Ethics, Politics and Radical Democracy – The History of a Disagreement — Simon Critchley

This paper reviews the history of a disagreement.1  In May and June 1990, at the end of my first year’s teaching at Essex, Ernesto Laclau and I taught a course together on ‘Deconstruction and Politics’. I was trying to formulate the argument that eventually found expression in the concluding chapter of my first book, The Ethics of Deconstruction. My interest in Ernesto’s work was less dominated by the way in which the category of hegemony enables a deconstruction of Marxism of the type executed with such power in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. I was more preoccupied with how hegemony can be employed as providing both the logic of the political and a theory of political action, because it links to my understanding of deconstruction. Our disagreement turned on the nature of that understanding, the understanding of deconstruction. My claim was, and still is, that deconstruction has an overriding ethical motivation, provided that ethics is understood in the sense given to it in the work of Emmanuel Levinas. At the time, in 1990, Ernesto was somewhat perplexed by my talk of ethics, arguably with good reason, and he would only talk of ethics in the Gramscian locution of the ethical/political. That was ten years ago, and since that time we’ve had numerous conversations as we have the good fortune of working together. At the end of this brief history it may perhaps be concluded that we finally agree, or at least that our positions are much closer than they were a decade or so ago. Perhaps, as Wittgenstein speculated, the solution to the problem is the disappearance of the problem. But perhaps not. We shall see…

What is politics? Politics is the realm of the decision, of action in the social world, of what Laclau, following Gramsci, calls hegemonisation. Hegemonisation is understood as actions that attempt to fix the meaning of social relations. If we can see politics with the category of hegemony, and in my view it is best conceived with that category, then politics is an act of power, force and will that is contingent through and through. Hegemony reveals politics to be the realm of contingent decisions by virtue of which subjects (understood here as persons, parties or social movements) attempt to articulate and propagate meanings of the social. At its deepest level, the category of hegemony discloses the political logic of the social. Civil society is politically constituted through contingent decisions. In my view, the key concept in Laclau’s recent work is hegemonic universality. Hegemonic universality is the idea that political action is action motivated or orientated around the universal term — equality, human rights, justice, individual freedom, etc. — and yet that universality has to be contaminated by a particularity, by the specific social context for which the universal term is destined. (I will come back to this concept of hegemonic universality in an attempt to breech the link between the universal and the particular.)

With this definition of politics in mind the first thing to note is that many political decisions — say decisions at the level of state administration or those concerned with taking over the state — attempt to deny their political character. That is political decisions attempt to erase their traces of power, force, will and contingency by naturalising or essentialising that context. For example, Kosovo was, is and always will be Serbian; Macedonia was, is and always will be Greek, etc. Much, perhaps most politics tries to render itself and its operations of power invisible by reference to custom or tradition or; worse, by reference to nature or God; or, worse still, by custom and tradition grounded in nature or God — this covers most options. Arguably the main strategy of politics is to make itself invisible in order to claim for itself the status of nature for a priori self-evidence. So there is a tendency to invisibility in politics. In this way politics can claim to restore the fullness of society or bring society into harmony with itself. Now, to understand political action as a hegemonic operation via Ernesto is a priori to understand it as a non-naturalisable, non-essentialistic, contingent articulation that just temporarily fixes the meaning of social relations. For Ernesto, the fullness of society, or the harmonisation of society with itself, is an impossible object of political desire which successive contingent decisions seek to bring about or, to use the term that Ernesto inherits, to ‘suture’. So, if a naturalising or essentialising politics tries to render this contingency invisible by attempting to suture the social into a fantastic wholeness, then hegemony as disclosure of the political logic of the social reveals the impossibility of any such operation. The moment of final suture never arrives and the social field is irreducibly open and plural: hence the slogan, ‘society is impossible’. This leads to a significant conclusion that, although the category of hegemony seems on one level to be a simple description of social and political life, a sort of value-neutral Foucauldian power analytics, it is and, in my view, has to be, a normative critique of much that passes for politics insofar as that politics attempts to deny or render invisible its contingency, operations of power and force. So to anticipate the topic of this intervention the category of hegemony is both descriptive and normative, a characteristic it shares with much social and critical theory. As Laclau would acknowledge, Marxist postulates of society in which the free development of each is the condition of a free development of all is both a descriptive and a normative plan.

