HEGEMONY AND SOCIALISM:
An Interview with Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau
In the early to middle eighties, Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau co-authored a book called, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics [London and New York: Verso, 1985], which has been translated into many languages and become influential in the theory of new social movements and their influence on contemporary societies.
Chantal, what were your formative political experiences, and how did you first come to start to think about social and political theory?
Mouffe: Well, my formative political experiences were as a student in the 1960's, and it was very much the time of the imperialist struggle. I studied both in the University of Fluvain and in Paris; it was the time of the Algerian War in Paris. It was the time of the Cuban Revolution; it was the time of imperialist struggle. That's what really was important for me and I was very involved in that. And in fact, that's the reason why, at the end of the sixties, I went to Colombia, in Latin America, because all my generation, we went away to the so-called Third World - some people went to Algeria, some people took Africa, and I went to Latin America. Intellectually, I should say, that the main influence at that time was that I was a student of Althusser. And that, obviously, there was a very important link between my political commitment and my intellectual interest at that moment.
Was feminism important for you at that time? I know that later, you've written quite widely on feminist theory.
Mouffe: Well, feminism did not exist, really, at that time, because feminism, as you know, was something that was a consequence of the student movement at the end of the sixties. But, in the beginning of the sixties, in fact, there was no feminist movement. Obviously, I know that there was a very important feminist movement at the beginning of the century. But I became a feminist later. I first went through socialism, Marxism, and at the beginning of the seventies, that's when I began to know about feminism because that's the moment when feminism began to be organized, really.
Ernesto, what were your first political experiences?
Laclau: Well, my first political experiences were in Argentina. In fact, I only went to Europe in 1969. So, my first approach to Marxism, to socialism, took place both in the student movements and in the political struggles of the 1960's in Argentina. At that moment, these were the years immediately after the Cuban Revolution, when there was a radicalization of the student movement all over Latin America, and I was very active in it. I was a student representative to the Central Council of the University of Buenos Aires, president of the Center of the Student Union of Philosophy. And later on, I joined various left-wing movements in Argentina. Especially, I was part of the leadership of the Socialist Party of the National Left which was very active in Argentina in the 1960's. In terms of intellectual influences, I must say that I was never a dogmatic Marxist. I always tried to, even in those early days, to mix Marxism with something else. And a major influence at some point became Gramsci and Althusser, who, each of them in a different way, tried to recast Marxism in terms which approached more, the central issues of
One of the themes of your early work that's been quite influential, perhaps, primarily in Latin America, but also more widely, is your analysis of populism. How does that entail a revision of Marxist theory of the time?
Laclau: Well, let me say in the first place, that my interest in populism arose out of the experience of the Peronist movement in Argentina. The 1960's have been a period in Argentina of rapid radicalization and disintegration of the state apparatuses controlled by an oligarchy which had run the country since 1955. Now, it was perfectly clear, in that context, that when more and more popular demands coalesce around certain political poles, that this process of mass mobilization and mass ideological formation could not be conceived simply in class terms. So, the question of what we call the popular democratic, or national popular interpolation, became central in my preoccupation. Now, in terms of what you were asking me, about in what way this put into question some of the categories of Marxism, I would say that it did so in the sense that popular identities were never conceived as being organized around a class core, but on the contrary, were widely open. They could move in different ideological directions, and they could give a place to movements whose ideological characteristics were not determined from the beginning. So, it put into question in that sense, some of the tenets of classical Marxism.
So, both of you have actually mentioned the influence of Louis Althusser, the French Structuralist-Marxist, and Antonio Gramsci, the founder of the thinking about hegemony in contemporary society as a reformation of common sense. These are really quite distinct influences, at least it seems to me that they are quite distinct currents of Marxist theory. And they seem to imply a very different attitude towards liberal democracy. Would you agree that an Althusserian position tends to regard liberal democracy in not a very positive light, whereas a Gramscian line of thought would, perhaps, see Marxism or socialism as more in continuity, or as an extension of liberal democracy? How did you work with these two influences?
Mouffe: Well, I must say, that the influences were not, for me at least, at the same time. I became a Gramscian when I ceased to be an Althusserian. And, in fact, Gramsci was for me, away to find a different approach, because I became very dissatisfied with the Althusserian kind of dogmatism which, I say of people that had been influenced by Althusser at that time, were putting into practice. And I must say, that the most important influence there was when I was in Colombia. I began to realize there, that all those categories that I had learned from Althusser, did not really quite fit with the Colombian situation. And there I began to look for something different. That's where I re-encountered Gramsci, because I had encountered Gramsci before, but it was a moment when I was not ready to accept it, because I was too much an Althusserian. So, it is something I agree with you, that make me change very much my outlook, with respect to liberal democracy. And that was also important in the context of the new conjuncture that was - we were meeting in the 1970's. Because you were asking before about the question of feminism. I say feminism is something that I encountered when I came back from Colombia, in Europe at the beginning of the seventies, and then I found that the panorama had changed very much and there were all those important new social movements. And that, of course, was something which by then I was already interested in Gramsci, and I was able to begin to understand and look at that in a very different way. And that's when we began, well I began, at that time, to work about the question of the conception of hegemony in Gramsci. And my first work that you mentioned was concerned with trying to show that we find in Gramsci a form of Marxism that was non-reductionist and that will give us theoretical tools to understand precisely the novelty of those movements which were beginning to develop in the seventies. But I think that at that moment, I already was very dissatisfied with the Althusserian model.
Ernesto, you mentioned before that you were very early dissatisfied with the emphasis on class in Marxist theory. Does that dissatisfaction for you, connect to the appropriation of Gramsci in your own work, and the category, particularly, of common sense in Gramsci? There's an attempt in Gramsci to not to dismiss the ordinary understandings of people in an everyday sense.
