Hearts, Minds and Radical Democracy

Dave Castle continues Red Pepper's interviews with theorists whose work contributes to a renewal of the left. This month he talks to Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe whose work on social movements and class offers a controversial theorisation of insights familiar to grassroots activists.

June 1, 1998 · 13 min read

Now the Cold War has ended, people have been able to think more clearly about the contribution Marxism can still make to radical politics, and we have seen a reconsideration of Marx in forums as diverse as the Financial Times and Socialist Register. What do you think are the most politically debilitating flaws of Marxism, and what is still of use?

EL: A flaw of traditional Marxism has been to suppose that there is one dynamic which dominates social life, that of the class struggle. If you look at the history of socialism you can see that, in practice, radical political movements have only emerged through an alliance of many different struggles – nationalist, anti-imperialist, civil rights and religious alongside the workers’ struggle. We have tried to present a theory (which still draws on Marxism) of how political movements mobilise and how they can transform society without making premature assumptions as to the exact constitution and nature of the political movements. As radicals, this should widen our horizons by letting us see the full extent of possible political change.

CM: A restricted conception of oppression and struggle has limited socialist politics in the past. We came to develop our theories because we felt that traditional socialist thought failed to understand what were then called the new social movements – feminism, the anti-racist struggle, the environmental movement. It tried to absorb them into the model of class struggle rather than respecting them as inherently different forms of resistance arising from different modes of oppression. We agreed with the Marxist notion that society is riven by conflict. However, we felt that the traditional Marxist doctrine did not allow enough room for understanding all the forms that conflict can take. There are forms of antagonism which cannot be understood purely as an effect of a capitalist system. For example, as socialist feminists argued, sexism cannot be reduced to being simply a product of capitalism. The origin of sexism is not in capitalism. You are not going to solve the question of sexism by transforming or even by ending the capitalist system. The same is true for racism.

EL: Furthermore, capitalism itself was producing antagonisms other than just the oppression of the workers. For instance, there might be a mobilisation of people against a factory which is polluting the environment. This is an anti-capitalist struggle in that it is the capitalist system which produced the polluting factory. However, the workers at the factory may not be part of that struggle – they may side with the entrepreneurs against the mobilised people to protect their employment.

What consequence does this have for political strategy?

EL: The plurality of modes of oppression is counterbalanced by processes which can bring people together. Any group’s identity and struggle can be transformed by changing its relationship with other groups. Antonio Gramsci began to theorise this process. He argued that the success of the Italian Communist Party lay in building an allegiance between the labour movement and other democratic forces, such as the movement for the development of school co-operatives and the fight against the Mafia. These connections were much more than a tactical alliance. They had to involve a transformation of political consciousness so that participants in one movement saw that their demands could not be satisfied without also taking account of the demands of other groups. In the end, whoever wanted to say ‘justice’ would also say ‘communism’. This formation of a common collective will is Gramsci’s concept of hegemony.

CM: We describe the relation between different struggles in a hegemony as linked by a chain of equivalence. We use the term equivalence to recognise the specificity of each mode of oppression. An hegemony cannot be formed by one movement merely absorbing other struggles. This threat has repeatedly been posed in history. In Britain, the Labour Party has made attempts to absorb the women’s movement, but women have rightly asserted that it is not enough to be just one more demand on the Labour Party’s list. If feminism is to be linked to the Labour Party, Labour’s structure has to change, including its institutions, its language and its culture.

How do you theorise those forces which resist the emergence of a radical hegemony?

EL: We have distinguished between what we call logic of equivalence (which is used in the formation of a hegemony) and logic of difference. The discourse of Chartism in Britain was a discourse of equivalence because various demands were conceded as equivalent to each other – economic freedom, freedom of the press, republicanism – all these things were seen as part of a totality which became a kind of popular identity. The way of undermining such a hegemony is to do the opposite, to differentiate the issues. Disraeli did this through his ideology of ‘One Nation’. This worked by simultaneously absorbing and separating demands. It recognised, for instance, the demand for housing, but dealt with this by disconnecting it from republicanism and connecting it to the government. A state institution was set up to deal with housing, and individuals are made to understand that they are granted housing through the charity of Queen Victoria rather than as a democratic right connected to a whole series of other rights. In the 20th century, the policies of the welfare state further developed this process by separating demands for health care, pensions, education etc, from more radical aspirations to transform the very structure of the state and the economy.

