Ernesto Laclau on the State

Last month Ernesto Laclau passed away at the age of 78. I came to his work fairly late in my studies, only reading Hegemony and Socialist Strategy in my second year of grad school. Prior to that, it would have been fair to say that I read more about Laclau in other sources. But although today I have an ambiguous relationship to his post-Marxism, both critical and appreciative, at the time it had a large influence on my thinking about the possible strategies of Left politics today.

Here I want to highlight a 2008 interview with him conducted by Platypus, and which was brought to my attention by Ross Wolfe over at The Charnel-House.

Since I’m planning to write a chapter on the post-Marxist turn in my dissertation on Marxist theories of the state, here is an excerpt from the interview specifically on that:

In approaching politics, do you think we should understand capitalism as representing a historically specific, reified form of social relations that poses a challenge to the greater social control over production? In confronting the ubiquity of the commodity form in capitalist social relations, should we think of our politics in terms of a radical break with capitalism, or should we look toward other forms of social organization for the root of the problem, and possible solutions?

There are several questions there. Firstly, social control is control by whom? Because if it is an instance that one calls the state, the question is to what extent this state is a representative of the social will or to what extent this state is some kind of institutional excrescence which is separated from the social will, because the question is how to constitute a social will, and how to have this social will crystallized in an institution. The attempt to think that automatically the state represents the social will lead to the whole disaster of the Soviet experience. So if one thinks of a more democratic mediation of the social will, the problem is how particularity and universality can be combined in such a situation. I completely agree that savage capitalism, in which the mechanism of the market controls everything is a disaster as much as the bureaucratic state of the Soviet system. But the whole problem, which is the problem we have been discussing from the beginning, is how this social control is going to be constituted: through what kind of institutional mechanisms, how the will of the people will act, how you supercede the opposition between the particularism of the different wills and the different social elements. So we are in the center of a hegemonic project.

Here I think Laclau is mostly correct in trying to get away from the liberal/republican idea that the state represents a social will. But what exactly does he mean by “institutional excrescence”?

I suspect that here he is getting close to the Poulantzian notion that the state is an entity irreducible to its specific institutions, but which nevertheless only exists by virtue of those institutions. This is a position made possible by the structuralist epistemology that allows for the existence of real abstractions such as the state without at the same time needing to put forward a concrete empirical referent for the concept.


Pursuing this question further, this afternoon I read Laclau’s essay “The Specificity of the Political” (1975) reprinted by Verso in the volume Politics and Ideology in Marxist TheoryThe article was Laclau’s intervention into the debate between Poulantzas and Ralph Miliband on the capitalist state and its relation (of relative autonomy) to the mode of production.

Laclau engages with both Poulantzas and Miliband, although the former is the target of a more sustained critique. Recall that one of Poulantzas’s main objections to Miliband’s The State in Capitalist Society was that its theoretical problematic was insufficiently removed from a bourgeois framework. As Poulantzas saw it, Miliband’s attempt to theorize the capitalist state amounted to an empirical refutation of the elite-pluralist model in order to show that there was a connection between the state and the ruling class. But for Poulantzas, who in 1969 was still writing from a point of view heavily indebted to Althusserian structuralism, attempting to refute bourgeois analyses by pointing to empirical evidence still operated on its terrain and reproduced its dominant form of thought–empiricism–without first elaborating a different theoretical model and its own set of concepts necessary for a materialist critique of the state.

Laclau agreed on this point. But he also found Poulantzas guilty of an excessive formalism, in which his “taxonomy is set at a level of abstraction so high–without always being justified–that the symbolic functions of the concepts necessary tend to predominate; these symbols enter into relationship with each other and create in turn symbols of these relations, and all contact with the original meaning is lost” (70).

Laclau also saw the same tendency occurring in Etienne Balibar’s attempts in Reading Capital (1965) to theorize the relationship between the different levels of practices in a given social formation–the economic, the political, and the ideological. The Althusserian idea of “determination in the last instance,” meaning that the economic level was always structurally determinant of the other levels, even if not always dominant, was found by Laclau to be conceptually confused and metaphorical, rather than theoretical. “This distinction between the determinant in the last instance and the dominant role seems to be no more than a series of metaphors which attempt to resolve through symbols of little theoretical content, an artificial problem created by the metaphysic of instances” (77).

In other words, Laclau saw Althusser, Balibar, and Poulantzas all falling short in their attempts to outline a theoretical analysis of a capitalist social formation. When working on their degree of theoretical abstraction, one could no longer operate on a strictly logical level without at the same time invoking a symbolic, metaphorical dimension. The unclear relationship between “the political” and “the economic” in their analyses led Laclau to increasingly abandon the idea that these terms were anything more than contingent signifiers, and ultimately to end up at the argument of Hegemony that the social order was a single discursive formation rather than divided into three (or however many) levels.


