that the hegemonic operation consists.
There is never, in fact, a single antagonism within the social field, but a plurality of antagonisms corresponding to dispersed social demands which must be unified with a view to the “hegemonic creation of a unity.” To establish a frontier is to distribute the social elements within chains of equivalence distributed on either side of that frontier. Political action is then defined as a struggle for hegemony through the conquest of “empty signifiers” which articulate the various social demands.
The concept of hegemony obviously comes from Gramsci, to whom Laclau explicitly appeals, but to whom he also gives a new interpretation. He takes from Gramsci the idea that the cultural domain occupies a decisive position in the construction of common meaning [sens commun], but no longer believes in the central role of the working class in the struggle for “cultural hegemony.” While Gramsci limits himself to contemplating the creation of a “popular bloc” associating the proletariat with certain institutional elements prepared to commit themselves to a struggle to construct a counter-hegemony in the face of bourgeois hegemony, he redefines hegemony as “that operation by which a particularity takes on a universal signification incommensurable with itself,” which makes it a fundamental category of political analysis. Hegemonic aims are thus synonymous with “logics of equivalence” which seek to produce a regularity beyond differences, i.e. beyond social heterogeneity.
“What is the logic governing the constitution of social and political identities?” Laclau answers that it is the logic of hegemony. Every social order is of a “hegemonic” nature, every common world is the result of a hegemonic construction, and all sense of collective existence depends on a struggle for hegemony. Hegemonic practice is consequently defined as what allows different social demands to be articulated so as to create and fix the meaning of political institutions. Such is precisely the task of populism.
It is in fact by the constitution of a new hegemony that the people become capable of incarnating the whole of social aspirations and demands, thus instituting itself as a representative “name” of the whole of society: “Naming [La nomination],” writes Laclau, “is the key moment in the constitution of a ‘people.’” There is hegemony when “the affirmations of a certain group, at a certain time, are totalized to cover the whole of society,” and when a “we” capable of articulating demands of heterogeneous social groups around a single name asserts itself. Hegemony is the moment when a social or symbolic particularity takes on a “universal” and political dimension, when a particular force assumes the representation of a totality because it has succeeded better than others in endowing “empty signifiers” with meanings which mobilize the imagination and transform it into a will. “The more populist interventions genuinely play the role of empty signifiers — the more they succeed in unifying the community in an equivalent manner [équivalentiellement],” writes Laclau, the more they will become the object of a radical endowment with meaning” [d’un investissement radical]. It is the constitution of a new socio-historic hegemony which opens the door of power to the people in its dual symbolic and political dimension.
The error of orthodox Marxism, locked in an “economistic paradigm,” is not to have recognized the primacy and autonomy of politics, which explains why it has never been able to conceive hegemony other than as an authoritarian conforming to a predefined norm. Ernesto Laclau for his part is betting on populism to “radicalize democracy.” It is a matter of doing what in their times Lech Walesa succeeded in doing in Poland or Salvador Allende in Chile: raising up a people and incarnating its will to change to the point of attaining power democratically.
“Radical democracy” is a democracy which has no root other than itself, viz., the political practice that erects democratic principles into a “new matrix of the social imagination” and “fundamental nodal point in the construction of politics.” This democratic practice, which must not forget to take into account the “dynamic of the passions,” also serves “to reveal the political character (in a broad sense) of social relations, and the fact that these latter are always the result of ways of establishment that confer upon them their form and significance.”
Laclau observes the historical decline of emancipatory discourse’s central categories, which has opened the way to the planetary rise of liberalism: “From the moment when institutions that channeled social demands — and especially trade unions — lose their articulating role, the social field presents itself in the form of the dispersion of actors and demands.” How can we take this dispersion into account? Precisely by means of populism.
In one of his first books, Laclau suggested that populism, insofar as it is rooted in an anti-elite sentiment, articulates popular traditions and class positions, without the former being able to do without the latter. Later on, he qualified and refined his analysis. Populism is in fact no more reducible to any particular social base — the “popular classes” — than it is an irrational phenomenon reducible to demagogy and the manipulation of base instincts. It is rather a revelation of what is demanded by the construction of social identity. It is a political logic which aims at constituting or reconstitution the people as historical actor beginning from a plurality of antagonistic situations. “Populism,” says Laclau, “is not an ideology. It is a form of political construction which appeals to those below against those in power while passing over all established channels.”
