Identity politics often finds negative attention from across the political spectrum. Laclau and Mouffe in their book Hegemony and Socialist Strategy pay tribute to the usefulness of different social movements emergent in the 60s and 70s, whilst warning of the dangers of fragmentation for class solidarity.
The return of leftism as a site of engagement for young people often feels split between a language of class struggle that rings hollow to our jaded ears and a language of many struggles (gender, sexuality, race etc.) that, despite claims for ‘intersectionality’, can unite its adherents only in their losing position in the culture war.
This places us within that terrain defined by the emergence of the New Left in the 60s and the triumph of neoliberalism in the 70s—which Laclau and Mouffe’s book, first published in 1985, supplies with a new political logic.
This logic is hegemony: what pertains, according to Laclau and Mouffe, when society is understood as discursive, as existing through discourse. The book’s first half is a stunning genealogy of the concept as it lay dormant in early 20th-century Marxism, before breaking out, like the chest-burster from Alien, in the work of Gramsci. Again and again they show how class essentialism and historical determinism are incompatible with hegemony’s radical contingency: no groupings exist in advance and everything depends on articulation.
Laclau and Mouffe’s precise understanding of discourse, outlined in the second half, makes their text a model of poststructural social analysis: a) Objects exist only as the objects of discourse, which is not to deny an external reality (as STEM accuses the humanities of doing—often rightly), but to say that discourse itself is material. b) Discourse is never fully constituted, which means that society never exists positive and entire. All its positions are split, as it were, from the inside, and this split is the site of real antagonisms.
The existence of class antagonism is not denied—rather, the claim that it alone gives history a sense of direction. The advantage of presenting hegemony through the Marxist tradition, as Laclau and Mouffe write in their introduction, was simply that ‘it constitutes our own past’.
As we look to that same past in search of our own political histories, this precise and forceful book is an essential guide.