Benjamin Arditi (2007) Politics on the Edges of Liberalism: Difference, Populism, Revolution, Agitation.

Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. ISBN: 978-0-7486-2511-6

Internal Peripheries

Paul Bowman

Freud coined the oxymoronic term ‘foreign internal territory’ to ‘describe the relation between the repressed and the ego’ (Arditi, 2007: 3). Benjamin Arditi takes the impetus behind this idea and runs with it into the sphere of political thinking, in order to develop a concept of what he calls the ‘internal periphery’. Internal peripheries are the paradoxical ‘edges’ evoked in the title of his latest book, Politics on the Edges of Liberalism. The ‘edges’ of liberalism, the ‘edges’ of politics, in other words, are not to be thought of as residing at some distance, a long way away from a ‘centre’. On the contrary, argues Arditi, the ‘edge’, the ‘limit’, the ‘periphery’, in this sense ‘is a region where the distinction between inside and outside is a matter of dispute and cannot be thought outside a polemic. To speak of politics on the edges of liberalism is to speak of the internal periphery of liberalism’ (3-4).

This concept resonates widely. We may already detect Rancière’s influence, for instance, guiding Arditi to focus on the importance of polemic and disagreement. Similarly, we can discern in the emphasis on the undecidability of distinctions between inside and outside the influence of Derridean deconstruction. Also here are the seeds (or spores) of a strong reference to Deleuzean and Guattarian thinking; all of which Arditi briskly, concisely and adroitly elaborates, in a tightly structured interrogation of the key concepts of contemporary political thought: difference, populism, agitation and revolution. The examples and case studies he places under the microscope range from the ancient to the modern, and from the popular to the unpopular faces of populism, as well as from classical to parliamentary to postmodern and cultural politics. The lenses used to inspect and explore politics at the heart and on the edges of liberalism are derived and developed from many philosophical, theoretical and practical thinkers of politics and the political, from Marx and Gramsci to Laclau, from Hardt and Negri to Žižek.

Each chapter is an amplification of the significance of the concept of ‘internal periphery’ for the thinking of difference (Chapter 1), populism (Chapters 2 and 3), agitation (Chapter 4) and revolution (Chapter 5). But the significance of internal periphery resonates even further than political thinking proper (and improper), as it also sheds light on the constitutive and antagonistic unthought aspects of knowledge itself. For, arguably, the limit of knowledge per se is manifested in internal peripheries. The meanings of words, concepts and terms are all too easily assumed or taken for granted. But they are often drastically differently understood. Here, for instance, what do we understand by such familiar terms as differencepopulismrevolution, or even politics? These terms circulate in innumerable discourses. They even structure them. But even though they look familiar — and do indeed function as indispensable concepts in many academic and political fields — their sense is far from certain. There is in fact a world of disagreement about what they may mean, entail and imply. Politics at the Edges of Liberalism takes these terms — terms that are so central to contemporary cultural and political theory, terms that we all use in our analyses and argumentations — and examines their internal peripheries, revealing the ways that they can also be ‘foreign internal territories’.

Now, although it is also developed from a rethinking of the ‘symptom’ as a tool for political analysis, perhaps the royal road to grasping Arditi’s concept of the internal periphery is via Rancière’s concept of disagreement. This is so even though Arditi prefers to start from Freud and even though the notion of internal periphery is also clearly indebted to the Laclauian concept of ‘antagonism’ as the (policed) limit of all objectivity. For, although supplemented by a Laclauian conceptual universe, Arditi displays a preference for Rancière’s less rarefied concept of disagreement. This is surely because of the arresting clarity of Rancière’s political theory (it is readily intelligible in many different registers, from theoretical to practical), coupled with the fact that using Rancièrean concepts does not necessarily foreclose or preclude using other post-structuralist or analytical categories (even if there may otherwise be disagreements between them). Rancière’s work is appealing because his concepts are rooted in and clearly and irreducibly refer toa political (rather than a theoretical) situation.

