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Palinurus: Engaging Political Philosophy

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<Issue 14 - April 2007>  

Hegemony and Socialism: An Interview with Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau


In the early to middle eighties, Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau co-authored a book called, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics  [London and New York: Verso, 1985], which has been translated into many languages and become influential in the theory of new social movements and their influence on contemporary societies.


Chantal, what were your formative political experiences, and how did you first come to start to think about social and political theory?


Mouffe: Well, my formative political experiences were as a student in the 1960's, and it was very much the time of the imperialist struggle. I studied both in the University of Fluvain and in Paris; it was the time of the Algerian War in Paris. It was the time of the Cuban Revolution; it was the time of imperialist struggle. That's what really was important for me and I was very involved in that. And in fact, that's the reason why, at the end of the sixties, I went to Colombia, in Latin America, because all my generation, we went away to the so-called Third World - some people went to Algeria, some people took Africa, and I went to Latin America. Intellectually, I should say, that the main influence at that time was that I was a student of Althusser. And that, obviously, there was a very important link between my political commitment and my intellectual interest at that moment.


Was feminism important for you at that time? I know that later, you've written quite widely on feminist theory.


Mouffe: Well, feminism did not exist, really, at that time, because feminism, as you know, was something that was a consequence of the student movement at the end of the sixties. But, in the beginning of the sixties, in fact, there was no feminist movement. Obviously, I know that there was a very important feminist movement at the beginning of the century. But I became a feminist later. I first went through socialism, Marxism, and at the beginning of the seventies, that's when I began to know about feminism because that's the moment when feminism began to be organized, really.


Ernesto, what were your first political experiences?


Laclau: Well, my first political experiences were in Argentina. In fact, I only went to Europe in 1969. So, my first approach to Marxism, to socialism, took place both in the student movements and in the political struggles of the 1960's in Argentina. At that moment, these were the years immediately after the Cuban Revolution, when there was a radicalization of the student movement all over Latin America, and I was very active in it. I was a student representative to the Central Council of the University of Buenos Aires, president of the Center of the Student Union of Philosophy. And later on, I joined various left-wing movements in Argentina. Especially, I was part of the leadership of the Socialist Party of the National Left which was very active in Argentina in the 1960's. In terms of intellectual influences, I must say that I was never a dogmatic Marxist. I always tried to, even in those early days, to mix Marxism with something else. And a major influence at some point became Gramsci and Althusser, who, each of them in a different way, tried to recast Marxism in terms which approached more, the central issues of
contemporary politics.


One of the themes of your early work that's been quite influential, perhaps, primarily in Latin America, but also more widely, is your analysis of populism. How does that entail a revision of Marxist theory of the time?


Laclau: Well, let me say in the first place, that my interest in populism arose out of the experience of the Peronist movement in Argentina. The 1960's have been a period in Argentina of rapid radicalization and disintegration of the state apparatuses controlled by an oligarchy which had run the country since 1955. Now, it was perfectly clear, in that context, that when more and more popular demands coalesce around certain political poles, that this process of mass mobilization and mass ideological formation could not be conceived simply in class terms. So, the question of what we call the popular democratic, or national popular interpolation, became central in my preoccupation. Now, in terms of what you were asking me, about in what way this put into question some of the categories of Marxism, I would say that it did so in the sense that popular identities were never conceived as being organized around a class core, but on the contrary, were widely open. They could move in different ideological directions, and they could give a place to movements whose ideological characteristics were not determined from the beginning. So, it put into question in that sense, some of the tenets of classical Marxism.



Irina Boca    The Double-Structured Antithesis of Reality


  In less than a century, B. Constant’s impulse sauvage and calcul civilize, which denominated the succession of two diametrically opposed historical periods (war and peaceful exchange), came to denominate two simultaneous orders opposing one other, two adverse perspectives waging a permanent war against each other. C. Schmitt found the Marxist antithesis between the proletariat and the bourgeois the most prominent and most effective historically because it concentrated all the energy on the final battle between two irreconcilable orders. By contrast, G. Dumezil found the antithesis between the god of night (Varuna) and the god of day (Mitra) expressive of the collaborative nature between natural and supernatural orders; he turned their historical succession into their simultaneous coexistence, into the sovereign couple that binds and exchanges, wills and knows, acts and decides, and, most importantly, forms a perfect double with the Roman couple (Romulus and Numa), with the “terrible and the Ordered, the Violent and the Correct, the Magician and the Jurist…”. [3]


