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[Editor's Note: The following essay by Simon Critchley, Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research, is the text of the final of his four lectures from the Albert Schweitzer Series on Ethics and Politics, which took place in the spring of 2004 at New York University. Ernesto Laclau, Professor of Political Theory at the University of Essex, followed with a response (which you can find here). I thank Prof. Critchley for allowing me to post his lecture here. You may send him comments at the following email address: critchls@newschool.edu. I would like to take this opportunity to remind visitors that they are welcome to submit articles or essays to be considered for linking or providing space on our site.]

The Problem of Hegemony
Simon Critchley

... In these remarks, I would like to offer a picture of politics and then towards the end try to link that picture to what I have been saying in these lectures about ethics.

So, politics, then. Where else can we start but with Marx. Let me begin by stating what I see as the first truth of Marx’s work, namely the analysis of capitalism, an analysis that is truly prophetic and where the economic form of life that began in some corners of north-western Europe, in Holland, England and some of its former colonies has, through processes that we all too easily call globalisation, spread its movement of expropriation all across the world. In the opening pages of the Manifesto of the Communist Party, Marx and Engels write of the revolutionary role of the bourgeoisie. This shouldn’t be forgotten: the bourgeoisie are the outcome of the revolutions of 1688 in England and 1789 in France and they play a revolutionary role in history. As Marx and Engels emphasize, in making profane all that’s sacred, in establishing connections and settlements everywhere, through the power of trade, commerce, colonialism and transport (think of Marx’s wonderful remarks on the importance of shipping, railways and canals), the bougeoisie globalizes itself, becoming cosmopolitan, insofar as cosmopolitanism is the pseudo-internationalism of atomized individualism (it is therefore odd to my mind that the word should be back in vogue). In stripping the veneer of naturalness from all social relations, including family relations and the formerly prized professions and hierarchies of feudal society, in making the experience of labour unbearable and indeed crippling through industrial organization, the bourgeoisie reveal the contingency and historicity of social life and the possibility that the particular set of social arrangements through which we are living are capable of being transformed. That is, the bourgeoisie unwittingly reveal the political character of social life. In reducing those social relations to essentially monetary relations, in creating a world market based on the abstract universality of money and the experience of self-estrangement and alienation, the bourgeosie is the condition of possibility for anti-bourgeois political struggles. Marx and Engels write in the Manifesto,

‘Where it has come to power the bourgeoisie has obliterated all relations that were feudal, patriarchal, idyllic. It has pitilessly severed the motley bonds of feudalism that joined men to their natural superiors, and has left intact no other bond between one man and another than naked self-interest, unfeeling “hard cash”. It has drowned the ecstasies of religious fervour, of zealous chivalry, of philistine sentiment in the icy waters of egoistic calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of countless attested and hard-won freedoms it has established a single freedom – conscienceless free trade. In a word, for exploitation cloaked by religious and political illusions, it has substituted unashamed, direct, brutal exploitation.’[1]

Ours is a universe where human relations have been reduced to naked self-interest, to unfeeling hard cash, and where all social life is governed by one imperative: conscienceless free-trade, a life of open, unashamed, direct and brutal exploitation. We inhabit, particularly in this town, a veritable M – C – M (money for commodities for more money) matrix of increasingly centralised expropriation. Reading Marx on the genesis and emergence of capital and its political corollary, the modern representative state, on the function of money as the universal, yet alienated, capacity of humankind, and on the massive structural dislocations of capitalist society and the yawning inequalities that it produces, one is simply persuaded of the massive prescience and truth of these analyses. History has proven Marx more successful than he could have imagined in his intention in the Preface to Das Kapital in laying bare the economic law of motion of modern capitalist society.


Sadly, what I have just said is the easy part. For me, Marx’s analysis of capitalism remains the sine qua non for the understanding of contemporary socio-economic life. However, what follows from this for our thinking about politics? That is the question. Let me try and open up a line of thought, an experimental line of thought, moreover.