A new interview with Simon Critchley, who has recently been doing some very interesting work on the relationship between ethics, resistance, and politics.

A couple of interesting parts:

AG: I know you don’t always agree with Chantal Mouffe, but would you concur with her assessment that this motivational deficit has helped cause the current rise of the populist neo-right?

SC: Yes, it has. I mean, I agree with Chantal in many ways in terms of political diagnosis and I agree with her critique of liberalism. I disagree about her political agenda, in particular the way she wants to deprive it of any ethical motivation. For me, there has to be an ethico-political core to any notion of political practice. What’s wrong with someone like Chantal is a hypnotized fascination with figures like Carl Schmitt, who seems to be doing real politics. For me, there are problems with that, but the diagnosis I agree with. The populist right is growing all around in Europe. I have a part time job at the University of Tilburg in the Netherlands and I have been experiencing that close up. This is particularly frightening, because you have a demotivation on the political level which is producing a populist reaction centered around immigration and the meaning of “Dutchness.”

So, that’s the diagnosis and then I’m continually suspicious of the “gifts” of liberal democracy, freedom and voting, which people seem to identify with democracy, which has never been particularly plausible to me. And, you know, talk of a liberal cosmopolitan order sort of makes me want to vomit. I’m also very suspicious of Obama and I’ve been critical of him since before he was elected and during the campaign, because he’s not what he appears to be to some people on the left.

AG: Perhaps you could say something about the notion of a distance to the state, which is important to you. Why is such a distance necessary – why not just take power, for example?

SC: Let me start with this thought: there is no distance from the state. The state is far from having withered away, as Marx hoped for or as certain libertarians imagine. If we could do away with the state in the manner of classical anarchism, maybe that would be great and maybe that is conceivable in certain contexts, but I would argue that the time is not necessarily ripe for that now. On the contrary, the state has become much more pervasive, in terms of its political and bio-political regulation of human life. This is a fact. The linking of that to corporate capitalism is a fact. In a sense, there is no distance – every space is visible and controlled. Therefore, distance is not something you can take or take up, it has to be created. So the idea I have here, is that in a state form that is oppressive, political creation or imagination should be mobilized in a way that allows some new space to become visible. In “Infinitely Demanding,” I talk about the politics of the sans-papiers in France, as well as Mexican indigenous people, because there you have groups which comes into visibility through a certain act of political articulation. They come into visibility as something that is at a distance to the state, actually has rights enshrined by a labor convention, but those rights are not recognized and then a political struggle begins. I think politics is at its most noble about the articulation of this interstitial distance. The civil rights movement in the US was another example of that, where something obscene or invisible enters into visibility in a new way that exerts a pressure on the state, which forces recognition. That’s the business of politics, as I see it.

Social democracy and the State

What is living and what is dead in social democracy? asks Tony Judt in what will probably be his last piece for the New York Review of Books. Sadly diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease last year, Judt delivered this lecture at NYU back in October. In it he lamented the increased privatization of public industries and services. Judt argues that the ideals carried by social democracy in the early 20th century are impossible to revitalize today, but that we should still focus on the state as the bulwark for mitigating the damages of privatization. Furthermore, according to him we must redefine the economistic terms on which we think about society and its needs.

There is something hollow in Judt’s analysis. Perhaps the most prominent critique against social democracy is precisely that its reliance on the state is an anachronism. Instead of learning to “think the state once again,” as Judt suggests, we should begin to think how we can provide alternatives to the state while still providing public goods to all. Interestingly, Judt identifies the state with the public realm, arguing that it is needed because it, and not society, is what binds citizens together. In the past I would have been more convinced by this rationale than I am now. The public services that the state provides–transportation, health care, and so forth–are clearly not the same as the public we speak of when talking about citizenship and the political realm. To equate public services with the political public is to play a game of reductionism that ultimately does lead to still calling upon the regulative and administrative functions of the state.

Judt does make one interesting, although tangential, point: “It is the right that has inherited the ambitious modernist urge to destroy and innovate in the name of a universal project.” Where does this leave the left today? Is it supposed to accept this trade off and actively propagate a form of conservatism by defending the state, as Judt thinks? To me this seems to go directly against his own skepticism about social democracy in the 21st century. Instead, without any idea of universal teleology to back it, the goal of the left should be to innovate new ways of thinking about both socialism and democracy, and so fill a much needed conceptual void.