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!

“Counter-hegemony” and Left Ambivalence Toward Power

I’m reading Cihan Tuğal’s Passive Revolution: Absorbing the Islamic Challenge to Capitalism. I’m still working my way through it, but so far I’ve found it very insightful. There are so many things in the book that I’m looking forward to digging into, so I feel a little bad that I’m about to start with the one thing that I’m ambivalent about: Tuğal’s use of the term counter-hegemony. I’m not usually one to nitpick about terms—especially esoteric terms like counter-hegemony—but here I go…

Dr. Tuğal did not invent the term, of course. Moreover, I suspect that because I agree so much with his descriptions and assessments (of patterns of political engagement, in the case of Islamist movements in Turkey), it stands out all the more when I do take issue with something. His book has got me thinking more specifically about what I don’t like about the term generally. To be clear, I introduce his work here as a jumping off point for this blog post, rather than as the object of my critique.

Here’s my problem with the term counter-hegemony: it is unclear whether (1) it implies an opposition to the idea of hegemony itself, or (2) it notes an opposition to a particular hegemony — opposition by a challenger force (i.e. an alternative, aspiring hegemony). I want to be careful to not put words in his mouth, but I suspect that Dr. Tuğal intends something closer to the latter interpretation of counter-hegemony. I had the pleasure of meeting him this past weekend at the UC Berkeley sociology open house. At the end of one of our conversations, we briefly discussed my ambivalence about the term. This ambivalence was reinforced later that same day by a discussion with another person who subscribed to the first interpretation, i.e., that to be counter-hegemonic is—and should be—to be against all hegemony.


This is how I define hegemony only some of the time.

To me, particular actors and political alignments maintain particular hegemonies. Their political challengers are not counter-hegemonic—insofar as the term may imply being against the idea of hegemony itself—but are themselves aspiring hegemonies. They want their ideas to win.

My concern is about power and the US Left’s ambivalence toward it. Rather than framing a conversation about how a Left might build and wield power, the term counter-hegemony may suggest inherent opposition to—or at least confusion about—power itself. The “counter” part reinforces our eternal outsider status and casts doubt on whether we even want power. It’s similar to how the term counter-culture suggests the creation of sideshow alternative subcultures, rather than a seizure of the main stage — i.e., a contestation of the meanings, symbols, narratives, and institutions of the popular culture. Continue reading

Claiming and Contesting Meanings and Symbols of the Nation

The nation as a constructed concept frames a commonality amongst citizens who live within the borders of a defined land mass. The conceptual common terrain of nation has provided a large part of the ground upon which the idea of a public was built. Though a plausibly common terrain, it is also an arena of contestation. Different particular actors within nations vie for hegemony — to shape both power relations and the symbolic universe through which relations and reality are interpreted. Other particular actors have to emerge, to construct themselves (i.e. to organize), and to demand their place and their rights as equals within—as part of—the nation and the public.

Here by actors I mean groups, aggregations, identities, etc. that congeal and organize sufficiently to develop the capacity for aligned collective action. The emergence of such actors requires some articulated common aspect of identity (e.g. women, blacks, workers of the world, Protestants, etc.). That commonality, internal to the identity of the actor/aggregation, also defines ways that members of the group are different from others. Such aggregations, if they are to become political actors, must simultaneously perform two challenging identity-related tasks: bonding and bridging. (I was introduced to the bonding and bridging terminology through Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone.)

Bonding: The group has to articulate and celebrate its particular internal commonality — the thing its members hold in common, which is also the basis of their difference from others. This bonding is the political actor’s premise and source of collective motivation, dignity, strength, and organization.

Bridging: The group has also to appeal to a potent commonality beyond the boundaries of its particular identity. Within a heterogeneous public, the political actor/challenger must assert itself as a legitimate contributing member of that public. It must appeal to the solidarity that is projected onto the imagined community of the nation — solidarity that is felt by those who identify with the nation. It must enlist specific allies (i.e. other actors within the nation) to support its claims. It cannot do this effectively without appealing to a potent commonality larger than itself. Continue reading

Theory of Political Behavior SERIES


In July I wrote a four-part series elucidating parts of a theory of political behavior. This here is a landing page for that series. Here are the parts:

  1. A theory of political behavior
  2. Evolutionary logic of identity
  3. Political dimension of group identity
  4. Imagined communities & populist alignment

And here are a few “companion” posts that aren’t officially part of the series, but they relate:

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”:

Continue reading

A theory of political behavior (pt.4: imagined communities & populist alignment)

Modern society significantly complicates the group-oriented identity framework I’ve been discussing (in parts one, two, and three). Most of us juggle multiple roles in multiple spheres, each of which holds a degree of our individual identity. The temptation is to then look at identity as a predominantly individual matter. But each sphere of an individual’s fragmented life has its own group logic and group processes of constructing values and identity. It is no small development, however, that people in societies like ours now have more individual agency to choose how much of their identities to invest into which groups.

The term group can mean many different things. A group may be proximate, fully definable, and localized, such as one’s village, workplace, or place of worship. It seems logical that, if we do indeed have group-oriented instincts, these would have evolved in some such proximate, localized groups. But today, “group” can mean much more; for example, one’s gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, nation, economic class, political ideology, hobby, or sports team. With the label generic given group (introduced in part 3), I am accounting for this broad spectrum of kinds of groups, and I am implying that we tend to project group-oriented instincts onto the full gamut of social aggregations and constructions, to a greater or lesser degree that is proportional to our level of identity with the given group. Continue reading

Sunday afternoon rough notes on messaging for populist alignment

Messaging (/symbolic contestation) for populist alignment: very rough notes, pieces of the puzzle, for future exploration…

  • Messages and memes (i.e. carriers of messages) must be potent enough to penetrate the meaning-making processes of existing social aggregations (aka “groups”).
  • Proximate groups are the primary spaces where meanings are processed, judged, opinions shaped, etc. (A “proximate” group is an immediately-experiencable, graspable in size, often-local group. Proximate, as opposed to abstract or imagined, the latter referring to a society, nation, class, religion, etc.)
  • Explicate the modern dis-integration/dispersal of proximate groups; a society of divided selves; identities dispersed across several circles / groups of identity, etc.
  • Explore the “script” and pressure within groups to avoid internal friction, especially subversive challenge; to extricate the political into a distinct group unto itself (e.g. “activism”), and thus to minimize antagonisms within the proximate group, its life and functions.
  • In eras of identity dispersal and unrootedness—and the shrinking of the “tradition-directed” groups and character structures—the opening to frame more potent abstract “groups” (aka imagined communities). The technologies of the mass media (first print, through the novel and national newspapers) enabled these new publics to emerge. The idea of society itself became more imaginable. (See Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities)
  • The imagined public is still processed, understood, and judged within proximate groups, whose identities are also shaped by their understanding and interaction to the larger social abstraction. The way it seems to look and the way it should look are a projection of values, rituals, understandings, experiences, etc. derived from proximate group experiences and culture.
  • Continue reading