Sunday, 22 June 2014

Laclau and the return of the people

In his book on how "streets and tweets" are intertwined in contemporary movements like the Arab Spring, the Indignados and Occupy, Paolo Gerbaudo observes that these movements are popular movements in Ernesto Laclau’s sense – popular because they appeal to the “people” (Gerbaudo 2012:10f, 41f). He points out that this is a difference compared to the global justice movement of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
The majoritarian character of contemporary movements registers a clear difference from the anti-globalisation movement. The latter was marked by a self-conscious minoritarian identity famously expressed in Zapatista Subcomandante Marcos’ statement: ‘Marcos is all the exploited, marginalised, oppressed minorities resisting and saying ‘Enough’. (Gerbaudo 2012:10f)
Examples of this popular orientation in today's movements come easily to mind: the Occupy slogan “We are the 99%” or the Egyptian uprising’s “The people wants the government to fall" or the Indignados' "We are everyday normal people". A similar turn to a majoritarian orientation took place in the post-Fukushima Japanese anti-nuclear movement, where it was common for participants in the mass-demonstrations in front of the prime minister's residence that started in 2012 to describe themselves as "people" (kokumin) or "ordinary people" (hitobito) (Kindstrand 2014). In striking contrast to this rhetoric, many of the early protests that had erupted in the wake of the Fukushima accident the year before were boisterous street partys arranged by self-consciously minoritarian activists - people who delighted in referring to themselves as "paupers" (binbônin) or "irresponsible dudes" (iikagen na yatsura) living outside mainstream society. 

What is populism?

Ernesto Laclau
What are we to make of this appeal to the "people" in recent protest? Let me turn directly to Laclau and his book On Populist Reason (2005). A central claim in this book is that populism is constitutive of the political as such. Constructing the ‘people’, he writes, is “the political act par excellence” (Laclau 2005:154).

What, then, is populism according to Laclau? He starts by distinguishing "popular" demands from individual demands concerning specific issues (which he calls “democratic” demands). He takes the example of migrants in a shantytown who turn to the authorities to demand a solution to some housing-related problem. If the demand goes unfulfilled, then "people can start to perceive that their neighbors have other, equally unsatisfied demands –problems with water, health, schooling, and so on" (ibid 73).

If the situation remains unchanged for some time, there is an accumulation of unfulfilled demands and an increasing inability of the institutional system to absorb them in a differential way (each in isolation from the others), and an equivalential relation is established between them [...]. A plurality of demands which, through their equivalential articulation, constitute a broader social subjectivity we will call popular demands – they start, at a very incipient level, to constitute the ‘people’ as a potential historical actor. (ibid. 73f)
The defining trait of populism, then, is the expansion of the equivalential chains and their symbolic unification through the signifier of the 'people'. Through the articulation of a popular identity, a plurality of demands are unified and made equivalential, and at the same time an antagonistic frontier dividing society in two camps (the 'people' vs. power) is formed.

As Laclau himself points out, this is a broad definition of populism: “many phenomena which were not traditionally considered populist come under that umbrella in our analysis” (ibid. xi). It is thus not limited to what we today often see as typical populist demands as exemplified by anti-immigration parties, climate skepticism or the anti-abortion movement. Against Zizek’s argument that populism involves a proto-fascist tendency project the causes of real problems on some imaginary enemy, e.g. the Jews or immigrants (Zizek 2006), Laclau replies that symbolization is necessary in creating hegemony and that all political discourses do it, including activists on the Left who point to Wall Street as the root of evil or who burn the American flag. It's the way movements create unity and there's nothing inherently fascist in it (Laclau 2006:653).

At the same time, this definition is also a narrow one, since it doesn't admit of single-issue populism, i.e. populism without equivalential chains. This means that what we think of as typical populist demands (anti-immigrant, anti-abortion, climate skepticism etc) are not populist in Laclau's sense as long as they remain mere individual demands that don't rely on a popular identity ('the people') to unify a plurality of equivalential chains.