Laclau: Yes. Definitely with Gramsci. And let me also say something, in this connection about Althusser. Because in fact, I think, there are two sides in Althusser who work. On the one hand, there is the notion of over-determination, which is very central in his book for Marx, which in fact allows, to a certain extent, one to break with classical reductionism because the class contradiction is an ultimate contradiction which never arrives. So, this idea of an over-determined contradiction was something which allows us, very much, to start moving in a non-reductionist direction. But, Althusser later on closed his system, starting with reading Capital into a much more structuralist framework and some of the base intuitions of his initial work, I think, were lost. But, this is precisely what we found in Gramsci, because, through the category of hegemony - not only common sense - we could see that the process of political re-aggregation is conceived as the process of linking around a certain core, which for Gramsci, still remains a class core, but should not be necessarily so, a plurality of element we do not have any kind of straight class connotation. 'Teguro Position' is conceived by him as a type of antagonistic struggle in which different forces try to articulate into their project a set of social elements whose class belonging is not determined from the beginning. This meant, on the one hand, a privileging of the political moment over the moment of structural determinism, which is something which helped to move away from the reductionism of classical Marxism. And, on the other hand, permitted to arrive to a theory of common sense as something which is constantly shaped and reshaped by the operation of these forces whose class belonging is not determined from the beginning.
So there was an emphasis on the political moment, which started to come together with the influence of Gramsci. And in the early 1980's, I suppose, you started to write Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, which, I believe, appeared for the first time in 1985. How would you look back, from the standpoint you have today, on this project of writing Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, what you wanted to achieve, and what you think you have achieved with it?
Mouffe: Well, it was a moment when, I don't know if you remember, there was a lot a talk about the crisis of Marxism. Of course, there has been a lot of talk about that since the beginning of the century really, but it was a particularly important moment, precisely because of the development of the new social movement, there was a feeling on the left, that there was a problem with Marxist theory. Marxist theory was not able to allow us to understand those movements. Also, it was politically, a moment when the critique of the Soviet model, and what was called totalitarianism began to emerge. So there was a very specific conjuncture, I will say, in which people felt that there was a need to reformulate the project of the left. That it was not only Marxism, but the project of the left, which was in crisis. It is in very much in that context that we began to think about this new project of the left, how it could be reformulated. We can take from Marxism, what was still valid and, in fact, we felt very much that a Gramscian approach to Marxism needed to be saved because there was a tendency to reject all of Marxism because of this dissatisfaction. So we wanted to take what was important in Gramsci and try to see how we could, on that basis, reformulate the left-wing project. I think there was two sides to that. There was, certainly, a theoretical aspect, which was concerning with the critique of economism, the critique of essentialism because, we felt that, obviously, the main impediment in Marxism was it was an economistic or, mainly an economistic view. And in fact, the interest in Gramsci that we found, was that Gramsci was allowing us to elaborate a non-economistic Marxism. And in fact, much of my first work on Gramsci was concerned with that. And there was also the other, more political aspect, which was to offer a left wing project, not only the theory, but to reformulate the left-wing project that would allow to articulate, to link together, the struggle of the working class with the struggle of the new social movement. And that, of course, is the part of the book which is concerned with radical and plural democracy, because there are the two aspects in the book, which is both reformulation, in terms of theory, and also reformulation in terms of the political project.
The shift from a more classical Marxist theory, perhaps we can call it, towards a Gramscian influence then, allowed you to develop a theory of the new social movements that would be both in continuity with Marxism but also involved a critique of Marxism. One of the things that came to be a central idea in this critique, is the concept of identity. I wonder if you could explain the importance that the concept of identity had in the theory of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy?
Laclau: Yes. Concerning the question of the new social movement, I would question the assertion that we were simply moving from class analysis to new social movements. Because that would have been simply to change the privileged agent of history, which was conceived originally, in class terms, from one group to another group. So, what we did, and this is central for your point concerning identity, is to put into question the notion of an identifiable agency. That is to say, what we conceived is that the subject is constructed through a plurality of subject position, that there is an essential unevenness between this position and, that there are constant practices of re-articulation. So, the social movements were simply a symptom; a symptom of a dispersion of the position from which politics started and a transition to a situation in which a variety of issues were organized around relatively homogenous social agencies, to a moment in which there was some kind of dispersion of identities and the process of political articulation became more and more important. For instance, the social movements of which people spoke so much about in the 1980's have become comparatively less important in the 1990's. But this does not change the validity of our approach, because our approach was not concerned with finding a new privileged agent of historical change. It was concerned with how to conceive politics when you start from fragmented social identities. Now, in this is connected with the question of identity. Political identities, for us, are never immediately given. Political identities are always constructed on the basis of complex discursive practices. That is a reason why the psychoanalytic category of identification is central for us. Let's suppose if you have something like there was in America some years ago, the Rainbow Coalition of Jesse Jackson, there you see an attempt to put together a dispersion of social positions, an issue politics, around some kind of unified historical-political intervention. It didn't work. But, it gives some picture of what we have, into account. So, to summarize the point, I think what we are dealing with is a retreat from agency as a homogeneous identity to conceive agency as a result of a pragmatic articulation of a plurality of issue politics and political intervention, and as a result of this required political identification, which profoundly changed the notion of agency and identity.
So while identity appears as a kind of a solution, perhaps initially, it's actually a name for a whole series of problems.
Laclau: I think so. No simple notion of identity can be accepted today in any, more or less, sophisticated analysis of contemporary politics.
Well, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy attempted to deconstruct the received political categories, on the one hand, of Marxism, but also of liberal democratic thought, and to allow a reinterpretation of these categories in a way that could allow you to comprehend contemporary politics somewhat better, and also to understand the different kinds of interventions that seem to be going on through the 1980's and also the 1990's. I notice that one way in which this reconceptualization takes place, is that you tend to speak of what you call 'political space.' And I wonder, it seems to me that the traditional political category would be the public sphere, or something like that - 'the public.' Do you see your concept of political space as a reformulation of the traditional concept of the public sphere?
