The strategic turn in post-Marxist Discourse Theory

Thomas Jacobs, PhD Researcher at Ghent University

Alan Williams tweeted a few years ago that for having a book entitled Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (HSS) as magnum opus, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe had remarkably little to say about political strategy. Indeed, while the concept of strategy features regularly in HSS, it is not crucial to understanding the book’s central argument. It remains equally low-key in their later work, and is all but absent in most of the secondary literature in post-Marxist Discourse Theory published in the quarter-century post-HSS.

Yet recently, something resembling a strategic turn can be discerned within Discourse Theory (DT). In Germany, Martin Nonhoff started working on a rigorous theorization of strategy that fits within DT’s ontology. Eva Herschinger reappraised the notion for the first-time for an Anglophone audience. The hugely influential Inventing the Future by Srnicek and Williams placed strategic reflection about how progressives win at politics in the 21st century at the centre of its argument. And to make the circle full, Chantal Mouffe’s most recent work, For a Left-Wing Populism, wonders what kind of political strategy the Left needs to pursue in order to successfully implement its progressive projects.

The roots of this emerging strategic turn in post-Marxist Discourse Theory lie at least partially beyond academia, with radical political parties like Podemos and Syriza that drew inspiration from Laclau and Mouffe. The realization that their abstract insights and theories about the Political could be successfully mobilized for small-p parliamentary and extra-parliamentary politics, undoubtedly motivated discourse-theorists to take a closer look at how they could study, analyse, and understand tangible political strategies.

But more academic developments certainly played a role too in the triggering of this strategic turn. About fifteen years ago, thinkers like Lash, Beasley-Murray, Arditi started to challenge the poststructuralist interpretation of hegemony in a rigorous fashion. The ensuing intellectual debate was far more sophisticated than the rather virulent spat between the post-Marxists and Marxists like Geras, Wood, and Mouzelis in the early nineties. Favouring a paradigm they called ‘posthegemony’, Beasley-Murray and his companions argued that the post-Marxist take on hegemony does not suffice to salvage the concept, and wager it is time for the contemporary Left to develop non-hegemonic strategies by embracing networked, viral, rhizomatic, and exodus politics.

The posthegemonic critique of Laclau and Mouffe definitely has flaws, but it also offers one of the clearest and most incisive formulations of a crucial problem plaguing post-Marxist Discourse Theory: it is ambivalent about whether hegemony is an ontic or an ontological category.


‘…a progressive project that promotes hegemonic politics must also promote the liberal-democratic heritage, and engage in the furthering, and deepening of its core values – liberté, égalité, fraternité.’

Laclau and Mouffe see hegemony on the one hand as a historically specific form of doing politics, that arose from the ‘Democratic Revolution of Modernity’ at the end of the 18th century. The possibility for hegemonic politics came into being together with modern liberal democracy, and the two are closely intertwined. As such, a progressive project that promotes hegemonic politics must also promote the liberal-democratic heritage, and engage in the furthering, and deepening of its core values – liberté, égalité, fraternité. Laclau and Mouffe call this project ‘radical democracy’. Yet contrary to this ontic interpretation of hegemony, Laclau has also presented hegemony as an ontological category. He claims that every social practice has a hegemonic dimension and that all meaning is ultimately hegemonically constructed, and that all politics is therefore hegemonic. This formulation presents hegemony as a timeless, space-less, universal category – hegemony encompasses the Political.

Posthegemony theorists have for definitively confirmed the lingering sentiment that these two accounts are fundamentally incompatible. Yet they usually proceed by reducing DT to the ontic dimension. If hegemonic politics is merely one form of politics, it can be argued that it was never or is no longer a viable approach, and that an alternative posthegemonic politics through networks, autonomous zones, and exodus, constitutes the future of the left. However, a different reaction to this internal contradiction in DT, could be to embrace the ontological dimension of hegemony. This implies abandoning the idea of an innate link between democracy and hegemony, and instead framing DT as a metalanguage for understanding politics as such. In this vein, the result of the poststructuralist turn in hegemony theory is not a normative project like radical democracy, but instead a framework for describing and explaining the effects of political interventions. Obviously, in such an interpretation, strategy all of a sudden becomes a key concept.


If hegemonic politics is merely one form of politics, it can be argued that it was never or is no longer a viable approach, and that an alternative posthegemonic politics through networks, autonomous zones, and exodus, constitutes the future of the left.

Some of the first scholars to recognize DT’s potential for strategic analysis were oddly enough rather critical of Laclau and Mouffe. Boucher and Critchley for instance, both pointed out that an internally fully coherent elaboration of DT’s main principles results in a rather Machiavellistic theory about how power is contested and maintained, devoid of any normative or ethical considerations. The growing number of far-right groups bastardizing Gramsci’s ideas, lends credence to this hypothesis. Yet whereas Boucher and Critchley perceived this normative deficit negatively, the strategic turn in DT embraces the potential of hegemony as an ontological category and seizes it to analyse the outcomes and results of political projects, regardless of their goals.