To push this a little further, we might say that only those societies that are self-conscious of their political status, their contingency and their power operations, are democratic. What I mean is ‘self-conscious’ at the level of citizenry, not at the level of the Platonic guardians — the prince or the latter’s philosophical adviser. Machiavelli and Hobbes, it seems to me, were perfectly well aware of the contingency and political constitution of the social but did not exactly want this news broadcast to the people. Therefore if all societies are tacitly hegemonic, arguably the distinguishing feature of a democratic society is that it is explicitly hegemonic. Democracy is thus the name for that political form of society that makes explicit the contingency of its foundations and operations. In democracy political power is secured through operations of competition, persuasion and election based upon the hegemonisation of the ’empty place’ that is the people, to use Claude Lefort’s expression. So democracy is distinguished by the self-consciousness amongst citizenry of the contingency of its operations of power, in extreme cases by the self-consciousness of the very mechanisms of power. (I think this is the positive lesson of the US presidential elections in November/December 2000. This is not to neglect their overwhelming and negative political outcome! But the very meaning of democracy turned on the self-consciousness of the mechanisms of election, from the butterfly ballot in Palm Beach county to the quasi-theological discussion of the nature of the Floridan chad. This self-consciousness of the contingent mechanisms of power infected, it seems to me, every layer of the political and legal apparatus, right up to the Supreme Court, and arguably had the beneficial effect of leading voters to raise the Rousseau-esque question of the legitimacy of their social contract.) In my view, what Laclau’s theory of hegemony can teach us is the ineluctably political logic of the social, the fact that politics is constituted through contingent decisions that can never efface their traces of power in the articulation of the meaning of social relations and the attempt to fix that meaning. But the descriptive gain of Laclau’s work also has a normative dimension, a dimension which until recently he has done his best to deny. It is this area on which I want to focus on for the remainder of these remarks.

Let me go back to the history of our disagreement. In a debate with Rorty, Derrida and Laclau from 1993 I began to formulate a twofold critical claim which I proceeded to sharpen in the years that followed. On the one hand, in relation to Derrida’s introduction of the concepts of justice and a messianic a priori, I argued that deconstruction requires the supplement of the theory of hegemony if the ethical moment in Derrida’s work is to be more than an empty expression of good conscience. In order for the ethical moment in deconstruction to become effective as both political theory and an account of political action, it is necessary to link it to Laclau’s thinking, particularly on the question of the decision. So, one claim is that deconstruction requires hegemony. On the other hand, I advanced the counterbalancing claim that Laclau’s theory of hegemony requires an ethical dimension of infinite responsibility to the other if it is not going to risk collapsing into the arbitrariness of a thoroughgoing decisionism. So for it to escape the threat of decisionism I argue that the theory of hegemony requires a normative presupposition — infinite responsibility to the other. The emphasis upon the irreducibly political constitution of the social in Ernesto’s work could lead to the accusation of voluntarism, where the meanings accorded to social relations depend on the value-free or value-neutral whims of the subject. Let me now focus on this second claim – why the logic of hegemony requires an understanding of ethics.

My objection to Ernesto could be most succinctly stated in the form of a question; it is a question that has been put by others: What is the difference between hegemony and democratic hegemony? At the level of what we might call a genealogical deconstruction, which is how I would understand the analysis of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, the theory of hegemony shows the irreducibly political constitution of the social. In what may be the most important essay by Ernesto, which is the opening chapter in New Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time – an 80 page essay outlining with beautiful succinctness his position without running it through the genealogy of Marxism, as in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy — Ernesto adopts the terminology of the later Husserl. He uses Husserl’s distinction between sedimentation and reactivation. So, the theory of hegemony shows the irreducibly political constitution of the social, social sedimentation. Social and political life, insofar as it overlooks the operation of hegemony, is a forgetfulness of origins. The category of hegemony permits a reactivation of sedimented social strata. So what the genealogical deconstruction shows is that the fixing of the meaning of social relations is a consequence of forgotten decision, and every decision is political. However, Laclau’s work, particularly the part co-authored with Chantal Mouffe, famously and rightly also invokes notions of a democratic revolution and radical democracy as the positive consequence of a genealogical deconstruction of Marxism. That is the recognition of contingency, antagonism and power does not lead to political pessimism à la Adorno or to the collapse of the public/private distinction à la Rorty, but is the source for a new militancy and a new optimism. As such we do not stand at the end of history, Ernesto says, but rather at its beginning. There is a radical anti-Frankfurt School thesis then, an anti-Adornian thesis.