Are we witnessing, as Marx and Engels foresaw with particular clarity in the Manifesto a simplification of the class structure into the opposed poles of bourgeoisie and proletariat? Are we witnessing the emergence of a revolutionary class whose seizure of power, whose dictatorship, will entail the withering away of the state and the implementation of socialism? Are the undoubted and massive dislocations of capitalist globalization, and just think about what Marx would say about what is happening at present in South China or in regions of India, producing a classless class, a class who will bring about the overcoming of the division of labour and the achievement of communism?

Let’s just that I have my doubts. And it is here that Ernesto’s work can be extremely instructive. Rather than a simplification of class position, one might talk of a multiplication of class actors in society, of society being made up by an increasingly complex fabric of class identifications, rendered even more complex by other sets of identifications, whether gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or whatever. In such a situation, we cannot hope, as classical Marxism maintained, that once we have laid bare the economic laws of motion of capitalist society, then revolution will follow quasi-automatically from the contradictions and crises of the capitalist system. Crisis-ridden as it doubtless is and has been since at least the 1850’s, capitalism is wonderfully persistent and can morph into new shapes at the least sign of resistance, brilliantly recuperating anything that seems to place it in question – and we have known since the time of the Situationist International that recuperation is the fate of all forms of avant-gardism, aesthetic or political. So, rather than evolving towards a revolution that would take us beyond it, one might say that capitalism capitalises itself. This is more elegantly expressed in French: le capitalisme se capitalise, it simply produces more capitalism. In other words, we cannot reduce the sphere of the political to the socio-economic, as is suggested by a crude base-superstructure model with which Marx flirted in the ‘Preface’ to The Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy and which became an article of faith for Engels and the Marxism of the Second International. We cannot sit back and hope that the structural contradictions of capitalism will do the job of political transformation for us. On the contrary, in my view and in Ernesto’s too, it is a question of reactivating the political dimension of Marxism, dimensions that will require all our capacities for political invention and political imagination, a political imagination at which the right have been spectacularly more successful than the left since the late 1970’s.

Let me be clear, I do not say this in order to embrace what some have called ‘disco-Marxism’, that is, a Marxism that abandons the socio-economic dimension by reducing all experience to modes of discourse, a gesture that politicises Marxism at the price of leaving capitalism intact and unquestioned. On the contrary, I think the goal of communism as articulated in the Manifesto, namely what Marx and Engels in a very nuanced way call the ‘Aufhebung of private property’, that is, both its maintenance and its overcoming, but not an abolition, Abschaffung (the distinction is there in the text) is an entirely legitimate political aspiration. The issue with regard to capitalism is therefore the establishment of capital as a social product and not a personal one, of removing the class-character of private property.

Let me turn to an important line of argument in Ernesto’s work, namely his rethinking of Marx’s category of dislocation. Another way of thinking about what I called a moment ago the first truth of Marx’s work is in terms of the accelerating dislocatory power of capitalism. If capitalism capitalises itself, it produces more and more extensive social and economic dislocations, all over the surface of the earth. In what is for me his most important programmatic theoretical text - his manifesto, if you will - the title essay from the 1990 book New Reflections of the Revolution of Our Time, Ernesto writes,

‘In one sense, our analysis keeps within the field of Marxism and attempts to reinforce what has been one of its virtues: the acceptance of the transformations entailed by capitalism and the construction of an alternative project that is based on the ground created by those transformations and not on opposition to them. Commodification, bureaucratization, and the increasing dominance of scientific and technological planning over the division of labour should not necessarily be resisted. Rather, one should work within these processes so as to develop the prospects they create for a non-capitalist alternative.’ (p.55)