A discourse-theoretical perspective thus alerts us to the ideological dimensions of strategy. It reveals that political strategy is not just about the schemes of spin doctors, politicians, and movement leaders, but that it also involves a structural and intersubjective component. A political strategy always constitutes an articulation into an order of discourse, and hence, its effects, its chances of success, and its political consequences can be discursively analysed. Every articulation, no matter whether it is inspired by the idea of a posthegemonic exodus, an explicitly counterhegemonic move, or just an isolated demand, affects the balance of forces at the hegemonic level, and DT equips us to study precisely how it will do so.


‘…political strategy is not just about the schemes of spin doctors, politicians, and movement leaders, but that it also involves a structural and intersubjective component.’

This strategic turn pushes DT into a completely new and unexplored corner of the pantheon of critical theory. Questioning when and why particular political moves (fail to) work, and thinking through the “adaptability” of the left-wing project so that it may actually be implemented, constitutes an entirely novel form of critique. Some might argue that it in fact does not constitute critique anymore at all, since this guise of DT has abandoned the normative ground from which it can be claimed something is bad or wrong. Yet if studying how progressive social change can be effected is a valuable and worthwhile endeavour in its own right, this relinquishing of normative ground does not mean DT has to lose its critical edge. Instead, such a move creates a clear division of labour between critical theories explaining the roots and oppressive effects of power, and DT as concerned with the ideological dynamics of the exercise of power.

About the author

Thomas Jacobs is a PhD candidate at the Centre for EU Studies, Ghent University. His main research interests include EU trade policy, international political economy, and political communication. Most of Thomas’ work focuses on discourse, meaning-making, signification, and strategy in political praxis, departing from a poststructuralist perspective, more specifically the discourse-theoretical tradition of Laclau and Mouffe. Prior to entering academia, he worked as a consultant at a Brussels-based communications and public affairs firm.

Populism: What’s in a name?

In 2018 the most used and abused term was undoubtedly that of ‘populism’.

Professor Ronaldo Munck

Rarely has a term been so over-inflated and so over-extended that it has become practically meaningless, while at the same time achieving iconic status. I propose here to carry out a (very) brief deconstruction of the term populism and the presentation of an alternative reading based on the work of the late Ernesto Laclau (On Populist Reason) and my own Latin American in Europe hybrid viewpoint.

When the liberal newspaper The Guardian ran a long feature on populism (https://www.theguardian.com/world/series/the-new-populism  ) we knew it had arrived as it were. The general gist of the project was that ‘populism’ was a major political foe in the global North for all left-liberal folk. It introduced authoritarianism and irrationality into good old centrist politics. These so-called centrists included Tony Blair and Hilary Clinton who were given a platform for their views that included for the latter a call for the liberal centre in Europe to lead on keeping migrants out so that migration would not become an issue of the populist right. The mind boggles is all I can say ( https://blog.oup.com/2016/01/migration-global-trade-unions/ ).


Rarely has a term been so over-inflated and so over-extended that it has become practically meaningless, while at the same time achieving iconic status.

The new Northern orthodoxy on populism emerged in the mid 2000’s as a way to categorise such diverse emerging political figures such as Trump, Farage, Le Pen, Wieder and  Urban, along with their Suthern cousins such as Chávez, Morales and the Kirchners. Populism was defined as an anti-elite politics, also anti-pluralist and usually based on some type of identity politics (Jan-Werner Müller What is Populism).

The purpose of defining populism we are told is to help in defeating it as it is a threat to liberal democracy, whether it comes from the far right or the far left. The current crisis has, apparently nothing to do with neo-liberalism and its paroxysm in 2008-09, the austerity politics which followed or the popular reactions against both. By focusing on this version of ‘populism’ as the cause of democratic decline this liberal onslaught has itself undermined democratic institutions and the very meaning of democratic citizenship. It has allowed the liberal political classes to evade responsibility for the authoritarian trend in the North Atlantic (eg Trump, Brexit, Le Pen) while scapegoating those resisting it (eg Sanders, Corbyn, Melenchon) and demonising those in the global South who have combatted neo-liberalism such as the progressive regimes of Latin America dubbed ‘bad’ because populist lefts.