Considering that you do not privilege the class struggle, how do you define the goal of left-wing politics?

CM: We define the left-wing project as the radicalisation of democracy. It can include any struggle against a relation of subordination – which includes those of the workplace but is not limited by them. It is also a break with Marxism in that its organising principles are the democratic ideals of equality and liberty for all, ideals that are actually within the rhetoric of the dominant groups of modern capitalist states. We had therefore abandoned the idea of a need for a radical break with the previous society – the idea of revolution. We began to understand our politics as a radicalisation of ideas and values which were already present, although unfulfilled in liberal capitalism. I think there is nothing more radical than asserting liberty and equality for all. The problem was that these ideas were not put into practice in the societies which claimed to follow them. What a left-wing project should do is to try to force those societies to really put those ideas into practice.

This conception of left-wing politics seems so open that it could include any struggle against the dominant order, not necessarily just those struggles that we might term progressive or egalitarian. What is to stop a pro-monarchist or religious fundamentalist struggle entering the chain of equivalence?

CM: There are movements which could never be placed in the radical democratic chain, because they would refuse to adjust to the demands of others – for instance the Ku Klux Klan could not be linked to black rights. However, most struggles can work for or against the radical democratic project, depending on how they have been articulated in specific circumstances. A struggle for hegemony is a struggle to transform the consciousness of individual groups in society so that they see that their interests are tied up with the interests of other groups. The demands of the middle classes, for example, could be linked to a radical democratic hegemony if you are able to present this in such a way that people will say ‘we are going to accept we have to pay more taxes because we believe it is important to have better schools, a better social security system, a better NHS’. Groups which presently are not radical need to be linked to the socialist cause to create a broad anti-capitalist movement. The wider the chains of equivalence, the more radical is the democratic project. One can imagine there being a an apparently progressive alliance in Britain where the solution to their problem might create some new form of oppression in other countries. Therefore it is always important to have an internationalist dimension – to link movements of one country with movements in others. However, there is a structural limit to a chain of equivalence. A chain of equivalence needs what we have termed a critical frontier. For a hegemony to have a radical focus it needs to establish an enemy, be it capitalism, ecological destruction, or violation of human rights. One of the things that I find more worrying about the kind of politics which is taking place today is the idea of consensus of the centre. It is impossible for a radical project to encompass all views. A consensus of the centre ensures everything will stay much the same.

How do you define democracy if not as consensus?

CM: I use the concept of agonistic pluralism to present a new way to think about democracy which is different from the traditional liberal conception of democracy as a negotiation among interests and is also different to the model which is currently being developed by people like Jurgen Habermas and John Rawls. While they have many differences, Rawls and Habermas have in common the idea that the aim of the democratic society is the creation of a consensus, and that consensus is possible if people are only able to leave aside their particular interests and think as rational beings. However, while we desire an end to conflict, if we want people to be free we must always allow for the possibility that conflict may appear and to provide an arena where differences can be confronted. The democratic process should supply that arena.

EL: Interestingly, there is a similar rationalist flaw in the foundations of Marxism. Many forms of Marxism have supposed that society can be entirely rational and reconciled around a single popular will. As has happened in practice in Communism in the East and Social Democracy in the West, the state has had to intervene to compensate for the failure of this collective will to emerge. In that case this social control becomes bureaucratic control. In its most extreme form the Soviet bureaucrats told the people that as they lived in a rational society; any dissidents can only be mentally deranged people, so they had to be sent to a psychiatric clinic.