Yet if all decisions are political then in virtue of what is there a difference between democratising and non-democratising decisions? What does the difference consist in? There are two ways of answering this question, one normative and the other factual, both of which leave Laclau sitting uncomfortably on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, one might say that democratic decisions are more inclusive, participatory, egalitarian, pluralistic etc., but if one grants any version of that thesis then one has admitted some straightforwardly normative claim into the theory of hegemony. On the other hand, if one simply states in a quasi-functionalistic manner that a democratic revolution and radical democracy are descriptions of a fact, then in my view one risks collapsing any critical distance between the theory of hegemony and the social reality which this theory purports to describe. I think that Laclau risks coming close to this position when he claims that a democratic revolution is simply taking place or, more problematically, that freedom is the consequence of existing social dislocations. Ernesto writes in New Reflections: ‘Freedom exists because society does not achieve constitution as a structure of objective order’. What interests me in that quote is the word ‘because’, which seems to be a causal ‘because’. If the theory of hegemony is simply the description of the positively existing state of affairs, then one risks emptying it of any critical function, that is of leaving open any space between things as they are and things as they might otherwise be. If the theory of hegemony is a description of a factual state of affairs, then it risks identification and complicity with a dislocatory logic of contemporary capitalist societies. That is one line of criticism that has been made of Ernesto’s work, that it is complicit with the logic of capitalism, which is the logic of dislocation. So if one wants to maintain a distance from capitalism, then one has to include some normative presuppositions in the theory of hegemony.

The problem with Ernesto’s work, in my view, is that he makes noises of both sorts, both descriptive and normative, without sufficiently clarifying what it is that he is doing. This is what I mean by suggesting that there is a risk of a kind of normative deficit in the theory of hegemony. In my view the deficit can be made good on the basis of another understanding of the logic of deconstruction. So, to go back to the twofold claim that I outlined above — if what deconstruction lacks in its thinking of the political is the theory of hegemony, which a reading of Laclau provides, then this needs to be balanced by the second claim, that what the theory of hegemony lacks and can indeed learn from deconstruction is the kind of messianic ethical injunction to infinite responsibility described in Derrida’s work in the 1990s. So on the one hand no ethics of deconstruction without the politics of hegemony, on the other hand no politics of hegemony without an ethics of deconstruction.

Now, that was the state about the mid-1990s. In a review of Derrida’s Specters of Marx from 1995 Ernesto seemed unconvinced of the ethical sense that I attach to the notion of the messianic a priori, arguing that no ethical injunction of a Levinasian kind follows from the logic of undecidability and, furthermore, that democratic politics does not need to be anchored in any such ethical injunction. Needless to say, I do not agree. What is more surprising is that Ernesto also does not appear to agree with himself. It would seem to me on the basis of my reading of Laclau’s contributions to a series of exchanges with Slavoj Žižek and Judith Butler published last year that his position has changed significantly. A moot point in the debate. I want to now turn to a few pages from Ernesto’s first contribution to that series of exchanges which deal with the question of ethics. Firstly, Laclau grants that the theory of hegemony cannot be a strictly factual or descriptive affair, both because such a purportedly value-neutral description of the fact is impossible — all facts are discursive, and hence enunciative constructs — and because any apprehension of the facts is governed by normative elements. Strictly factual description, like sensory empiricism, is an illusion based on some version of Wilfrid Sellars’ myth of the given. So going back to the horns of the dilemma discussed above, the theory of hegemony is not descriptive but normative, he says. Well, not quite, because Laclau then wants to introduce a distinction that is novel to his work, that is the distinction between the normative and the ethical. So, he would collapse the distinction between the descriptive and the normative – he accepts that point — but he introduces a second distinction – which is more important now – between the normative and the ethical. Let me just try to explain that.