Peculiarities of the 'people'

Laclau points out that the category of the 'people' is characterized by a number of peculiarities. To begin with, it is never simply the totality of a population, since it is always pitted against an opponent. It is thus a particularity, but one that claims to represent totality. The people “is a partial component which nevertheless aspires to be conceived as the only legitimate totality” (ibid. 2005:81). More specifically, it claims to be both underdog and the whole; it is “a plebs who claims to be the only legitimate populus” (ibid. 81).

Tahrir 2011
This is a good place to correct a misunderstanding which I suspect can easily arise among Laclau's readers. When he writes that populism must emanate from an “underdog” that at the same time sees itself as the “people”, isn’t this a remainder of the kind of social determinism that he detests and criticizes in Marxism? If the discursive level is autonomous, then its formations must be impossible to derive from social categories - even categories as vaguely formulated as the "underdog". Although there are certain passages in Laclau that lend themselves to such an objection - e.g. when he discusses the impossibility of determining a priori who the hegemonic actors in a struggle will be and states: “All we know is that they will be the outsiders of the system, the underdogs” (ibid. 150) - the objection doesn't really hit its target. What he means is not that a “plebs” or an “underdog” in a socially pregiven sense constitutes itself as the “people”, but rather that the “people” constituted in populism is always conceived of as a “plebs-as-people”. In principle, it can’t matter to Laclau what the real social carrier of populism is, since social groups are themselves discursive products. The failure of Kemalism - one of his examples - to articulate a populism despite its attempt to appeal to a "people", was not due to the prominent role of elite actors in it, but rather to the fact that this “people” was not constituted as a plebs-as-people.

This brings me to the second peculiarity. The 'people' never expresses an already existing collectivity, but instead brings this collectivity into being by naming it. Since the individual demands that are unified in populism may lack a common denominator, the name itself must function as their ground (ibid. 99ff). The 'people' thus only has a nominal unity, not a conceptual one. That doesn't mean that it isn't felt to be real. On the contrary, Laclau points out that it is often the object of intense emotional investment. Drawing on Lacan, he claims that it becomes the object petit a which stands in for the lost Thing and thereby enables jouissance to live on (ibid. 112f).

What Laclau describes here may be phrased as a critique of the typical sociological tendency to "sociologize politics by reducing political standpoints to social factors. Despite this, the core of his argument appears to be quite expressible in terms of Durkheim's classical theory of the symbol. According to Durkheim, the social bond is established in moments of collective effervescence that becomes invested in symbols. These symbols are thus not post-facto expressions of a collectivity but rather instrumental in bringing it about and maintaining it. Building on Durkheim, Randall Collins stresses how the symbols are always emotionally charged since they store the emotional energy generated in moments of effervescence. The difference compared to Laclau is that Collins focuses on face-to-face interaction as crucial in generating the emotional charge while Laclau tends to describe the hegemonic operation in linguistic terms, which makes it more difficult to comprehend why the emotional charge arises in the first place. Laclau relies on an abstract Lacan-inspired explanation according to which human beings simply need to elevate certain objects into 'the Thing' to retain any connection at all to the lost wholeness once experienced in infancy and thus the possibility of jouissance. Here it seems to me that Durkheim and Collins offer better insights into the concrete processes whereby symbols expressing certain collectives are established. They do this since they don't need to posit any abstract lost wholeness, but can instead point to real lived experiences of effervescence. Such experiences are not really "lost" since they are possible to repeat, and each new such experience can contribute to the establishment of new symbols and the formation of new solidarities.  Gerbaudo points to that possibility in his discussion of how the physical togetherness of activists at the occupied squares in Cairo, Madrid and New York was a crucial element in the "emotional choreography" and "effervescence" that transformed these squres into "magnetic gatherings" that were sources of identification for the social movements (Gerbaudo 2012:13, 155f).

Conflicts surrounding the constitution of the people

Laclau points out that the 'people' is necessarily vague and subject to contestation, since it lacks conceptual unity. The 'people' can never fully control what kind of demands enter into the equivalential chains and which it must embody and represent (Laclau 2005:108).

