Post lecture notes for students of IR 6901: (Week 7) Introduction to Discourse Analysis, with a special reference to religio-political discourse

By Farish A. Noor ~ April 21st, 2010. Filed under: Lecture Notes.

Laclau and Mouffe: Discourse Analysis and the realities of shifting politics

I. Explaining the context of Laclau and Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Shifting social dynamics and the demise of traditional class-based politics.

Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (1985) was written at a time when many left-wing intellectuals and ideologues were labouring over the question of how to construct and foreground a democratic project in a society and at a time when many settled understandings of Left politics – particularly the notion of class difference and the role of the working class as the primary support-base of left-leaning politics – were being undermined, revised and questioned by the social changes taking place all around them.

In order to understand the anxiety and concern of post-Marxist theoreticians like Laclau and Mouffe, we need to locate the work in its social-political and historical context. Written in 1985, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy was a response to the failure of the Labour party to win over public support after the rise of Margaret Thatcher and the changes that she brought about to the British Conservative Party.

Thatcher was an interesting politician in British post-war and post-colonial history for a number of reasons: She rose to become the first woman Prime Minister of Britain and the leader of the hitherto traditionalist Conservative party to boot. This was unprecedented in the history of the Conservative party, whose very name suggests its conservative-traditionalist biases and values. Yet Thatcher not only came to power in 1979/80, but she remained in power for five consecutive terms, ending up as the Prime Minister with the longest record in office in British history.

Not only did Thatcher maintain power for two decades, she heralded changes and reforms in the Conservative party that were deemed impossible prior to assuming office: Under Thatcher, a series of major changes and developments took place in the British Conservative party:

  1. Britain’s foreign relations were geared towards a closer working relationship with the United States of America, thereby reinforcing the ‘special relationship’ between the UK and USA, particularly when the latter was under the leadership of President Ronald Reagan;
  2. The UK took a unilateral stand to defend its independence vis-à-vis the European Community (later EU);
  3. Britain defended the British Pound and did not commit itself to the Euro;
  4. The British economy retained its independence (over control of national assets/interests at least) but was opened up to foreign capital investment;
  5. The Conservative party began to open up its membership to various minority groups in particular Britons of Asian (Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi) origin, and regarded them as ‘worthy immigrants’ who had contributed to the British economy – while retaining its traditional conservative stand on immigration in general;
  6. The Conservative party abandoned its earlier economic conservatism and embraced free-market reforms and Milton Friedman’s Monetarist policies;
  7. The Conservative party became the champion of economic liberalisation and privatisation, including the privatisation of national assets like water, communications, etc.;
  8. The Conservative party became the champion of what was called ‘the share-owning and property-owning democracy’, encouraging ordinary working-class Britons to invest in their own homes and to develop a home-owning economy;
  9. The Conservative party sought to win the support of the working classes by allowing ordinary members of the public to buy shares in national assets that were put on the stock market and privatised.

Most of the policy shifts and changes (3-9) were populist in nature and were new innovations as far as the conservative party was concerned. It caught the British public by surprise and the Labour party off guard.

After coming to power in the late 1970s when Britain’s economy had been brought to a standstill due to the labour disputes with the industrial sector (the Miners’ strikes of the mid-1970s led to successive Labour governments floundering, with one Labour government lasting less than 12 months in office, and eventually forced to accept intervention by the International Monetary Fund (IMF)), Thatcher’s new Conservative party managed to win the support of a wide section of the British electorate. Significantly, Thatcher’s initial elections victories suggested that the Conservative party was not only receiving the support of its traditional voters, but also the British working classes – something that was worrisome for the Labour party under the traditional leadership of old school Labour leaders like Harold Wilson, Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock.

While all this was happening, the British Labour Party retained its rather traditional outlook and party line, presenting itself as the party that represented the workers and the working class in particular; working on the assumption that the working class would be in natural support base. However, as Laclau and Mouffe noted, by the 1980s several important changes had taken place in British society that were somehow overlooked by the Labour party:

Firstly, in the age of late industrial capitalism the traditional notion of the working class – particularly in Britain – was deemed increasingly irrelevant. Britain by the 1980s was no longer a traditional manufacturing economy and the manufacturing industry had suffered a steady decline from the end of World War Two and the end of colonialism. Britain’s economy was shifting to the service sector, and traditional areas of industry such as wool and other textiles, manufactured home products, automobiles and ship-building were dying out. Britain was being overtaken by the rapidly-developing economies of Asia where operational costs were lower due to economies of scale and this meant that the annual GDP contribution of manufacturing and heavy industries was waning, being overtaken by financial services.

