Ernesto Laclau’s On Populist Reason is like the mother of all books on populism. Partly in its difficulty (Sweet Christmas is difficult an understatement), but also, after much struggle for comprehension, its depth of understanding of populism and how exactly it works. It is thus quite a different book from those by Jan-Werner Müller or Marco Revelli. Luckily it is fairly unique.
That all goes to say this is a boring work in progress that should be read as such even more than all my other boring posts on books.
It is in argument with both work on populism and the masses as well as with thinking around class formation and revolution and agency within Marxism. As well as with Hegel and Zizek and others. I do not untangle all of these arguments. Could not. I love the concept of hegemony but hardly touch it as constituted here. I still can’t decide whether I even want to read Lacan. Life is short and I still wish people had gone with Fromm as their psychoanalyst of choice. But no.
Part I: The Denigration of the Masses
Just to give you a taste of the language:
As I argue there, the impossibility of fixing the unity of a social formation in any conceptually graspable object leads to the centrality of naming in constituting that unity, while the need for a social cement to assemble the heterogeneous elements once their logic of articulation (functionalist or structuralist) no longer gives this affect its centrality in social explanation. Freud had already clearly understood it: the social bond is a libidinal one… ‘Populism’ was always linked to a dangerous excess, which puts the clear-cut moulds of a rational community into question. So my task, as I conceived it was to bring to light the specific logics inherent in that excess, and to argue that, far from corresponding to marginal phenomena they are inscribed in the actual working of any communitarian space. (x)
But there is some clarity here as for Laclau, like Müller and others, it is not the content of struggle but the form of it that defines populism.
My attempt has not been to find the true referent of populism, but to do the opposite: to show that populism has no referential unity because it is ascribed not to a delimitable phenomenon but to a social logic whose effects cut across many phenomena. Populism is, quite simply, a way of constructing the political. (xi)
His argument, as I understand it, is that within much of political theory populism cannot be well understood because of its own limits of how it understands people as social agents. In his words, the impasse is ‘rooted in the limitation of the ontological tools currently available to political analysis … the limits inherent in the ways in which Political Theory has approached the question of how social agents ‘totalize’ the ensemble of their political experience‘ (4).
This has happened in the way that it has been defined from the beginning ‘in terms of ‘vagueness’, ‘imprecision’, imprecision’, intellectual poverty’, purely transient’ as a phenomenon, manipulative’ in its procedures, and so on‘. It has been separated from ‘what is rational and conceptually apprehensible in political action from its dichotomic opposite: a populism conceived as irrational and undefinable‘ (16). If defined as irrational, how then can political theory understand its rationalities? This block comes from the longstanding academic distrust, fear and sometimes hatred of the masses, the bestowing of all rationality on the individual alone.
…the rabble of the cities which was, for Taine, the real actor in the revolutionary process. Within this general decline, any group could degenerate into a crowd. Taine anticipates what will become the established wisdom among crowd theorists —namely; that rationality belongs to the individual, who loses many of his rational attributes when he participates in a crowd. He likes to compare crowd behaviour to inferior forms of life, like plants or animals, or to primitive forms of social organization. (34)
This distrust is still shaping how much of the discourse around populism forms today. Part of why I find Müller’s work helpful in defining precisely what is dangerous in the constructions of populism (the exclusivity of definition of ‘a people’ leaving those outside open to violence and repression) as opposed to this general distaste for mass movement. And of course, Laclau argues that there also exists psychology specific to popular identity:
Whatever its short-comings, crowd psychology had touched on some crucially important aspects in the construction of social and political identities — aspects which had not been properly addressed before. The relationship between words and images, the predominance of the ’emotive’ over the ‘rational’, the sense of omnipotence, the suggestibility and the identification with the leaders, and so on, are all too real features of collective behaviour. (39)
Part II: Constructing the ‘People’
The real usefulness of Laclau for my own thinking and work lies in this way of thinking through how ‘the people’ is constructed, though mostly written off by other authors — a single paragraph in Müller for example, that hardly does this work justice. But you have to work through a whole lot of difficult theoretical work to get there.
