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order; an order that satisfied the long- Military power is no longer the modus

term goals of the hegemon (109). Binding operandi of European states in their strug-
the question of hegemony to the history of gles to realize national interests. Rather,
German geopolitics challenges the founda- economic power and trade have become
tional assumptions of liberal hegemonic the new tools of statecraft and Germany’s
theories: hegemons create stability – at economic growth has placed it in the posi-
least theoretically – and shoulder the costs tion of ‘geo-economic semi-hegemony’
of institution-building to foster advanta- according to the author. Rather than pro-
geous economic and political conditions voking coalitions to counter the strength of
across the region. Kundani sees Germany Germany’s armed forces, Kundani sees a
inherently as a source of instability, new type of ‘encirclement’ thrust upon
regardless of the degree to which we might Germany as its neighbours aim to contain
assign that state hegemonic status. German economic power (109).

About the Author

Luke B. Wood is an Associate Instructor of Political Science and European Studies at Indiana

the hedgehog from the pampas:

ernesto laclau and the
impossibility of society
jüri lipping
Institute of Government and Politics, University of Tartu, Lossi 36, Tartu 51003, Estonia

doi: 10.1057/eps.2015.49; published online 28 August 2015

Books reviewed
The rhetorical foundations of society
Ernesto Laclau (London, Verso, 2014), 256 pp., ISBN: 978-1781681701

Ernesto Laclau: Post-marxism, populism, and critique

David Howarth (ed.) (London, Routledge, 2015), 294 pp., ISBN: 978-0415870870

rgentinian political theorist Ernesto University of Essex. Ever since the pub-

A Laclau, who died in April 2014, was

a long-standing professor and the
founder of the Ideology and Discourse
lication, 30 years ago, of his ground-
breaking book Hegemony and Socialist
Strategy (co-authored with Chantal
Analysis doctoral programme at the Mouffe), Laclau’s name has become a