This is why for Rancière, and perhaps for Arditi, ‘disagreement’ is the political concept par excellence. It must, argues Rancière, be stringently distinguished from notions such as difference or the Lyotardian differend. This is because, although for Lyotard, ‘differend’ names conflict which cannot be ‘resolved’ as such (a wrong which cannot be righted for both parties, and over which no internal or external agency can adjudicate with legitimacy), to Rancière’s mind ‘each party’s difference from itself as well as of the differend [is] the very structure of community’ (Rancière, 1998: 18). So, a differend is always only an ‘ontic’, legalistic, or in his terms ‘police’ problem. Quite distinct from this, Rancière construes disagreement as:

a determined kind of speech situation: one in which one of the interlocutors at once understands and does not understand what the other is saying. Disagreement is not the conflict between one who says white and another who says black. It is the conflict between one who says white and another who also says white but does not understand the same thing by it or does not understand that the other is saying the same thing in the name of whiteness. (Rancière, 1998: x; quoted in Arditi, 2007: 115)

With this in mind, Arditi undertakes a series of interrogations of the key concepts of so many fields, not just those of political theory, but also those of all manner of cultural studies, widely and heterogeneously conceived — difference, populism and revolution — plus a discussion of the importance of ‘agitation’. Of these readings themselves, we can perhaps do no better than quote Andreas Kalyvas from the dust-jacket of the book, who observes:

Arditi navigates skilfully between Continental philosophy and political theory by critically engaging with major figures from both fields. His approach is thoughtful and provocative . . . On populism, in particular, he is brilliant. This book is essential reading for those who are interested in democracy, emancipatory politics, radical alternatives, and critical thinking. It is political theory at its best.

Chapter 1, ‘The Underside of Difference and the Limits of Particularism’, focuses on the theoretical and cultural debates on difference and identity that arose in and around the culture wars of the 1980s and early ’90s, ‘around such issues as abortion, sexual preferences, race relations, curriculum content or the place of religion in public life’ (10). Although, says Arditi, we could optimistically observe that these culture wars ‘made us more sensitive to cultural, gender and racial difference as well as non-economic forms of subordination’, nevertheless the problem is that ‘the culture wars displaced politics into morality and made progressive thought less concerned with economic exploitation and class inequalities’. This displacement ‘blunted its radical edge, given that advocates of difference were critical of liberal democratic politics but felt quite comfortable advancing their agenda within that setting’ (11).

From this point, Arditi stages an enlightening discussion of the problems and possibilities of identity politics and the politics of difference by way of a reconsideration of political correctness in language. This discussion engages with the conceptual and political problems and vicissitudes of identity and difference, and considers arguments put forward by Vattimo, Nietzsche, Debray, Rousseau, Rorty, Balibar and many others. It traverses the — admittedly progressive — legitimization of ‘the specificity of gender, racial and ethnic identities in the face of Marxist reduction of identity to class identity’ (30), and proposes that we should consider such sources of identification and identity-conferring difference as gender, ethnicity, class, sexuality, region, etc., as being akin to recognisable ‘dialects’. Our ‘cultural identities’ are like dialects and idiolects. Which is all very well and good. However, the proliferation of differences and different identities ‘resulted in a belated recognition of two political questions’: ‘the limits of acceptable differences and the increasingly hardened frontiers between dialects or images of the world’ (30):

The problem can be formulated as follows. Initially, the politics of difference consisted of the vindication of equality for subordinate and/or marginalized groups, whereas today the right to be different (Lipovetsky), and consequently the proliferation of world views (Vattimo), is considered a sign of the times. Yet this does not mean that every difference is equally valid. One that undermines the principle of difference as such cannot be tolerated. Democratic regimes exclude political parties that advocate the destruction of democratic political competition. [But s]hort of this relatively clear-cut case, where do you draw the line? (30)

