Laclau’s Intervention at the Conference “The Reasons of Populism”

 “The Contribution of Psychoanalysis and Philosophy to the Theory of Political Conflicts Today

Chamber of Deputies (Montecitorio), Rome, October 25, 2013

I have received two requests that are very different one from the other.  The first is that I should not forget to make some references to Heidegger, which anyway I wouldn’t forget to do.  The second is that I should not forget to make some references to the “Grillini”[1].  Establishing a relationship between Heidegger and the “Grillini” is certainly a challenge and I’m going to try to deal with this challenge the best I can.

On several occasions I have said that the intellectual history of the 20th century started with three illusions of immediacy, that is to say, of an appeal to an ultimate foundation.  These three illusions were: the referent, the phenomenon and the sign, and they give rise to the three main currents of contemporary thought which are: analytic philosophy, phenomenology and structuralism.

Now, at some point the illusion of immediacy started dissolving, and this dissolution leads to the assertion of the ontological priority of one or another form of discursive mediation.  The discursive mediation, which was derivative in the original formulation, is put into question and becomes primary.  In analytic philosophy this is what happened with the second Wittgenstein, the Wittgenstein of the Philosophical Investigations, which put into question the logical atomism of Gottlieb Frege and especially that of Bertrand Russell.  In phenomenology this is what happened with the existential analytic of Heidegger and in structuralism with the post-structural critique of the sign.  These three developments show a basic homology and what I intend to do with you today is to present this homology, by speaking about the notion of the “Abgrund” in Heidegger, the notion of the “objet a” in Lacan and the notion of hegemonic class in Gramsci.  The three of them represent movements which essentially go in the same direction.

So let’s start with Heidegger.  The basic notion of Heidegger is the notion of Abgrund.  It’s a critique of foundationalism, and of the assertion of a fundamentum inconcussum (unshakable foundation) of objectivity.  Heidegger says that in the place of the foundation there is no positive foundation, but an abyss.  The abyss is actually the foundation.  So his discourse tends to undermine any kind of foundationalism of a metaphysical type.  Now many readings of Heidegger, especially anarchistic ones, have tried to show that Heidegger is saying that there is no foundation at all.  In fact I think that this reading is wrong.  What Heidegger is saying is that in the place of the foundation there is an abyss, and that the place of the foundation does not disappear.  The place of the foundation remains there and it is simply the content that is going to be filling that space to be put into question.

So, he is saying that what will represent the foundation is something that is not established from the very beginning.  There is no absolute overlapping between the place of the foundation and the content which is going to fulfil that place.  So we are left with a situation in which we have on the one hand to put into question whatever candidate for filling that place is going to emerge, and on the other the place as such is not really put into question.  This means that there is always going to be some kind of contingent element, which will fill the role of the foundation.  What is denied is that there is a foundation that, in terms of its content, is absolute.

This is a problem that Western metaphysics has posed from its very beginnings and it is a problem that all foundationalism has encountered.  For instance Plotinus said that the One is absolutely self-sufficient and closed in itself.  But, if this is the case, why did the One have to spread itself in ever lower levels of objectivity in order to reach the point of becoming matter?  There is an unsolved problem here and in the Christian version the situation was similar.  If God was self-sufficient and absolutely perfect, then why did he need to create a world?

So the only solution attempted was that of Hegel, which is to think that any kind of ontic transition is in itself ontological.  But that is exactly what Heidegger puts into question: there is no ontic transition that has an ontological value and there is no ontological value that is expressed through ontic transition.  There is a moment of radical investment of the absolute in a particular object, and this is the Abgrund.

The two sides of the Abgrund are firstly the assertion of the impossibility of a content that, in itself and by itself, represents the absolute, and secondly the assertion that the need for an absolute is not put into question.  So the first approach, that Heidegger will call the ontological difference, presumes that this gap between the ontic and the ontological is never going to be entirely filled, and this is what will open the way to a constant transition, by means of which contingent contents will occupy this place.

The second movement that I want to refer to is the notion of the “objet petit a” in Lacan.  Lacan starts from the Freudian notion of the Thing.  For Freud the Thing is a world in which there are no internal fissures, an absolute world which is totally self-sufficient.  Now this world, as Freud himself asserts, is some kind of retroactive illusion.  It is always going to be impossible to reach this self-sufficient totality.  But in that case what is the response?  The response is that at some point some particular object, that Lacan will call the objet petit a, starts incarnating the function of representing this absolute that is beyond representation.  So the Freudian Thing is an object that is at once necessary and impossible.