Populism appears when power is no longer able to respond to social demands coming from the base. These demands can then establish “relations of equivalence” between themselves that will allow their unification and, consequently, the creations of collective wills allowing the affirmation of a legitimacy opposed to the legality handed down “from above.” The central “discursive” moment is that of unification. When the different social demands opposed to the order in place have become part of a whole, a hegemonic aim becomes possible. This is exactly what happened on the eve of the French Revolution, when the Third Estate proclaimed itself (on the basis of the cahiers de doléances) the true depository of national legitimacy. The same goes for populism: a partial element aspires to be regarded as the only legitimate totality. “This relation by which a certain particularity assumed representation of a universality which is perfectly incommensurable with it,” write Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, “is what we call a hegemonic relation.”
So it is indeed a matter of “constituting or reconstituting a people” in the face of a minority represented by the dominant elite called oligarchy, New Class, Caste (la Casta), poderes fácticos, etc. To create a “people,” for Ernesto Laclau, is the very condition for a revitalization of politics. You create a people by the effort to unite into a single hegemonic aim the various social demands expressed within it. Populism presupposes the constitution of a people as political and socio-historic subject from a plurality of antagonistic situations. Thus, the people is above all an eminently political concept, a demos called upon to construct itself as such so as to itself produce political effects. As demos, the people can never be reduced to anything already given, such as a mere ethnos, any more than it can be reduced to a simple social base or a particular ideological orientation. It is above all a political construction. Now, if populism is a logic constitutive of the people as a historical subject, “politics [becomes] synonymous with populism . . . since the construction of the people is the political act par excellence.” It is in this sense that “populist reason” is equivalent to political reason, and that its contemptuous rejection is a “rejection of politics simpliciter.”
We mentioned above the influence of Ernesto Lacau on Podemos. The heirs of the Puerta del Sol occupation in Madrid on May 15, 2011, which demanded “real democracy now” (“¡democracia real ya!”), Podemos has uncontestably tried to incarnate a corresponding “populist moment,” no longer via the rising of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie or a “horizontal” confrontation between Right and Left, but via a “vertical” revolt of the middle class and the popular class united against the power of “la Caste.” In other words: “those below” against “those above.” The principal theoretician of the movement, Iñigo Errejón, has himself said that to speak about the “country” and “sovereignty” is another way of helping the people to emancipate itself. A figure close to him, Juan Carlos Monadero, speaks of “drawing a lightning bolt [tracer un éclair] showing who is below and who above.” The essential trait of this populism is transversality.
As Jean-Claude Michéa thinks:
Podemos is today the only European radical movement with a mass base to have clearly understood that if you want to gather the great majority of the popular classes around a program for the gradual deconstruction of the capitalist system, you absolutely must begin by questioning the old system of rifts based upon “blind confidence in the idea of progress” (Juan Carlos Monadero), whose increasingly paralyzing philosophical presuppositions have for the past 30 years offered the European Left an ideal means of disguising its total reconciliation with capitalism under a much more seductive exterior of a permanent “citizens’” struggle against all “reactionary” and “nostalgic” [passéistes] (or even “red-brown!”) ideas.
It remains to be seen, of course, what will become of Podemos (or Syriza in Greece) in the face of the double danger of collaboration with established parties and, conversely, the adoption of a “strategy of desertion” of the anti-institutional sort, amounting to belief that a “real” democracy can exist without new forms of political institutions being put in place.
As Freud perceived, the social bond is also a libidinal bond. This is why populism is today perceived as a danger for the “normality” of the New Class, whose critique of populism merely recycles the old critique of the “crowds” or the “dangerous classes.” The recent emergence of a “populism of the Right” can be explained by the desertion of the field of social division by signifiers of the Left; therefore, signifiers of the Right have captured the protest vote for their own benefit. Gaël Brustier was not mistaken to ask whether in France the “stalemate over Laclau’s work is not one of the causes of the radical Left’s present standstill.”
Works of Ernesto Laclau translated into English
Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory, NLB, 1977.
Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (with Chantal Mouffe), London: Verso Books 1985.
New Reflections on the Revolution of our Time, London: Verso Books, 1990.
The Making of Political Identities (ed.), London: Verso Books, 1994.
Emancipation(s), London: Verso Books, 1996.
Contingency, Hegemony, Universality (with Judith Butler and Slavoj Žižek), London: Verso Books, 2000.
On Populist Reason, London: Verso Books, 2005.
The Rhetorical Foundations of Society London, London: Verso Books, 2014.
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 Cf. Mario E. Poblete, “How to Assess Populist Discourse through Three Current Approaches,” in Journal of Political Ideologies, June 2015, 201-218.