Ernesto writes: ‘I would say that hegemony is a theoretical approach which depends upon the essentially ethical decision to accept as the horizon of any possible intelligibility the incommensurability between the ethical and the normative, the latter including the descriptive’. Let us now try to get clear what is being claimed here. The ethical is the moment of universality or reactivation where the sedimented – a particular normative order of a given society – is both invested and placed in question. The emphasis upon both investment and placing in question is important because, if the ethical is the moment when the universal speaks by itself, then the specific normative order of a society is always particular. Ernesto’s claim about the incommensurability of the ethical and the normative entails that there will always be an écart, a gap between investment and calling it in question. Ethical universality has to be incarnated in a normative order, yet that moment of particular incarnation is incommensurable with universality. In language closer to the work of Alain Badiou we might say that any normative order of ethics is a sedimented form of an initial ethical event. And then, as it were, a normative ethics would be a sedimented form of that initial pledge to a notion of being, of an event. Hegemony is the expression of a fidelity to an event, an event, moreover, that is, that has to be, betrayed in any normative incarnation. We can see that the relation between the normative and the ethical is a – perhaps the – privileged expression of the hegemonic universality I spoke of in the introduction to this paper. The paradigm case of how we weld together the universal and the particular is this relationship between the ethical and the normative in Ernesto’s work. Hegemony is in this sense the name for this unstable relation between the ethical and the normative, our way of addressing this infinite process of investment which draws its dignity from its very failure.

A further key aspect of the distinction between the ethical and the normative is thus echoed in the distinction between form and content. So we have three sets of distinctions: universal/particular, ethical/normative, form/content. The ethical is the moment of pure formality that has to be filled in a particular context with a normative content. The obvious precursor for this ethical formalism is Kant, where the categorical imperative can be understood as an entirely formal procedure for testing the validity of specific moral norms by seeing whether they can stand the test of universalisation. So if one claims a notion of ethical formalism, then one’s precursor is Kant and, as we say in the Philosophy Department at Essex, philosophical problems in a sense are between Kant and Hegel’s critique of Kant. Hegel’s critique of Kant is a critique of formalism. If one comes up with an ethical formalism, how can one protect that formalism from the Hegelian and the Marxist critique that this formalism simply loses sight of the stuff, of detailed everyday social life – what Hegel calls Sittligkeit and what Marx would call Praxis? Doesn’t defending formalism lead you to lose sight of both dimensions? But that’s too easy. I take it that Lacanian and Heideggerian inflections of this Kantian thought have also been influential on Ernesto’s understanding of the ethical. In a Lacanian ethics of the real, the real is a mode of pure formality, a constitutive lack that is filled with normative content when it becomes symbolised in a relation to a specific context. In other language, in Lacan’s terms, ethics is a relationship to the real as a formal relation and that becomes symbolised in the moment of the normative. A third language would be the language of Heidegger that Ernesto uses in terms of the relationship between the ontological and the ontic: here the ethical would be the ontological, the normative would be the ontic. Now it seems that we are obliged to conclude this stage in our argument, that there is indeed no normative deficit in the theory of hegemony. More accurately, at the basis of the theory of hegemony is an irreducible ethical commitment whose scope is universal. This is the revised position, that at the base of the theory of hegemony is an irreducible commitment whose scope is universal. This, in my view, is good news. And it’s the acknowledgement of some conception of ethics that I have been trying to urge on Ernesto since the beginning of our disagreement. That doesn’t mean that I fully agree with the position Ernesto has reached.

In conclusion, I want to raise just seven quick questions, or seven objections, to this position.

(1) My initial worry with Ernesto’s new position is that it deconstructs one distinction – the descriptive/normative – only to insist on another distinction — the ethical/normative. Thus for him the question becomes that of the relationship between the ethical and descriptive/normative complexes. But by virtue of what is the second distinction somehow immune from the kind of deconstruction to which the first was submitted? Logically and methodologically, how can one collapse one distinction, only to put in its place another distinction, without expecting it also to collapse? I do not see what argument Ernesto provides that would protect the second distinction from collapsing like the first one. With this in mind, let me now try to deconstruct the ethical/normative distinction a little.

