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

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 The two texts are not analogous; one is a revolutionary tract written in Marx’s fiery youth, one a long unpublished meditation which served as the roots of Marx’s eventual doctrines as published in Capital.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.


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

  1. Jack Claxton says:

    To what extent do you believe other prominent 20th century Leftists were influenced by Adolf Hitler?

    • hismastersvoice says:

      “Other”? No sign that Laclau was influenced by Hitler. Indirectly, maybe by Mussolini, but his principal influence is Peron, most likely.

      Leftists influenced by Hitler? None. No way cool swastika armbands anywhere, and Pol Pot didn’t use gas or incinerators.

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