Monday, April 18, 2011

A short comment on Ernesto Laclau

Ernesto Laclau turns to the work of Rosa Luxemburg in his theorization of the relationship of the empty signifier to politics.  He notes,
      "Let me go back to an example that we discussed in detail in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: the constitution, according to Rosa Luxemburg, of the unity of the working class through an overdetermination of partial struggles over a long period of time.  Her basic argument is that the unity of the class is not determined by an a priori consideration about the priority of either the political struggle or the economic struggle, but by the accumulated effects of the internal split of all partial mobilizations.  In relation to our subject, her argument amounts to approximately the following: in a climate of extreme repression any mobilization for a partial objective will be perceived not only related to the concrete demands or objectives of that struggle, but also as an act of opposition against the system.  This last fact is what establishes the link between a variety of concrete or partial struggles and mobilizations--all of them are seen as  related to each other, not because their concrete objectives are intrinsically related but because they are all seen as equivalent in confrontation with the repressive regime.  It is not consequently, something positive, but something negative: their opposition to a common enemy.  Luxemburg's argument is that a revolutionary mass identity is established through the overdetermination, over a whole historical period, of a plurality of separate struggles.  These traditions fused, at the revolutionary moment, in a ruptural point." (Laclau 40-41)
     If one has spent any time reading Luxemburg, this is certainly a curious way of expressing her approach to thinking through revolutionary transformation.  Certainly, Laclau gets some of it right.  He captures Luxemburg's emphasis on the need to understand revolutionary potential as a product of the coagulation of small skirmishes and battles, often seemingly disconnected.  He also understands Luxemburg's critique of the forms of blanquism that have deeply influenced a variety of struggles.  Luxemburg rejects the notion that a small group of people can plan forms of unity or struggle in advance.  Instead, those processes are developed within the struggle itself.  However, it is when Laclau emphasizes the negativity of Luxemburg's thought, the point where he insists that the common thread of these struggles is only in the fact that they contain a seed that opposes the system as a whole, is where his analysis veers widely off the mark.  It's not that Laclau is incorrect in bringing up this aspect, but his claim that this is the only aspect of these that is only thing held in common by the struggles.  For Luxemburg, partial struggles have two positive qualities: 1. pedagogical: they are a training ground for organizers, militants, and participants.  They allow for tactics and strategies to be tested, and that learning process informs further actions, even when they are seemingly disconnected. 2. is vaguer and potentially more problematic for some: for Luxemburg, collective struggle has a sort of vitalistic quality to it.  Small struggles allow for the working class to strengthen itself, to increase its capacity, to transform itself into a stronger and more focused assemblage.  Rather than simply opposing a structure of domination, Luxemburg sees an assemblage breaking away from a servile dependence on the social rules of those who exploit and dominate it to produce its own forms of rules and organization, built on a radically different social logic.
      This substantial misreading of Luxemburg allows for Laclau to link her thought into his theory of the empty signifier as the dominant logic of the political.  He does so in the following fashion.  By stripping out the positive content of Luxemburg's analysis, Laclau can fit her work into his overall schema of the functioning of the political.  For Laclau, the political operates through the empty signifier, which gestures towards the logic of equivalence in any linguistic system.  Language is structured on the basis of difference, but those differences are arbitrary.  Therefore each sign is equivalent to one another within this system.  Laclau notes that this system is analogous to the role of gold, the previous universal equivalent within the system of exchange.  And the relationship between Laclau's theory and the logic of exchange value is quite strong, both operate as a system of equivalence, allowing for all the physical qualities of an object to be stripped away to operate in this phantom-like existence.  But that entire logic rests upon labor, as Marx would note, the erased dimension of the commodity form that must be critically explored.  There seems to be a similar operation within the work of Laclau, erasing the dimension of living labor from his political system.  In the end, Laclau's attempt to critique Marx's system repeats the forms of erasure contained in earlier conventional political thought, renaturalizing the structures of exploitation built into the logic of the commodity form.

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