Rethinking Ernesto Laclau (II): A Rhetoric of the Unreal.

September 16, 2013

Laclau’s book is inspired by Harold Laski’s Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time, a book by a man who, although on the nominal left of the British Labour Party and widely criticised for his totalitarian sympathies, is hard to describe as a leftist; he was rather a power-fetishist (and an extremely inept politician). It’s therefore a strange book to be inspired by in 1990, except that Laclau is obviously suggesting that post-1989 was, like post-1945, a new beginning (although post-1945 conspicuously wasn’t really a new beginning, just the culmination of the past). It’s also interesting that the one thing which Laclau rejects in Laski is the concept of a democratic planned economy, which was precisely the policy which, dominant between 1940 and 1975 or thereabouts, generated a massive surge in wealth and social equality. It’s almost as if Laclau is proclaiming that the long global nightmare of peace and prosperity is finally over.

A close examination removes the word “almost”, however.

Laclau terms himself a post-Marxist. This might mean that he is after Marxism, having found something better which relegates Marxism to the dustheap of history. Unless, of course, it means that everybody has relegated Marxism to the dustheap of history. But this might seem a little odd — why, then, bother to acknowledge Marx? In reality, most of Laclau’s sources are Marxist, so therefore his work is not so much post-Marxist as Marxism against the grain, challenging Marxism within its own intellectual tradition. This is, therefore, a familiar position; it is the position of postmodernism, where virtually all theorists emerged from a Marxist primeval soup and were eager to repudiate this origin through rhetoric and renunciation.

Indeed, the opening essay in the book, arguably the central thesis in it, takes as the text for its sermon two quotations, one from Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto of 1848, one from Marx’s Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy of 1857. The two texts are not analogous; one is a revolutionary tract written in Marx’s fiery youth, one a long unpublished meditation which served as the roots of Marx’s eventual doctrines as published in Capital. Laclau sets out to base his argument on discrepancies between these documents, which is a highly questionable rhetorical strategy under the circumstances, although it might possibly prove productive in the end.

Unfortunately, Laclau is not concerned with finding real discrepancies. Therefore, he identifies a seeming discrepancy: the Manifesto talks about class struggle whereas the Contribution talks about conflicts between “material forces of production” and “relations of production”. It’s difficult not to see that the latter would incorporate class struggle, but Laclau pretends not to see this and builds his argument on this nonexistent discrepancy, following it up by accusing Marx of focussing his attention on “contradictions emerging from the expansion of productive forces” which Laclau claims is Marx’s origin of social change, adding the quotation marks to pretend that this is from the Contribution although it is actually Laclau’s own phrase and owes nothing to Marx. (In reality, of course, the contradictions are driven by the relations of production, at least according to Marx.) So Laclau is obliged first to misread, and then to misquote, Marx in order to challenge him. One does not have to be a profound scholar or a Marx-worshipper to see that this is unacceptable behaviour. Also, making productionism the core of Marxism essentially throws the whole of Marx and Marxism out of the window — Laclau is indulging in the safe practice of setting up a straw man with whom to have a battle that can be called heroic.

Laclau is doing all this in order to introduce his own idea, that of “antagonism”. Antagonism is not contradiction, he says, and indeed is better than contradiction. A contradiction in Marxist terms is drawn from Hegelian doctrine; it is an irreconcilable conflict between two opposing forces, derived from the essence of those forces, and therefore it can only be resolved either through the elimination or one of the forces or through the complete transformation of the circumstances involved. Antagonism is not about anything overarching; it is, essentially, a psychological matter. People define themselves, says Laclau, as antagonists to things. Thus classes do not exist objectively, as a product of circumstances; instead, people perceive themselves as belonging to classes which are antagonistic to other classes. Antagonism is thus a kind of false consciousness — although Laclau would of course argue that false consciousness does not exist, since his rhetoric is nothing if not slippery, a mass of sliding signifiers existing only to give Laclau himself stable rhetorical footholds under changing discursive circumstances.