Mouffe: Well, I should point out that, at the moment when we began to develop that, we were not thinking, so much, in terms of the relation with the liberal view. When we are speaking of the need to multiply the political space, I think it is very much linked to what is the central approach in hegemony, to which Ernesto has already referred, the need to understand that there are different sides of antagonism; that one cannot just think that class antagonism is the only one. In fact, the older struggle, around the new social movement, indicate that there are many other forms of domination or forms of oppression and that those need to be put into a question too, and because they are also a sight in which specific forms of identities are constructed in subordination. And in fact, the way in which we were imagining this project of radical and plural democracy, which was to extend the democratic struggle to all those areas in which the relation of domination existed, was why, by multiplying what we call the political space, and thinking that it was not, for instance, strictly limited to either the traditional public sphere or, as Marxists will have it, around the question of class, but that there was, in fact, a multiplicity of locus of power in society that needed to be put into question. And I must say that, at least as far as I am concerned, it’s only later on that I began to think about what the liberals were saying about that and try to see what was the relation between our view and the one of the liberal. And I began, probably at that time, to valorize more this liberal 'art of separation' - the distinction between the public and the private - because, I think probably there, the most important aspect has been the way in which, at least in France, the critique of totalitarianism, by people on the left, has showed that it was very important to maintain this distinction between the public and the private, because any attempt to blur the distinction was, in fact, opening the way to some kind of complete control of society by, for instance, the state, and the liberal tradition provided us with a possibility to, at least, establish barriers in order to impede that. Of course, once I say that, the question is, what are the limitations of this liberal conception? I think that the limitations, for instance, has been very well put to the fore by the feminist critique. I think that the feminist critique has shown that the way the public/private distinction was created by the liberals had been by relegating sayers of issues to the sphere of the private, and impeding, precisely by that move, that many forms of domination would be put into question. So, then, of course, one can see why the idea of a multiplicity of political space is important to correct this liberal way in which the public/private have been constructed. So, I think that probably, we'll need to insist that, contrary to some feminism who believes that because it has been constructed in that way, by relegating for instance, all the questions which have got to do with women subordination, to the private, this distinction need to be abandoned. I don't think so. I think that it is a very important distinction, but it needs to be redrawn. It needs to be problematized, in the sense that we need to think of a multiplicity of public sphere or political space, and a multiplicity that will allow precisely not to have all particularities kept in the private, and then the creation of some kind of public sphere in which consensus or a more rational agent or more homogeneous agent could be created.
So, you see contemporary politics as involving a multiplicity of struggles and a multiplicity of political identities. On the other hand, the traditional concept of the citizen has tended to be a rather unified, or unifying conception. So, what rethinking of the concept of the citizen and citizenship is implied in this new conception of politics?
Mouffe: Well, I will say two things with respect to the concept of the citizen. First, the way in which I began to think about that, because once we had finished writing Hegemony and Socialist Strategy and we had put into question the idea of the class subject as the unifying subject. Nevertheless, we began to insist on the fact that this critique of the class did not mean that we were going to ask some kind of extreme postmodern diversified position in which we were putting into question any need for some kind of common identity. And of course, I will say the very project of hegemony, the project of articulation, implied that there was some kind of collective subject that was needed or collective form of identity that was needed. And then I began to wonder, where could we find this? I became interested in examining how the concept of the citizen could be reformulated in a way in which it could provide this common identity. And part of my work, in fact, has been concerned with that. For instance, what I've tried to do is propose the idea of what I call a 'radical democratic conception' of citizenship. Because the point I think I want to emphasize here is that there are many problems with liberalism. One, obviously, is the fact that it's not a citizen which is going to act to participate; it’s very much a citizen which has got rights which it's going to use against the state. So, there is something there basically lacking. But from the point of view that we are discussing here, probably the main problem is that the citizen is seen as being abstracted from all its other determinations, and then it’s the way we act in the public but without taking account at all of our other insertion. And also, the idea that once we act as 'citizen', we should act all in the same way. And I think that this is the main problem. I think that we should accept that the category of citizenship is a very disputed one and there are many different ways in which the relationship is going to be conceived: there is a neo-liberal, a neo-conservative, a social democratic way. And I was proposing to think, also, about the possibility of a radical democratic citizenship, which means that, if it is a relationship in which we are going to try to articulate in a common identity this multiplicity of political space, and, for instance, when we are acting as a radical democratic citizen, we will automatically be concerned about the struggle of feminism, the struggle against racism, and so on, not just a citizen which is not concerned about all the other struggles.
Yes. Through the conception of hegemony then, you try to rethink the political as a realm of antagonism, a realm of a plurality of struggles. And this seems to imply, on a more philosophical level, a rethinking of the relationship between particularity and universality, which, Ernesto, the recent essays you've been writing, a lot of them have focused on this problem. How do you suggest that a new conception or a new relationship between particularity and human universality might be involved with a conception of the public?
Laclau: Ok. Two things. Firstly, I think the notion of universality is linked, basically, to the expansion of logic of equality within society, through the logic of equivalence - what we have called logic of equivalence - which presupposes the extension of the principle of equality to a larger variety of social relations that the certain relative, pragmatic universality is created in society. For instance, the notion of human equality started with Christianity in religious discourses: all men are equal before God. The achievement of the Enlightenment was the extension of this logic of equivalence of equality, to the public sphere. And there is where the public space of citizenship was created. Now, I see, since that point, the art of the democratic revolution as the progressive extension of the principle of equality to a larger area. For instance, in socialist discourses in the 19 century, this pure equality in the public space of citizenship is extended to economic relations, and we can see the social movements of our present age as the extension of this principle to the areas of racial relations, sexual relations, institutional relations, and so on. So, I see in the first movement, this hegemonic process of extension of the logic of equality as the very condition for creating new forms of universality. Now, in the second movement, I would say that this always depends on the extension of democratic power in society. I think this is not simply the recognition of something which was always there, but is a process of actual creation. If we are breaking with the essentialist conception of the subject, we are not saying that the social movements are discovering an idea &SHY; an inequality - which was always there, they are actually creating the terrain of that equality, and the equality as such. In this sense, I think that we have to break with purely representational theories of human equality and we have to insist much more in this performative dimension, which is the very condition of equality.
So, the history of human universality is a logic of extension, or the moving of the idea of to whom this universality applies, to larger and larger spheres. But each time it expands, this is a creative movement, it’s not something that is given beforehand.
