Thank you, Ernesto Laclau

ernesto-laclauI was sad to learn of Ernesto Laclau’s passing this morning. Laclau’s intellectual contributions to Left social movements were profound and bountiful. He is the author of many books, including Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (co-authored with Chantal Mouffe). He has a new book due out in May: The Rhetorical Foundations of Society.

Laclau deeply influenced my own thinking about how subjective political actors (e.g., social movements) frame their political projects in relation to broader political alignments and society; and about the political uses of symbols and ambiguity. We corresponded during the first few months of Occupy Wall Street and then attempted to meet up while he was lecturing in the United States, but it didn’t work out. A few weeks ago, to my delight, he agreed to offer comments on the draft of my book. I was quite eager to read his feedback.

In Verso’s write-up today, Robin Blackburn offers an account of Laclau, just last month, “in excellent form leading the company in the singing of revolutionary songs, with special emphasis on those associated with the Italian partisan movement.” Surely, he will be missed. Ernesto Laclau, presente!

underdog vs. winning team impulses

My floating signifier rant yesterday was tangential to the question I had set out to approach. Likely there will be a few more tangents still along the way… The section I was reading from Dynamics of Contention about the Yellow Revolution in the Philippines got me thinking about shifting and emerging political alignments — thinking about them with a “tipping point” metaphor. Picture a tug of war, where one side seems to be winning handily. When a few key actors switch sides, it suddenly shifts the balance and momentum. In the case of regimes and their challengers, the old regime may suddenly find itself weakened, perhaps beyond recovery, while a challenger movement or alignment finds itself potent and ascending.

This metaphor is considerably simpler than models I’ve been discussing here, like Ernesto Laclau’s models and diagrams (and my adaptations/bastardizations of them here). A tug of war certainly misses important pieces, primarily the typical asymmetry of power and resources between ruling regimes and their challengers. That picture is painted more accurately in Laclau’s more three-dimensional models. But a tipping point in a two-dimensional tug of war may capture something important about the psychological processes active in the minds and groups that defect from one side to the other.

Before digging into these psychological processes, a clarifying tangent is necessary; a complicating of the two-dimensional tug of war, so that we are clear about the limits of our lovely metaphors. The problem with the idea of an actor switching sides in a tug of war is that such a complete defection is extremely rare in the real world. A full conversion from one polarity to its opposite is a gross oversimplification. While such dramatic conversions are not unheard of, they are indeed rare and, importantly, shifts in hegemonic alignments do not depend on such dramatic individual conversions (i.e. on winning over your enemies). The spectrum of allies graphic below is a more instructive map of our “tug of war”:

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Anatomy of populist hegemonic alignment (part 2)

I concluded Part 1 by summarizing three mistakes progressive change agents often make in trying to build a broad alignment: 1) Building from scratch, 2) Purism, and 3) Long lefty laundry lists.

Summarizing the latter, it’s tempting to think that the way to attract a broad base is to name lots and lots of issues (e.g. at a rally or protest) — so that there will be “something for everyone”. Perhaps counter-intuitively, “…the more issues you name explicitly, the less your appeal tends to resonate with any of the constituencies you’re hoping to attract. The more we spell out how each issue is explicitly connected, the less it becomes about a particular issue (i.e. entry/identity point) that any particular person, group, or social bloc is concerned about.” [Long lefty laundry lists].

I concluded by asking, “If it doesn’t work to explicitly spell out how all our issues and all the fragmented aggregations of heterogeneous society are connected—if that only aligns the highly analytical and the fringe radicals, and doesn’t activate broader bases—what about linking these issues and aggregations non-explicitly / ambiguously?”

In this post, I’ll argue that populist alignments in our heterogeneous society depend on this ambiguous linkage, which equally depends on the strategic use of floating signifiers.1 Continue reading

Anatomy of populist hegemonic alignment (part 1)

Building upon the basic idea of hegemonic contestation discussed in my last post, I want to now move into an exploration of the mechanics of this process. Specifically I want to examine a structural pattern found in hegemonic alignments — and, even more specifically, in hegemonic alignments that can also be described as populist.

First, I want to define a few terms for purposes of this post:

A hegemonic alignment is an aligning, however temporary or ephemeral, of different social groups, blocs, identities, aggregations, organizations, etc. into a tenuously unified force that intervenes in social reality (enters a hegemonic contest). The alignment, because of its broad social bases and combined capacity, can pack a much more powerful punch than any of its component parts could on their own. Such an alignment is not necessarily clearly defined, delineated or formally coordinated — usually it is none of these things. In addition to the alignment’s engaging in a hegemonic contest in relation to the remainder of society (i.e. groups outside of the alignment, both opposition and “neutrals”), typically some particular group also exercises a form of hegemony (i.e. predominance, leadership) within the alignment itself.