Ouch, that doesn’t sound very solid. Indeed, antagonism, which is the core of Laclau and Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, is something which can be resolved by discursive means. Classes can work together in harmony, apparently. This reconciliation of labour and capital sounds very suspiciously fascistic — and of course it represents an end-run around any objective difference between the hirelings and the owners, undertaken not in order to explain that difference away, but to escape it and pretend that it is no more significant than the difference between a lipstick lesbian and a dungareed skinhead dyke. In other words, the whole of revolutionary history since the Crusades or thereabouts can be accounted for by misunderstandings caused by category errors. Well, that’s sorted that out! Of course this is all a peronista fantasy, but one which crucially repudiates the objective problems which Peron was attempting to solve — and probably points the way to how the peronistas in Argentina in the late 1980s became neoliberal tools of big capital and American imperialism, and ultimately brought about the collapse of their economy and state. Thanks a bunch, Ernesto!

It is particularly striking that Slavoj Zizek not only agrees with all this, but in fact applauds it. He remarks that in Hegel, “the Lord is ultimately an invention of the Bondsman”, and therefore the capitalist is an invention of the worker, and therefore the worker needs to get the capitalist out of his head, straighten out his problems with identity, and above all, stop complaining and abandon all Marxism. Again, since Hegel was an authoritarian and emphatically on the side of the Lords this was a convenient thing for him, but it is not an accident, nor a mistake, that Marxists did not read the work on this way or pay much attention to this notion. The fact that Laclau was delighted with this affirmation makes it fairly clear that he was happy with the notion that his ultimate objective was to eliminate discursive support for anti-capitalism, and thus secure the position of the capitalist elite.

Meanwhile, another issue which Laclau raises is that of democracy. How is this possible in contemporary society? Laclau seemingly believes that the problem with democracy is ideology; people all trying to work together toward a common goal, a notion which he hates. Instead, he wants what he considers democracy, which is pluralism, a whole bunch of different organisations with different memberships working separately for disparate goals. This is approximately what the postmodernists of the 1980s wanted, so Laclau is simply imitating them — with the difference that he is pretending that this could ultimately attain a goal similar to what Marxism was seeking. Except that it would not be the liberation of the proletariat because Laclau, seeing society as simply a contingent combination of groupuscules, does not believe in classes any more than he believes in exploitation.

So he is pretending to be a post-Marxist, but actually this vision of widely separated groups was not, and was not intended to be, and could not become, a challenge to actual capitalist hegemony over society. So, in effect if not in intention, he is serving that capitalist system. This in fact was what Norman Geras, then a young man purporting to be a Marxist, accused him of. Laclau was appalled to be associated with Eduard Bernstein by Geras, for to a Leninist this would be the ultimate heresy. Laclau’s response is to accuse Geras of accusing him of heresy, and therefore to accuse Geras of being a mystical transcendentalist, treating revolution and hostility to Bernstein as religious dogmas. As usual, therefore, Laclau is using rhetorical constructs to cover up real issues.

Actually, Laclau may have a point. Geras’s accusation is unfair — although it is unfair to Bernstein, not to Laclau. Bernstein was a member of the German Social Democrats who believed that his party did not need to actually carry out a revolution, but could use its influence in the Reichstag plus the threat of mass worker action to bring about the reform of capitalism until it segued into socialism. He was widely denounced by the other Social Democrats and eventually driven out of the party. However, Bernstein was arguably just doing what everyone else was doing — collaborating with the militaristic-capitalistic German ruling class — except that he was not cloaking it with a shroud of rhetoric. (Eventually the revolutionary Social Democrats, when they came to power in 1918, had all the people who actually believed in revolution murdered after the Spartakusbund uprising. This was not Bernstein’s fault.)

But Bernstein desired to liberate the working class, and believed that the best way to accomplish this was through mass mobilisation of a working-class political organisation directed at the seizure of state power. Laclau does not want to liberate anyone except the individual in a conceptual sense. As a good postmodern, he denies that the individual is a fixed entity any more than any organisation has any real meaning — in this sense Laclau is as nihilistic as Kurt Vonnegut, seeing all political organisations as “granfalloons”, though Laclau lacks Vonnegut’s human concern and political astuteness.