It is necessary because without this totalization there would be no structure of experience.  It is, however, impossible, because no particular content is called to fulfil this essential role by itself and in itself.  So we are going to have the investment in some particular object and this moment of investment is something that escapes from the representation within a totality.  This is Lacan’s basic argument.

If we compare Lacan’s argument to Heidegger’s, we find that they are saying exactly the same thing.  In both cases there is the assertion that the place of the absolute is not removed, but the objects that are able to represent the absolute are constantly changing.  So, in the psychoanalytic experience the object’s place, with this role of agglutinating the meaning of the whole discursive field around itself, changes totally from one case to the other.

Freud, in opposition to Carl Gustav Jung, states that this is an individual experience.  There is no such thing as a collective unconscious present in all individual experiences.  So, if you take the case of the “Rat Man” in Freud, you find that one word “rat”, an ordinary word in our language, in a certain discursive situation assumes a representation of a novel point around which all other significations are organized, and this takes place by putting into question the association at the level of the signification and at the level of the signified.

For instance there was the idea that rats spread venereal diseases.  The idea of sex is thus associated with the word “rat“.  But in German Rate also means a payment as an instalment.  So money now enters into the constitution of the complex of meanings of the word “rat”.

Finally “Spielen Raten”, or gambling, an expression that is no longer used in German, but that was used at Freud’s time, is associated with the fact that the Rat Man’s father was a gambler.  And so the idea of the father enters the complex.

So, an element not in itself destined by its inherent meaning to represent the role of an agglutinating nucleus assumes this role through this set of associations.  Psychoanalytic experience as a whole is organised around this unevenness, by which some terms acquire a meaning that they do not normally have in the language of other people.  So, here we have something that I have tried to deal with myself in my work in a more, let’s say, linguistic analysis.  As you know, according to de Saussure language is a system of differences.  To understand the meaning of one term is to know the way this term can be differentiated from others.  To understand the meaning of the word “father” I must understand the meaning of the word “mother” and the meaning of the word “child”.  So it is a basic principle of structural linguistics that in a language there are only differential terms and not positive ones.  This means that if language is going to be a structural whole and a meaningful whole it has to constitute a totality, but in order to constitute a totality the limits of this totality have to be established.  Hegel said that in order to understand and to see the limits of something I have to see what is beyond those limits, and what is beyond these limits is going to be another difference.  So, in that case, if this is the system of all difference, the element beyond the limit has to be internal and not external to the system.  So, how do we overcome this difficulty?
Simply by saying that the element outside the limit is not just one more element, but that it belongs to the nature of an exclusion, and so if this element is excluded the rest of the elements are organised as a systematic totality.

Let me give you an example that I have analysed.  In the course of the French Revolution, Saint-Just said that the unity of the Republic is only the destruction of what is opposed to it, that is to say the aristocratic plot.  In this case, on the basis of one exclusion we could organise the system of all the differences as a systematic whole.  However this is something that immediately poses another problem because, vis-a-vis the excluded element, the other elements are not simply differential between themselves, but equivalent to themselves.  In this case, the relation of equivalence, which is what puts into question a differential relation, is however a condition of possibility of the differential relation as such.  So we have a no man’s land between relations of equivalence and relations of difference.  Any kind of signifying identity is going to be divided by the tention between these two opposing logics.  Thus we have an object that is impossible and that is however necessary if there is going to be signification.

What is the possibility, however, of representing a totality in these conditions of internal contradiction and tension?  It is only possible if one particular element assumes the representation of the whole, without ceasing to be a particular element.  Now, a partiality, which at some point assumes the representation of a totality that is incommensurable with it, is exactly what we call a hegemonic relation.  A hegemonic relation is the construction of a nodal point around some signification.  But this signification is internally divided in the way I have just described.  So, here we have in a hegemonic relation, and with this I establish a transition to Gramsci, the same kind of internal logic and tensionthat we found in Heidegger and in Lacan.  In all three cases we have a particular element that assumes the representation of the whole.  The means of representation, to use the term Freud uses in The Interpretation of Dreams, are going to be considered to be inadequate, but the need for representation remains.