 Some think that his analysis of the capitalist system remains somewhat superficial, or accuse him of situating it within a rather reformist perspective (he does emphasize, in fact, the “processual character of every radical transformation”). Cf. Razmig Keucheyan & Renaud Lambert, “Ernest Laclau, inspirateur de Podemos,” in Le Monde diplomatique, September 2015, 3, who reproach Podemos with favoring a “confusion of classes by privileging the construction of the referent ‘people’ rather than other referents more accurate from a sociological point of view.” Laclau’s theses have also been vigorously contested by the Trotskyists of the New Anticapitalist Party. Cf. Emmanuel Barot, “D’Ernesto Laclau à Iglesias : théorie et pratique du (néo)populisme,” website of the New Anticapitalist Party, November 14, 2015, which accuses him of a “Rightist, gradualist and electoralist instrumentalization of Gramsci” (!). In Spain, Carlos Fernández Lira has expressed the wish that Podemos would undertake to “make populism republican again” by appealing “more to Kant and less to Laclau” (“La carta que nos queda: republicanizar el populismo,” website of the newspaper El Diario, April 16, 2015)! Cf. Hedwig
Marzolf, “Le kantisme de Podemos ou les équivoques du sens commun,” in Esprit, September 2016, 91-104.
 Evelyne Grossman, “Vous avez dit ‘populisme’?”, website La vie des idées, May 19, 2008, 2.
 Ernesto Laclau, “Ruptura populista y discurso,” in Labastida et Del Campo (ed.), Hegemonía y alternativas políticas (Mexico: Siglo XXI, 1985), 39-44.
 Cf. Chantal Mouffe, “Penser la démocratie moderne avec, et contre, Carl Schmitt,” in Revue française de science politique, Paris, XLII, 1, February 1992, 83-96; “Carl Schmitt, une politique du droit,” in Esprit, Paris, 197, December 1993, 182-189; “Deliberative Democracy or Agonistic Pluralism?,” in Social Research, Autumn 1999; “The Limits of Liberal Pluralism: Towards an Agonistic Multipolar World Order,” in András Sajó (ed.), Militant Democracy (Utrecht: Eleven International, 2004); and “The Stakes of the Political According to Carl Schmitt,” in Patrizia C. McBride, Richard W. McCormick, & Monika Zagar (eds.), Legacies of Modernism: Art and Politics in Northern Europe, 1890-1950 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 203-212. Chantal Mouffe has also edited the volume The Challenge of Carl Schmitt (London: Verso, 1999). Cf. also her two books translated into French: La Politique et ses enjeux. Pour une démocratie plurielle (Paris: La Découverte/MAUSS, 1994); and Agonistique: Penser politiquement le monde (translated by Denyse Beaulieu), (Paris: Beaux-Arts de Paris, 2014), translated into English as Agonistics: Thinking the World Politically (London-New York: Verso, 2013).
 Audric Vitiello, “L’itinéraire de la démocratie radicale d’Ernesto Laclau,” in Raisons politiques, 2009, 3, 208; text reprinted on the website Journal du MAUSS, June 17, 2014. Cf. also Jean-Claude Monod, “La force du populisme : une analyse philosophique. A propos d’Ernesto Laclau,” in Esprit, January 2009, 42-52.
 Cf. Ernesto Laclau, Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory: Capitalism, Fascism, Populism (Londres: NLB, 1977).
 Cf. the book of interviews with Iñigo Errejón published by Chantal Mouffe: Construir pueblo. Hegemonía y radicalización de la democracia (Barcelona: Icaria, 2015). Cf. also Juan Branco, “Podemos : l’indignation au pouvoir,” in Esprit, December 2014; Christophe Barret, Podemos, pour une autre Europe (Paris: Cerf, 2015); Héloise Nez, Podemos. De l’indignation aux élections (Paris: Les Petits Matins, 2015); Asis Timermans, ¿Podemos? (Madrid: Ultima Linea, 2015); and Ludovic Lamant, “La boîte à idées des intellos de Podemos,” website Médiapart, December 16, 2015.
 Jean-Claude Michéa, interview on the website Le Comptoir, February 26, 2016.
 Cf. Manuel Cervera-Marzal, “Podemos a-t-il dépassé le clivage droite-gauche?”, in Libération, December 17, 2015.
 Gaël Brustier, “Gauche radicale : la clé, c’est Laclau,” online text, website Slate, March 15, 2015, 4.
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