Among other examples, Arditi considers Žižek’s discussion of clitoridectomy: ‘while many in the West would oppose this, considering it to be an act of mutilation and male domination, one can also invoke Eurocentrism to denounce that opposition in the name of a universalist “right to difference”‘ (31). Or, similarly, the situation in which ‘only Jews would be entitled to tell Jewish jokes, only blacks could criticize blacks, and only gays could dismiss the views of other gays’ (32). Ultimately, says Arditi, ‘If the various groups are reticent to intersect or contaminate one another — because the quest for purity leads to the erection of what Visker (1993) calls “cultural condoms” around them — one is left with the logic of separate development characteristic of apartheid’ (32). In both cases, there is what Arditi calls an ‘essentialism of the dialects’ (31), that is, the mistaken attribution of consistency and identity to ‘groups’. However, such a presupposition overlooks the sense in which ‘collective identities’ do not persist as fixed essences (Laclau and Mouffe, 1985), but rather arise in and as a polemic (Arditi and Valentine, 1999). For, argues Arditi (following Rancière), ‘a disagreement is less a confrontation between two established positions — as in the case of a debating society — than an engagement between “parties” that do not antedate their confrontation. A disagreement constructs the object of argumentation and the field of argumentation itself’ (Arditi, 2007: 115).

So, rather than thinking in terms of fixed identitarian grounds, Arditi — implicitly, but very closely — follows Laclau in arguing for the primacy of the demand as the basic ontological category of politics (Laclau, 2005: 224): ‘The demand for rights invalidates a solipsistic conception of Particularism and reintroduces universals as disputed or polemic categories, yet it also tells us something about the ambivalent relation between identity politics and liberal discourse’, concludes Arditi (38). However he does not ‘follow’ Laclau much further. Pursues would be more precise. Indeed, chapters 2 and 3 are supplements to Laclauian theory, supplements that — as Derrida taught us to expect — undercut Laclauian theory and demand its reconstitution. For chapter 2 and 3 are Arditi’s sustained and lengthy rethinking of populism.

Now, Laclau has recently theorized all politics as basically populist (Laclau, 2005). In On Populist Reason, he argues that the fundamental term of political ontology is thedemand (Laclau 2005: 224). For Laclau — as for Rancière — this is the demand for equality, or for justice. But, pace Rancière, and in keeping with his deconstructed political theory (or deconstructive discourse theory), according to Laclau all politics are to be regarded as processes of ‘articulation’; and in On Populist Reason he ‘logically’ untethers politics from all necessary anchorage. This leads him to conclude that the political impetus irreducibly tends towards populism. But does it? Arditi begs to differ. Rather than slide into this conclusion, Arditi examines the key theorisations (and some good examples) of populist and other species of politics, and concludes instead that populism is a spectre of democracy, and an internal periphery of democratic politics. Despite its elusiveness (46), Arditi argues that populism does have specific features. In one regard, it is a mode of representation (direct address and interpellation of ‘we, the people’ by a charismatic leader), whose conditions of possibility are those of the media age (60). But it is also a symptom of democratic politics (74) and the constitutive underside of democracy (81). So Arditi’s research into populism amounts to a significant contribution to several debates — not least that about specifying the enigma of populism. It is also an important rejoinder to Laclau’s recent work, a discussion of a wide range of political theorists of different stripes, and a convincing account of the relevance of Derridean (quasi-)concepts for political theory, analysis, and indeed ‘messianic pragmatism’. Arditi concludes:

Perhaps one could stick to the metaphor of the spectre . . ., or generalize the second iteration of the term — populism as a symptom — and refer to the phenomenon simply as an internal periphery of democracy and modern politics generally. Both portray the paradoxical and contested status of the relationship between populism and democratic politics. . . . A periphery, internal or not, is a hazy territory that indicates the outermost limit of an inside and the beginning of the outside of the system, a grey area where the distinction between inside and outside is an effect of polemic. Populism can remain within the bounds of democracy, but also reach the point where they enter into conflict and go their own separate ways. (87)

