I spent most of today reading Laclau’s On Populist Reason. I still have a good chunk left — and in any case it’s too soon for me to respond intelligently to the theoretical content as such — but I thought that it was worth remarking that one thing I have always admired about Laclau is the clarity and rigor of his arguments. When I read Laclau and Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, for example, I came away convinced that the economy really can’t be determinative “in the last instance,” and I don’t think that would’ve happened had they presented that portion of the argument in a more stereotypically “continental” style. (This book holds fewer surprises for someone familiar with Laclau’s previous work, so no such epiphanies have resulted so far.)

Even in the most extreme instances of “continental” style, though, such moments of crystal clarity do occur and are very powerful — for instance, early on in Nancy’s Inoperative Community, he lays out a very straightforward and compact argument that the “metaphysics of the absolute” is simply logically incoherent, and to my mind, the only possible response there is, “Wow, I guess you’re right.”

It seems possible, however, that if a text were simply the accumulation of such moments of crystal clarity, it would paradoxically lapse back into an absolute opacity.

7 thoughts on “Clarity

  1. I agree that this books holds few surprises (though perhaps the choice of his examples by the end of the book were a little surprising to me).

    I think that the issues surrounding the book, his exchanges with Zizek on the topic of populism, are even more fascinating. He does give more credit to Zizek in the book than he was willing to grant him post-book.

  2. Another point on the linked critique — Laclau rejects individualism as a starting point from the very first page, so it seems to me to be clearly incorrect to claim that “democratic demands” are individualistic and that therefore we need to reflect on individual motives, opportunities, etc., for joining populist movements (and the leap to civil war still seems pretty bizarre).

  3. The leap to civil war is bizarre until you fit it into the neoliberal worldview of development economics and the need to quantify variables like “social unrest”. Populist movements then sit at one end of a spectrum, and civil conflict at the other.

    Collier suggests that economic elites define populist movements in an attempt to gain access to rents, and then mobilize individuals who can utilize mass grievances to further the cause.

    The conclusions then repeat the old tropes about how natural resources hinder liberal capitalist democracy and states have difficulty asserting sovereignty in mountainous terrain etc…

    I don’t think that critique is completely right in saying that opportunity determines when populist movements escalate to civil conflict, as opportunity may determine whether or not populist movements emerge at all, such as the case of new nationalist movements in Belgium and Scotland in the context of the EU.

    That said, I’ve not read On Populist Reason yet, so I can’t comment on how it links to development economics like the linked critique does.

    I also hear that Collier’s colleague Nicholas Sambanis changed from an econometric approach to something more akin to Tilly, McAdam and Tarrow’s approach to social movements during the editing of two volumes comparing case studies against the greed and grievance model.

  4. hey adam, you’re right that my shift from populist movements to civil war is abrupt – i highlight that and provide a brief rationale for it, but it’s admittedly still inadequate.

    the general point still holds in my mind though – to what extent do grievances or demands (i take them to be equivalent – as the examples laclau and collier give are virtually the same) actually provide a useful foundation for analyzing phenomena of political conflict? it’s the placing of populist movements and civil war under the heading of general conflict that allows me to think them together.

    on the issue of individualism, you’re right – it was a poor gloss on the notion of demands on my part. but regardless, laclau’s ‘demands’ and collier’s ‘grievances’ are still equivalent in my mind.

    the potential problem i see with my analysis would be the different logics that underlie the emergence of civil war and populist movements – perhaps they are so radically different that no valid comparison can be made. but it seems to me that civil war, as the more extreme extension of populist contention, would require demands and grievances if anything did. so the evidence that they aren’t actually based on demands suggests to me that it may plausibly be the case for populist movements too. but to actually prove that, i’d have to do a lot more research – something not well-suited to a blog post. so really the aim of it was just to raise the distinct possibility.

    and on a more abstract level, the post was simply an attempt to bring empirical studies in conversation with theoretical work. i think that’s a really useful exercise, especially with counter-intuitive discoveries like collier’s. critiques of theoretical work don’t need to themselves be theoretical!


  5. I just finished this morning, and Laclau does say that one consequence of his theory is the “contamination” between theoretical and empirical work — so the gesture of your post at least seems to be in the spirit of Laclau.

    Perhaps it’s a weakness of Laclau’s approach that it’s unclear how to relate “populist logic” to war. In his example of Peronism, he does say that the “stupid and inefficient regime” was so deaf to all demands that war was really the only action — but he also seems to indicate that such a move is somehow distinct from politics properly so called. The operation of populist logic does seem to require the presence of a state of some kind, as this post points out, so that might be the problem — in a civil war situation, there essentially isn’t a state. But we’d need to clarify what is meant by civil war, how it differs from an insurrection, etc., etc. Those types of questions don’t seem to interest Laclau, and again, perhaps that’s a weakness.

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