This is, for instance, what has been established as the difference between anti-foundationalism and post-foundationalism.  In the case of anti-foundationalism, for instance in the work of Ferir Raven, we find the assertion that there is no ultimate ground, so there are only accidental differences.  In the case of post-foundationalism the place of the ground is not denied, but the occupation of this ground is going to change all the time.

With this we can now move to Gramsci.

Gramsci represents the highest point in the trajectory of Marxist thought.  Before Gramsci Marxist thought had been based on what in this presentation we have called “foundationalism”.  That is to say that there was a necessary class belonging of the social agent and the whole had to be expressed through the objective interactions of this differential class identity.  You have to think that the basic theory of classical Marxism was that there was a tendency towards the increasing homogenisation of society.  The basic sociological theory was that society advances towards a simplification of its social structure.  As a result of the law of capitalist development, the middle classes and the peasantry would disappear and the result is that the last showdown of history would be a direct confrontation between a homogenous proletarian mass and the capitalist bourgeoisie.  This thesis was presented a hundred times during the period of the Second International.

Karl Kautsky, for instance, asserted in a polemic with Georg Von Vollmar, the leader of the Bavarian social-democrats, that the task of the socialists was not to defend all oppressed groups, but only the workers, because only they are the bearers of the future of humanity, so that by concentrating efforts in defence of the workers’ interests and by leading the capitalist productive forces that were developing and destroying the other sectors, in the end the socialists would represent the vast majority of the population.  There are hundreds of examples of this.  Menotti Serrati, the leader of the Italian Socialist Party after the First World War, asserted that he was deeply intrigued by the fact that, although the economic situation of Italy was so bad and the oppressed classes were suffering ever so much, the revolution had not started.  He didn’t think for a moment that he himself, as the leader of the most important proletarian party of Italy, had some responsibility for what was happening in one or the other direction.  This notion started disintegrating once people began to think that there was a heterogeneity of the social that could not be subsumed under this type of approach.

With this we are going to reach Gramsci, but before that let’s look at a couple of steps that are important to understand the meaning of Gramscian intervention.  The basic point where heterogeneity is going to emerge is when the relationship between agents and tasks starts to become more and more blurred and problematic.  In the first place you have the classical thesis according to which the paradigm of the bourgeois democratic revolution is the great French Revolution of 1789.  This idea of the Revolution assumes (and today we know historically this is somewhat wrong) that the leading class in the Revolution was the capitalist bourgeoisie, which led to democratic revolution and destroyed absolutism, and that such an event would lead to a long period of capitalist development, at the end of which new contradictions would emerge, that would bring the socialist task to the centre.

When we move from the West to the East of Europe, this model becomes less and less viable.  The unification of Germany and the development of German capitalism was not the result of the actions of the Rhenish bourgeoisie.  Instead it was the result of Bismarck and the Prussian Junkers.  When we reach Russia the situation is even more complex, because over there capitalism had developed and there was a flourishing working class, but there was no indigenous bourgeoisie because capitalism had developed as a result of foreign investment.  The result was that the democratic task was on the agenda, but the natural agent to carry out this task, according to the classical scheme, was not present.  So we end with a situation in which the task had to pass to a different sector, in this case the working class in Lenin’s scheme, in alliance with the peasantry, and the result is that the democratic revolution would take place, but not led by the bourgeoisie.

Now the question is in this case: does the fact that the working class takes up democratic tasks not change the class nature of the working class? And, on the other hand, does the fact that democratic tasks are taken up by the proletariat not change something in the nature of these tasks?  Not according to the Leninist scheme.  The tasks continue to be bourgeois even if they are carried out by the proletariat.  So, from this point of view, the democratic [Russian] revolution was always a democratic revolution.  And to suppose that the nature of the working class would change because it was taking up these tasks was to put into question the purity of the class nature of the proletariat.  The motto of the Bolsheviks was to strike together and march separately.

Later on, however, things started becoming more and more complicated because in the 1920s it was seen that this was not just a Russian peculiarity, but one that characterised several other political processes taking place in the world.  And so the theory of combined and uneven development was formulated.  Any kind of historical development was going to combine, in a non-orthodox way, the relationship between agents and tasks.  In the 1930s Trotsky said that the combined and uneven development is the terrain of all contemporary social struggles.  But in this case, if there is no social struggle representing a non-orthodox combination of the relationship between agents and tasks, what is a normal development?