In particular there are two kinds of conflictual dynamics that can destabilize and disturb its construction. The first of these is the classical hegemonic struggle played out between two well-defined antagonists, the 'people' vs. the 'regime' or 'elite'. The frontier between these camps is not stable. It can become blurred if the regime or elite itself tries to “interrupt the equivalential chain of the popular camp by an alternative equivalential chain, in which some of the popular demands are articulated to entirely different links” (ibid. 131). Laclau's favorite example is the success of Thatcherism in recruiting worker support. Another good example might be the "new spirit of capitalism", discussed by Boltanski & Chiapello (2005), in which an "aesthetic critique" centered on demands for self-realization and individual freedom is appropriated from radical left of 1968 and used to legitimize post-Fordist capitalism itself. 

A second potential conflict relates to other grassroots demands. Which demands can be included in the equivalential chains making up the 'people' and which are excluded? What if demands that are part of the chain clash with new demands trying to incorporate themselves into it (ibid. 139)? Laclau discusses this in relation to the exclusion of the Lumpenproletariat from the Labor movement. The relation of the Labor movement to this excluded other is not one of mere difference (representable within the symbolic field) but a heterogeneity (symbolically unmasterable other, the Real). In the struggle between Labor and Capital, the demands that fail to be incorporated into the populist chain established by the Labor movement are thus elements that threaten to disturb the struggle. When they intrude into the struggle, the Labor movement is “interrupted by a heterogeneous ‘Real’ which it cannot symbolically master”. The reaction of the main antagonists in this struggle is like “the reaction of two chess players to somebody who kicks the board” (ibid. 141).

Critical comments

Here I think of course of the problems of the majoritarian turn in Indignados and Occupy and the kokumin rhetoric in the anti-nuclear power movement in Japan. At least on a rhetorical level, the shift to a self-representation as the 'people' tends to exclude 'less respectable' minoritarian identities from public visibility. Laclau never really explains how populist movements should deal with heterogeneity and the problem of exclusiveness. Instead he goes on to argue that all hegemonic actors are constructed out of a heterogeneous material and that the Lumpenproletariat is therefore in a sense the denied foundation or ground of the labor movement (ibid. 150). By analogy, his claim in regard to recent protests would likely be that these movements too are constituted out of a heterogeneity which it then, in a second step, denies and partially excludes by setting up the name of the 'people' as a symbolic unity.


The people?
The problem of what becomes of minoritarians - those who refuse to identify with the 'people' or who are denied recognition as part of the 'people' - in populist movements is related to the difference between Laclau and Jacques Rancière. Despite the affinity that Laclau claims exists between them, his position in regard to heterogeneity is remarkably different from Rancière's. For Laclau the emergence of 'the political' always follows a populist logic - it demands the establishment of a symbolic unity that unavoidably leaves out or excludes certain demands. To Rancière, by contrast, the political is the eruption into public visibility of 'the uncounted part', of those who have no recognized place in the discursive field. It takes the form of a visibilization of heterogeneity and its effect is to challenge and upset established discursive formations.

While the populist movements described by Laclau may very well start off in this way, many of them soon gain recognition as actors in the discursive field, especially as they grow more successful and able to effectively hegemonize existing social struggles by taking up a variety of demands and thus establish an antagonism dividing society in two camps. To use his own simile, the populist movement and its opponent become like two chess players, whose respective identities contribute to the stability of the overall preconditions of the game rather than upsetting it. In contrast to such an established antagonism, the eruption of the political in Rancière's sense would be very much like the person "kicking the chess board" or the "interruption by a heterogenous 'Real'" mentioned by Laclau as forces that potentially threaten the hegemonic formations of populism.

Laclau is curiously blind to the differences separating him from Rancière. This may have something to do with his desire to portray populism as a radical break with existing institutions. This desire can be seen when he writes that not all political projects are equally populistic since that depends on the extension of the equivalential chain unifying social demands: “In more institutionalist types of discourse... that chain is reduced to a minimum; while its extension will be maximal in rupturist discourses which tend to divide the social into two camps” (ibid. 154). Here he is claiming that the more a political project is governed by a populist logic, the more it will reject existing institutions. But such a claim seems unfounded. Populism isn't necessarily radical. Examples of the extension and unification of equivalential chains in the name of the people abound in institutionalized politics. That, after all, is how most mainstream political parties in modern liberal democracies work. Conversely, radical anti-institutional protest can occur in movements that don't rely on any notion of the 'people' at all, such as self-consciously minoritarian movements of the kind Gerbaudo associates with the Global Justice Movement, ecological movements, and many single-issue movements. 

