Radical Democracy in the C21st: Requiem or Renaissance?

Dr Russell Foster, KCL

When Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau published Hegemony and Socialist Strategy in 1985, a foundational text of post-Marxism was established. While Mouffe and Laclau were not the first scholars who we should consider “post-Marxists” and the essential elements can be identified in Baudrillard (1972) and Barthes (1957), their influence in navigating Marxist analysis away from the rigid orthodoxy of classes, unions, and exchange mechanisms and towards the discourses, subjects, and identities which are equally vital (but then-understudied) aspects of society, cannot be understated. In the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s disintegration this trend gained even greater academic credibility and, the criticisms of Norman Geras notwithstanding, promised new approaches for a new millennium, offering the tools and mechanisms for understanding, and potentially reshaping, a society which exists as an imperfect combination of the sovereign, self-present subject and collective class agents.

From Syriza’s dismal failures in Greece, to Bernie Sanders’ unremarkable flash-in-the-pan, to Jeremy Corbyn’s inability to bring down the most unpopular Conservative government since the Duke of Wellington’s hated “Ultra-Tories” in 1832, the Left appears to be in retreat or stagnant.

Thirty-three years later, does Post-Marxism retain this promise? The world which was changed by the collapse of the Soviet behemoth has been changed in ways that are more recent and, arguably, more significant. Neoliberalism not only resulted in the Global Financial Crisis, but, in a manner which Herbert Marcuse would have predicted, has not only survived but thrived in the aftermath of its own existential crisis. Weary of the Global War on Terror and the austere legacies of the Crash, populations are turning towards the New Right. This shift, which Cas Mudde calls ‘verrechtssing’ or ‘Right Turn’, takes many forms but shares similar root causes, and manifests not only in events such as Brexit or the appeal of ethnic nationalists and strongmen authoritarians, but in a growing rejection, at a personal level, of the discourses of the centre and the Left. This is itself understandable as the consequence of a Left which has lost its way, moving from staid analyses of economic redistribution to a preoccupation with identity politics – a legacy of Post-Marxism itself, perhaps?

Evidence of this is ample, on public and personal levels. From Syriza’s dismal failures in Greece, to Bernie Sanders’ unremarkable flash-in-the-pan, to Jeremy Corbyn’s inability to bring down the most unpopular Conservative government since the Duke of Wellington’s hated “Ultra-Tories” in 1832, the Left appears to be in retreat or stagnant. At the very least, the Left has lost momentum. At a personal level the Left holds diminishing appeal to voters whose frustration and despair at neoliberalism and globalisation is not enough to push them into the arms of what many see as a Left riddled with anti-Semitism, obsessed with trivial identity discourses, and which is widely accused of trading the progressivism of the twentieth century for the regressivism of no-platforming, censorship, and a culture of victimhood. In a political climate which fuels the rise of the ethnic Right, while the once broad church of the Left degrades into a narrow social-media inquisition excommunicating heretics and apostates, is there a policy dimension left for Post-Marxists?

Classical Marxism is not dead, but it is hibernating.

At first glance it would be tempting to liken Post-Marxism to the scholars of Lagado’s Academy of Projectors in Gulliver’s Travels (1726); savants who waste their time pursuing pointless, narcissistic intellectual fantasies while the people outside the academy’s walls starve. But this would be grossly unfair. The current weaknesses of the contemporary Left are simultaneously its future strengths, and it is in the intellectual contributions of Post-Marxism that the Left’s policymaking future lies.

Post-Marxism emerged in the late twentieth century, clashing with the Old Guard of orthodox Marxism whose fighting retreat denounced focusing on discourses and individuals. Yet it is that same discursive and individualistic approach which renders Post-Marxism valuable for the future. President Trump, Vote Leave, Marie Le Pen and Generation Identity reveal that the Western public is weary of experts, tired of bean-counting economic arguments, and are just as tired of the rigid and exclusive orthodoxies of conservatism as they are of the dusty class-based analyses of Marxism. The rise of the New Right demonstrates that traditional theories and claims of collective class agencies are unpopular; while discourses, identities, and subjects are the new focus of politics. The New Right is capitalising on this, appealing to peoples’ anxieties of cultural erosion, changing group identities, and fears of personal powerlessness in the face of a global establishment which is at best indifferent, at worst contemptuous.

This is not exclusive to the New Right – the Left can, and must, capitalise on this as well. Classical Marxism is not dead, but it is hibernating. In a new Western public sphere which is dominated by fears of exploitation, Post-Marxism offers the tools to not only analyse society, but help reform it. In the new ‘Age of Anger’ the policy implications of Post-Marxism are more relevant, now, than during its Cold War infancy. Like all intellectual traditions, the thoughts inherent to Post-Marxism need to evolve in order to realise the philosophy’s urgently-needed potential. This special edition offers some of those first thoughts.