Despite the fact that, for Marx, the dislocations of capitalist society are orientated structurally or systemically by the misguided teleology of a simplification of the class structure and emergence of a revolutionary subject, the proletariat, this should not disguise the great virtue of Marx’s work, which is its radically unsentimental, un-romantic and anti-conservative diagnosis of capitalism. The dislocatory power of capitalism must be affirmed and not resisted by a retreat into some sort of romantic and ultimately reactionary anti-capitalism (for which there seems to be a great affection on the American left). On the contrary, the more dislocated the ground upon which capitalism operates, the less it can rely on a framework of supposedly natural or stable social and political relations. Capitalist dislocation in its destruction of the bonds of tradition, family and kinship structure and local belonging that one might have considered natural, reveals the contingency of social life, that is, its constructed character, that is, its political articulation. This is the moment of what Ernesto, after Gramsci, calls hegemony: Once the ideological illusions of the natural have been stripped away and revealed as contingent formations by capitalist dislocation, for example freedom becomes the experience of contingency under conditions of capitalism, freedom is simply the insecurity of selling oneself on the labour market, then the cement that holds political identities together is hegemony. The ever-widening dislocations of an increasingly disorganized capitalism do not, however, entail political pessimism, as is the case for an Adorno or a Heidegger from quite different sides of the philosophical looking-glass. On the contrary, such dislocations can (I emphasize ‘can’, there is no necessity to this operation) be linked to the emergence of a range of alternative political possibilities opposed to capitalism and are thus, as Ernesto says, the condition for ‘a new militancy and a new optimism’(p.82). Ernesto writes,

‘The fragmentation and growing limitation of social actors is linked to the multiplication of the dislocations produced by “disorganized capitalism”. It follows from this that more and more areas of social life must become the product of political forms of reconstruction and regulation.’ (p.81)

Thus, the thought here is for a co-implication of the dislocatory force of capitalist globalization and a multiplication of social actors and political possibility. This co-implication can lead to the emergence of a alternative left, but this is a hegemonic operation, it is a construction, it is work that needs to be done. All of this has implications for our thinking of the subject of politics, as we will see.

I want to turn to the question of naming that Ernesto and Joan were talking about on Tuesday. Politics is always about nomination, about naming a political subjectivity. Marx’s name for the political subject is the proletarian, more specifically the proletarian as communist. Can this be our name? Are we united around the fact of proletarian identity? No. The reasons for this would take us deep into a critique of Marx’s ontology, that is, his conception of the being of being human, which is expressed in the ideas of species being, production and the practical self-activity of the subject, ideas which he owes to the tradition of Fichtean and and Hegelian idealism which Marx both completes and completely overturns. For Marx, communism is an ontological category before it is that around which any political activism can orientate itself, and it is that link that allows Marx to claim that the proletariat are the classless class who represent the interests of humanity. So, I do not believe that we are united around the fact of our proletarian identity. I think we lack a name around which a radical politics can take shape. The political task is therefore one of inventing a name around which a political subject can aggregate itself from the various social struggles through which we are living. This act of the aggregation of the political subject is the moment of hegemony. More accurately still, following through on the thought of the multiplication of social actors in the contemporary world, it is a question of inventing names for that around which politics can hegemonise itself. The logic of political nomination, I take it, is that a determinate particularity in society is hegemonically constructed into a universality. This is what Ernesto calls ‘hegemonic universality’ and is an important theme of his recent and forthcoming work on what he calls ‘elusive universality’. That is, the universal is not read off from the script of some pre-given ontology but is posited in a specific situation. As Marx writes in an unnervingly contemporary sentence from his 1843 ‘Introduction’ to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, the logic of the political subject is expressed in the words: ‘I am nothing and I should be everything’(p.69) That is, a particular group posits the fullness of the universal and hegemonically articulates that universality in political action. It is not my place to speak about what’s happening in the USA, at least not after so little time here, but in Europe, at this conjuncture, immigrant, asylum seeker, or refugee could be candidates for political names. I read something last week by Etienne Balibar, where he argued that ‘Palestinian’ is the name for a universal cause. I would want to add the name ‘Guantanamo’ to that list.

Whilst I am on this topic, some people think that ‘multitude’ in the sense of Hardt and Negri has become for us a political name. I would dispute this, both because the analysis given in Empire at the ontological level risks retreating into the very anti-dialectical materialist ontology of substance that Marx rightly criticized and also because it makes the work of politics too systemic where both empire and multitude, that is, both capitalism and the resistance to capitalism, originate in the same ontological substance. It is rare for books to be refuted empirically, but I think this happened to Empire on September 11th, 2001. If we are doing politics, we cannot and should not pin our hopes on any ontology, whether a Spinozo - Deleuzianism of abundance or Heideggero - Lacanianism of lack. Politics is a disruption of the ontological domain and separate categories are required for its analysis and practice.


