Representing the People

Presentación del Documental CATASTROIKA y Presentación de la Revista Debates y Combates

Professor Ernesto Laclau during a presentation in Ecuador, 16 May 2012. (Credit: Cancillería Ecuador)

Ernesto Laclau’s conception of populist reason, as I mentioned in a recent post, is an account of the people being constituted in discourse. It complicates the distinction between speaking by and speaking for the people. A “people” exists in and through the practice of representation. The representative reflects in some degree the identity of those represented but also adds something to the mix (such as an informed judgment on a matter in dispute), which contributes to their identity. Representation “is a two-way process,” moving back and forth between represented and representative, with the identity of a “people” subject to reconstruction rather than frozen in time.[i]

Laclau insisted “the construction of a ‘people’ would be impossible without the operation of mechanisms of representation.” Those mechanisms include the articulation of an empty signifier with which people can identify because it represents (names, incarnates, invests) a chain of equivalences among a heterogeneity of unmet demands.[ii] This process is integral to the operation of democracy.

The empty signifier and chain of equivalences that constitute a democratic people around a set of unmet demands are themselves subject to change. Closure (a closed totality) is a rhetorical illusion—a contingent, tropological articulation of heterogeneous elements. Thus, it is possible to articulate an alternative hegemony to displace a “sedimented” socio-political order. Hegemony consists of contingent, not necessary, links in the chain of equivalences; it is a metaphorical totalization with “a trace of contingency.”[iii]

Laclau’s conceptualization of hegemony is key to his understanding of the dynamic of democratic politics. It operates within “a field crisscrossed by the presence of antagonistic forces.” Any single truth, totality, or fullness of society is ultimately impossible to achieve or represent. “If the fullness of society is unachievable, the attempts at reaching it will necessarily fail—although they will be able, in the search for that impossible object, to solve a variety of partial problems.” This makes particular struggles central to the ongoing tropological operations of democratic politics.[iv] Moreover, it renders problematic the notion of literalness and rhetorically opens space for critical reflection in the form of democratic dissent. Absence or contingency of ground makes democratic society possible.

That does not mean that anything is possible at any time. “We live in a world of sedimented social practices that limit the range of what is thinkable and decidable.” Many of those social practices are not affected by the unmet demands in a given chain of equivalences. Accordingly, any proposal for change that clashes with “central aspects of social organization that are not put into question” will not be recognized as an alternative order capable of fulfilling society’s ordering function. Still, in principle, “there is no order that can claim a monopoly on the ordering function.” This perspective on socio-political relations produces, in Laclau’s view, “the undecidable game between autonomy and heteronomy,” which inhabits “a more humble but more human environment—one for whom there is no universality but universalization, no identity but identification, no rationality but partial rationalization of collective experience.”[v]

Laclau’s analysis also sheds light on different levels of demands by a people. At the lowest level, a demand is a request, which is a focused concern of a particular group (for example, asking a local government to provide improved housing). A request can be transformed into a claim when it goes unmet and is linked to other unmet demands perceived as rights (such as transportation, health, security, education). The situation can escalate, as it did in Tsarist Russia, when the governing institution proved unresponsive or incapable of meeting demands so that “what were requested within institutions became claims addressed to institutions, and at some stage . . . claims against the institutional order.” When requests become claims, institutions are more likely to be subjected to critique than passively accepted, which, following a radicalization of claims, can lead to a revolutionary re-ordering.[vi]

This does not mean that democratic dissent is necessarily radical or merely oppositional. It is constitutive in the sense that it rearticulates and reconfigures a troubled situation. To do so, any democratic hegemonizing of the unmet demands of a people must avoid a violent, head-on confrontation with its perceived enemy. Democratic politics is a clash of less than total truths, a confrontation of opinions, images, perspectives, ideas, values, and attitudes, which requires collective deliberation. “Thus, a process of argumentation can take place,” a process “conceived in a wide sense (involving partial conversions, dialogues, negotiations, struggles, and so on).”[vii]

Laclau’s conception of a people and their rhetorical representation is rich with implications for considering how the enhancement of democratic practice might contribute to the displacement of war culture. The central question of such an inquiry is clear: How might a democratic people opposed to war be constituted, with which empty signifiers and what chain of equivalences?


[i] Ernesto Laclau, On Populist Reason (London: Verso, 2005), pp. 158-59.

[ii] Laclau, On Populist Reason, pp. 161-62.

[iii] Ernesto Laclau, The Rhetorical Foundations of Society (London, Verson, 2014), pp. 67-69. 80-81, 90, 123.

[iv] Laclau, Rhetorical Foundations, pp. 123, 93.

[v] Laclau, Rhetorical Foundations, pp. 134-137.

[vi] Laclau, Rhetorical Foundations, pp. 149, 151.

[vii] Laclau, Rhetorical Foundations, pp. 176-177, 202-203.


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