Central to the development of a national-popular will in Latin America was the concept of the people (pueblo). For Ernesto Laclau it is only by developing and extending Gramsci’s work in this area that we can overcomethe exclusion/opposition between particularity and universality in the construction of the people. “For him there is a particularity a plebs—which claims hegemonically to constitute a populus while the populus (the abstract universality) can exist only as embodied in a plebs. When we reach that point, we are close to the ‘people’ of populism” (Laclau 2005, p. 107). The development of populism is probably the main difference between Latin American political development and that of other regions. To this day, in international commentary on the “left populism” of Chávez et al. we find quite an ethnocentric emphasis on the irrationality of populism and a constant tendency to see it as the enemy of “normal” political development toward class patterns and progressive social transformation. For Laclau , on the contrary, “populism presents itself both as subversive of the existing state of things and as the starting point for a more or less radical reconstruction of a new world order wherever the previous one has been shaken” (Laclau 2005, p. 177). The old order was changed utterly by the emergence of this nation-popular ideology and worldview. It could also become radicalized at key conjunctures when the “people-oligarchy” opposition became the dominant divide in society.


The old order was changed utterly by the emergence of this nation-popular ideology and worldview. It could also become radicalized at key conjunctures when the “people-oligarchy” opposition became the dominant divide in society.

In Western Europe, on the other hand, the term ‘populism’ is used mainly in a pejorative way to refer to the rise of a new right and its demagogic leaders. The different trajectory of the term in Latin America should warn us against any claims to universality of this discourse. Yet we may also learn from Latin America where the left ‘populism’ of the post 2000 left governments was also the result of the flawed and biased system of representative democracy that preceded them. Maybe the ‘crisis of representation’ referred to in the Latin American debates may also be a factor in the rise of the ‘new populisms’ of the North Atlantic. Following Laclau we can understand how populism is best understood as a political logic or discourse that belongs neither to the left or the right (this does not mean it is beyond left and right but that is another issue). This populism creates a ‘logic of difference’ between power and those challenging it. The construction of a people – populism?- is not therefore a degradation of democracy. Indeed, all successful socialist movements in the past have been ‘populist’ in this sense. It emerges this as subversive of the political order, the existing state of affairs and offers a starting point for a more or less radical reconstruction of society.

The construction of a people – populism?- is not therefore a degradation of democracy. Indeed, all successful socialist movements in the past have been ‘populist’ in this sense.

The Latin American debate on populism could maybe be brought to bear in Western Europe to provide a different vantage point to what has become a rather debilitating polarisation between ‘populism’ and centrist liberalism. It could add some nuance and complexity to the debate especially from a progressive perspective. That has already happened through the  engagement of Ernesto Laclau and in particular Chantal Mouffe with Podemos in Spain (see  https://www.lwbooks.co.uk/book/podemos-in-name-of-people   ). But there is far less sign of a broader perspective in the Anglo sphere. It would allow us to move beyond the notion that liberal democracy was an unambiguous human good and populism an obvious bad.

The cause of radical democracy is ill-served by a demonization of populism and an uncritical embrace of liberalism. We would do well to recall now- in the midst of the complex Brexit crisis- what Laclau said in relation to what ‘creates the conditions leading to a populist rupture’ which we saw as a ‘situation in which a plurality of unsatisfied demands and increasing inability of the institutional system to absorb them differentially exist’

The Limits of EUrope

‘The Limits of EUrope’ special edition of Global Discourse is out this month… Co-editor Russell Foster previews the edition:

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Russell Foster, Co-Editor of Global Discourse: EUrope Special Edition.

‘EUrope’ is changing. In the most visible way this change has recently manifested itself in a drawn-out Brexit which will satisfy no-one, the rise of Euroscepticism and illiberal democracies in response to immigration and integration failures, a potentially resurgent eurozone crisis and continuing economic disparities across the EU, and mounting perceptions of a democratic deficit and the (il)legitimacy of EU institutions. These raise many difficult questions, the hardest of which is – can the EU survive?

Our special edition “The Limits of EUrope” examines the challenges to the EU, and explores possible causes, and theories, of European disintegration. EUrope is changing rapidly – still struggling to respond to the aftershocks of the last few years while facing imminent challenges for the new European Parliament. The next European Commission will inherit an EU racked with political, economic, social, and institutional difficulties, with European populations strongly divided between those who see the Union as their best defence and those whose understandable anger and sense of abandonment are projected onto the EU.


Free movement, free trade, and a pooling of sovereignty – the dreams of the ECSC’s and EEC’s creators – are not merely a reality; they are a reality which threatens to bring the entire European project crashing down.

This journal brings together some of the leading scholars of EU studies, as well as experts from policymaking, civil advocacy, and industry, to investigate the serious challenges facing EUrope. For the first time, the post-war promise of democratic, peaceful, prosperous and open political union is not merely threatened, but is perhaps the cause of its own reversal. Free movement, free trade, and a pooling of sovereignty – the dreams of the ECSC’s and EEC’s creators – are not merely a reality; they are a reality which threatens to bring the entire European project crashing down.

