Philosophy Hammer
Philosophy, Economics, Politics & Psychology Tested with a Hammer

71: Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe part I:
The Genealogy of Hegemony

Summary by: Jeff McLaren

         This book was written because the authors believed that by the 1970s Marxism had reached a theoretical dead end. There was an obvious disconnect between what the theory could convincingly explain and the new emergent reality of a globalized and informationalized society. Two socialist strategies were practiced as a result of this situation (both dead ends): 1) to write off the changes and retreat into Marxist orthodoxy – the denial strategy; and 2) to juxtapose the new reality un-integrated into traditional Marxism – the “yes but” strategy (Q1).
         The authors refer to these two theoretical reactions as sedimentation. Sedimented theoretical categories conceal the acts of their original institutions. The authors' new approach, “reactivation,” makes those acts visible again; it attempts to show the contingency at the beginning of all Marxian syntheses and categories (Q2). Reactivation means deconstructing all traditional Marxist notions with the knowledge of the new world. Going beyond the deconstructed Marxian notions; reworking them; integrating them; and incorporating new notions from other disciplines is post-Marxism.
         A Marxist in preparing for the ideas of post-Marxism needs to remember that a major change in the structure and content of a field of study often results in a new ontological paradigm. Ontology is the study of existence or being: “How are things?” The question of what is valid and how to validate knowledge within a structure of being is an epistemological question: “How do we know?” As more entities (e.g. NGOs, supranational entities such as IMF, UN, etc.) and more conditions (e.g. globalization, fiat money, etc.) enter into the world the ontological and epistemological conditions for theory must also change (Q3). Theory and practice are in a dance: both move and influence each other and are constrained within the topography of reality. The topography of reality refers to what is thinkable at any given time (Q4).
         Each and every moment of political articulation is a revelation of the topography of reality; of what is thinkable. Within what is thinkable there is always a privileged ideology that has a monopolistic or hegemonic power to define the theory and practice of an era. This notion of Hegemony is the central category of the authors' political analysis. One goal of this book is to answer the question: “ a relation between entities have to be, for a hegemonic relation to become possible?” (Q5)
         One of the new tools brought into post-Marxism from deconstruction is the notion of “undecidability.” Hegemony is seen as the theory of the decisions taken in an undecidable event. An event that retrieves an act of political institution with motivation only within itself. (Q6)
         The same phenomenon can be further refined using the concept of “nodal point” from Lacanian theory in which an inessential element of discourse assumes a universal structural function such that what ever organization does exists is due only to the contingent element. (Q7)
         The nodal point; the undecidable event is the temporal start of a hegemonic articulation that retroactively creates the interests it claims to represent.
         Undecidability coupled with universalizable inessentiality is the necessary condition for any hegemonic relationship. However the relation that drives the articulation will determine which undecidable; which possibly universalizable inessentiality will become universal and therefore will form the hegemonic relationship.
         Such conditions are many and varied; why should any one contingent relationship become universalizable over any other relationship? The answer is in their notion of antagonism. Antagonism is an all pervasive human condition which forces us to judge the relative antagonism of every entity (human or natural) at every moment of our lives. From these relative judgments we fall into the first relationships and ideologies that appear to mitigate the antagonism (Q8). It is from an antagonistic position that we articulate in every conversation in every action our accepted hegemonic notions. Antagonism must be accepted if there is any hope of developing counter ideas and ideologies that have a hope in overcoming the current neo-liberal hegemony (Q9).
         Q1 Has Marxism failed? If it has, what is your understanding of how and why it failed?
         Q2 The notion of the contingency of all theses means that every (at least political) claim is never absolute in any sense: all political claims (for example: Democracy is the worst form of government except for all others) are actually false. They only appear true from a certain point of view. Or as Obi-wan Kenobi said: “Luke, as you grow older, you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend on a certain point of view.” Can, in your opinion, every claim be made true and false depending on a point of view?
         Q3 If all claims can be true and false what does it matter what a theory claims? What is the point of having a “good” or “accurate” theory if it can also be shown to be false from a different point of view?
         Q4 The topography of reality; what is thinkable at any given time changes. In the middle ages it was impossible to be an atheist due to the very nature of the language as it was used. Today it is impossible to be a supporter of infanticide – not so in ancient Sparta. Today Joan of Arc would never get into any position of power. In the middle ages if you could get support from the texts of Aristotle you would win the argument – today you must show scientific proof. What is considered truly existing and what is known and how we know it have all changed. Do you believe that more than just our perception of what is really real and our procedures for determining objectivity have changed? Could they change again?
         Q5 Given that the conditions of our ontology and our epistemology can change, is there any benefit to studying how they change? Are there any prejudices, un-spoken assumptions, ideologies, or hegemonic ideas that you would like to change? Which ones and why? Is it useful to ask what in the world has made these prejudices, assumption, ideologies or ideas dominant? If so remember them for the end...
         Q6 For Derrida, “undecidability” refers to the untangling of meaning in a text such that its meaning is shown to be undecidable or unstable. Undecidability is close in meaning to unstable but has the sense of immediate crisis: a need to move forward. In terms of Hegemony undecidable events are unstable because the correct course of action (according to an ideology) is unclear (as all decisions are). The decision made is made with a different motivation than the official motivation: self-preservation is the most common motivation. But the explanation given will almost always be in terms of the prevailing ideology. Forcing the prevailing ideology to accept or reject the decision as orthodox – and thereby influencing the ideology. Over time the ruling hegemonic ideas and ideology can become very different from their initial beginnings (consider the second amendment debates in the US). How does this logic strike you?
         Q7 We are limited only by our imagination when it comes to finding rationalizations for our decisions. Whatever rationalization we articulate tends to commit us to a course of action. Are we committed to our excuses and rationalizations? Consider this logic: the US does not engage in torture – only enhanced interrogation; but enhanced interrogation is very similar to torture – but not exactly the same (presumably the spelling and phonetic difference makes all the difference). The US uses “enhanced interrogation” as an organizing tool that helps maintain the support of more of the population than would support the US if they used the word “torture” – it is one tool (that is becoming less and less useful) of the hegemonic ideology.
         Q8 We make friends with people who we think will be more likely to support us in times of trouble. The same is true for ideology. There is a notion that no one is above the law. It is a comforting notion so we like to think it is true. The facts tell a different picture: the law protects property more than people and more property better than less property. But people continue to support the sanctity of private property in law. Do we really fall for the first entities that may help in our protection?
         Q9 Is the human condition really antagonistic? Do the rich get an advantage by convincing the lower or working classes that there is no class antagonism? Who benefits most and least from hiding antagonism?

© 2008 - 2018, James Jeff McLaren