The two pejorative propositions to which I referred were: (1) that populism is vague and indeterminate in the audience to which it addresses itself, in its discourse, and in its political postulates; (2) that populism is mere rhetoric. To this I opposed two different possibilities: (1) that vagueness and indeterminacy are not shortcomings of a discourse about social reality, but, in some circumstances, inscribed in social reality as such; (2) that rhetoric is not epiphenomenal vis-a-vis a self-contained conceptual structure, for no conceptual structure finds its internal cohesion without appealing to rhetorical devices. If this is so, the conclusion would be that populism is the royal road to understanding something about the ontological constitution of the political as such. (67)
Again, this highlights how Laclau sees this work contributing to how we understand politics much more broadly.
The categories he describes as central to his approach:
- Discourse. Discourse is the primary terrain of the constitution of objectivity as such. By discourse, as I have attempted to make clear several times, I do not mean something that is essentially restricted to the areas of speech and writing, but any complex of elements in which relations play the constitutive role. This means that elements do not pre-exist the relational complex but are constituted through it. (68)
- Empty signifiers and hegemony.
- Given that we are dealing with purely differential identities, we have, in some way, to determine the whole within which those identities, as different, are constituted (the problem would not, obviously, arise if we were dealing with positive, only externally related, identities).
- Since we are not postulating any necessary structural centre, endowed with an a priori ‘determination in the last instance’ capacity, `centring’ effects that manage to constitute a precarious totalizing horizon have to proceed from the interaction of the differences themselves. How is this possible?
- Rhetoric. There is a rhetorical displacement whenever a literal term is substituted by a figural one. (70-71)
Where Müller defines as populism one group forming itself as ‘a people’ exclusionary to others and under a charismatic leader, he does not really go into how this happens. For Laclau, it is this how that is central to populism’s definition.
we can see populism as one way of constituting the very unity of the group [as opposed to the ideology or mobilization of an already constituted group]…’the people’ is not something of the nature of an ideological expression, but a real relation between social agents. It is, in other terms, one way of constituting the unity of the group. Obviously, it is not the only way of doing so. There are other logics operating within the social, and making possible types of identity different from the populist one. (73)
Central to this is what Laclau terms the ‘internal frontier’, the dividing line between us and them. This resonates strongly with Revelli’s description of the importance of borders and internal segregation. This oppositional character is central to all definitions. I find Laclau’s language here quite difficult, but this conceptualisation really useful:
…we have here the formation of an internal frontier, a dichotomization of the local political spectrum through the emergence of an equivalential chain of unsatisfied demands. The requests are turning into claims. … 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. Here we have, in embryo, a populist configuration. We already have two clear preconditions of populism: (1) the formation of an internal antagonistic frontier separating the ‘people’ from power; and (2) an equivalential articulation of demands making the emergence of the ‘people’ possible. There is a third precondition which does not really arise until the political mobilization has reached a higher level: the unification of these various demands —whose equivalence, up to that point, had not gone beyond a feeling of vague solidarity — into a stable system of signification (74).
This essentially means that multiple groups and multiple demands can be brought together (the equivalential chain or articulation) in a way that does not eliminate differences, merely connects them together in opposition. The existence of the internal or antagonistic frontier in one requirement for this, the second that all of these demands must be able to see themselves as represented by one central demand wide enough, vague enough, to allow their own issue to fit under it — what Laclau terms the ’empty signifier’.
I particularly like the initial requirement of ‘requests’ becoming ‘claims’ and demands, this is the moment individual discontent and resistance can become movement, right? But not necessarily a populist one.
Also required is crisis.