Let me move on now to the question of the state. We inhabit states. The state – whether national like Spain or Britain, transnational like the EU or imperial like the USA – is the framework within which conventional politics takes place. Now, it is arguable that the state is a limitation on human existence and we would be better off without it. Such is perhaps the eternal temptation of anarchism, and we will come back to anarchism. However, it seems to me that we cannot hope, at this point in history, to attain a withering away of the state either through anarcho-syndicalism or revolutionary proletarian praxis, or through the agency of the party for example. Within classical Marxism, state, revolution and class form a coherent set: there is a revolutionary class, the universal or classless class of the proletariat whose communist politics entails the overthrow of the bourgeois state. But if class positions are not simplifying, but on the contrary becoming more complex through processes of dislocation, if the revolution is no longer conceivable in Marx’s manner, then that means that, for good or ill, let’s say for ill, we are stuck with the state, just as we are stuck with capitalism. The question becomes: what should our political strategy be with regard to the state, to the state that we’re in?

It is here that I would like to borrow a line of thought from the work of Alain Badiou. In a period when the revolutionary subject has decidedly broken down, and the political project of a disappearance of the state is not coherent other than as a beautifully seductive fantasy, politics has to be conceived at a distance from the state. Or, better, politics is the praxis of taking up distance with regard to the state, working independently of the state, working in a situation. Politics is praxis in a situation and the work of politics is the construction of new political subjectivities, new political aggregation in specific localities, new political sequences.

Perhaps it is at this intensely situational, indeed local level that the atomising force of capitalist globalisation is to be met, contested and resisted. That is, it is not to be resisted by constructing a global anti-globalisation movement that, at its worst, is little more than a highly-colourful critical echo of the globalisation it contests. It is rather to be resisted by occupying and controlling the terrain upon which one stands, where one lives, works, acts and thinks. This needn’t involve millions of people. It needn’t even involve thousands. It could involve just a few at first. It could be what Julia Kristeva has recently called the domain of ‘intimate revolt’. That is, politics begins right here, locally, practically and specifically, around a concrete issue and not by running off to protest at some meeting of the G8. You shouldn’t meet your enemy on their ground, but on your own, on the ground that you have made your own. Also, think of the money and time you save on travel!

Politics is praxis in a situation that takes up a distance from the state. Now, and here I would like to return to Marx, I think this distance from the state is democratic. I would like to think democracy in terms of this distance from the state. By democracy I therefore do not mean the state-form, in the sense of liberal or constitutional democracy, nor do I mean democracy in the mouth of neo-imperialists where it is no more than a fetish-object in a legitimating discourse of capitalist expropriation and the Realpolitik of war (I refer to the breathtaking cynicism of the 2003 National Security Strategy of the United States of America which every citizen of this country should read. It’s available from the USGov website). I rather mean democracy as a movement of democratisation which is - dialectically expressed - the truth of the state, a truth which no state incarnates. Democratisation is the moment or movement of disincarnation that challenges the borders and legitimacy of the state. As I hear it, this talk of democracy as democratisation picks up on a strand of the young Marx’s thinking that can be found in his 1843 critique of Hegel’s Rechtsphilosophie, written when Marx was only about 25. In these unpublished notes, Marx tries to conceptualise what he calls ‘true democracy’ ‘wahre Demokratie’ against the order of the state (this is truth not as prepositional truth or scientific truth, but truth as true to democracy, truth as treu, fidelity or loyalty to democracy). He writes,

‘…it is self-evident that all forms of state have democracy as their truth and for that reason are untrue to the extent that they are not democracy.’(p.10)

Marx claims that democracy is the resolved enigma of all political constitutions, and by democracy what he means is that in true democracy the political state as a formal apparatus operated by the bureaucratic class, who are the universal class, disappears and what takes its place is a conception of democracy as democratic self-determination, what he calls the Selbstbestimmung des Volks. This leads him to a critique of Hegel’s idea of the people as what he calls a formless mass, a sort of constitutive outside to the space of the state, it leads Marx against Hegel to a defence of popular sovereignty and to an argument for universal suffrage. From here, in the extraordinarily rich and speedily formulated texts of 1843 and 1844, this idea of popular democratic self-determination receives the name ‘communism’ and I have already expressed by reservations about that name. But the thought that I want to retain is the idea of true democracy as not being incarnated in the state, but rather enacted or even simply acted – practically, locally, situationally – at a distance from the state. I am trying to think of democracy as a movement of disincarnation that works concretely beneath the state’s abstraction. It calls the state into question, it calls the established order to account, not in order to do away with the state, desirable though that might well be in some utopian sense, but in order to better it or attenuate its malicious effects.