Laclau: That's it. Even more. I would say that this creation starts from an increasing plurality. Let's compare the notion of equality that you can find in Marxism with the one we can find in radical democracy. In Marxism, human equality had as a precondition the obliteration of all differences. That is to say, the historical process of capitalism was leading towards the proletarization of the middle classes and the peasantry, so that there was an increasing unification in the sense of homogenization of the vast mass of the exploited that would carry out, finally, the social revolution. So, the precondition of human equality for Marxism was the increasing simplification of social structure under capitalism. In the sense that we are advocating, what happens is the opposite. That is to say, equalization starts from an increasing diversity, recognition of plurality, difference, and so on and so forth. But in that case, the logic of equality cannot be a logic of homogenization. It has to be a logic of what we call 'equivalence,' because in a relation of equivalence, you are not simply discovering identity, you are discovering something which is identical within the realm of differences. This alludes to a much more subtle form of political logic.
So, there's a rethinking of the relationship between the particular and the universal, and we've really placed the emphasis on the expansion of the notion of universality. Is there an implication for the other side of this relationship, for how we conceive of the particular, which was probably traditionally conceived of simply that which was left out, and perhaps personal, or idiosyncratic? Do you conceive of the particular in a different way also?
Laclau: Well, let me differentiate in the first place, the particular from the private, because you can have many identities which are particular and they are very public in their type of intervention. For instance, many movements created around ethnicity are extremely particularistic, but on the other hand, they are definitely not private. What I would say, and this is something which I think Chantal can develop some of the dimensions - she has worked on that more than I did - is the following. We have, as against universalism today, an ideology of extreme particularism. Now, I think extreme particularism is something which is self defeating because let's suppose, you have a particularity within society - an ethnic group, a national minority, a sexual minority, et cetera, et cetera - that is defending its right within global society. If they say, for instance, the right of nation to self determination, what are they doing but enunciating a universal principle? The very discourse of rights on which the defense of particularity is based, presupposes some kind of universal difference. Now, when you say the right of national minorities to self determination, there you are presenting a principle in which the logic of equivalence is operating, because you have the particularities of all these demands, and on the other hand, you have a right which has to be formulated in universal terms. Now, how this universality can be conceived, which is no longer the universality of an instance, of an underlying ground, as in classical philosophy, is one of the main problems of contemporary political theory.
So, Ernesto has suggested, Chantal, that you regard the particularisms that have traditionally been left out of the public as potentially capable of influencing the public in the contemporary sphere, or as involving some kind of new relationship between the public right and a particular position. How have you worked on this problem recently?
Mouffe: Well, the question, I will pose it in a slightly different way. Because, it is true that I have been interested in this, what I call this new articulation between the universal and the particular, but it has come in the context of my reflection about citizenship. My reflection about how can we think of a form of commonality that does not erase differences. But I feel today, we are faced with a false dilemma. On one side, there are those who, because they realize that something is basically wrong and missing in the liberal conception – which is the idea of a common bond and, of course, that's a reflection of the communitarians - one to reintroduce this commonality, but they introduce it in a way which tends to not leave space for differences for particularities. On the other side, there are those who, because they want to make room for differences for particularity, believe they cannot accept any form of commonality because any form of commonality is, in fact, a different form of violence. I think that what we should really try to find is a way of conceiving commonality that leaves space for differences and for particularities. Because that's the way in which we could, today, take account and reformulate, in a way which is compatible with the radical democratic project, what I take to be the most important contribution of liberalism to modern democracy, which is the idea of pluralism. But of course, the problem is that the liberals insist on pluralism, but they are very bad about thinking about community. The communitarians are good about thinking about community, but they are bad at thinking about pluralism. In a sense, my position will be to try to take the best of the communitarians and the liberals and try to imagine a way in which we can have a form of commonality that does not erase differences. That's very much what the idea of radical and plural citizenship is concerned, because, of course, the idea of citizenship basically implies commonality - we are in it together as members of a political community. But, of course, we are in it together, but we are different. You know, and this togetherness cannot be just limited to what we have in common. There must be a way in which our particularities also are going to be taken into account in that common bond. But I think it's really not an easy thing to imagine. I'm not certainly able to give you the solution already, but that's the way in which we need to be thinking about those questions. And I think that's very important, in fact, for the problems that are posed today in contemporary societies - the whole question of multi-culturalism or political identity, and all that - that are the question that they really pose.
Laclau: If I can add something to that. Also, we have to be very sensitive to the way in which the emphasis on universality and on particularity is present in different political cultures. For instance, in America today, many democratic struggles have taken the form of a struggle against the cannon, in the characteristic of multiculturalist struggle, in which the emphasis on particularism has been very much at the forefront. If we move to a country like South Africa, which I have visited recently, you find there a completely different type of discourse, because discourses of ethnicity are immediately suspicious. For instance, are the discourses of Quazulu, the Brutalesi discourse and so. And the official ideology of Apartheid was the notion of separate development and respect for cultural identities, while the demand of the resistance movement was a demand for equalization of conditions, and the idea of non-racialism took a Universalist dimension which was much more present. So, I would take universalism and particularism as the two extremes in a relation of tension which allows many different political projects to take place within it.
That's a very good point. One of the things I've noticed is that quite often with foreign visitors coming to Canada and talking about multiculturalism, there is a tendency to assume that any talk about ethnicity necessarily leads in the direction of ethnic particularism, or ethnic cleansing, something of that sort. Of course it depends very much on the way in which these things have come together in a particular history. This reworking of the relationship between the particular and the universal can take many different forms. You've mentioned Chantal, in your working through these problems, with regards to a critical appropriation of the liberal tradition, you've tried to avoid the liberal individualism on the one side, and liberal communitarianism on the other side, and are in the process of developing a theory of your own which you call radical democracy. What does the term 'radical' mean when applied to democracy in this way? What is it, particularly, about this theory that distinguishes it from liberalism of the normal variety?