A populist alignment is a hegemonic alignment that is framed as a challenger/underdog force or movement. Its raison d’etre is to challenge some formidable power, whether it be an oppressive government, corporation, policy, or status quo social system. In other words, elite interests can and do align into hegemonic alignments, but these do not constitute populist alignments.

A faux-populist alignment is a hegemonic alignment dominated by elite interests that styles itself as populist. It accomplishes this most effectively by charming genuinely disenfranchised groups (e.g. poor white people in rural areas) into the alignment. Fascism is the quintessential example of a faux-populist alignment. The so-called “Tea Party” is another example. The use of faux- is admittedly something of a value judgment; both faux-populist alignments and genuine populist alignments have to engage the same mechanics of hegemonic contestation.

A floating signifier (also called an empty signifier) is a catalyzing symbol whose meaning is ambiguous. Floating signifiers are essential for catalyzing broad hegemonic alignments in a heterogeneous society. The signifier frames the alignment itself, and is necessarily ambiguous—its meaning is floating, its content “empty”—as all of the groups that comprise the alignment must see their values and hopes reflected in the symbol. The signifier can be a politician (quintessentially Juan Perón), a group (e.g. public school teachers in Wisconsin), a slogan (e.g. “We are the 99%!”), or a brand (e.g. the “Tea Party”), among other possibilities. (More on floating signifiers here.)

I believe that hegemonic populist alignments are “the only game in town” if we want to accomplish big social, economic and political changes. The powers we are up against—especially when it comes to Wall Street, corporate power, and capitalism—are so entrenched, have so consolidated their control of the economic and political spheres, we have no option except to organize a truly broad-based counter-force.

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What is hegemonic struggle?

I was supposed to drive to Philly this afternoon for the Occupy national gathering, but alas, my car broke down in southern Rhode Island, and now I’m back in Providence. Not just in Providence, but at a bar in Providence. And not just any bar, but the Duck & Bunny — the somewhat peculiar bar around the corner, where it’s perfectly acceptable to sit at the counter and read a book or type on your laptop.

I’ve been sitting here the last hour and a half reading more of Ernesto Laclau’s nearly impenetrable Emancipation(s). I find it challenging to finish books once I’m pretty sure I’ve already grasped the main ideas — especially when each page feels like I’m climbing twenty flights of stairs when the author could have built an elevator (i.e. explained their ideas in a broadly accessible way).

Nonetheless, I’ve become a big fan of Laclau and his Gramscian schema for hegemonic struggle. Oh no, I’m doing it too: “…Gramscian schema for hegemonic struggle!” I believe that making these ideas accessible to more people — particularly to the most active emerging young leaders involved in contemporary social change movements — is important. So, I suppose I’ll take a crack at it now.


Antonio Gramsci: worth reading

What is hegemonic struggle?

My working definition of hegemony falls somewhere between the first two definitions offered in the dictionary app on the device I’m typing on:

1. leadership or predominant influence exercised by one nation over others, as in a confederation.

2. leadership; predominance.

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“Asks” & the asymmetry of hegemonic contests

I’ve been thinking more about the processes involved in the projection of primary/proximate group-oriented experiences and instincts onto larger, abstract imagined communities. These processes seem, by all accounts that I put stock in, historically contingent. In other words, the tendency to identify with a large, abstract, realistically unknowable public (e.g. a nation, a religion, a race, an economic class, etc.) is a relatively new phenomenon; there’s evidence that most cultures did not engage in this sort of identification/projection throughout the course of known human history.

Elements/pieces of this puzzle to dig into in future writing:

  • uprooting/disappearance of traditional communities
  • “alienation of labor”
  • emergence of mass media: newspapers and novels at first (see Imagined Communities), followed by radio & television (Internet and its feeding of particularisms and self-selecting tendencies may complicate this — see The Filter Bubble).
  • mass media messages are still interpreted / internalized / assimilated through the intermediaries of “real” (/local/proximate/primary) social groups (e.g. family, congregation, workplace, etc.)

I’ve written about this some before (here), but I’m gearing up to go into greater depth. Maybe even a little rambling now…

Hegemonic struggle is a contest over who can win the investments of proximate groups into a particularly-framed imagined community. It is a game of making unembedded abstractions into potent forces within real, measurable, tangible local communities. OR of making the situation of one particularism — i.e. one particular community — into a symbol of the universal. It involves strategically selecting and often fabricating — or just happening upon — specific stories, situations, conflicts, communities, people, symbols, phrases, memes, what-have-you, and projecting these for broad resonance, elevating them to a claim of universality.

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particularisms, universalities & hegemonic strategy

Wrote this list at the bar last night, and I’m not going to pick it apart just now. Not sure all these dichotomies belong in the same list (especially narcissism / collectivism) — but it’s helpful for me to see it all together for the moment. After starting on Ernesto Laclau’s Emancipation(s) later in the evening, I might add to the list emancipatory moment / preceding social order. I suppose this may amount to a geeky teaser for posts coming down the pike.