This is what, I think, Gramsci understood.  And he developed a theory of hegemony where the task did not have any necessary class reference and the agglutinating forces were no longer classes in the classical Marxist sense, but they were what he called collective wills (volontà collettive); that is to say, he started presenting a theory about the relationship between agents and tasks and the constitution of social identity that incipiently… – because he did not develop the theory very much but all the signs pointing in the direction I am referring to – …incipiently asserted what we have seen in Heidegger and Lacan, that is to see the need for a centre, but the impossibility to attribute a priori the function of the centre to a certain group.  The centre itself had to be constituted through the process of social struggle, which he called a “war of position”.  So, Gramsci represents a turning point in the history of Marxism.  After that we have what can perfectly well be called a post-Marxism; that is to say the recognition of a plurality of elements, a plurality of logics, and we cannot remain so much, as we did in the past, in the classical terrain of Marxism.  We have entered a terrain in which this new logic of hegemony is going to have the upper hand in the constitution of collective identities.

The history of all this is long and I want to simply point out four aspects – otherwise we could end up discussing these matters until tomorrow at breakfast time.  Firstly, what is exactly a relationship in which an element, which is not produced naturally through a situation and does not develop out of the situation, but is however injected into the situation in order to represent a whole that has no necessary form of representation?  This is a rhetorical move, a figurative move, which means that one term replaces another, but secondly this term that replaces another is not replacing something that has a direct form of expression, but something that only exists through this figural form of representation.  This means that the central rhetorical figure to analyse objectivity, and politics too within objectivity, is the figure of catachresis.  This is a rhetorical figure, but it is actually more than that, as I will explain in a second, for which no literal term can be substituted.

For instance Homer talks about the “countless smiles of the sea”.  This expression can be replaced by “waves”.  So it is simply a metaphor.  But if I talk about the wings of a plane or the wings of a building, this is a figural term because neither the plane nor the building really have wings, but there is no literal term that can replace it.  This is a catachresis.  Cicero said that catachresis is employed because there are more objects in the world that have to be named than the words available in our language.  For him this was an empirical deficiency of language, but we know better, because we know there is something that is inherent to the structuration of any language.  So we have a situation in which the catachresis is central, in so far as, in all the three cases we have quoted, something has to be named that has no proper meaning by itself.  In the case of Heidegger, the Abgrund means that in the place of the Grund, the ground, there is an abyss.  So the entity occupying that place is going to be catachrestical, and rhetorical in nature.  In the case of the object “petit a” in Lacan, the Freudian Thing can have no direct form of expressing itself, because it is a retroactive illusion and an impossibility.  So the “object a” occupies the place of the Thing.  In the case of Gramsci, the hegemonic group is not predetermined by history, which occupies that place, but is a result of a war of position through which a certain content is nucleated around a breaking point.  So in all three cases we have rhetoric in a central position, and I think that to explore the ontological significance of rhetoric is going to be a major task in the years to come.

The second aspect is that the relation of representation becomes constitutive.  When we speak about representation we naturally think that something that has to be represented pre-exists before the process of representation.  Now, after everything we have said here, we know better.  The relation of representation is constitutive.  In contemporary philosophy there has been a lot of discussion about the relation of representation.  Gilles Deleuze, for instance, maintains that representation is impossible because it presumes a previous presentation – the archetype would be Platonic anamnesis – and, as there is no initial presentation, representation cannot take place.

Derrida apparently says the opposite, but I think he’s basically saying exactly the same thing.  He says: “because there is no initial presentation there are only movements within a process of representation, but this representation is the only presentation that there is”.  Apparently [Deleuze and Derrida] are saying the opposite, but in fact they are saying exactly the same thing.  So, a second ontological dimension is the exploration of the relation of representation, of the logic of representation, and the way in which it operates in our societies.  In our societies we have representation at various levels, breaking into the relations of representation, and I think the essential point is to understand that representation is not a second level that presupposes a previous showing of each side of  the thing, but it is the basic terrain by which objectivity as such, political objectivity among other things, is constituted.

Finally I would like to say something concerning politics and our political reality.  I think any kind of political relation in our societies is constituted around two axes: one is the horizontal axis of what I would call autonomy, and the other is the vertical axis of restructuring of the state that we call hegemony.  What about the first horizontal axis of autonomy?  There is a tendency in some trends of contemporary thought to privilege exclusively the horizontal relation of autonomy.  This, I think, is one sided.  In what way is the horizontal chain constituted?  I have studied this in detail in my books, which some of you will have read.