Mouffe: Well, you probably need to reach a distinction between radical democracy and what I call agonistic pluralism. Because, in fact, the project of radical democracy is a political project. In that sense, the term 'radical' means the radicalization of the democratic revolution by its extension to more and more areas of social life. Because I stand from the point of view that, in fact, if we take the ethical political principal of modern democracy, which for me is pluralist democracy, liberal democracy, and that those principals are the assertion of liberty and equality for all, I don't think there is anything wrong with those principles. I can't imagine how we could find more radical principles than that. I feel that the problem with those principles is not their nature, but the fact that they are not implemented, or they are very little implemented in societies that claim to put those ideas into practice. So, in fact, the project of radical democracy consists of taking those ideals and radicalizing them by giving a more radical interpretation of liberty, of democracy, of equality, and of the whole. Because, I think that much of the struggle which is taking place in politics, in liberal democratic society, is concerned with what I call the interpretation of those principles. Because, of course, liberty, equality, and the whole, can be interpreted in many different ways. And by the way, I think that the struggle that I envisaged around different forms of citizenship, I was mentioning before a neo-liberal one, a neo-conservative, a social democratic, is about different interpretations of those principles. And I take it that a really vibrant democratic society needs to have this debate and confrontation about those interpretations. And that's where the conception of agonistic pluralism comes in to its full development. Because what I am trying to oppose to the liberal conception is a model of agonistic pluralism. It's not opposing radical democracy to liberalism, because in fact, radical democracy we could also have called "radical liberal democracy." In fact, the idea of radical and plural democracy does not imply to take into question the constitutional principal of liberal democracy, but radicalizing them by applying them, really, and to more and more areas. But there is also a more theoretical problem and that's where, I think, that the liberal conception of politics has also been very defective. Because liberals understand politics mainly, either under the model of economics, or under the model of ethics. That is, when I speak in terms of economics - and that's the dominant model of interest group pluralism, for instance - they conceive the political terrain as if it was a market, a political market, in which there are people with their different interests and which compete and we are going to make, you know, kind of deals. But basically it's in terms of economics. Recently, there have been a series of liberals, like John Rawls and all the so-called ontological liberals, who have become very dissatisfied with this model, which is, obviously, very instrumentalist view of politics. And they have proposed to develop what is now called a model of deliberative democracy, which, basically, tried to reintroduce morality into it. So it's not only about a question of interest. There are things which are more important to that.
Chantal, you've described your critique of liberalism as leading towards a theory of agonistic pluralism. How would you explain that?
Mouffe: What I have in mind here is a critique of the way in which politics is conceived in liberalism, either, as I was just saying, in terms of economy, or in terms of ethics. But in both cases, the dimension of what I call "the political", that is, a dimension of antagonism, is erased from liberalism. In fact, I will say that there is no theory of politics in liberalism, and that even the recent, so-called political liberalism, there really is nothing political about that because it's an attempt to apply, to introduce, morality in the sphere of the public, but the dimension of conflict and antagonism is, in fact, erased. So, against that, what I am proposing is to see the struggle which should take place inside a moral democratic society in terms of what I call agonistic pluralism. A pluralism that is not like, in the case of Rawls or Habermas, relegated to the sphere of the private in order for a rational political consensus to be possible in the sphere of the public, but recognizing that it is very important for people to have a possibility to identify in the public sphere with really different positions. One of the problems, which has happened recently in Europe, but I suppose to some extent here in North America too, is that with the blurring of the left-right distinction, there has been some kind of consensus model in which there is not really much difference between the right wing democratic parties and the socialist parties. So, there is no real agonism, there is no possibility for people to identify with other positions – there is no real alternative which is offered to them. And that, I think, has lead to some kind of lack of interest in politics, or passivity, which is not good for vibrant democratic life. And I think that it's important to realize that it's not by proposing a model of deliberative democracy and say that people should sit together and discuss and try to understand an argument that we are going to put back a real participatory level in politics. I think that in order to have a vibrant democratic life, we need to have a real struggle against different positions. And that's what I call agonistic pluralism. And of course, radical democracy will be one of the forms in which the struggle could take place, because this agonistic pluralism, I see as taking place between different conceptions of citizenship. The radical democratic project is just one way which strives to become hegemonic in this agonistic pluralism. But the difference at that level is not so much in terms of different political projects, how far we are going to extend the principal of liberty and equality, but the way in which politics is conceived in a liberal democratic society and the place that antagonism occupies in that theoretical project.
This concept of antagonism that you've introduced here in the context of radical democracy is a key concept, both in the work that you've written together and in the recent work of both of you. How would you explain the concept of antagonism?
Laclau: Well, I would say that antagonism had been considered by classical sociological theory as something to be explained within the social, within society. The way we conceive antagonism is that antagonism is the limit of social objectivity. What I mean by this, for instance, there is an antagonism between two social forces, we can find that these none of these two forces have a discourse which is commensurable with the other. Now, there are two ways of reacting, vis-à-vis, and this antagonism. Either to say, well, the antagonism is a mere appearance of some kind of objective underlying process which can be explained in its own terms. Or, we can say antagonism goes down to the bottom: any kind of social objectivity is reached simply by limiting antagonism. Now, what we have to do in our work is to give to antagonism this fundamental constitutive role in establishing the limits of the social, while most sociological theories, on the contrary, present antagonism as something which has to be explained in terms of something different. To give you an example, classical Marxism said, well, history is a history of struggle. In antagonistic societies you have suffering, social process for the social agents is conceived of as irrational. But, if we see history from the privileged point of the end of history, the rationality of all these processes is shown. For instance, we see that passing through the hell of all the antagonistic societies was necessary in order to reach a higher form, which is communism. In this case, the moment of distress, opposition, and so on, is reduced to a mere superstructure the way people live this. For example, Hegel used to say, "Universal history is not the terrain of happiness." Now, on the contrary, you can say antagonism is actually constitutive: there is no underlying logic of history which is expressed through itself, it goes down to the bottom. Now, this second view, which I think, can in many ways lead to more democratic outcomes, because it takes more into account the actual feelings and perceptions of historical actors, is closer to our view.