jüri lipping european political science: 15 2016 271

standard reference in the field of post- object which grounds its own partial pro-
Marxism, the terrain that he helped to cesses is an impossibility’ (Laclau, 1990:
create through a deconstructive reading 90) – has guided all Laclauian endeavours
of the Marxist tradition, rejecting along to theorize the nature of political unity and
the way its various forms of essentialism the status of social totality. What prevents
(economic determinism, class reduction- society from completely constituting itself
ism, historicist teleology). Laclau pro- as a wholly objective order is the presence
vided an extremely original and of ineradicable antagonistic relations that
provoking synthesis of Marxism with permeate the field of the social. As there is
diverse strands of contemporary critical no transcendental signified, no single
theory and centred around the Gramsci- underlying principle that could arrest the
inspired notion of hegemony. endless play of signification and thus cir-
By utilizing the conceptual resources of cumscribe the whole field of differences, all
post-structuralist philosophy, and by attempts to institute society as a self-suffi-
expanding the theoretical arsenal of the cient entity will necessarily fail. This failure,
Gramscian political thought in particular, however, is a productive one because the
Laclau has radically innovated a vocabu- lack of fullness is precisely what instigates
lary of politics and introduced a whole set the search for better arrangements and
of new categories to political analysis. His motivates the formation of new identities.
intellectual efforts have brought about an As Laclau repeatedly emphasizes, the
inventive and memorable reformulation condition of possibility of something is also
of many key concepts of political theoriz- its condition of impossibility. While the
ing such as power (‘power is a trace of impossible object named society can never
contingency within the structure’ (in be present in its full positivity – this insight
Howarth, 2015: 28)), subject (‘subject is derives naturally from the critique of the
a distance between the undecidability of metaphysics of presence – it can nonethe-
the structure and the decision’ (in Mouffe, less be re-presented, albeit in a necessarily
1996: 56)), hegemony (‘hegemony is a oblique and twisted way. Laclau speaks in
theory of the decision taken in an unde- this connection of ‘constitutive distortion’,
cidable terrain’ (Laclau, 1996: 90)), ideol- which implies projecting into something
ogy (‘ideological distortion projects on a that is essentially divided the illusion of a
particular object the impossible fullness of fullness and self-transparency. The space
the community’ (in Howarth, 2015: 80)), of representation is therefore inherently
representation (‘representation is the pri- figural or rhetorical, and, since literality is
mary terrain of constitution of social no more than an (impossible) zero degree
objectivity’ (Laclau, 2005: 163)), popu- of figurality, the tropological movements
lism (‘constructing a “people” is the main preside over the constitution of whatever
task of radical politics’ (in Howarth, 2015: identity, subjectivity or totality. As Laclau
165)), and society (‘society does not argues, ‘a central place in this rhetorical
exist’ (in Laclau, 1990: 249)). ordering is occupied by catachresis – that
The latter thesis in particular has become is, by figural terms that cannot be substi-
a veritable catchphrase of Laclau’s dis- tuted by literal ones’ (Laclau, 2014: 123).
course-analytical political theory. Formu- Rhetorical figures are thus endowed with
lated as early as 1983 in a short article an ontological value. The elucidation of this
‘The Impossibility of Society’ (included in claim is precisely the subject of Laclau’s
Laclau, 1990), the fundamental insight that last book, The Rhetorical Foundations of
‘society is not a valid object of discourse’ Society.
(Laclau and Mouffe, 1985: 126) – that Basically a selection of articles published
‘ “society” as a unitary and intelligible during the last 15 years, The Rhetorical
272 european political science: 15 2016 the hedgehog from the pampas
Foundations of Society is no systematic itself-into-question: there is no ‘mani-
treatise on the subject, unlike Laclau’s fest destiny’ requiring that the ontologi-
penultimate book, On Populist Reason cal investment take place in that
(2005). The title is aptly chosen, while particular object. It is in that sense that
the notion of ‘rhetorical foundations’ the moment of the investment is con-
could be regarded as Laclau’s rejoinder stitutive: it cannot be explained by any
to the notion of ‘contingent foundations’ underlying logic different from itself.
proposed by Butler (1992). As she It is for that reason that the abyss is
argues, the point is not to do away with also ground. (Laclau, 2014: 122)
foundations altogether but, rather, ‘to
interrogate what the theoretical move Laclau argues elsewhere that he has
that establishes foundations authorizes, tried to detect the multiplicity of discur-
and what precisely it excludes or fore- sive surfaces in which the irreducible
closes’ (Butler, 1992: 7). Along the same ‘ontological difference’ shows itself in
line, Laclau explicitly characterizes his modern and post-modern philosophy
essays as ‘contributions to the construc- and political theory (in Critchley and
tion of a political ontology’ in view of the Marchart, 2004: 338). The originary split
displacement of the general ontological between the ontological and the ontic
terrain, that is, in the context of post- orders opens up a space of tension
foundationalism which, in the words between universality and particularity,
of Oliver Marchart, refers to ‘a constant and consequently gives rise to alternat-
interrogation of metaphysical figures of ing processes of constitution and desti-
foundation – such as totality, universal- tution of society. These processes –
ity, essence, and ground’ (Marchart, Laclau also employs terms such as
2007: 2). grounding and degrounding, or sedi-
This has been Laclau’s fundamental mentation and reactivation – are gov-
claim all along, namely, that politics erned by two opposing yet mutually
(in its hegemonic dimension) does not implicated movements. As Laclau puts it
designate any regional or ontic category in an interview with David Howarth, one
within the wider social field, but should can find the same basic homology at all
rightly be considered as the moment of levels of analysis of human reality: ‘in
the institution and constitution of the linguistics it is the duality paradigm/
social. However, it is only recently that syntagm; in rhetoric, metaphor/meto-
Laclau has directly discussed the ques- nymy; in psychoanalysis, condensation/
tion of ontology and attempted to gen- displacement; and in politics, equiva-
eralize the philosophical background of lence/difference’ (in Howarth, 2015:
his hegemonic approach to politics. The 261). The logic of operation is always
chapter ‘Antagonism, Subjectivity and inherently the same: certain particular
Politics’ (the only text previously unpub- objects will be invested with a new
lished in English) puts this succinctly: dimension transcending their ontic rea-
lity. This is what hegemony is all about,
The Heideggerian Abgrund, the Laca- and that is why political moment has a
nian objet a, and the Gramscian ‘hege- foundational – that is, constitutive – role
monic class’ show a similar ontological to play in human social life.
structure. In all three cases we have the The essay collection Ernesto Laclau:
ontological investment in an ontic Post-Marxism, Populism, and Critique,
object, and in all three cases the con- which appears in the series ‘Routledge
tingent character of this investment Innovators in Political Theory’, is a stan-
shows itself through its radical putting- dard selection of rather familiar writings