Without this initial break-down of something in the social order — however minimal that something could initially be — there is no possibility of antagonism, frontier, or, ultimately, ‘people’. (85)
And within this break down is needed both unfulfilled demands and unresponsive power. Where these occur, and there exists an internal frontier (the other side of which sits unresponsive power) and a growing ‘equivalential bond’ there remains the moment in which the links between these different groups and demands is forged,
… equivalential relations would not go beyond a vague feeling of solidarity if they did not crystallize in a certain discursive identity which no longer represents democratic demands as equivalent, but the equivalential link as such. It is only that moment of crystallization that constitutes the ‘people’ of populism. What was simply a mediation between demands now acquires a consistency of its own. Although the link was originally ancillary to the demands, it now reacts over them and, through an inversion of the relationship, starts behaving as their ground. Without this operation of inversion, there would be no populism. (93)
This link becomes in its way more prominent than the demands themselves. This happens when
…some kind of common denominator has to be found which embodies the totality of the series. Since this common denominator has to come from the series itself, it can only be an individual demand which, for a set of circumstantial reasons, acquires a certain centrality (Let us remember our Solidarnosc example, above.) This is the hegemonic operation, which I have already described. There is no hegemony without constructing a popular identity out of a plurality of democratic demands. So let us locate the popular identity within the relational complex which explains the conditions of both its emergence and its dissolution.
Two aspects of the constitution of popular identities are important for us. First, the demand which the popular identity crystallizes is internally split: on the one hand, it remains a particular demand; on the other, its own particularity comes to signify something quite different from itself: the total chain of equivalential demands. While it remains a particular demand, it also becomes the signifier of a wider universality. (95)
It is thus not a question of ‘finding an abstract common feature underlying all social grievances, but with a performative operation constituting the chain as such’
It is like the process of condensation in dreams: an image does not express its own particularity, but a plurality of quite dissimilar currents of unconscious thought which find their expression in that single image. It is well known that Althusser used this notion of condensation to analyse the Russian Revolution: all the antagonisms within Russian society were condensed in a ruptural unity around demands for ‘bread, peace and land’. The moment of emptiness is decisive here: without empty terms such as ‘justice’, ‘freedom’, and so on being invested into the three demands, the latter would have remained closed in their particularism; but because of the radical character of the investment, something of the emptiness of ‘justice’ and `freedom’ was transmitted to the demands, which thus became the names of a universality that transcended their actual particular contents. (97)
This means that the ‘problem’ of the vagueness and imprecision of populist symbols as described in much of the literature is actually its key feature required for its existence.
On to the nature of populist leadership.
A second problem that is not completely solved in the literature on populism concerns the centrality of the leader. How do we explain it? The two most common types of explanation are ‘suggestion’ — a category taken from crowd theorists — and ‘manipulation’ — or, quite frequently, a combination of the two (a combination which presents no major problems since each shades easily into the other). In my view, this kind of explanation is useless. For even if we were going to accept the ‘manipulation’ argument, the most it would explain is the subjective intention of the leader, but we would remain in the dark as to why the manipulation succeeds — that is to say, we would know nothing about the kind of relation which is subsumed under the label of ‘manipulation’. (99)
Sometimes I think he is at his clearest when laying out quite how others are wrong. The leader is in some ways like the empty signifier. A necessary focus. As Laclau writes:
However, the symbolic unification of the group around a individuality — and here I agree with Freud — is inherent to the formation of a ‘people’. (100)
And on to the final attribute, and into the great world of affect. A world of theory I work with very little. This is a handy summary of how far we are though:
A final and crucial dimension must, however, be added to our analysis. Our whole approach to populism turns, as we have seen, around the following theses: (1) the emergence of the ‘people’ requires the passage – via equivalences – from isolated, heterogeneous demands to a ‘global’ demand which involves the formation of political frontiers and the discursive construction of power as an antagonistic force; (2) since, however, this passage does not follow from a mere analysis of the heterogeneous demands themselves – there is no logical, dialectical or semiotic transition from one level to the other – something qualitatively new has to intervene. This is why ‘naming’ can have the retroactive effect I have described. This qualitatively differentiated and irreducible moment is what I have called ‘radical investment’. … It is clear, however, that if an entity becomes the object of an investment – as in being in love, or in hatred – the investment belongs necessarily to the order of affect. (110)