Mouffe: Yeah, I want to add something here because I think that it's more political aspect of antagonism and its link with the problem of liberalism but also of Marxism. I think that, there is something, even if, as Ernesto was saying, theoretically, Marxism was not really adequately grasped by Marxists, but they at least, recognized the space of antagonism in society, but they located it exclusively at the level of the classes. While, of course, for liberalism, there is no antagonism in society. So, Marxism was a process, with respect to liberalism on that aspect, they recognized the place of antagonism but, they limited it to the question of class. So, they believed that eventually, antagonism could be eradicated once the class struggle will have finished. In a sense, what we are doing is to radicalize Marxism, so to speak. To say, well, the question of antagonism, first, cannot be located exclusively at the level of class; there are many more antagonisms. And, of course, that's where the question of social movements is important, because they are an expression of antagonism. And also, we are saying, and those antagonisms, well, certain antagonisms can be eradicated, but Antagonism can never be eradicated of society. So, while Marxism and liberalism believe the possibility of society without antagonism, of course, you know, there are different kinds of societies, but there is this possibility, we are saying that there is no possibility of society without antagonism.
But isn't there a problem here? The project of socialism is to relieve the systemic suffering of the working classes, to do away with hunger and poverty. If you say that antagonism is systemic and constitutive of human society and it can't be done away with, does that mean that we can't involve ourselves in struggles against poverty and suffering and inhumane working conditions and things of this sort?
Laclau: I don't think one has to simply reduce antagonism to economic exploitation. I think you can supersede economic exploitation in a variety of ways. This does not mean that antagonism, as some basic ontological condition of society, will be ultimately eliminated. And I think that it's good that its not ultimately eliminated. Because if antagonism was eliminated, if the principal of social division was no longer there, we would have reached a fully reconciled society. And in this fully reconciled society there would be no freedom at all, because everybody would think exactly the same kind of thing. The very notion of a plurality of point of view requires the presence of antagonism. Now, this does not mean that economic exploitation will have always to be there. Antagonism can take many forms. But, the basic point is that the supersession of a particular antagonistic form does not, as Chantal said, involve the supersession of Antagonism, as such. And in this connection, I would say, Marxism presents two perfectly contradictory theories. The first one, according to which, history is the process of development of the contradiction between forces and relation of production, and objective processes, which reduce antagonism to superstructure. The other theory, according to which, the mortar of history is class struggle. Now, these two theories are incompatible because, if class struggle is the actual engine of historical change, in that case, there cannot be a rational positive logic, which is what the first theory presented. There is where Chantal, I think, has quite rightly characterized our intellectual project as the radicalization of these antagonistic moments which, I think, retrieves the best dimensions within Marxism.
Is there a new conception of politics in what you're proposing here through the notion of antagonism? There seems to be a sense in which political struggles still have a point and a purpose, but yet the notion of a goal, the final goal of political activity, seems to be reconceptualized. Is that close to the mark?
Mouffe: Well, probably I will say what we are abandoning is the idea of a final goal that could ever be realized. Because, the idea of radical and plural democracy implies that this fully reconciled society, that was the goal of Marxism and of many socialist struggles, can never be reached. And as I was saying, this in fact, is not something that we should see as negative, and there is no reason to be sad about that. In fact, it's something to celebrate, because it means that it's the guarantee that the democratic pluralist process will be kept alive. Because if we start from the idea that there is a possibility of realizing an harmonious society – completely harmonious society - even when that is conceived as a regulative idea, there is some danger in it. Because it means that, in fact, the ideal of a democratic society will be a society in which there will not be any more pluralism, because pluralism implies the possibility of putting into question the existing arrangement of contesting, constantly, the relation of power. But if you accept that there is a possibility of an end point, of a goal, in which there will not be any more form of power or of domination, I mean, at that moment people cannot, of course, put into question the existing institutions, because those institutions will be the instantiation of justice or of democracy. I think that is precisely what I have been criticizing, for instance, in liberals like John Rawls or in the work of Habermas, showing that, contrary to their goal, which in fact, is to try to think of the condition of pluralism, they in fact, are presenting a self-defeating argument, because by postulating the possibility of a rational consensus, they are undermining the very conception of the democratic pluralist process. And of course, they are also, and that's a point which is theoretically important, imagining a society from which relation of power will have disappeared, in fact, is impossible because if we, as we have argued, must accept that relations of power are constitutive of the social, you cannot imagine a society in which there will be no relation of power. And this, in fact, is a very important aspect of our argument about antagonism and about politics – this recognition that power is constitutive of the social.
Your theory of antagonism, then, is a radicalization of the focus on conflict in Marxism, and suggests that there is no final point at which conflict will be eliminated. The question I'd like to ask you, how do you, you theorize antagonism through the notion of the limit of the social. Can you give me an example of how the limit of the social can become an actual phenomenon within someone's experience?
Laclau: Ok. Let me pose the problem in the following terms. There are many social situations in which some kinds of decision about the collective life of the community have to be taken. Now, these decisions, I would argue, are never decisions which are entirely rational, because if they were decisions which are entirely rational, they would be totally obvious, and no decision, actually, would be needed. If a decision is needed, this means that one has to determine the course of events by less than fully rational motives. Now, in that case, many people would have taken decisions which are different ones. In that case, when a decision is taken, this decision will conflict, necessarily, with the decision of other groups. So, you cannot say that society as a whole, the social process as a whole, is moving in one direction, which is determined by its underlying structures. What you have is that an external intervention is there needed. So, social objectivity there finds its limits. And I would argue that the limits of the social are the political. Because we have had a perverted notion of society, which is the result of almost one century of sociological approaches to the social. Since the decline of political philosophy at the end of the 18th century, we have a tendency which goes in the direction of explaining the political as a moment within the social - the political would by either a superstructure, a sub-system, depending on the theoretical view point, and so on - but society is considered as some kind of universal explaining principal according to its own laws. If you are speaking about the limit of the social as being internal to society, we are creating the basis for a re-emergence of the political as the institutive moment of the social. And this requires, as I said before, that the antagonistic moment is present there - social conflict is there, as a grounding moment, it's not a result of anything else.