jüri lipping european political science: 15 2016 273

by Laclau that span the 30-years period work has been his willingness to engage
beginning from 1977, although the bulk publicly with a wide range of different
of it dates roughly from the decade theorists. Throughout his career, Laclau
between 1995 and 2005. There is some has built his theory in a constant dialogue
overlap with The Rhetorical Foundations; with alternative intellectual currents, bear-
indeed, one third of the essays contained ing in mind Gramsci’s remark that one
in the latter also appear in the former. always needs the stimulus of some agonis-
As its title suggests, Post-Marxism, Popu- tic confrontation to develop one’s own
lism, and Critique is divided into three thought. These essays are exciting read-
thematic blocs where the first part pre- ings which demonstrate their author’s
sents, in words of the editor Howarth, ability to give serious thought to rival the-
‘the key ontological assumptions and oretical approaches, to explore the extent
postulates of Laclau’s mature theory, to which these can be adapted and repro-
focusing especially on his concept of dis- duced in his own approach, all the while
course and its implications for social and considering respective differences and dis-
political analysis’ (Howarth, 2015: 18). agreements against some commonly
The second part offers three texts that shared background.
deal – historically and conceptually – with In his otherwise very sympathetic
the phenomenon of populism which has review of Jacques Derrida’s Specters of
been Laclau’s recurrent interest through- Marx, Laclau points out Derrida’s tempta-
out his career not only as a scholar but tion to provide the political moment with
as public intellectual as well, reflecting the messianic twist, and to (over)load
his long-time experience with Latin ontological emptiness with the emancipa-
American politics. tory potential. However, such a transition
What is lacking in this selection are from structural undecidability to an ethical
more detailed accounts of the affective injunction should be considered as illegiti-
dimension which, after all, forms an inte- mate, according to Laclau: ‘from the fact
gral part of the hegemonic logic. As Laclau that there is the impossibility of ultimate
has repeatedly emphasized, ‘there cannot closure and presence, it does not follow
be any stark separation between signifi- that there is an ethical imperative to “cul-
cation and affect, given that the latter is tivate” that openness or even less to be
only constituted through a differential necessarily committed to a democratic
cathecting of the various components of a society’ (in Howarth, 2015: 208). By situ-
signifying chain’ (Laclau, 2014: 65–66). ating his own theoretical intervention
Considering various misunderstandings somewhere between deconstruction and
that Laclau’s deployment of Lacanian pragmatism, Laclau also agrees with a
psychoanalysis has generated, and in great deal of Richard Rorty’s analysis,
view of the ‘affective turn’ in today’s especially with his post-metaphysical,
humanities and social sciences, including anti-essentialist approach to the matters
some relevant material from the book of politics, yet he criticizes Rorty’s notion
On Populist Reason would have been of ‘liberal utopia’ for a series of short-
helpful. comings, not least for his inability to
About one third of both books consists of recognize that antagonism constitutes
essays in which Laclau discusses the work the very condition of democratic society:
of various contemporary radical thinkers ‘Rorty sees as necessarily united many
by subjecting them to a critical assessment things that for me are radically discon-
from the perspective of his own theory of tinuous … For Rorty the three words
hegemony. As Howarth rightly remarks, “bourgeois liberal democracy” constitute
one important characteristic of Laclau’s an indivisible whole; for me there is
274 european political science: 15 2016 the hedgehog from the pampas
between them only a contingent articula- is precarious and depends on a historical
tion’ (in Howarth, 2015: 253–234). construction out of heterogeneous ele-
Giorgio Agamben’s project of Homo ments’ (in Howarth, 2015: 216).
Sacer, on the other hand, incurs some In this regard, Laclau finds Alain Badiou’s
deep reservations concerning its theo- ethical reflections most congenial, but
retical conclusions. His genealogy of he takes issue with Badiou over the more
sovereign power is not sensitive enough general question concerning the project of
to the structural diversity that derives fundamental ontology. Here Laclau suc-
from the existence of antagonistic social cinctly reiterates his theoretical position
practices in various political contexts. which so clearly underpins the whole fra-
By misinterpreting the political (non)rela- mework of The Rhetorical Foundations of
tion between sovereignty and bare life, Society:
which in Agamben’s overly pessimistic
Is there a field that is more primary than
perspective represents the unavoidable
that uncovered by set theory which
advance towards a totalitarian society –
would allow us properly to account
cf. his claim that the concentration camp is
ontologically for the type of relations
the secret destiny of Western politics –
that we are exploring? I think there is,
Agamben ignores the emancipatory possi-
and it is linguistics …. Metaphor, meto-
bilities that each new situation opens:
nymy, synecdoche (and especially cat-
‘Instead of deconstructing the logic of
achresis as their common denominator)
political institutions, showing areas in
are not categories describing adorn-
which forms of struggle and resistance
ments of language, as classical philoso-
are possible, he closes them beforehand
phy had it, but ontological categories
through an essentialist unification. Politi-
describing the constitution of objectiv-
cal nihilism is his ultimate message’
ity as such. (Laclau, 2014: 204–205)
(in Howarth, 2015: 241).
Laclau also discusses several weak- Slavoj Žižek, finally, stands accused of
nesses in the theoretical edifice of Michael many serious errors, most hilarious of
Hardt and Antonio Negri, claiming that which – given Žižek’s penchant to call
‘what is totally lacking in Empire is a the- himself a ‘card-carrying Lacanian’ –
ory of articulation, without which politics being his inability to ‘understand the
is unthinkable’ (in Howarth, 2015: 218). theoretical status of the Lacanian Real’
Their central theoretical category of (in Howarth, 2015: 184). This is because
immanence dispenses with any idea of of the fact that ‘Žižek systematically dis-
political mediation which is based on the torts Lacanian theory to make it compa-
recognition of radical social division, that tible with a Hegelianism which is, in most
is, antagonism. The political subject that respects, its very opposite’ (in Howarth,
their theory presupposes – multitude as a 2015: 174). As a consequence, Žižek’s
natural expression of positive, creative approach displays a total blindness to
and disruptive forces, as a spontaneous the hegemonic dimension of politics,
unity of singular elemental resistances – which is even more striking since Žižek
has no need for any work of hegemonic used to claim that the authors of Hege-
articulation. But that renders political mony had reinvented, through their con-
action utterly redundant. As Laclau puts cept of antagonism, the Lacanian notion
it, the real theoretical watershed in con- of the Real as impossible, and demon-
temporary discussions is ‘either we strated its relevance for the social-ideo-
assert the possibility of a universality logical field.
that is not politically constructed and Ten years ago, Laclau outlined the pro-
mediated or we assert that all universality grammatic perspective of his research
jüri lipping european political science: 15 2016 275
along the three axes that together consti- veritable hedgehog. He had this one big
tute a sort of theoretical space: ‘Rhetoric, idea – the fundamental insight into the
psychoanalysis, and politics (conceived as antagonistic nature of society – which he
hegemony): in this triad I see the future of ceaselessly explored from many differ-
social and political thought’ (in Critchley ent angles and theoretical perspectives
and Marchart, 2004: 326). Laclau has (philosophical, psychoanalytical, rheto-
made substantial contributions along all rical, semiotic). It would not be an exag-
of them, as is also testified by the two geration to say that Laclau has tried to
present essay collections, which repre- develop the intellectual architectonic of
sent his legacy in the best possible way. ‘populist reason’, working everything
Without delving deep into these often into his main thesis concerning the hege-
exciting and always inspiring essays, a monic character of the social link and the
few final words about the general intel- ontological centrality of the political.
lectual outlook of their author. To my He was indeed a great systematizer who
mind, Laclau has always been, to employ succeeded in setting up one of the most
Isaiah Berlin’s celebrated distinction exciting theoretical frameworks for
(‘the fox knows many things, but the analysing social processes as well as
hedgehog knows one big thing’), a fostering political emancipation.