CM: In the West today, if there are no democratic channels through which a confrontation of values and interests can take place, it is going to lead either to apathy so people won’t be involved in politics any more, or even worse, there are going to be mobilisations of those struggles which are not compatible with democracy such as apartheid, religious fundamentalism and fascism. Take France and the growth of the extreme right under Le Pen: it is precisely at the moment when the socialists have moved toward the centre and acquiesced to the arguments of the democratic right that the extreme right began to grow, because they were the only ones who were offering an alternative through which antagonism could be focused. Le Pen has been able to give a voice to the people who could not find a place within the democratic space to express their different positions. Britain could at first sight look like a counter example because there is not a strong extreme right in Britain. My interpretation is that because Labour had not been tried for 18 years, people have the illusion that something different is possible with this new government. In France and in Austria the extreme right began to grow as an alternative when everything else had been tried, and the people had become convinced that none of the mainstream parties were going to offer an alternative. If, in four years time, people feel nothing really has changed, and that Labour in power has not done anything very different from the Conservatives, then it will be interesting to see where those energies are mobilised. That will be the test for my analysis.

What do you see as the key areas of struggle to make radical democracy a hegemonic idea?

CM: The main block for left-wing European parties today is that they have no conception of an alternative economic programme. There is the belief that the economy is untouchable because of the rule of the market, globalisation, the decline of nation states etc. It is principally this which has led them to this consensus politics. The most important task for the left today is to find alternatives to neoliberalism.

EL: When the social democratic model of nationalisation and high taxation was exhausted, the right took the initiative to forge an alternative model in the form of neoliberalism which took into account the transformations which were taking place. The left has been very slow in developing an alternative discourse. That is why we have a model like that of Tony Blair which tries to incorporate the Thatcherite legacy.

CM: But you don’t have to choose between the old Keynesianism or neo- liberalism. The question of unemployment is not going to be solved by the traditional idea of full employment as some socialist parties still believe. It also cannot be solved through the American model of flexible labour markets. We need a much more drastic redistribution of work. We should look at the reduction of the working week and job sharing. We should also look at the idea of basic income – the idea that people should, by the very fact of being a citizen, be able to receive an income that can then be added to through work. It is essential that we break the link between income and work simply because there is not enough work for everybody today. This also implies a cultural transformation Ü work can no longer be the centre of our identity. But the socialist parties are very, very reluctant about this, because it brings into question their own symbolic view of the centrality of work.

EL: Neoliberalism has inherited from 19th century bourgeois economic thought the idea that there is one basic economic mechanism which can ensure social reproduction. To confront neo-liberalism we should not argue for a different type of unique mechanism at the economic level, but should assert that the effects of society cannot be produced by an abstract economic logic. We must argue that the field of production relies on a plurality of social and political forces. The factory is a very complex place in its relations of power. Transnational corporations have to operate in national terrains where contradictory forces direct the fluxes of capital from one place to the other. Once the discourse starts to be oriented in this way, neoliberalism is brought into question.

Some recent books: Hegemony and Socialist Strategy by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe (Verso); The Return of the Political by Chantal Mouffe (Verso); Emancipation(s) by Ernesto Laclau (Verso). Forthcoming: A Politics without Adversaries by Chantal Mouffe.

Join our Admin Collective!

Can you help strengthen the independent socialist media movement?

Jeremy Corbyn on stage at The World Transformed

Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow: The Labour Party After Jeremy Corbyn – Review

David Renton weighs up options for the left, in and outside of the Labour Party

Listen to local voices, not the US or China, on Taiwan

Western leftists routinely ignore local demands from Taiwan, where support for the status quo is high. Brian Hioe looks at the tensions and misunderstandings surrounding Nancy Pelosi's visit

Arming the occupation

Arms sales both by and to Israel help sustain the oppression of the Palestinian people. Sam Perlo-Freeman reports on the scale of the trade and the UK’s involvement in it

A very real culture war

Russia's deliberate targeting of Ukraine's museums follows a pattern of imperial powers looting and despoiling cultural wealth, argues Siobhan McGuirk

How Elbit was shut down

Blyth Brentnall describes how a group of activists in the UK has managed to disrupt the activities of one of Israel’s biggest arms suppliers

For a monthly dose
of our best articles
direct to your inbox...