Mouffe: Yeah, it is in that context, in fact, that I have proposed to distinguish between "the political" and politics. And that takes to what you were asking before, I think, if there is a new theory of politics in our work. Well, in fact, I will argue that, for the first time in many contexts of liberal theory, there is a theory of politics - I wouldn't say it’s a new one, because there was not an old one, and that has been the problem with liberalism. This distinction consists in, one thing, to make room for the recognition of this antagonistic dimension that we were speaking about before. Because by the political, I propose that we understand this dimension of antagonism that is an ever-present possibility in social relations. I'm not saying that all social relations are always constructed antagonistically. That's certainly not the case, but it's always an ever-present possibility. And this is this dimension which is called "the political." And "politics" consists, then, in trying to create an order, organize human coexistence, in conditions which are always potentially conflictual, because there is this dimension of the antagonism. I think once you begin to pose the question in that way, of course, it requires to understand democratic struggle in a very different way, because democratic struggle will be, as I say sometime, trying to see how one can transform an antagonism into an agonism. By that I mean, in fact, how can we tame an antagonism, how can we make it compatible with a democratic struggle. Or, another way to say it, will be how can we transform a friend-enemy relation into an adversarial relation, because the adversary is the one which is considered, in a certain respect, equal in the sense that we will not put into question his right or her right to defend their own position. They are part of the democratic community and they are part of the confrontation, while an enemy, of course, is somebody to which you negate the right to express his differences. That, of course, is also linked to the idea of agonistic pluralism: agonistic pluralism being something that takes place among adversaries.
Your own work has been developed partly as a critique of Marxism, partly as an appropriation and radicalization of Marxism through the notion of antagonism, yet, in recent years, the great political success stories are not success stories of the left, but of the right. I'm wondering if the recent successes of the right, both in Europe and in America, have caused you to revise your thinking. How do you understand the rise of the right? Do you see it as a social movement?
Mouffe: Well, here I want to, in fact, deconstruct so to speak, this category of the right, because I'm not sure that we are meaning the same thing. What I am concerned with today is not the right, but the extreme right. I think this is really the danger in Europe today. And I will not see the recent situation in Europe as a victory for the right. It's true that in many countries the right is in power - the right has just come to power in France after a long period of socialism, it’s in power in many more countries, in probably it is going to come power in Spain, it is in power in Italy, fortunately it might get out of power in Britain. But anyway, the question seems to me is that, what I call the democratic right, is not, I think, in much better shape than the left. Because, the model of Thatcher - those triumphant years of the right - I think they are finished. Because, in fact, the right, the democratic right, is confronted with a problem for which they don't have a solution. Their neo-liberal model is not working. The case of Britain is very interesting from that point of view, because the Thatcher experiment has failed. This is absolutely recognized. There is no alternative on the right for that. In many of the European countries, right-wing parties are facing the same situation. So, I find both the left and the right, really, not knowing how to address the present situation. And that's why the extreme right is the one which is today occupying the terrain. If you see the movement which is in expansion, it is extreme right. In France, in Italy, in Austria, in Belgium, in Denmark, this is the trend which is being put in place. And that, of course, is extremely dangerous, because this is something which put into question the very basis of the liberal democratic model as we have learned it so far. So, in fact, I find the situation, in a sense, more worrying that what a simple victory of the right over the left will have implied.
In the terms of your political theory, the right would take the adversarial relationship of, say, the conservative party and the Labor Party in Britain and turn it into a friend-enemy relationship, in fact, that would threaten the foundation of the liberal political order. So you would see that as the biggest danger?
Mouffe: Yes, because I don't think there is a possibility of an adversarial relation with the extreme right. Those are enemies, while the adversarial relation can only take place between left and democratic right. But, I think that, I've been trying to interpret that because, for me it is a phenomenon which is extremely important. There is a real urgency today in trying to understand the rights of the right in order to be able to offer an alternative. I think that one of the reasons why there is such a popular mobilization around extreme right parties is because the democratic left and right have not been able to put in place what I call this agonistic pluralism. They've been, in fact, drawn towards some kind of consensus model and the idea that politics should take place at the center. This was very clear in France when the socialists came to power because they actively abandoned their Jacobean type of politics which was very much in terms of friend-enemy. And that was something positive. But they were not able to think in terms of adversary; they fell completely into the traditional liberal model of competitors. So it was a question, "well, you know, we've got our interests, our bureaucratic system, our elites that we want to put into power," but there was no attempt at all to transform the hegemony, to transform power relations. So, it has very much been some kind of struggle located at the center between different parties which were not offering any kind of alternative. There was no confrontation. And I think that explains, to a large extent, on one part, the disaffection of many people in France with those parties, the growth of fundamentalist movements, movements in which, what I call the passions are not mobilized toward democratic design, and also, the fact that the extreme right is the one which is mobilizing passion because they are offering an alternative. And I think that's why it's so important to recognize that if we want to offer democratic channels, democratic ways for passion to express themselves, one needs to abandon this consensus-centric model of politics and revive the agonistic adversarial relation. I think that this blurring of the left-right distinction which we have witnessed in Europe, and which has been celebrated by many people by saying how we are now coming to maturity, how this is progress for democracy, I think this is disastrous for democracy, because this creates the terrain in which the extreme right is beginning to make inroads.
Laclau: Yes, because what happens is that whenever you have unfulfilled demands of people and the need of a discourse of opposition, and this discourse is not present - is replaced by some kind of politics of piecemeal engineer, consensus, and so on - the need for a radical confrontation through the system is more important than the terms in which this confrontation is carried out. So, for instance, many social forces which were the classical constituency of the communist party in France, have become supporters of Lepen simply because the old radicalism of the Purple de Gauche, as they call it, have not been replaced by anything. So, what we have, I think, in Northern Europe is a whirl-wind phenomenon today. It is some kind of exhaustion of the ideologies which, during some period, had represented left-wing or progressive courses. They have disintegrated because the historical assumptions are no longer there, and some kind of a new fundamentalist type of discourse is occupying that place. In the case of the Middle East, it's perfectly clear. In the years after the Second World War, the dominant progressive ideology was Arab nationalism. Now, Arab nationalism was constructed around the nation state, the new nation states which were emerging in the Middle East. For instance, when Pakistan emerged there as an Islamic nation, it was criticized by the whole because they said an Islamic nation state is a contradiction in terms. Now, with the stalemate in the Middle East, Arab nationalism collapses everywhere as a dominant ideology and this space has to be taken by Islamic fundamentalism simply because there were many unfulfilled demands which require some kind of radical answer.
