There is a discursive strategy commonly adopted by politicians, particularly at election time, in the face of discomforting questions. It consists of appearing to respond to a questioner but without actually answering her question. The thing has the external form of an answer but is not one. Practically everyone knows how this works. The politician subtly alters the terms of the question to suit his own convenience, or substitutes a different one, or just repeats what he has already said (which may have prompted the question in the first place), or talks about something else altogether—or uses some combination of these moves. In any case, he does not answer. It is with just such a ‘politician’s reply’ that Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe have responded to my criticisms of their book. To have expected that they would receive these with any warmth would obviously have been foolish. But no even moderately careful reader, such as one might think each of them had good enough reason in this case to be, can have been left in doubt as to what the criticisms were. I lay them out in summary and then show, one by one, how Laclau and Mouffe have thought fit to deal with them.

After a brief introduction, to whose subject matter I shall later return, my critique of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy falls into two main sections. In the first, I argue that the book presents an impoverishing caricature of the Marxist tradition, and in the second, that what it offers instead is intellectually empty. As each of these arguments itself falls into two major parts, there are four contentions here: (1) that the authors caricature Marxism by their habitual procedure of confronting it with spurious, absurdly rigid antitheses; (2) that the account they render of some key Marxist thinkers is a travesty of the tradition, reducing and devaluing it and distorting many of its ideas; (3) that their own social theory is all but vacuous: conceptually slippery at decisive points and unable to explain anything specific; and (4) that it is also normatively indeterminate, fit to support virtually any kind of politics, progressive or reactionary. In addition, early in the first of the essay’s two sections I introduce a theme which is then pursued as and where relevant through both of them, namely: (5) that in the book’s inflated rhetoric of ‘essentialism’, ‘suture’, ‘closure’, there is a facile criticism of the thought of others, undisciplined by responsible criteria and amounting to a form of obscurantism. Finally, in a concluding section on the authors’ overt politics, I note (6) how disappointingly thin are the ideas on democracy from two would-be ‘radical’ democrats and, worse than thin, the appearance here also of some of the more standard tropes of Cold War anti-Marxism. Half a dozen central arguments, then.

Laclau and Mouffe begin their response to the first one by misstating it. I am supposed to have reproached them with having ‘based (their) main theoretical conclusions’ on rigid oppositions; with having ‘counterposed two polar and exclusive alternatives, without considering the possibility of intermediate solutions that avoid both extremes’. footnote1 Not so. And indeed the opposite of the point I make repeatedly: which is that they criticize Marxism in the light of excessively polarized alternatives, whilst allowing themselves the intermediacy they need and, more, downright imprecision and evasiveness. This contrast is formulated—explicitly—at least three times and is fundamental to the structure of my critique. footnote2 The misstatement is an enabling one, in the sense of helping to yield the appearance of answers where there are none, via a shift from the polarity criticized to some other.

(i) Take first, for the unadorned purity of the displacement, the third of the examples I discussed, objective interests. As Laclau and Mouffe do not trouble to remind nlr’s readers which particular antithesis it was I took exception to in this matter, let me do it. It was the ‘clear’ ‘alternative’ (their words): either one has a theory in which ‘an absolutely united working class will become transparent to itself at the moment of proletarian chiliasm’ in which case one can believe in objective interests; or one abandons that theory, and the notion is then ‘meaningless’. I pointed out that a concept of objective interests does not require belief in all of that. No Marxist has to choose between objective interests with chiliasm and the rest and rejecting the concept altogether. To which the ‘reply’ now is: we do not criticize the notion of interests as such, only that of objective interests (as though I had said different); and because we know there are interests, it is not a rigid ‘either/or’ alternative we put forward—meaning presumably that interests as Laclau and Mouffe conceive them stand between objective interests and just no interests. But this was not the alternative I criticized and their own conception of these things, however ‘intermediate’, is not pertinent to what I did criticize: namely, the ludicrous choice they posed for Marxists. Such is what they call showing ‘in all three cases’ how my criticism is based on ‘misrepresentation’. footnote3

It might have been more charitable to pass over this as just the authors’ way of retreating from a formulation they did not wish to defend, were it not for the fact that they have simply replaced that one with others of its kind: to wit, that the idea of objective interests presupposes something inscribed in the nature of agents ‘as a gift from Heaven’; and that ‘only God and Geras know’ how this is compatible with a ‘non-essentialist’ social theory. Well, really . . . I had already noted an occurrence of this gift-from-Heaven ‘thesis’ as a substitute for serious argument, over the question of human nature. footnote4 To no avail. Not just my own and others’ defence of the latter concept on carefully reasoned, theoretical and empirical, grounds but a whole literature on human needs seems to have passed these humanists by. Apostles of intellectual openness and pluralism, they can see no creditable basis for a view here different from theirs; it could only be a slightly crazed conception of socialist revolution or, if not that, then—this. Mark, as relevant to another issue I shall come to, their use of the language of religious faith—‘chiliasm’, ‘gift from Heaven’, ‘God’—as a negative reference point.

(ii) On the question of relative autonomy things are slightly more complex. Laclau and Mouffe are willing this time to defend the rigid alternative I criticized them for posing, so demonstrating that I did not misrepresent them; but only in conjunction with pursuing the claim that I did misrepresent them. No problem: they simply obfuscate the contours of the particular antithesis I complained of—as addressed by them to Marxists—in order to show again how they, for their part, steer a most judicious course between extremes. Citing a passage from their book which, this too, they forbear now to put before the reader, I gave evidence of the choice they defined for Marxism: either so strong a notion of determination that the concept of relative autonomy becomes ‘redundant’; or else the entities theorized as relatively autonomous are simply ‘not determined’ by the set of basic determinants, which cannot therefore be that. This is a choice in effect, I argued, between these determinants determining totally and not determining at all, ‘explaining everything and determining nothing’; a choice, for Marxists, of either openly embracing economism or kissing historical materialism goodbye. At the same time, I made it perfectly clear, not once and not twice but three times at that point in my text, what the authors saw as the proper solution of this Marxist ‘dilemma’: namely (and quoting them), ‘plurality of political and social spaces’, and again ‘irreducible plurality of the social’; and once more (in my own voice) ‘plurality’. Not only that, but I went on later, apropos of ‘hegemonic articulation’, to give an account of this plurality—complex and fluid; ‘crisscrossed by antagonisms’; with no privileged centre but many articulatory practices; of multiply constituted, mutually limiting identities, struggles, movements; and so forth—an account that could have left no one in ignorance of the fact that Laclau and Mouffe do believe in the reciprocal effectivity or mutual interaction of one thing and another. footnote5

In response I told a simple story. If I am chained to a post by the ankle, then the chain is a basic determinant of my lifestyle since it will powerfully affect it—and I enjoy a relative autonomy in what I can do. The story had one point and one point only. This was not to suggest that, say, capitalist relations of production are to the bourgeois state exactly like a chain is to a person chained. Nor was it to deny that there is room for serious argument and difference in this difficult area: I expressed myself—again, quite explicitly—to the contrary, my theme being precisely that it was the way this question, amongst others, was posed in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy that foreclosed the possibility of any fruitful intellectual engagement with a flat, arbitrary ‘either/or’. No, the point of the story was to show that a fundamental determinant, to be one, need not explain or determine everything; that Marxists are not bound to choose—in plainest words—‘between the most extravagant economic reductionism and what the authors here commend to us, just plurality’ (or between the alternatives, as I also put it, ‘Either one is all or all are one’); that we could just hold, about the state in capitalist society, ‘that capitalist relations of production, and the configuration of classes they define, are primary to the explanation of such polities’. footnote6