(2) Let’s look a little closer at the distinction between the ethical and the normative and momentarily grant (I apologise, this is a bit forensic, a bit analytic) Laclau his premise. Let’s imagine that what we have here is an analytic distinction. De jure, one can make the distinction that Laclau is after — between ethical form and normative content, between universal and particular – but de facto it would seem to me that the ethical and the normative always come together. That is in actual normal life the formal moment of universality is always welded to its concrete particularity. Such, it would seem to me, is the ineluctable logic of the concept of hegemony. Thus to my mind, it would make more sense to speak of de facto moral action in terms of ethical/normative complexes even if one grants de jure that an analytic distinction can be made between the ethical and the normative.

(3) But if that is granted then turning round the question — can one still speak of an equally justified de jure distinction between the normative and the descriptive even if one grants de facto that the two orders are inextricably intertwined? I don’t see why not. So in opposition to Laclau’s distinction between the ethical and the descriptive/normative complexes, I think it makes much more sense to speak of a de facto ethical/normative/descriptive complex within which one is entitled to make a series of de jure distinctions. I think this critical question can be made more concrete by probing the language Laclau uses to make the ethical/normative distinction. As I already said, it runs parallel to Heidegger’s distinction between the ontological and the ontic. For Heidegger the distinction between the ontological and the ontic is a de jure distinction that isolates distinct strata into a phenomenological analysis. For Heidegger, the ontological is the a priori, or transcendental constitutive features, what Heidegger calls existentials, that can be discerned from socially instituted ante- or a-posteriori life. So, for Heidegger, the distinction between the ontological and the ontic is a de jure distinction. De facto, we have to speak, and Heidegger does speak endlessly, of Dasein as a unity of the ontological and the ontic. Dasein has precisely an ontico-ontological privilege. I therefore worry about the seeming ease with which Ernesto distinguishes the ethical-ontological level from the normative-ontic level, as if one could somehow expunge or slough off the ontic from the ontological in the ethical. The ontological and the ontic are welded together, which is what makes moral theory and moral life so difficult.

(4) I have a separate but related problem with Ernesto’s Heideggerian identification of the ethical with the ontological. The assumption behind his identification would seem to be that we can thematise and grasp conceptually the being of the ethical, and the nature of ethics can be ontologically identified and comprehended. It seems to me that Emmanuel Levinas would have one or two important things to say about this identification of ethics and ontology. The identification of ethics with ontology is for Levinas the defining feature of a philosophical tradition, from Aristotle through to Hegel and Heidegger. So the attempt to comprehend the being of the ethical is the way in which philosophers have understood and misunderstood ethics, for Levinas. Let me translate it into Lacanian and Wittgensteinian terms, which are maybe more familiar to Ernesto. In Lacan, the ethics is experienced in relation to the order of the real insofar as a non-symbolisable thing — what Lacan calls la Chose and Freud calls das Ding — stands in the place of the real. This thing is precisely something irreducible to ontological categorisation, a permanent excess within discursive symbolisation. So for Lacan, just as for Levinas, the ethical is not ontological. In the famous 1929 ‘Lecture on Ethics’ Wittgenstein says that the ethical is revealed ‘by running up against the limits of language’. The ethical is strictly speaking something about which nothing can be said; all propositions in the domain of ethics are nonsense. Ethics is not something that could be ontologically grasped but is rather apprehended in the silence that falls after reading Proposition 7 of the Tractatus. It should be recalled that Wittgenstein acknowledged that the entire effort of the Tractatus had an ethical point, a point which could not be expressed within the book itself because the ethical cannot be articulated. A further example from Kant – at the end of the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals Kant says ‘the essential thing I am trying to grab hold of here is the incomprehensibility of the moral law’. Any attempt to comprehend it must comprehend it in its incomprehensibility. So the ethical, practical reason for Kant, the relation to the Thing in Lacan, the relationship to what lies beyond language in Wittgenstein – these are all attempts to show that the ethical and the ontological cannot be collapsed.