Secondly, the collapse of these old industries meant that in many parts of the north of England unemployment was at an all time high, creating a surplus labour pool that should have benefited the Labour party, but did not. The coal miners’ strike of 1974-75 was the last major orchestrated labour uprising in Britain but the strike paralysed the British economy and led to intervention by the IMF. As a result of this the trade unions lost the support of many sections of British society.

Thirdly, with the expansion of the service sector and the need for new workers, the social landscape of the British corporate world also changed. Thanks to gender emancipation and the promotion of opportunities for women and minorities, by the 1980s there were new labour pools to tap from: notably professional British women and migrant settlers from Asia. By the 1980s there was a significant and visible increase in the number of women and Asians working in the service-oriented and financial sectors of the economy.

Fourthly, the rise of women and minorities meant that new social and economic constituencies had developed as never before: Women were economically more independent and many women were their own income earners by then. Likewise migrants (particularly Asians) were no longer confined to the sectors of menial labour as they were in the 1960s but were moving into the professional sphere too, as accountants, bankers, businessmen etc. This was accompanied with the rise of new identity politics, where women and migrant communities demonstrated their economic clout through their purchasing power. New potential markets were created to cater to these new economic actors/constituencies.

Fifthly, the rise of identity politics (gender/minority politics) was accompanied by particularist identity-based political and economic demands as well: notably representation (in politics) and empowerment (via economics and economic access/participation). Interestingly, it was the free market that adapted and adopted these demands faster and easier than left-wing political movements like the Labour party and the trade unions. While the trade unions and the Labour party leadership were still being dominated by white British men, there were more white British women and Asian professionals in the rising service sector.

The victories of Margaret Thatcher and the ‘new’ Conservative party: The discursive re-engineering of conservative politics in Britain.

Margaret Thatcher and her advisors were aware of these major societal changes, and their success lay in their ability to tap into the aspirations and longings of a new generation of voters whose demands were not being met by the Labour party.

It has to be noted that late industrial capitalism has the ability to adapt to changes in society faster. Modern corporations and multinationals work on the basis of a gender-blind and colour blind logic that takes individual human agency as a commodity to be cultivated, developed, tapped and exploited for its own benefit. Contrary to recruitment practices of the early 20th century, the employment patterns in Britain and many other developed capitalist economies showed a significant change by the 1980s: Women and ethnic minorities were recruited and by employing them and economically empowering them, they were in turn turned into potential consumers/markets themselves.

Thatcher’s ‘genius’ – if we can call it that – was to see and understand that many ordinary working class Britons wanted to escape their economic condition and no longer had any pride in being identified as working class. As such she sought to open up the British economy with a host of liberalising moves that led to the privatisation of many key industries, the shares of which were floated on the stock market and sold back to the British public. This had two effects that were complimentary: it led to what she and her advisors called ‘the share owning democracy’ and it meant that henceforth ordinary members of the public would be stake-holders in the national economy.

The political economy of Thatcherism was therefore innovative in the sense that it broke from the conservative traditions of the Conservative party of the past. The ‘new’ Conservative party under Thatcher was friendlier to the free market than ever before, it relinquished all pastoral care and responsibility for the public (calling itself an empowering state rather than a ‘nanny state’) and it gave the ordinary public a sense of worth – albeit measured in monetary terms. The shift came with the introduction of the policy of universal home-ownership: giving soft easy loans and aid to help Britons buy their homes (as opposed to renting, which was common practice before) and which was opened up to ordinary citizens, including those of lower income.

The net result of these shifts was to pull the carpet from under the Labour party. The Labour party realised that the success of Thatcher was due to the fact that the Conservative party was behaving in a manner unlike its predecessors and that this was a new form of late capitalism at work that was less divisive and more inclusive in its politics. After five successive victories at the polls, Thatcher has effectively re-structured British society where the traditional notion of the working class was no longer tenable: Instead of a unified working class that was made up of workers from the manufacturing industry, the British public by the 1980s and 1990s was a hugely complex assembly of interest groups – based on ethnicity and gender. New identity politics was something the traditional Left was unable to deal with, as the conceptual tools they had at their disposal were still the same tools of traditional Marxist class-based social critique and analysis.

Furthermore the Labour party’s ideologues still held the view that any particularist demands couched in terms of any sort of sectarian/communitarian politics of identity (be it gender, ethnic or religious identity) was contradictory to the spirit of the workers’ revolution and was therefore seen as contradictory to the interests of the working class and the class struggle. However what they did not see or accept was the fact that the socio-economic structures of society had changed with the evolution of capitalism, and that these communitarian-particularist demands were now set in a context of newly emerging socio-political constituencies that were real, and not fictional.

