Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, Tate Modern, London, 3 June 2001


Hegemony or Socialism? 15 Years: Hegemony and Socialist StrategyTate Modern, London, 3 June 2001

The historical claims of the conference celebrating the fifteenth (actually, the sixteenth) anniversary and second edition of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffeʼs Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, were ambivalent. Sitting in the Tate Modernʼs ʻRed Roomʼ (a mocking shade of vermilion, for some), anticipating the landslide re-election of New Labour and listening to assembled, august members of the New Left, certainly evoked a sense of occasion. Expressed in the terms of a critical question, the event seemed to ask: Was it a huge historical irony that Hegemony and Socialist Strategyʼs critique of the Left was coincident with its disastrous collapse in the face of neo-liberalism, or was it complicit with neo-liberalismʼs current hegemony? Almost without exception the speakers bowed to a more or less tragic sense of irony. Laclau and Mouffe were emphatic: the task today is the formation of an anti-neo-liberal hegemony and Hegemony and Socialist Strategy should be regarded as the paradigm for this task, hence its re-issue. This historical justification of reiteration was awkwardly put. Much has changed since its 1985 début, and though Laclau and Mouffe claim to have anticipated the crisis of the Left, they admitted they did not anticipate its extent. Nonetheless, the new situation did not demand a new book. A new edition would suffice, since – as Laclau rather serenely insisted – it remained remarkably correct in all but minor details.

Mouffeʼs argument was more elaborate: the enemy may have transmogrified from Leninism into neo-liberalism, but what is needed is the same strategy – a new hegemony. Yet this injunction, accepted for the most part by the other contributors, turned out to harbour misunderstandings. These were revealed in the analysis of neo-liberalismʼs hegemony, which proved to be the dominant theme of the day. In particular, Nancy Fraser and Stuart Hall concentrated on diagnosing its naturalization within the ideology of ʻThe Third Wayʼ, the relatively liberal social policies of which enable the defence of the free market to escape the trappings of traditionalism that characterize the New Right. However, it was a contribution from the floor that forced the critical questioning of the relationship of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy to the hegemony of New Labourʼs strategy as itself an emergent ideology of neo-liberalism. Mouffe was indignant, insisting that New Labour is not a new hegemony, at least not in the sense of hegemony articulated in the book. Tragic irony became comic. The empty signifier, which, according to Laclau and Mouffe, enables the hegemony of diverse constituencies, turned out on this occasion to be the concept of hegemony itself.Hegemony and Socialist Strategyʼs formalist analysis of the strategies of ʻthe politicalʼ provides a pathetic substitution for the historical project of socialism. In particular, the specificity of its conceptsʼ scope and applicability need to be recognized if both theoretical and political confusion are to be avoided. This comedy of errors threw Gareth Stedman Jonesʼs contribution into relief. The identification of socialism with democracy, whatever the radical or plural forms Laclau and Mouffe claim for it, is a Jacobin fiction: socialism originated in the anti-Malthusian project for the eradication of the need for democracy through a society without scarcity. A shocking reminder.

Stewart martin