An this is a more complex way to theorise how a part of ‘the people’ tries to constitute itself as the whole:
So we can conclude that any social whole results from an indissociable articulation between signifying and affective dimensions. But in discussing the constitution of popular identities, we are dealing with a very particular type of whole: not one which is just composed of parts, but one in which a part functions as the whole (in our example: a plebs claiming to be identical with the populus). 111
That requires more thought perhaps. But finally we are ready to bring it all together. The three aspects then of populism:
- First, it should be clear at this stage that by ‘populism’ we do not understand a type of movement — identifiable with either a special social base or a particular ideological orientation — but a political logic…. I see social logics as involving a rarefied system of statements — that is to say, a system of rules drawing a horizon within which some objects are representable while others are excluded. So we can talk about the logics of kinship, of the market — even of chess-playing (to use Wittgenstein’s example). A political logic, however, has something specific to it which is important to stress. While social logics consist in rule-following, political logics are related to the institution of the social. Such an institution, however, as we already know, is not an arbitrary fiat but proceeds out of social demands and is, in that sense, inherent to any process of social change. This change, as we also know, takes place through the variable articulation of equivalence and difference, and the equivalential moment presupposes the constitution of a global political subject bringing together a plurality of social demands. This in turn involves, as we have seen, the construction of internal frontiers and the identification of an institutionalized ‘other’. (117)
- There are two other aspects from our previous discussion which have to come into our conceptual characterization of populism: those which concern naming and affect. … From this we can deduce that the language of a populist discourse — whether of Left or Right — is always going to be imprecise and fluctuating: not because of any cognitive failure, but because it tries to operate performatively within a social reality which is to a large extent heterogeneous and fluctuating. I see this moment of vagueness and imprecision — which, it should be clear, does not have any pejorative connotation for me — as an essential component of any populist operation. (118)
- I’m no longer quoting Laclau but trying to put this into my words because this still seems unclear to me…There must be a particular demand unfulfilled that can in a sense stand in for multiple demands, or the equivalential chain in Laclau’s language. There is a tension between the differences among the multiple demands and the particular demand, but neither can fully stand in for the other so this tension must be present and balanced to create movement. These must be contained within ‘an anti-institutional dimension, of a certain challenge to political normalization, to ‘business as usual’…There is in any society a reservoir of raw anti-status-quo feelings which crystallize in some symbols quite independently of the forms of their political articulation, and it is their presence we intuitively perceive when we call a discourse or a mobilization ‘populistic’. (123)
These charts defiinitely helped me understand this better…particularly thinking about the differences between domination and hegemony. So, domination:
He gives the example of the Russian Tsar on the one side of the dichotomic frontier, with multiple sectors of society standing in opposition each with their own demands, but uniting in an ‘equivalential chain’ behind the demands of D1 (which becomes the signifier).
Hegemony is the process by which the group on the other side of the dichotomic frontier works to incorporate the demands of certain of these sectors to ‘interrupt’ the creation of an oppositional equivalential chain through creation of an equivalential chain of their own, blurring the lines of this frontier and ensure their hold on power. It looks more like this:
So what happens to the ‘signifier’ demand of D1 when their other interests are accommodated/co-opted and people change sides as it were? It has to be recast, a new signifier/symbol found and this is always what is at stake in moments of change and crisis when this signifier is suddenly ‘floating’, requiring redefinition after the break up of what was a stable formation. Laclau makes the really interesting observation here about how often it is not precisely the content of D1 that matters to individuals, but its form, ie its radicalism. This explains why so many of the left seemingly quite easily can swing to the right — the swing in support for the New Deal to New Conservativism for example. Laclau writes that for a very long time conservative populism would have been unthinkable in the US, as the conservative tradition was ‘centred on ‘defence of unregulated capitalism and the discouragement of any kind of grass-roots mobilization‘. This began to change with McCarthyism, and a shift in discourse shift from workers to ‘regular Joe’. This marked a break between populism and liberalism, witnessed the New Deal’s discourse in retreat and the moment it fell apart as middle America experience a great loss of power, stuck between Washington elites and demands of ‘minority’ groups. This is a pursuasive narrative to some degree, though I think the faultlines of race and gender cleave this in two just a little, force a more historic look at ‘conservatism’
There follows some arguments with Marxist ideas of the working class as the agents of social change and how this is now untenable. This is undoubtedly my favourite sentence for style and verve.
