Utopianism v. Radical Democracy

LeoCasey at aol.com LeoCasey at aol.com
Sun Jun 11 14:42:27 MDT 1995

Justin writes:
(Radical democracy) has a clear meaning, but not one we like. >"Abandon
telelogical visions of social change" means that Leo and >other RD reject the
idea that there are any immanent forces in our >society pointing towards
socialism, or which might lead to the >overthrow of capitalist production
So far, fine. This is clearly one implication of RD theory as exponded by
Laclau and Mouffe, among others. The classical Marxist notion of history
draws strongly upon the Hegelian notion of history ('stood on its head') with
immanent historical subjects.

>"Seek to realise the democractic possibiloity in each historical >moment."
means that RD deny that there's anything structurual in >our sort of society
(indeed, for Laclau & Mouffe, it makes no sense >to talk of sorts of society)
blocking democracy: the problem is is >simply constraints of some
undetermined sort on democracy itself, >and the expansion of democracy is
something that is brought about >by local struggles in all areas--the economy
has no special >centrality in this way of thinking. In some versions of RD,
the goal of >state power is explicitly eschewed as corrupting.
These formulations are a bit more mixed. RD (let's take Laclau's and Mouffe's
position as emblematic here) is often shallowly misread (not Justin's reading
here, I think, but one which will quickly appear if some lines are not drawn)
as the theory that the social is completely undetermined -- everything is
possible. This is connected to a misunderstanding of the position that all
social practices are fundamentally discursive. Without going far afield into
what is a rather complex theoretical field (I would direct those interested
to Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, the central text in this discussion, and
the collection of essays in Laclau's New Reflections on the Revolution of Our
Time <which also references more orthodox Marxist critiques of the
position>), let me say that for RD discourse is not _understood_ in the
classic Marxian sense of ideology -- a superstructural epiphenomenon based on
a pre-discursive moment (ie, production) -- but rather as the necessary form
of all human material practices. Production is not ruled, therefore, by some
extra-discursive, immanent laws, as Marx suggests in Capital, and the
economic (or production) is thus not accorded any privileged position in
social analysis. The social is determined, however, by precisely the range of
possibilities in each set of concrete material, discursive practices in a
given social formation.

Frankly, the theoretical framework here can get very dense, and may be very
difficult going for folks not schooled in the philosophy of language and
discourse theory. I think there are two fairly straight-forward ways for
those working within a Marxist tradition to understand RD. First, those of us
who work within it are, by and large, people who operated within a Gramscian
Marxism, and at a certain point, based both on our theoretical development
and our practical politics, came to question the a priori centrality of class
struggle in that analysis. One way of understanding RD, therefore, is a
particular trajectory of Gramscian Marxism, once a central assumption of
class subjects as the only possible organizers of hegemony is removed. (Most
folks who see themselves within RD are critical of moments of, but still
indebted to, Marxism --if we are POST-Marxist, we are still post-MARXIST.)
Second, RD draws from discourse theory and certain other currents in
post-modernist thought; one source with which the readers of this list might
be familiar, for example, are the historical genealogies of Foucault. Here
again, if one looks at the last book of Poulantzas, and his particular use of
Foucault's analysis of power and knowledge, one might see a particular
trajectory out of a certain type of Marxist political theory, once the a
priori foundation of the centrality of class struggle -- as opposed to other
forms of struggle -- is dropped.

Although a Foucault would clearly eschew contestation for state power and
focus entirely on "local" struggles, RD in its most significant currents
would not adopt such a posture. RD sees its project as outside of the classic
'reform-revolution' divisions of socialism and Marxism, which it would trace
back to instrumentalist conceptions of the state.

Finally, let me say that it was not my purpose to engage this list in a
discussion of RD: I simply was responding to a caricature of the politics I
espouse. I offer these explanations simply as a background on my thinking to
help others understand the positions I take; the power of the viewpoint will
rise or fall on its ability to analyze in a fruitful way actual issues facing
those of us on the democratic left. I will be happy to do further
explication, but I will be even happier to address the actual issues we

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