So, opposition to the system as a whole has tended to be, in recent years, from the right rather than from the left. How do you fit the corporatist agenda, or the neo-liberal fiscal responsibility agenda into this picture of contemporary politics?
Laclau: Well, I would say the corporatist model, or the neo-liberal model, to a large extent, has failed as an attempt to galvanize the political system. The years of the 1980's were the years of a movement, to the right, of the established parties. They were the years of Reganism, the years of Thacherism, and so on and so forth. Now, in some sense, these were the last utopian years because, the idea of an utopian politics not only belongs to the left, it belongs also to the right. We had some kind of blueprint of society, created by neo-liberalism, which had to be applied. Now, today people are much more blasé. The idea of a blueprint of society and utopian politics along these lines, either through the right or through the left, are very much put into question. And they are being replaced by some kind of issue politics, micro politics, in some respects, all by emergence of the new fundamentalism that we are referring to. But the big designs like the Great Society, or the New Deal, or the neo-liberal model, and so on, are no longer there.
Mouffe: But speaking of comparativism, which is the best model, maybe, of this kind of consensus approach, I think this is clearly what has also created the terrain in many places for the extreme right. I'm thinking of Austria, for instance, which was the corporatist model par excellance, where, for many years, we had this cohabitation between conservative and social democrats, and where, of course, the party of Gork Idor is, today, extremely important precisely because they are the only one offering a radical alternative. Of course, with the recent election given to the socialists, it will increase. That situation might have been worse, but clearly, the party which is today on the move in Austria, is the Freedom Party of Idor, and it¹s very much articulating the discontent with the corporatist model that had been in place in Austria.
Underlying your analysis of contemporary political events is the theory of hegemony that you've been developing for a number of years. I wonder if you could explain to me, in more general terms now, the contribution you think political philosophy and philosophy in general can make to political issues or political movements.
Laclau: Yes. Well, a hegemonic model of politics, which I think is, finally, all politics are hegemonic to some extent, consists in a process of pragmatically putting together things or occurrences which do not necessarily have to coalesce in that way. It involves a contingent intervention. To give you an example, at the end of the Second World War, there was a discussion within the Italian Communist Party about how the party was going to be constructed in the post-war period. And there were two currents: one which said the party is the party of the working class. So, it had to be the party representing an enclave in the industrial north and they had to live totally outside of the world of the Mizsiogiorno and everything connected with it. The other position, which was more Gramscian, and finally adopted through the leadership of Palmido Atoliati, said no, we are going to build up the party in the south. How the working class is weak in the south. They said the premises of the Party and the premises of the Trade Union are going to be the center of a plurality of social initiative: the struggle against the Mafia, the struggle for school cooperatives, and so on. So, that communism, in the end, became the coalescing symbol of a plurality of struggles, which, in themselves, didn't have any need to coincide in that way - there was no structural law pushing them in that way. The proof is that in some other areas, there was the Christian democrat lawyer who produced this role of articulation. But once this role of articulation has succeeded, it manages to produce for a whole historical period, a certain configuration of alliance forces and so on. This is an example of what hegemonic politics is about. Now, this, as you see, goes very much against the notion of a strict interest determining what form of politics is going to show. It involves a strategic movement which is always transient, unstable and negotiated.
Mouffe: Here, it is important, I think, to insist on the fact that this hegemonic politics, of course, can be put into practice by the right as much as by the left. For instance, the example Ernesto was giving referring to Italy, is precisely what we are seeing now about the growth of the Islamic fundamentalist movement. In many countries, for instance, to take the case of Turkey, where the rise of the Reza Reform Party has been very important, is articulating a similar type of hegemony that the communists did in Italy, you know, offering organizations, creating in civic society, a series of links. But because they were offering an alternative to the government, they have been able to really establish a very serious basis in civic society following exactly that model. That¹s the same, to a certain extent, for Algeria. The growth of the [Š] in Algeria has been following exactly the same model. So, that's why it's important for the left to really understand that that's the way they can create some kind of democratic alliance, because if they don't do that, it’s the other parties which are doing it.
Laclau: Traditionally, for instance, the Mas Limbrada became a mass movement, not simply on the basis of agitation, but on the basis of organizing a plurality of institutions which were the basis for social security, cultural participation, recreation, and so on, for people so that, in the end, they had become a state within the state. Later on they were destroyed by Nazar, but whenever a fundamentalism has expanded in the Islamic countries, it has been on the basis of this model. And I have seen this model also operating very much in the plurality of populist movements in Latin America, like in Peru, perronism in Argetnina in the forties and so on.
So, if hegemony is putting together a number of different political elements which are not necessarily connected together, but are put together through an articulation. At the level of philosophy, you've been interested, recently, to theorize this through the concept of undecidability. What could you say to us quickly about the concept of undecidability in philosophy and how it might relate to the theory of hegemony?
Laclau: Well, in fact, the concept of undecidability has been developed from a variety of occurrences with the general spectrum of what has been called post-structuralism. But let's suppose we take the deconstructionist alternative. What deconstruction is doing is to show that many structures, many categories which present themselves as closed categories are, in fact, penetrated by internal aporias [difficulties], so that the actual configuration that they show is, in fact, concealing many different alternatives which are repressed. Now, once you bring this to light, you are also showing a plurality of strategic development which becomes thinkable. So, what I would say deconstruction is doing, is to enlarge the area of undecidability in social relations, which require political intervention, but at the same time, this requires a theory of the decision; how to take a decision within an undecidable terrain. And that is what the theory of hegemony attempts to do. For example, Gramsci, we were speaking about before, Gramsci advanced a great deal, I think, in terms of showing social elements as having only contingent articulation. In this sense, he was enlarging the field of structure and undecidability, and conceived hegemony as the moment of the decision. But he was limited by a classical ontology by which this dimension of undecidability could be extended only so far. But in contemporary society with the phenomenon of globalization, with the phenomenon of combined and uneven development, with the phenomenon of social fragmentation, we need definitely a much radical conception of undecidability than what was present at the time Gramsci. And I think deconstruction and post-structuralism are pushing in that direction.
(From Conflicting Publics, Simon Fraser University, 1998.)