Succession and simultaneity no longer separate into two diametrically opposed orders, for each has become the mirror image of the other, functioning as a double articulation of conflict and collaboration, war and peace, bonds and exchanges. Two successive orders (i.e., Rome under Romulus and Numa) are simultaneous with the presence of the divine couple (Jupiter Stator and Fides), they “borrow” the collaborative quality of the divine couple, becoming the sovereign (simultaneous) heads of the human order. They become the “twins” living on the same set of organs (same order) for an indefinite period of time. [4] The Hegelian antithesis between master and slave passes through the successive stages of the family, of civil society and the state, bringing them together in the final synthesis. The successive orders fold back upon one another (Foucault’s accordion structure) becoming one indivisible order in which the master-slave antithesis is simultaneously dissolved and (re)composed in ever new configurations (family versus civil society; civil society versus the state, etc.).


J. Habermas traces the tensions between these simultaneous, yet successive, materializations of the master-slave antithesis inside the bourgeois family, civil society and the state, emphasizing that all successive transformations of the public sphere were possible by dint of its absorption into the two antithetical orders - the bourgeois family and the state. In the triple structure (family-society-state) the middle term is always absorbed by the other two, forming a new couple, [5] a new reality (or order). The ever changing antithetical couples, backed by the triple structure of their successive transformations, lead to the isolation and absorption of the third element of the structure - it is a closed system in which each element goes from isolation (oneness) to coupling, to tripling, and back, without ever changing its place, but only its function. This is the structural response to the ontological question of being, the middle term between philosophy and science, which is (as all such terms are) both successiveness and simultaneous coexistence of two opposing theses - the middle term is as much a hybrid of the two alternatives as it is the “novelty” directing the process of their simultaneous homogenization. [6]



Jean Cohen    A Review of Agnes Heller, Beyond Justice


The contemporary debate in political philosophy between neo-communitarians and rights-oriented liberals revolves around the question of whether it is possible to articulate a formal, universalistic (deontological) concept of justice without presupposing a substantive (historically and culturally specific) concept of the good. Seen from the perspective of the neo-communitarians, rights, be they “human”, civil or political, articulate no more than the particular discourses and traditions of western civilization; they can be defended or challenged only with respect to our way of life. For the political liberal, however, rights constitute the heart of a conception of justice that makes the claims to legitimacy of any contemporary polity plausible. As such, rights constitute universal moral demands, upon all states to enact laws and enforce policies that are tolerant of diversity and neutral with respect to any particular conception of the good. While the first approach seems to be at a loss when it comes to articulating a principle that can serve to ground the choice of those aspects of “our tradition” that one selects as worthy of preserving; the second is perpetually embarrassed when it comes to defending its universalistic claims on grounds other than dogmatic appeals to natural rights. In short, the contenders in the debate seem to have reached a stand-off.


That is why Beyond Justice could not have appeared at a more opportune moment. By providing an extremely rich, learned and comprehensive analysis of the concept of justice and its various shapes over time, the book offers an invaluable historical perspective sorely missing in the current debate. It also gives us, if not the solution, at least a clarification of the philosophical issues at stake, thereby opening a conceptual way out.


For us, the most relevant and original discussion occurs in chapter 5 of Beyond Justice, entitled, “Towards an Incomplete Ethico-Political Concept of Justice”. For it is here that Heller throws down the gauntlet to neo-communitarians, by insisting that a comprehensive, ethical-political concept of justice is neither possible nor desireable today. The latter, of course, refers to a concept of justice that fuses moral and legal norms, “righteousness” or goodness and political justice. It rests on the assumption that morality can be defined by the observance of socio-political norms, while the notion of a just polity can be based upon the foundation of a pre-existing moral order. In short, a complete ethico-political concept of justice is a concept of collective morality or Sittlichkeit. The norms and rules of the (ideal) city are thought of as the precondition for the education (paidea) of the virtuous (just) man and as the end result of virtuous activity itself [1].

Juan Manuel Silva Camarena: Leer a Rousseau. ¿Las cadenas de la libertad?, La lámpara de Diógenes, (6:10-11) enero-junio 2005/julio-diciembre 2005. 


The Euston Manifesto (launched on April 13th, 2006) has caused a stir in the blogosphere. Academics, citizens, journalists, scientists and writers have signed it. You can read the document and, if you support its aims and principles, become a signatory to the manifesto: The Euston Manifesto


Michael Harrington's pamphlet Why We Need Socialism in America, first published by Dissent, has been posted to the website of the Chicago Democratic Socialists of America. You can view it here:  Socialism in America


The Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Mexico) launched its Sixth Declaration of the Selva Lacandona on June of 2005. We have highlighted it here: Sixth Declaration of the Selva Lacandona