Popular consensus holds that mass Euroscepticism was defeated in 2017. But as current events across the EU demonstrate, the root causes of mass dissatisfaction have not gone away. The challenges which have faced EUrope since 2008 have neither been resolved nor disappeared of their own accord, and are likely to return in the future along with new challenges resulting from Brexit, a weaker German government, Macron’s tumbling approval ratings, and a right-wing surge from Andalusia to Saxony. These challenges necessitate new academic models of Europeanisation, de-Europeanisation, and EUrope itself.

This interdisciplinary, international special edition, which draws together a diverse mixture of opinions, beliefs, backgrounds and specialisms, is a first step towards understanding how EUrope’s successes may be the cause of EUrope’s failures. It is now abundantly clear that EUrope will not be the universal political, economic and social model anticipated in the heyday of integration and expansion, and that while EUrope is unlikely to fragment or shatter as was widely predicted during the heights of the Eurozone and Migration crises, future EUrope will be very unpredictable. A new Parliament, a new Commission, the approaching end of the Merkel and Macron administrations, and the unforeseeable aftermath of Brexit – all of these will have major impacts on EUrope. What will be the future of EUrope? This journal offers some of the earliest thoughts.

Call for Papers: The Politics of Negative Emotion

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Dan Degerman, Issue Editor

Call for papers: The Politics of Negative Emotions

Global Discourse, Volume 11, Issue 1

Abstract        

Edited by Dan Degerman, Lancaster University (d.degerman@lancaster.ac.uk)

Negative emotions seemingly lie at the heart of recent political changes and movements in the West. Anger, fear and sadness have, to varying degrees, been implicated in the outcome of the Brexit referendum and the rise of Trump, on the one hand, and the persistence of Black Lives Matter and the impact of the Me Too movement, on the other. Rightly or wrongly, the negative emotions of disadvantaged groups and their role in political action have long been a subject of suspicion, criticism and regulation. A philosophical tradition that stretches from Plato to Martha Nussbaum has urged us to keep negative emotions like anger and jealousy out of politics, and to instead nurture positive ones, like love and compassion. Yet, that must be confounding to minorities, the poor and other marginalized groups, whose political claims frequently originate in negative emotions and take the form of emotional expressions. Indeed, their marginalization and attendant suffering has been exacerbated by processes, such as medicalization, which prompt individuals to think of their anger, fear and other painful emotions as personal problems to be dealt with in the medical or some other ostensibly apolitical sphere. But not everyone believes negative emotions must be kept out of politics. Some feminists have long defended the political value of anger. And, more recently, such thinkers as Judith Butler and Deborah Gould have highlighted the politically empowering and constructive role that other negative emotions can play as well. But whether these newer perspectives can survive the popular trend of blaming our contemporary political problems on passions like anger and fear remains to be seen.

This issue of Global Discourse seeks to examine the specific challenges posed by political responses to negative emotion through engagement and analysis of real-world cases, such as the rise of the far right in Europe and the US, Brexit, Black Lives Matter and Me Too. Possible questions to be explored include:

  • What is the relationship between negative emotions and political agency?
  • Who is permitted to express negative emotions, and whose emotions get medicalized, irrationalized or depoliticized in some other way?
  • Should negative emotions play a role in political processes, such as elections and referenda, policy-making and protests?
  • Should liberal democratic governments seek to expel negative and instil positive emotions in their citizens?
  • What is the relationship between negative emotions and the politics of well-being?
  • Can there be a politics of negative emotions independent of identity politics?

Submission instructions and deadlines

Abstracts of 400 words: 1st March 2019

Articles (solicited on the basis of review of abstracts): 1st August 2019

Publication: mid-2020

Instructions for authors

Please submit by email all abstracts and articles to the Guest Editors

Further details: https://bristoluniversitypress.co.uk/journals/global-discourse/instructions-for-authors

Editor contact details: Dan Degerman (d.degerman@lancaster.ac.uk)

Journal Aims and Scope

Global Discourse is an interdisciplinary, problem-oriented journal of applied contemporary thought operating at the intersection of politics, international relations, sociology and social policy. The Journal’s scope is broad, encouraging interrogation of current affairs with regard to core questions of distributive justice, wellbeing, cultural diversity, autonomy, sovereignty, security and recognition. All issues are themed and aimed at addressing pressing issues as they emerge. Rejecting the notion that publication is the final stage in the research process, Global Discourse seeks to foster discussion and debate between often artificially isolated disciplines and paradigms, with responses to articles encouraged and conversations continued across issues.

The Journal features a mix of full-length articles, each accompanied by one or more replies, policy papers commissioned by organizations and institutions and book review symposia, typically consisting of three reviews and a reply by the author(s). With an international advisory editorial board consisting of experienced, highly-cited academics, Global Discourse publishes themed issues on topics as they emerge. Authors are encouraged to explore the international dimensions and implications of their work.

All research articles in this journal have undergone rigorous peer review, based on initial editor screening and double-blind peer review. All submissions must be in response to a specific call for papers.

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