The ‘peoples without history’ have occupied centre stage to the point of shattering the very notion of a teleological historicity. So forget Hegel. (147-148)
Part III: Populist Variations
This is where all of the theory is brought somewhat to earth. Somewhat.
It is not just the idea of ‘the people’ that must be constructed, but also the antagonistic frontier. I do myself feel a desire to make this all a little more material here, root this in concrete oppressions. But this wider definition makes more sense of the rise of Trump and the revolt of the still-well-to-do-though-not-as-well-to-do-as-before masses. This is a political process and upends Habermas and Rawls who see representative democracy as politicians representing the will of the people presuming that to be pre-existing when in fact it must be constructed. This is why populism can fit within both totalitarian and liberal democratic regimes.
And again, it does not arise without crisis. This is so prescient of our current conjuncture.
populism never emerges from an absolute outside and advances in such a way that the previous state of affairs dissolves around it, but proceeds by articulating fragmented and dislocated demands around a new core. So some degree of crisis in the old structure is a necessary precondition of populism for, as we have seen, popular identities require equivalential chains of unfulfilled demands. Without the slump of the 1930s, Hitler would have remained a vociferous fringe ringleader. (177)
The possibilities for movement are three:
1. A largely self-structured institutional system which relegates to a marginal position any anti-institutional challenge — that is to sat; the latter’s ability to constitute equivalential chains is minimal (this would correspond to the first two situations within Schedler’s model).
2. The system is less well structured, and requires some kind of periodical recomposition. Here the possibility of populism in the Schedler/ Surel’s sense arises: the system can be challenged, but since its ability for self-structuration is still considerable, the populist forces have to operate both as ‘insiders’ and as ‘outsiders’.
3. The system has entered a period of ‘organic crisis’ in the Gramscian sense. In that case, the populist forces challenging it have to do more than engage themselves in the ambiguous position of subverting the system and, at the same time, being integrated into it: they have to reconstruct the nation around a new popular core. Here, the recon-structive task prevails over that of subversion. (178)
Key to remember (and perhaps quite usefully illustrated by Italy’s three different populist movements in the past few years)
there is nothing automatic about the emergence of a ‘people’. On the contrary, it is the result of a complex construction process which can, among other possibilities, fail to achieve its aim. The reasons for this are clear: political identities are the result of the articulation (that tension) of the opposed logics of equivalence and difference, and the mere fact that the balance between these logics is broken by one of the two poles prevailing beyond a certain point over the other, is enough to cause the ‘people’ as a political actor to disintegrate. (200)
Laclau has all these lists and bullet points which usually serve to make things clearer but I am not entirely certain these do. I think they do. These refer to the ‘set of theoretical decisions necessary for something like a ‘people’ to become intelligible, then the historical conditions that make its emergence possible’
- A first theoretical decision is to conceive of the ‘people’ as a political category, not as a datum of the social structure. This designates not a given group, but an act of institution that creates a new agency out of a plurality of heterogeneous elements. For this reason, I have insisted from the very beginning that my minimal unit of analysis would not be the group, as a referent, but the socio-political demand.
- It is in this contamination of the universality of the populus by the partality of the plebs that the peculiarity of the ‘people’ as a historical actor lies. The logic construction is what I have called ‘populist reason’. (224) On the universality of the partial: A popular demand is one that embodies the absent fullness of the community through a potentially endless chain of equivalences. That is why populist reason — which amounts, as we have seen, to political reason tout court breaks with two forms of rationality which herald the end of politics: a total revolutionary event that, bringing about the full reconciliation of society with itself, would make the political moment superfluous, or a mere gradualist practice that reduces politics to administration.