Butler, J. (1992) ‘Contingent Foundations: Feminisms and the Question of ‘Postmodernism’’, in J. Butler
and J. W. Scott (eds.) Feminists Theorize the Political, New York: Routledge.
Critchley, S. and Marchart, O. (2004) Laclau: A Critical Reader, London: Routledge.
Howarth, D. (ed.) (2015) Ernesto Laclau: Post-Marxism, Populism, and Critique, London: Routledge.
Laclau, E. (1990) New Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time, London: Verso.
Laclau, E. (1996) Emancipation(s), London: Verso.
Laclau, E. (2005) On Populist Reason, London: Verso.
Laclau, E. (2014) The Rhetorical Foundations of Society, London: Verso.
Laclau, E. and Mouffe, C. (1985) Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics,
London: Verso.
Marchart, O. (2007) Post-Foundational Political Thought: Political Difference in Nancy, Lefort, Badiou and
Laclau, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Mouffe, C. (ed.) (1996) Deconstruction and Pragmatism, London: Routledge.

About the Author

Jüri Lipping is a Lecturer of Comparative Politics in the Institute of Government and Politics at
the University of Tartu. His research interests include continental political thought, theories of
the political, post-Marxism, and deconstruction. He has edited and translated the collection of
Laclau’s essays Antagonism, Politics, Hegemony into Estonian.

276 european political science: 15 2016 the hedgehog from the pampas