Thinking about true democracy in this way would be one way of thinking and reactivating the moment of the political within Marxism, that is, within a Marxist heritage that has tended to reduce the political to the socio-economic and superstructure to base. It would be a way of recovering what my friend, our friend, Miguel Abensour calls, after J.G.A. Pocock, ‘the Machiavellian moment’ within Marxism, the moment of decision, articulation, reactivation and event.[2]

I think that it is around such a notion of true democracy, as subjective praxis in a situation, that a gathering, an organisation, an aggregation an association can emerge. I am very interested in this figure of ‘association’ or ‘coalition’ in Marx, which appears in many texts, in The German Ideology, the Manifesto, The Poverty of Philosophy, where in the face of the socially atomising brutality of capitalism, Marx understands political organization as what he calls ‘the power of united individuals’. This is also what Marx calls in the first volume of Das Kapital, ‘einen Verein freier Menschen’, an association of free human beings.[3] (To be honest, it is the ver that interests me more than the ein in this formulation, i.e. the one is that towards which we progress without ever constituting the fantasy of the society as one, as a unity or fullness) Such a Verein, working in common at a certain distance from the state, working towards a control of the place from which one speaks and acts, working together in a situation as a political subject committed to a plan, a place, a space, a process, an event. I think this is not just possible, it is actual, and where it is not actual, it is actualisable: in the interstitial spaces occupied by the dispossessed in the great metropolitan centres, or more generally in the workplace, in housing projects, in schools, in universities, in hospitals, in shelters for asylum seekers, all over.

However, against Marx, I wouldn’t want to call such forms of association communist. For me, the idea of communism remains ontologically suspicious because of the essentialist idealist metaphysics of species-being that determine that concept in Marx’s work. Communism is a word that, for me, remains captive to an essentially aestheticised and organicist notion of community that can be traced back to Schiller’s Aesthetic Education of Man and the ‘Oldest System-Programme of German Idealism’ and traced forward to any number of utterly pernicious social fantasies of immanentism, that is, a conception of social relations based on the fantasy of fusion, unity, fullness and completion. 

For me, on the contrary, it is a question of trying to conceive of forms of political gathering, coalition, association or organization in relation contingent political articulations in a radically dislocated socio-economic reality. If I do not want to call this communist, then I am perfectly happy to still call it socialist, or associationist or whatever.

Let me conclude by trying to circle back to the theme of my lectures, namely ethics, or at least ethics my way, and try and sketch how we might think together this ethics with what I have just said about politics. This is a moot point as Ernesto and I have been having a running debate on the relation of ethics to politics for the past several years, where I have tried to argue that Ernesto’s theory of hegemony needs a theory of ethics.

Let’s now ask: how might a politics of the type I have described happen? How might it become effective? What are the conditions for its emergence?

One might say that politics just happens, but that it is not happening now, ours are not favourable times. One might say, like some post-Heideggerian leftists, that it is necessary to wait and await the advent of the saving power of the revolution, the Ereignis will one day come to pass. One might say, like some post-Adornian leftists, that Auschwitz or the death camps are the nomos of modernity, and basically on est foutu, which good taste prevents me from translating, but I am thinking of Agamben (Jay [Bernstein, Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research, who was present at the lecture. -ed] has recently published a devastating critique of Agamben, which I recommend to you) (although we can still enjoy the exquisite aesthetic teasings of high modernism). One might say, like some post-Althusserian leftists, that politics is rare, the last great example being 1968, and we have to acknowledge that we are living in a de-politicised, post-democratic era. One might say, like Zizek, pretty much anything you like as there are so many contradictions in what he has said about politics over the years. But one might also say the following: politics is not rare or seldom and to adopt such a position is finally defeatist. Politics is now and many. The massive structural dislocations of our times can invite pessimism, even forms of active or passive nihilism as I emphasized in my first lecture in February, but they can also invite militancy and optimism, an invitation for our capacity of political invention and imagination, and invitation, finally, for our commitment and responsibility.