Thus by the 1990s the Labour party was likewise affected by these societal changes: Women supporters of the Labour party demanded more female representation at higher levels of the party, and condemned the trade unions in particular for their sexist bias and patriarchal practices. Minority groups no longer identified the Labour party as the ‘natural’ choice for the immigrant communities, for the Conservative party was openly recruiting from the South Asian migrant communities in the former industrial centres of Manchester, Leeds, Bradford, London etc. Faced with these new demands, the Labour party, the trade unions and the Left movement in Britain were forced to re-think the premises of their leftist socialist-democratic project. And this is where Laclau and Mouffe come in.

II. Laclau and Mouffe: Analysing the discourses of the Left and Right in Britain in the 1980s

We are not concerned with the politics of Laclau and Mouffe here, but more with the theoretical schema of their work and their development of what has come to be known as discourse analysis. It has to be noted that both Laclau and Mouffe were themselves Leftist Marxist intellectuals, but who identified themselves as post-Marxists in the sense that they accepted the fundamental materialism and political economy of Marxist thought, but rejected some of the essentialist ideas and assumptions of the Marxist theory of class struggle. In particular, as they note in their introduction, they were worried about the primary position given to the ‘working class’ in the theoretical framework of Marxist thinking:

‘What is now in crisis is a whole conception of Socialism which rests upon the ontological centrality of the working class, upon the role of Revolution, with a capital ‘r’, as the founding moment from one type of society to another, and upon the illusory prospect of a perfectly unitary and homogeneous collective will that will render pointless the moment of politics.’ (Introduction, pg. 2.)

Laclau and Mouffe rejected what they saw as an essentialist flaw in Marxist theory: Namely the idea/belief that there was such a thing as a unitary working class that was the result of the alienation of labour in the age of industrial capitalism, and the related assumption that this working class would eventually rise against the mode of capitalist production and lead the revolution against capital. This, they argued was an essentialist idea that had no ontological grounding and that any sense of historical determinism in the Marxist framework was purely imaginary: First of all, they insisted that the working class was not a unitary/singular entity, and secondly they argued that there were no historically determinate reasons for the working class (if it existed as a unitary bloc) to rise against the forces of Capital.

The dialectical materialism of Marxist thought was too deterministic/teleological for Laclau and Mouffe, who argued that history and historical progression are never deterministic but always open to contingency. At the core of their critique of Marxist thought was the argument that any notion of the working class as the vanguard of the revolution had to be interrogated further, and that it was necessary to do away with the idea that societal change/revolution would be led by one privileged group/class.

By referring to the realities around them in Britain in the 1980s, they argued that the Labour party had to take into account the very real social changes we alluded to above: namely the rise of new economic and political constituencies that had not been anticipated by traditional Marxist ideology, which were never included in the Marxist dialectic of class struggle. Unlike traditional/orthodox Marxist thinkers who regarded such sectarian/communitarian demands as counter-revolutionary or based on ‘false consciousness’, they argued that these new social-political constituencies marked out the new socio-political landscape of society in the age of late industrial capitalism, where the very notion of ‘Society’ was rendered problematic thanks to the proliferation of new political-communitarian identities and demands.

The broad outlines of Laclau and Mouffe’s critique are as follows:

Firstly, the political discourse of Marxism was flawed thanks to its insistence of the general concept of ‘Society’ as the final goal of the Marxist-workers revolution: Leftist intellectuals still believed that the project of social engineering and revolution was aimed at ‘rescuing’ this thing called ‘Society’, that was seen as a unitary object. Laclau and Mouffe insisted that any unitary notion of Society was false as ‘Society’ – as an entity – could never be fully constituted and represented in any discourse, political, religious or whatever.

Secondly, they rejected the notion of a unitary ‘working class’ that was cast as the vanguard of the Socialist revolution, as they insisted that the notion of a unitary working class was itself a discursive construct that made sense only in the context of Marxist ideology; but that in reality society was already fragmented/alienated from itself and that no such sense of unitary class identity existed.

Thirdly, the rejected the historical determinism of traditional Marxism on the grounds that this determinism was shaped by the influence of Darwin (in the sense of Social Darwinism) and Hegel (in the sense of Hegel’s dialectic) and had no basis in reality. History, they argued, was never pre-determined and pre-ordained, but rather an open field of overdetermination and contingency, where the guiding forces of historical progression were power, struggle, contestation and/or violence. The sense of an ‘inevitable victory’ for the ‘working classes’ was, for them, an illusion, and at best a discursive construct.

Laclau and Mouffe’s own response to the crisis in Marxist thought will be discussed in the next note, where we will look at their analysis of discourses and the ‘A, B, C’ of discourse analysis…

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