- Let us move now to the other angle: the partiality of the universal. This is where the true ontological option underlying our analysis is to be found. Whatever ontic content we decide to privilege in an ontological investment, the traces of that investment cannot be entirely concealed. The partiality we privilege will also be the point that universality necessarily inhabits. The key question is: does this ‘inhabiting’ do away with the specificity of the particular, such that universality becomes the true medium for an unlimited logical mediation, and particularity the merely apparent field of expressive mediation? Or, rather: does the latter oppose a non-transparent medium to an otherwise transparent experience, so that an irreducibly opaque (non-)representative moment becomes constitutive? (225)
- … the unity of the social agent is the result of a plurality of social demands coming together through equivalential (metonymic) relations of contiguity, the Contingent moment of naming has an absolutely central and constitutive role. The psychoanalytic category of overdetermination points in the same direction. In this respect, naming is the key moment in the constitution of a ‘people’, whose boundaries and equivalential components permanently fluctuate. Whether nationalism, for instance, is going to become a central signifier in the constitution of popular identities depends on a contingent history impossible to determine through a priori means. (227)
I copy at such length because I might not be understanding. The ‘people’ are constructed through politics, and do not pre-exist politics in some natural organic form to be discovered or tapped. This politics and process of construction centres around a socio-political demand. Through this a portion of the larger population articulated around this demand comes to argue it represents the whole — the universality of the partial. Number 3…whew. That demand, that partial population claiming to speak for the whole will shape future politics. There is more there I am not getting. And that finally for all of this to come together, it is the naming of that demand that is central, and this will be shaped by the particular history and circumstances of each ‘people’ so formed rather than necessarily by class a la Marx.
And to come to a finale:
We need to make a final point. The passage from one hegemonic formation, or popular configuration, to another will always involve a radical break, a creatio ex nihilo. It is not that all the elements of an emerging configuration have to be entirely new, but rather that the articulating point, the partial object around which the hegemonic formation is reconstituted as a new totality, does not derive its central role from any logic already operating within the preceding situation. Here we are close to Lacan’s passage a l’acte, which has been central in recent discussions concerning the ethics of the Real…As the equivalential/articulating moment does not proceed.from logical need for each demand to move into the others, what is crucial for the emergence of the ‘people’ as a new historical actor is that the unification of a plurality of demands in a new configuration is constitutive and not derivative. In other words, it constitutes an act in the strict sense for it does not have its source in anything external to itself. The emergence of the ‘people’ as a historical actor is thus always transgressive vis-a-vis the situation preceding it. (228)
And there we are. I am most familiar with the rise of the Alt Right, and this helps explain so much I think. That they are not the oppressed as Revelli writes, but the winners of a previous era now experiencing some loss. The insane multiplicity of agendas and conspiracy theories and religious congregations that have somehow come together (without agreeing with each other and even hating each other, the perfect equivalential chain really) around a billionaire and his claim to make America Great Again and to be cleaning out the swamp. The visible construction of these discourses through media. I like Revelli’s addition of the right-wing twist, with its need for evil elites and a third group as scapegoat — immigrants.
Laclau was writing long before this of course. He ends with some thoughts on the conjuncture he was writing within:
The question concerning historical conditions should therefore be: are we living in societies that tend to increase social homogeneity through immanent infrastructural mechanisms or, on the contrary do we inhabit a historical terrain where the proliferation of heterogeneous points of rupture and antagonisms require increasingly political forms of social reaggregation…
the answer yes, and why?
globalized capitalism. By capitalism, of course, we should no longer understand a self-enclosed totality governed by movements derived from the contradictions of commodity as an elementary form. We can no longer understand capitalism as a purely economic reality, but as a complex in which economic, political, military, technological and other determinations — each endowed with its own logic and a certain autonomy — enter into the determination of the movement of the whole. In other terms, heterogeneity belongs to the essence of capitalism, the partial stabilizations of which are hegemonic in nature. (230)
Let the crises and rise of populisms begin.
Laclau, Ernesto (2005) On Populist Reason. London and New York: Verso.
2 thoughts on “Laclau On Populist Reason”
Thank you for this fascinating interpretation on Laclau’s conceptions of populism. I’m writing a paper on this book right now and this post definitely helped clear up a few misconceptions/misunderstandings for me. Props for reading the whole thing.
Glad it was helpful! And this was not easy and even so way easier than Laclau & Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy 🙂