In order not to be defeatist, in order not to participate in the Kulturpessimismus or ‘Eeyorism’ that is the self-defeating speciality of the intellectual left, in order to be affirmative and even a little optimistic, I think we have to acknowledge that such a conception of politics requires an experience of empowerment, an empowerment that is irreducibly ethical . My claim is that at the heart of a radical politics there has to be a meta-political ethical moment that provides the force or propulsion into political action (not non-political or pre-political, but meta-political). If ethics without politics is empty, then politics without ethics is blind. Taking my cue from a highly heterodox reading of Levinas, I want to claim that this meta-political moment is anarchic, where ethics is the anarchic disturbance of the political status quo, a meta-political disturbance of established politics for the sake of politics, that is, for the sake of a politics that does not close over into itself, becoming a whole, a state, the fantasy of the One, what Levinas will call a totality. Ethics is anarchic meta-politics. It is the anarchic moment of dissensus articulated around the experience of the ethical demand, the demand that I tried to describe in detail in my second lecture. Ethics has to be based on the concepts of ethical experience and the ethical subject, as I hope to have made clear in these lectures. Ethics is the experience is an infinite, unfulfillable, universal and overwhelming demand at the heart of my subjectivity, a demand that defines that subjectivity by splitting it open. Now, this demand is not some theoretical abstraction. Hopefully, the link to Marx has made clear the way in which this demand takes place in a situation, a political situation, a situation of globalised expropriation and violent injustice, a situation of what I called in the first words of these lectures, ‘political disappointment’. As I tried to show, this disappointment provokes an experience of injustice or indeed a feeling of anger. To go back to the discussion of affect that we had on Tuesday, I think anger is very important, it is the first political affect. But such anger at the treatment of so-called unlawful combatants in Guantanamo, at the tawdry shambles in Iraq, at the mystifying and cynical complacency of Tony Blair are experiences of a wrong, a wrong that provokes an ethical response. The problem with contemporary ethics, particularly the radically devalued currencies of freedom, human rights and liberal democracy (which are at the heart of that National Security Strategy document I already mentioned), is, as Chantal Mouffe would rightly say, the risk of a moralization of politics and hence the risk of depoliticization (Chantal has just finished a book on this topic). I agree completely, but I do not think that the fact of moralization should lead to the suspension of ethics. On the contrary, I think it should lead to the development of alternative ethical frameworks, it should lead towards an intensification of ethics and a political ethics against the moralization of the politics. Such was the far from humble ambition of these lectures.


In these dark times, in these times of war, in this period of the increasingly desperate shoring up of the imperium as the provinces burn and our leaders see enemies everywhere, even in their sleep; in these dark times, we can no longer trust our political destiny to quasi-automatic inner contradictions of socio-economic laws of motion, a spontaneously emerging social movement that would lead to the overthrow of the state. Nor can our guide in politics be some set of ontological or metaphysical presuppositions, whether Marx’s notion of species-being or Negri’s idea of the emancipatory effulgence of the multitude. The revolution is not going to be generated out of systemic or structural laws. We are on our own and what we do we have to do for ourselves. Politics requires subjective invention. No ontology or eschatological philosophy of history is going to do it for us. Working at a distance from the state, a distance that I have tried to describe as democratic, we need to construct political subjectivities in specific situations, subjectivities that are not arbitrary or relativistic, but which are articulations of an ethical demand whose scope is universal and whose evidence is faced in a situation. This is dirty, detailed, local, practical and largely unthrilling work. It is time we made a start.

[1] Marx & Engels, Werke (Karl Dietz Verlag, Berlin), Band 4, p.464-5.

[2] Miguel Abensour, La démocratie contre l’État. Marx et le moment machiavélien (Presses Universitaires de France, Paris, 1997).

[3] Marx & Engels, Werke, Band 23, p.92.