Political theory belongs somewhere between political philosophy and political science. Sometimes it remains philosophical while at other times it requires a rigorous science. The political thought of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe belong to the realm of political philosophy. They write about a form of radical democracy that is rarely discussed in political science but has a wide following in political philosophy. Their ideas belong to the far left. They both build on Marxist ideas and reshape them. They explain that “if our intellectual project in this book is post-Marxist, it is evidently also post-Marxist.”
Philosophical schools since Wittgenstein place an emphasis on language. The quotation above plays on the idea of post-Marxism in a parallel emphasis on post and Marxist. A change in emphasis changes the meaning of a word or phrase. In a similar way, it is unclear whether radical democracy places greater emphasis on ‘radical’ or ‘democracy’ in the philosophy of Laclau and Mouffe. Indeed, their commitment to a socialist strategy often distracts them from a grander theory of democracy.
Nonetheless, it is impossible to divorce socialism from radical democracy. Before this becomes apparent it is necessary to explore what Laclau and Mouffe call the political. Radical democracy believes social decisions are best made through the political process. Every social institution becomes subject to the deliberation of the social body. This is the primary influence if not the philosophical basis of the Democratic Socialism championed by Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. The neoconservatism or neoliberalism of Reagan and Thatcher removed the political from many aspects of public life. Capitalism becomes a challenge to democracy because it removes significant aspects of society from the democratic process in the name of economic liberty.
But there is a real danger in this interpretation of the political. There is no explanation for why human rights are removed from political debate. There is no justification for why political speech is not subject to the political process. Human rights are largely taken for granted as an important component of the liberal democratic state. But this neglect is a challenge for radical democracy as a comprehensive political theory. There is an implicit assumption of the presence of Western liberal democracy. But this makes it impossible to apply these ideas to nonwestern political environments that struggle to democratize. The theory fails to offer universal concepts applicable beyond their political environment.
Radical democracy falls short of a comprehensive theory of democracy but serves as a substantive critique of contemporary democratic practice. Hegemony is the central concept of the book. It becomes a lens to critique the political system, but also a guide to reshape it. The idea of hegemony is grounded in the writings of Antonio Gramsci. Politics involved a ‘war of position’ but the conflict is fundamentally nonviolent because “in Gramsci there is a demilitarization of war.” But the absence of violence is not an absence of conflict. Indeed, the essence of politics is conflict. Resolution does not come from compromise and consensus. Public policy emerges from a hegemonic position. Over time, the political opposition is reshaped and transformed into something capable of overtaking the hegemonic position.
Binyamin Applebaum’s recent book The Economists’ Hour gives some credibility to the hegemonic critique. Neoliberalism became the political ideology of the political center. Both parties in the United States and the United Kingdom embraced neoliberalism in different degrees. It has only become evident in the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump that a new populist ideology has begun to emerge. But this interpretation diminishes the role of political parties. Huntington also recognized the political process as a peaceful form of conflict. But he believed political parties represented distinct political orientations. Applebaum portrays Democrats and Republicans as adherents to a common neoliberal political vision. Political conflict is made through the debate and discussion of political ideas rather than elections. Elections are not enough to change the hegemonic position. It takes a substantive change in the political direction from those who win elections.
Sometimes it is a challenge to remember Hegemony and Socialist Strategy was written in 1985. The neoliberal revolutions of Reagan and Thatcher had only just begun. The emergence of the center-left acceptance of neoliberalism under Clinton and Blair was not imaginable. Nonetheless, they recognized a shift in political thought that was transformative. Yet they wanted to offer a challenge to this new political vision. And they recognized Marxism was not a sufficient challenge to the emergence of the neoliberal consensus. They foresaw the challenge of the left to offer an alternative political narrative. They write about the failure to rally around a single flashpoint such as “feminism, anti-racism, the gay movement, etc.” The left had lost direction in its drift away from its commitment to the worker. Sheri Berman continues to write about this same phenomenon. The predicament of the left has not substantially changed in thirty-five years.
Despite all this, radical democracy remains an important concept in political thought because it strives to incorporate political liberty as a vital component of political ideology. Hayek, for example, wrote volumes about civil and economic liberties but his idea of freedom was “defined negatively… Political liberty is ostensibly excluded from this definition.” This is where Marx and Hayek align in their political thought. Both believed the ends of the political process were more important than the means. Capitalist writers such as Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand believed the growth of the state through public policy was the great danger to human liberty. But they fail to consider the extent they will go to constrain the state. Conservatives often show a false deference to constitutionalism. But their commitment is not to popular governance and the duties and obligations necessary for republican government. They use constitutions as a political veto to rule out proposals they dislike. But it is a false deference because they refuse to respect the duties constitutions demand.
Laclau and Mouffe recognize an important contradiction in the neoliberal commitment to liberty and freedom. Neoliberalism seeks to bring about the dissolution of the political. It is most obvious in economics where the government’s role is dramatically reduced. But Hayek, Friedman and Rand believe nearly all decisions have a clear and decisive answer. The political process becomes an unnecessary interference. In this manner, the ideological basis of neoliberalism is incompatible with democracy.
The return of the political becomes the central theme necessary to give socialism a new sense of relevance. But this transformed sense of socialism cannot stand alone. It is based in the political process. It is ironic because this transformation does not guarantee an increased role of the state. Rather it brings all forms of social interaction into the domain of public discussion and deliberation. Nothing is beyond the realm of the political. In contrast, Thatcher had said, “There is no such thing as society.” Neoliberalism establishes a divide between the public and the private. But the proponents of neoliberalism give a clear preference to the private over the public. Aspects of public life become redefined as the domain of the private individual until nothing remains. Radical democracy reorients this perspective. Nothing remains private. Everything is political. But in practice this philosophy does not bring about socialism. This mantra reflects what has become known as populism. And in this sense, radical democracy may represent a challenge to liberal democracy.
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