The final two chapters continue this articulation or ‘application’ of post-structuralist High Theory to Practical Politics. They develop the implications of Derrida’s notions of ‘hauntology’ and ‘spectrality’ to re-appropriate what Arditi calls ‘the realist coding’ of the usual interpretations of Bismarck’s remark that ‘politics is the art of the possible’ (90). Politics is the art of the possible, yes, agrees Arditi. But he supplements this with a recollection of the 1968 graffito, ‘be realistic, demand the impossible’ (93). For, on a theoretical and practical level, ‘possibility’ is always something debatable or undecidable. In other words, determining what is possible should always pass through the ordeal of the undecidable, and always makes reference to impossibility. Quite what is possible and what is impossible is undecidable. Demands may seem impossible, but they reflect and generate enthusiasm, and they can — in Žižekian mode — reconfigure the coordinates of the present situation. In other words, they can reconfigure the field of possibility. Arditi discusses the Derridean spectral promise, Derridean and Benjaminian ‘messianic force’, Kantian ‘enthusiasm’, Gramsci, Rancière, and Žižek’s rereading of Lenin’s ‘act’, in order to show how practical cultural-political discursive processes are regularly cross-cut and supplemented by ‘the impossible’. Instead of a telos of ‘revolution’ (noun), he offers the verb revolutionizing:

The conjunction of revolutionizing with [politics construed as] the interstitial region overturns the belief that emancipation is always and necessarily tied to exceptional moments of disruption of the given and it reminds us of the impossibility of a dominant order without residues. Both undercut the realist take on the art of the possible by imagining something to come — a different world that improves on existing freedom and equality — and by acting to make it happen. They reinforce the argument about the practice of emancipation and agitation as an everyday occurrence. (106)

Politics on the Edges of Liberalism concludes with a reconsideration of revolution from the point of view of a period in history when revolution has been said more than once to be dead and buried (and not only by what Arditi calls ‘cocktail party’ theorists, like Fukayama). Arditi’s notion of revolutionizing is Derridean-Laclauian; relying on the law of iterability. Of course, the reiteration of the promise or spectre of ‘revolution’ is not enough to do anything. So Arditi poses the question, ‘how radical does a radical change have to be?’ (110) His answer treats revolutionizing ‘as an interruption of the given’ (113), and concludes that ‘the radicalism of an interruption is established through polemic or disagreement’ (114).

In a strong sense, then, the arguments and conclusions of Politics on the Edges of Liberalism boil down to a mature and compelling distillation and synthesis of Laclauian and Rancièrean insights. But these insights are organised into a perspective that you will not find in Rancière or Laclau, namely a perspective interested in how activists might makepolitical change. Arditi is a theorist of political activism. This book is extremely well-versed in both traditional and radical Continental and Anglo-American political and cultural theory, so it will be of interest and importance both to political theorists and to political activists. It offers exceptionally clear and reliable accounts of the arguments of very many of the main historical and contemporary political theorists, and it does so without hyperbole, myopia or partisanship. Rather, Arditi surveys, analyses and takes what is best from any political theory and deploys it in the development of new concepts that will stimulate action and activism in academic theory as well as cultural and political practice.


Arditi, Benjamin & Valentine, Jeremy (1999) Polemicization: The Contingency of the Commonplace. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Laclau, Ernesto & Mouffe, Chantal (1985) Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. London: Verso.

Laclau, Ernesto (2005) On Populist Reason. London: Verso.

Rancière, Jacques (1998) Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.

Visker, Rudi (1993) ‘Transcultural Vibrations’, Mimeo. Leuven: Catholic University of Leuven.

Paul Bowman is Senior Lecturer in Cultural Studies at Roehampton University, London, UK. He is the editor of Interrogating Cultural Studies (2003), co-editor of The Truth of Žižek (2007), and author of Post-Marxism versus Cultural Studies (2007) and Deconstructing Popular Culture (forthcoming). He is also currently working on martial arts.