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

74: Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe part IV:
Hegemony and Radical Democracy

Summary by: Jeff McLaren

         Hegemony and Radical Democracy
         There are many relations of subordination; those that are antagonistic are called relations of oppression. Most importantly those relations of subordination that are considered illegitimate from the perspective of some social agent outside of that relation are called relations of domination. A relation of domination requires an existing discourse to articulate its illegitimacy (Q1).
         Prior to the birth of the modern world, at its conception, a “democratic” discourse was first started in England when the lords needing their subordinate relationship with the king delegitimized demanded of King John Plantagenet (AKA Lackland) certain political rights for the lords vis-a-vis the King: “freedom and equality”. The victory of the lords over the king, the Magna Carta, established a democratic discourse as hegemonic. The seeds of this same discourse were later modified by Oliver Cromwell to include political equality and freedom for the common man. The victory of parliament over the king (and lords) cemented a new democratic discourse as hegemonic. Later the discourse was expanded and modified to free the serfs, the slave and women (Q2). Today the democratic discourse has no outside challengers: everyone claims it (Q3).
         Today, the articulatory war of position concerns itself with determining the meaning of 'equality' and 'freedom'. In the early part of the 20th century and culminating in the New Deal the left struggled and had achieved the upper hand: equality meant high progressive income taxes; freedom meant positive freedom; both legitimized government intervention and the welfare state.
         The right responded with a defence of individual liberty against state intrusion and control. Individual liberty and negative freedom are today being used to justify inequalities and to restore hierarchical relations of antagonism (Q4)(Q5).
         There are four concepts the left must unlearn to move forward: 1) classism (that the working class, or any particular class, is the privileged agent of social change); 2) statism (that the expansion of the role of the state is the panacea for all problem); 3) economism (that a successful economic strategy is the base of successful political strategies); and 4) revolution as a moment of rupture (revolution as overdetermination is perfectly good and useful) (Q6).
         Moving forward we must first take into consideration the plurality of subjects: there is no such thing as a unifying let alone unified subject. Even individuals are conflicted and act differently within different settings; it is therefore impossible to calculate ahead of time where, how and in what composition a new antagonism will arise. This plurality of subjects must be welcomed because it opens the possibilities to whatever the imagination can articulate but also because the authors' sense of radical democracy comes with the necessity to find and allow for unlimited diversity.
         This plurality of the subjects has a correspondence to the social: the positivity of the social must likewise also be unbounded and undefined in its totality (individuals may identify with one or more social constructs, like job, religion or ethnicity but once again the range of possible identifications is limited only by the imagination). Both subjects and the social must not be thought of as having an identifiable essence or foundation otherwise, as happens to all that try, you will end up in the contraction in which people are forced to be free.
         Having accepted all this so far, a new 'common sense' must be developed with articulatory maneuvers that construct a temporary common identity and goal from various groups. Solidarity is an articulatory maneuver to form a common cause. Those who join, join because the articulation identified the shared commonality – in this case the articulation is an art.
         In the specific case of liberty and in the general case of rights the false dichotomy of individual vs society rights must be abandoned while positing “'democratic rights'....these are rights which can only be exercised collectively, and which suppose the existence of equal rights for others.” Since there are many social relations there must also be a plurality of democratic forms. Thus the traditional and necessary field of “citizen” is too small as is any one of the forms of democracy: there maybe a place for all of them.
         For a radical democracy the logic of democracy is not enough: “the logic of democracy is simply the equivalential displacement of the egalitarian imaginary to ever more extensive social relations, and, as such, it is only a logic of the elimination of relations of subordination and of inequalities. The logic of democracy is not a logic of the positivity of the social, and it is therefore incapable of founding a nodal point of any kind around which the social fabric can be hegemonic project can be based exclusively on a democratic logic, but must also consist of a set of proposals for the positive organization of the social.” Radical democracy requires a concrete utopia with real plans to get there. Real plans aimed at a utopia provide the 'common sense' needed to assemble the diverse groups of the world in a hegemonic articulation.
         Q1 Subordinate relationships of man-woman; lord-serf, master-slave etc. have usually been antagonistic and oppressive but equality between the genders and the freedom of the serf and slave was not considered as a good and right cause until a discourse achieved hegemonic status and called some previously legitimate relations of subordination illegitimate and therefore needing to be changed. Do you agree or not?
         Q2 The authors claim that the democratic discourse allowed the freeing of serf, slaves and women from domination. Classical Marxist would argue that the discourse only provided justification and that is was really economic reality (the need to have a mobile workforce that could feed the factories of the industrial revolution) that made changing social relations possible. Both seem to have plenty of evidence. Which sounds more believable: a) the discourse allowed the economic conditions to change the social relations or b) the economic conditions used the discourse to get what they wanted?
         Q3 The Democratic People's Republic of Korea/China; the pope was elected; all kings and dictators claim the will of the people as their justification for rule. No one invokes the “divine right of kings” anymore. Do they? The democratic discourse is very broad and can take many forms. Would you agree that everyone claims to be democratic and that the conflict is between different forms of democratic government?
         Q4 Negative freedom is often characterized as the freedom from oppression – it is called negative because it requires only non-action from others: do not steal, do not kill, do not harm etc. Positive freedom is often characterized as the ability to do and to participate – it is called positive because it allows for the positing of positions and actions. The right makes the argument that positive freedom destroys negative freedom because it always requires that something be done which would not have been done otherwise and is therefore done through compulsion. The left makes the argument that negative freedom is not freedom if you are hungry, naked, homeless or otherwise deprived: you are not free if you cannot act to become what you want to become. Which notion of freedom do you find more sympathetic?
         Q5 How many of our differences ought we to subsume for the sake of equality? The left has traditionally said many more than the right. Human and civil rights; laws against various types of discrimination; standards of morality and even standards of building codes have been the battle grounds of these articulation. In your world today would you prefer greater equality or greater distinctions between people?
         Q6 Do the notions of classism, statism, economism and revolution have any meaning for you? Do you see them as stumbling blocks for the left. Have you ever thought “that is not my struggle” – classism? Have you ever thought “there should be a law against_____. – statism? Have you ever thought that more money would make you happy – economism? Have you wanted to have all the politicians rounded up, taken outside and shot? The authors maintain that none of these will ever solve social problems. Do yo agree?

© 2008 - 2017, James Jeff McLaren