This returns me to the question of who is included and who is excluded in the new popular movements. What becomes of the minoritarian activists when the movements they helped start up or pave the way for become majoritarian movements by a self-defined mainstream 'people'? In addition to being rhetorically excluded through the establishment of the new majoritarian popular identity, they also seem to be theoretically excluded by Laclau himself. While Laclau criticizes Marx and Engels for depriving the Lumpenproletariat of a historical role - for reducing it theoretically to a role similar to Hegel's "peoples without history" -  doesn't he in fact repeat their gesture, basically claiming that no matter how much minoritarian activists try to challenge power, they fail to enter the proper domain of 'the political' as long as they don't submit to the populist logic?

Before ending, I should add that what I see as the real value of Laclau's book is his theoretization of populism as a way in which the political is constituted as an at least seemingly autonomous realm, independent of social forces in an almost quasi-transcendental way. This is most clearly stated in his discussion of how the 'people' comes into being through the force of naming, as an entity arising from a plurality of individual demands which it at the same time transcends and exceeds. The 'people' is always more than the merely individual demands it articulates, and yet, paradoxically, it would be nothing without them. It is an empty signifier, yet at the same time it stands for a reality which it itself calls into being. Laclau's theoretization of the 'people' quite clearly parallels Kantorowicz’ idea of the king’s two bodies, and might even be modelled on it (Laclau himself refers briefly to it on page 171). Just as the 'people' is always a particularity embodying the whole, the king is a particularity - a single mortal human body - embodying the 'immortal' whole of the state. In both cases an magical transsubstantiation takes place, as a normal, ordinary object is 'elevated into the Thing'. The result of this transsubstantiation is the production of the 'people' in the one case and of 'sovereignty' in the other. Just as the 'people', sovereignty is constituted as seemingly independent of social forces, an autonomous entity that can only be named but never reduced to any conceptual content (One aspect of this is that it always transcends the attempts to pin it down through the law or the constitution, as Schmitt pointed out). 

Unlike Laclau, however, I am not prepared to grant this semblance of autonomy the status of something that simply needs to be accepted for politics to be possible. Next to Kantorowitz' theory of the two bodies, Marx' discussion of commodity fetishism is probably the best known theoretization of the process whereby a product of social forces is reconstituted as a object enjoying a seeming autonomy from those forces. In referring to the autonomy of the political or of sovereignty as a semblance, I want to stress that it can also be made into an object of ideology criticism. This is a mode of analysis which Laclau explicitly rejects, since he believes that it must depend on a notion of a true representation of reality that can be used to criticize false consciousness (see his criticism of Zizek in Laclau 2006). But is that necessarily so? Ideology criticism can be carried out by juxtaposing the object to what it excludes or denies but which is nevertheless visible or at least detectable as that upon which the object depends. Sovereignty can be criticized by showing that its claims are a sham in moments of revolution that demonstrate, for all to see, that not only "he" who decides on the exception is sovereign, but also the movements that bring about "his" fall. Populism can be criticized by confronting it with the demands that it fails to include. Doing so is not at all to undermine the 'political'. It too is a form of politics.

”Listen to the voice of people. Return Fukushima"


Boltanski, Luc & Chiapello, Eve (2005) The New Spirit of Capitalism, London: Verso.

Gerbaudo, Paolo (2012) Tweets and the Streets: Social Media and Contemporary Activism, London: Pluto Press.
Kindstrand, Love (2014) “Crowds and Multitudes in the Disastrous Present: Populist Imaginations in Japan’s Antinuclear Movement”, forthcoming in Japan Focus.
Laclau, Ernesto (2005) On Populist Reason, London: Verso.

Laclau, Ernesto (2006) “Why Constructing a People Is the Main Task of Radical Politics”, Critical Inquiry 32(4):646-680.

Zizek, Slavoj (2006) “Against the Populist Temptation”, Critical Inquiry 32: 551-574.
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