Wednesday, June 24, 2009


One of my panels at LASA (the Latin American Studies Association congress) turned once more to discussion of Ernesto Laclau.

I have spent a long time engaging with Laclau (and I deal with his work at length in my book's first chapter). His is an important and influential theory--indeed, I argue that it is the most complete theory of hegemony--but it is also fundamentally flawed and fatally limited.

In essence, what Laclau has done is extrapolate from the discussions among a small number of leftist radicals in Argentina during the early 1970s, when populism seemed the only possible horizon for politics. Their question then was how could they redeem populism for a progressive project, when there seemed to be no alternative available.

It is impressive that Laclau has managed to produce an entire politico-theoretical system from the dilemma that these militants perceived in a particular place at a particular time.

But what is extraordinary, given the subsequent adoption of this system almost wholesale by so much of cultural studies, is that if we return to the Argentine situation we see that left-populism was proved totally mistaken.

For the left was violently expelled from the Peronist coalition almost as soon as Perón arrived back in the country following his long exile. Moreover, the subsequent military coup then (and even more violently) showed that populism itself had run up against its limit when it refused to acknowledge the role of the state.

No doubt pretty much any political philosophy is at root largely an extrapolation from a particular state of affairs. Antonio Negri, for instance, is in his own way also still captivated by his observation of the rapid changes in Italy during the 1950s and 1960s, and then by his part in the resulting struggles of the early 1970s.

But Negri was at least to some extent right: the dismal failure of the Italian Communist Party’s so-called "historic compromise" revealed the political and theoretical poverty of the theory of hegemony upon which Eurocommunism (so lauded by Laclau) depended.

Negri was of course wrong about the imminence of revolution both then and, I'd argue, now, though I still think that there is much to salvage from his work none-the-less. I suppose that followers of Laclau could similarly argue that hegemony theory can likewise be salvaged even after its failure in the context in which it was originally elaborated, and for which it should ideally work best.

But they don't seem to acknowledge that failure in the first place, in part no doubt because Laclau's increasingly abstract systematization serves to obscure that context quite totally for most of his commentators.

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