Any doubt about this should be dispelled by Laclau’s “Letter to Aletta”. Aletta is a student of his who writes a surprisingly shallow letter to him in 1987. The letter is hardly a masterpiece of political analysis; it largely consists of material about the progress of South African politics in the 1980s, which could have been obtained from a few issues of the Weekly Mail or a discussion with an activist. Her analysis is almost entirely one of parties and entities; the Botha regime versus the UDF, which was a fair enough position for a UDF activist to take, but a serious political intellectual, especially one disengaged from immediate activism, should have been capable of more, such as a serious assessment of the revolution’s political prospects, or an acknowledgement of the difficulty of attaining nebulous socialist goals under hostile socio-economic conditions. In addition, her political stance is decidedly liberal (with a pitiful Patonesque opening about “trying” to stop police from rounding up local street children) — raising questions about the nature of her political support for the UDF.

Laclau’s response to Aletta, however, does not twit her for the shallowness of her analysis — instead, he congratulates her on the acuity of her shallow vision. He does not, however, address South African issues at all. Instead, he poses a question concerning the “conditions of possibility of constituting social agents as classes”, which he does not answer because he is terrified of identifying a class for fear that it might lead to class conflict. Therefore he sees as desirable “the radical deconstruction of the very concept of ‘seizure of power'” — that is, he wants to undermine precisely the kind of struggle which South Africans were engaged in, which would only be to the benefit of the oppressors. Indeed, his goal is in “making the radical absence of foundation the basis for a critique of any form of oppression” (that is, in order to criticise oppression you should not have a starting-point) because his other goal is “the weakening of the totalitarian pretension which may lurk behind emancipatory discourses”.

This all makes Laclau’s position quite clear, and it is important to note his reactionary and plutocratic imperialist agenda as applied to South Africa, concealed through a thin but completely transparent screen of obfuscatory rhetoric deploying words which sometimes derive from left-wing sources but mean the opposite of whatever left-wingers mean by them. Zizek was right to recognise Laclau as a fellow spirit in the struggle for neoliberal hegemony and the destruction of left-wing discourse. Sadly, Aletta clearly went along with all this; by 1990, she was gleefully identifying the victory of the anti-apartheid movement as a crisis for the left — for to mystifying reactionaries like Laclau or any other capitalist reactionary propagandist, all crises ultimately must be refashioned as crises of the left since the right cannot ever be seen as doing anything wrong.


Rethinking Ernesto Laclau (I): The How And Why Wonderbook of Utter Disaster.

September 16, 2013

In the early years of the Creator’s current incarnation, there was a comic bought by dutiful bourgeois parents to protect their children from reading Noddy or Spiderman called the How And Why Wonderbook. It’s a sign of the virtues of the past that children were then encouraged to ask such questions, even though the Wonderbook of course did not investigate the actual reasons why and its representations of how things were done were naturally ones which served the nascent plutocracy. Still, we could use such a text today to make some kind of sense of the situation.

Is it possible that the Argentinean postmodern Trotskyite Ernesto Laclau, now doubtless almost completely forgotten by everybody (while his friend the Slovenian postmodern Trotskyite Slavoj Zizek is still undeservedly remembered) has written such a book? Not, obviously, from any kind of choice. Laclau has never been interested in explaining anything, since a thorough explanation would mean coming to an end, and he would have to shut up for a moment if only to allow space for applause, and Laclau is much too infatuated with the sound of his own voice to do that. Furthermore, the concept of “sense” does not really belong in the same sentence with the name Ernesto Laclau.

Before we have a look at the book, however, let’s consider the context. Australia, for instance, just had an election. The Liberal/National coalition, a gang of unregenerate reactionary racists, was standing against Labour, a party without a policy or a leader to speak of. (It had been led by Kevin Rudd, who proposed to tax mining revenues and was immediately kicked out in a palace coup led by Julia Gilliard, who stoutly refused to tax mining revenues and was eventually kicked out on a palace coup led by Kevin Rudd on the basis of not being a woman and promising not to tax mining revenues. As a result he was left essentially without a policy, and therefore borrowed the Liberal/National policy of white supremacist xenophobia.) In other words, the vile right-wing racist rats were kicked out of power and the vile right-wing racist rats were installed on the throne.