(5) Let me stay with the example of Wittgenstein in order to probe further the ethical/normative distinction. In one of his more cryptic remarks on rule following from the Investigations Wittgenstein says — in an answer to the question he is always asking, ‘What is it to follow a rule?’ — that ‘It would be more correct to say not that an intuition was needed at every stage but that a new decision was needed at every stage’. This quotation would seem to illustrate well the relation between ethics and normativity. There is a rule which possesses universality, for example, the sequence of prime numbers, and yet each expression of that rule demands a decision, an act of continuing the sequence. In this sense the rule would be ethical and the particular decision would be normative. But if that’s granted then what is to be gained by attempting to distinguish rigorously between the ethical and the normative? Shouldn’t we rather conceive of the ethical-normative complex in similar or analogous ways to the relationship between a rule and instantiations that follow the rule?

(6) To come back in a different way to my earlier question as to the difference between hegemony and democratic hegemony — the point here is very simple: Is Ernesto in his talk of ethics doing meta-ethics, telling us something about the nature of all ethical systems, or is he doing normative ethics? Is the ethical something constitutive of, or identifiable within, all societies, or does it only exist within democratic societies? If it exists within all societies, if all social orders have an ethics — and I think this is what Ernesto does mean — then although this definition would maintain the requirement of strict formality it might also be accused of banality. If Ernesto is making a simple meta-ethical point in his talk of the ethical then one might well ask, what’s the point of making it? If it is the latter, if the ethical is part and parcel of democratic societies alone, then it seems to me that one has admitted some specific normative content of the ethical, that is one has consented to describing the ethical in some way or other and recommending a particular description over another. I would be inclined to say that democratic political forms are simply better than non-democratic ones — more inclusive, more capacious, more just. Now, if there is some specific content of the ethical then the distinction between the ethical and the normative cannot be said to hold. Yet conversely, if there is no content of the ethical at all then one might be entitled to ask, what’s the point? Isn’t such a meta-ethical analysis rather banal? I imagine that Laclau’s critique of my position will be that insofar as it follows Levinas, it admits some specific content of the ethical. My Levinas is an increasingly heterodox Levinas, I keep taking bits out — like God – and putting bits in, but is there a specific content of the ethical for me? Yes, there is. I accept that criticism unreservedly. My position is that on the basis of some meta-ethical picture, which is something I call ethical experience which I trace back to the debates around the notion of the fact of reason in Kant, I recommend a particular normative conception of ethical experience based upon a reading of a number of thinkers. My position is that the fundamental, normative principle of an ethics is that there is a demand that is placed upon you which you cannot meet, there is a fundamental asymmetry of demand, and an approval of that demand, and that gives us experiential motivational basis for some conception of ethics. And it is on the basis of that conception of ethics that I want to link that to the notion of political action, and that’s where I find Ernesto’s work so incredibly valuable.

(7) So my question back to Laclau is that unless one wants to engage in a purely diagnostic meta-ethical enquiry divorced from any substantive normative content I cannot see why I should so insistently want to emphasise the content-free character of the ethical. In my view formal meta-ethics must be linked to normative ethical claims. One of the great virtues of Ernesto’s work is that it shows us how to hegemonise a specific normative picture into effective and transformative political action. And that for me is how the particular normative picture that I have, which I derive from people like Levinas, can be linked to something like political action, without falling into a politics of monotheism, a politics of nationalism, etc. (Maybe the Achilles’ heel of Levinas’s work is also the question of Israel.) So in many ways I am trying to think about how one can link this normative ethical conception to a notion of politics without falling into that trap. That’s why I find Ernesto’s work enormously instructive. My question back to Ernesto is, well, that requires a specific normative conception of ethics from you, too. Therefore it would seem that there is still a normative deficit in the theory of hegemony, although it is not at all what I first imagined it to be. So, Ernesto and I still disagree after all, which is perhaps a good thing as it means that the history will continue. . .


1 We are preparing a book called Laclau: A Critical Reader (Routledge: London and New York, forthcoming), and this is my contribution.

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