Let’s suppose we have a repressive regime, and within this repressive regime the metal workers start a strike for higher salaries.  Apparently the demand is a very limited, a punctual one, but because this demand takes place in the context of a repressive regime, it is going to lead to a mobilization that is seen as a mobilization against the regime, so a second dimension is added to the first.  Because of that, the following month, in a different locality, students start a demonstration against discipline in educational institutions.  The two mobilizations–one for salaries, the other for a change in the code of disciplines–are totally different, but they are equivalent because they are both seen as expressions of opposition to the regime.  Then, in a third locality, there is a campaign of banquets of liberal politicians for freedom of the press, and so a chain of equivalents between demands is formed.

In Poland, for instance, Solidarność was at first just a protest group of workers in the Lenin naval workshops in Gdansk, but because the protests took place within a system where many other demands were also denied, the symbols of Solidarność acquired an increasing centrality.

This horizontal dimension of equivalential demands is obviously a condition of any democratic development in our societies, but there is a danger of trying to emphasise this dimension exclusively, without taking into account the transformation of the state.  In fact, if this transformation and reform of the state does not take place, which is the second dimension of hegemony, this mobilization will sooner or later die away.  The danger of movements like the indignados in Spain today is that by exclusively emphasising the outside-state dimension, which is necessary but should not be exclusive, this type of mobilization ends in nothing.  The second dimension is that of hegemony, and it attempts to reform and transform the state, but if this dimension takes place outside the democratic or horizontal dimension, the reform of the state can end up in purely bureaucratic practices that will be more or less incorporated into the existing system.

One of the problems that I find today in Europe is that these two dimensions are moving in separate directions without establishing any kind of connection.  Only certain movements, like Siritza in Greece, try to move in both directions at the same time.  But, if on the one hand we have the ultra-libertarianism of autonomy and on the other the purely liberal practice at the level of the state, we are going to end up in a short-circuit from which no political solution from the left will be possible.  In Latin America, I think, the National Popular regimes have been able to advance better into both directions.  In the Venezuela of Chávez, in the Ecuador of Correa, in the Argentina of de Kirchner and in the Bolivia of Eva Morales, we see an attempt to transform the state, while at the same time incorporating vast sectors of the population into the public field.

In order to finish, I now wish to say that the construction of hegemony is a complex process, one that involves many different directions and that at the theoretical level involves the formulation of a post-foundationalist philosophical problem, and at the level of political practices it involves moving in a different direction from that within which politics takes shape.


[1] The “Grillini” are the supporters and representatives of the “Movimento 5 Stelle” [Five Stars Movement], an Italian political party/movement led by former comedian Beppe Grillo. This movement, often labeled by its opponents as “populist”, obtained close to 25% of the vote in the April 2013 Italian General Election. 


Ernesto Laclau (1935–2014) was an Argentine political philosopher often described as post-Marxist, whose ideas about “radical democracy” and populism influenced politicians from Latin America’s new left as well as activists around the world. His essays and books drew on the work of Antonio Gramsci to probe the assumptions of Marxism, and to illuminate the modern history of Latin America. He studied History in Buenos Aires, graduating from the Universidad Nacional de Buenos Aires in 1964, and received a PhD from the University of Essex in 1977. Since 1986 he served as Professor of Political Theory at the University of Essex, where he founded and directed for many years the graduate program in “Ideology and Discourse Analysis” (drawing on the work of Lacan, Foucault, Derrida, and Barthes), as well as the “Centre for Theoretical Studies in the Humanities and the Social Sciences”. The theoretical and analytical orientation he founded with Chantal Mouffe is known as the “Essex School of Discourse Analysis”. His books include: Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory (London: NLB, 1977), Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, with C. Mouffe (London: Verso, 1985); New Reflections on the Revolution of our Time (London: Verso, 1990); The Making of Political Identities, ed. (London: Verso, 1994); Emancipation(s) (London: Verso, 1996); Contingency, Hegemony, Universality, with Judith Butler and Slavoj Žižek (London: Verso, 2000); On Populist Reason (London: Verso, 2005) and The Rhetorical Foundations of Society (London: Verso, 2014).

Publication Date:

November 19, 2014

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European Journal of Psychoanalysis