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

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.


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