You can, if you like, say that Australian politics has always been one of vicious and cowardly toadying to whoever waved a banknote stapled to a flag, and you will be quite right, but still it’s never been quite so nauseating as now.

The United States, meanwhile, has been torn apart by the major debate of the day, raised by every divorced white male journalist who can’t get a date on a Saturday night: should Miley Cyrus be permitted to twerk? There is no room for questions about whether randomly bombing Syria in order to undermine the Assad government and ultimately install fundamentalists linked to al-Qaeda in power is a bad thing or not. A few journalists who have run out of Kleenex have hesitantly suggested that perhaps right at the moment mass murder in support of extremist, racist, sexist jihadis might not serve the interests of the image of the United States. (This attitude is made possible by the fact that these journalists are paid to pretend that said jihadis are not armed, trained and paid by the US Government, which of course they are.). However, the US Congress does not waste any time on such trivial matters, and is demanding that someone bomb something somewhere, so long as no Americans are harmed in the manufacturing of the poisonous dog’s breakfast.

Meanwhile, in the background, the opinion polls, grinding on mindlessly like the salt-mill in the fairy-tale, are telling us that two-thirds of the American people are opposed to armed aggression against Syria by the US military, and nearly three-quarters are opposed to the financial support for the jihadis which is currently happening and which they aren’t supposed to know about.

Obviously there is something amiss with the World’s Greatest Democracy when its government openly flouts the expressed opinions of its people, with the support of the media. But there’s nothing unusual about this. Let us not even look in the direction of the Mother of Parliaments, and as for the land of liberty, equality and fraternity with its brave Socialist President, all we need to say about that hapless satellite state is that Hollande has spent so much time bent over with his legs spread that his haemorrhoids must be developing haemorrhoids. It is even more bizarre that the recent G20 in St Petersburg was dominated by ex-KGB Major Vladimir Putin’s firm stand in support of global peace, freedom of information and the right to asylum in response to arbitrary arrest and imprisonment. When the nation turns its lonely eyes to Vlad the Impaler, you know you are desperate indeed.

At least there are the dissidents. Like Noam Chomsky, who recently came out in support of the jihadis in Syria whom he compared with the Viet Minh. (Chomsky is, after all, getting on, and one should expect mild strokes at his age.) But in fact the dissident movement in the West has not covered itself with glory in the course of the Arab Spring. Much of it — Gilbert Achcar, to name but one — wholeheartedly endorsed the imperialist destabilisation of Libya, at least until the actual invasion, and even those who had qualms about the invasion have mostly stood by and watched as the country degenerated into chaos and corruption on a scale unimaginable under the Qaddhaffi dictatorship but familiar to anyone who witnessed the similar Iraqi disaster. The dissident left remained coyly silent while the Egyptian military overthrew the elected Egyptian government with the assistance of the United States and Israel and then slaughtered the Islamist opposition. It remained coyly silent while the Gulf fundamentalist feudal monarchies, the Israeli fundamentalist oligarchy and NATO fomented, armed and promoted Islamist insurrection in Syria with the goal of eliminating the last secular government in the region. It remained silent when the French military, with Anglo-American backing, crushed the Tuareg rebellion in Mali.

This is, to put it mildly, very weird. One can understand that such dissidents might be afraid to take vigorous action in their own countries, but they had no actual reason for ignoring such things. Only a few years earlier the dissident left had quite vigorously opposed aggression against Iraq; some of them had even opposed aggression against Afghanistan and Serbia. Moreover, although many of the dissident left love to pretend that their enemies are Islamophobes, the Egyptian bloodbath was a massacre of Islamists, the Malian war was supposedly anti-Islamist  (and, for that matter, so is the Syrian, on both sides). Insofar as there is any consistency in the Western Left’s actions, it lies in spineless endorsement of whatever Washington and Brussels want to see happening.

South Africans will not find this unusual. A country in which the entire Left united to install a corrupt stooge of big capital and imperialism on the throne, the Communists are in bed with the minerals-energy complex, in which one leading Trotskyite is a spokesperson for corporate media, another endorses the World Bank candidate for the Presidency, and the only Trotskyite party hoping to stand for Parliament is basing its popular posture on acting as a PR agency for a mining company — we are quite used to leftist betrayal. We expect nothing else.

And yet saying “nous sommes trahis” does not get us very far. Even if Patrick Bond’s “elite transition” theory that the ANC sold us all out had been true, it would have meant nothing without asking questions which Bond was careful not to answer — namely, to whom did they sell us, and for what purpose, towards what gain? So the meaningful question is not “has the Left sold us out?”; the meaningful question is “why, and in ideological terms, how, has the Left sold us out?”. What did they hope to gain by reducing their presence in society to a level at which a crowd of confused children in pup-tents could be mistaken for a revolutionary vanguard?

There is a history to this which is hard to explain in the brevity of a blog post. The core of the history seems to relate to the decline and fall of the USSR. This decline dates back to the 1950s, when Nikita Krushchev took control of the country with the goal of reforming it — essentially, breaking out of the Stalinist carapace in which it was trapped. The problem was that such reform required repudiating the irrational personality cult around Stalin, and therefore also the irrational nationalism around the USSR as a supposedly perfect state (for if it needed reforming, it couldn’t be perfect). Admitting these things meant that the supporters of the USSR who were committed to such irrational visions became hostile to Krushchev’s initiative, while the enemies of the USSR who just wanted to destroy it saw it as a sign of weakness.

Hence Krushchev’s reforms were accompanied by repression in Eastern Europe, which further upset the ideological applecart; the Western Communists were weakened and what arose was a “New Left” which repudiated the USSR and sought to create its own road to socialism (sometimes aligned with the USSR’s allies, like Vietnam and Cuba). While all this was happening, Krushchev’s reforms had mixed results — enough of them failed so that he was himself overthrown in 1964 and a rigid reactionary regime installed itself based on pandering to the secret police and the military which gradually metastatised into preposterous proportions and drained the state of productive capital so that its collapse was inevitable.

The New Left, meanwhile, strove for revolution, and failed completely. In the West its high-water-mark was in the late 1960s, when it proved incapable of making revolution in France and Italy and incapable even of laying the foundations for revolution in the United States. After that failure, the New Left had to rethink itself, since revolution was clearly impossible. In Latin America, the dream had been to pursue a Trotskyite metaphor. Trotsky had argued that it was possible to leap-frog the bourgeois stage of revolution and move straight to the socialist stage — essentially legitimising his and Lenin’s revolution in Russia on the basis of a rather nebulous theory of the uneven development of different countries. Latin American revolutionaries argued that you did not need to pursue stages of revolutionary development, but simply needed to establish a guerrilla force which would by its existence encourage the revolutionary masses to rise up and destroy the oppressive regime. This was a result of the failure of Latin American populism, such as peronismo in Argentina; again and again, the populist leaders were defeated or co-opted and the leftists who had supported them found themselves chin-deep in shit, if they were lucky. (By the early 1970s they were simply being murdered, unless, like some of the left peronistas in Argentina, they were prepared to cooperate with the dictatorships.)

Against this disastrous background, in which the only leftist centre of power in the world had been rejected (and was in a state of terminal decay) and the little local centres of power had proved inadequate to accomplish anything — what to do? Logically, withdraw into a little world in which you can accomplish something, the toy world of theory and discourse. Poststructuralism provided the tools for a system in which you could pretend that a revolution could take place without exerting power at all, a revolution of individual identity, of freedom, of plenitude, of shifting signifiers and transgressive boundaries. Postmodernism, in short, which was initially a leftist movement but never had any public profile of any political significance and gradually became parasitic on its own contradictory nature.

So it is not surprising that the rise of postmodernism and the collapse of the USSR were contemporary events; although derived from different portions of the problem, they arise out of the same problem. And yet the two events were both menaces to the left, because the one stripped leftism of all significance and the other stripped leftism of all protection. How to deal with these?

Enter, stage centre, neither left nor right, Ernesto Laclau, Argentinean exile from the failed peronista left, Trotskyite, postmodern theorist, to generate a rag-bag of musings in 1990 called New Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time, and that’s the book which the Creator thinks contains the answer.