Hegemony, Legitimacy, and the Mature Position: on Chantal Mouffe’s For A Left Populism. By Gerardo Muñoz.

Chantal Mouffe’s For A Left Populism (Verso, 2018) is deliberately written for the ‘populist moment’. It resembles the patriotic pamphlets, which according to historian Bernard Bailyn fueled passions months prior to the American Revolution. For Mouffe, the crisis of democracy will continue to grow if populism is not taken seriously both politically and theoretically, and her book is an excellent guide in that direction. For A Left Populism does not pretend to tease out new arguments. Rather, it seeks to revise and render accessible some of the main tenants of the radical democracy project that she elaborated, along with her late partner Ernesto Laclau, in books dating back to Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985). Mouffe reminds us that their task was to propose a theoretical horizon in the wake of the crisis of Eurocommunism, and against the ‘third-way’ of liberal democracies that dismantled the Welfare State. The populist agenda is ambitious: it proposes a move beyond Marxist liberationism, but in doing so it takes distance from market liberalism of Western democracies.

But what does “left populism” has to offer? For Mouffe the answer is short: a politics for the People, “in the name of the People”, capable of organizing an equivalency of social demands through the construction of a political frontier against a common adversary (the elite). Mouffe is right about the diagnosis: both Liberalism and Communism were attempts to deface the People. Whereas Communism promised a new man in a society outside capital, Liberalism offered the guarantee of happiness for the individual citizen. These two attempts were ways to neutralize social contingency between civil society and state relations. Contrary to the citizen and the subject, populism assumes heterogeneous social actors that vis-à-vis their equivalent demands are capable of radicalizing democracy. This process of radicalization entails that a social dynamic attentive to material needs could avoid the pitfalls of the Marxist historical subject as well as the sedimentary flow of institutions. The strategy that catalyzes such radicalization is the theory of hegemony (Mouffe 24).

Now, the logic of hegemony introduces an array of important elements for the radicalization thesis. First, hegemony, according to Mouffe, is what effectively disputes the “consolidation of neoliberal hegemony in Western Europe” (Mouffe 33). In a way, hegemony here takes the form of an avatar of the existing order of domination; a political transposition of capitalist reproduction. In fact, what hegemony shares with capitalism is the formalization of equivalence. Secondly, hegemony is understood as the missing tool in liberalism, which shrinks democratic life (Mouffe 38). Finally, hegemony emerges as an alternative to communism’s eschatology by accepting the current institutional designs in pursuit of ‘passion for equality’ (Mouffe 43). Common to all of these arguments is the main claim that only hegemony can rescue democracy from its post-political gloom. Hence, the theory of hegemony posses two important edges: one is descriptive and the other one is prescriptive. On the one hand, neoliberal postpolitics is already hegemonic. In other words, it does not allow an outside to what is provided by the general equivalent. On the other hand, hegemony appears, following Antonio Gramsci’s lessons, as a central political force that can transform the real-existing order.

But as political philosopher Jorge Yágüez has noted, Gramsci considered hegemony as a passive development that cannot be merely reduced to a political technique of state domination [1]. Mouffe would reply that she is not interested in gramscian textualism, but rather in the practical uses well beyond his original intentions. That is fair, but at the same time there is no reason to think that Gramsci’s theoretical horizon was more complacent under the sign of radical revolution than in the republican separation of powers or popular sovereignty. In fact, there is something to be said about Mouffe’s efforts in trying to move the discussion about populism outside the sociological determinations. Mouffe is aware that rendering the notion of hegemony effective within liberal-democratic order requires attending to the problem of legitimacy. Indeed, in one of the cardinal moments of For A Left Populism, Mouffe writes:

“A liberal-democratic society supposes the existence of an institutional order informed by the ethico-political principles that constitute its principles of legitimacy. What is at stake in a hegemonic transformation is the constitution of a new historical bloc based on a different articulation between constitutive political principles of the liberal-democratic regime and the socioeconomic practices in which they institutionalized. In the case of a transformation from on hegemonic order to another, those political principles remain in force, but they are interpreted and institutionalized in a different way” (Mouffe 45).

By disposing the idea of a drastic rupture in institutional life, hegemony accepts the liberal-democratic framework in exchange for coming to terms with the principle of legitimacy. But if we are in an epoch that has gone through an absolute decline of founding principles, is a “different way” of management enough? In studying the administrative state, for instance, I have argued that legitimation, once centered on charisma, has ceased its domain to administration. This means that legitimacy becomes synonymous with technique, and the political leader becomes synonymous with the bureaucrat.

How does hegemony stand in relation to legitimacy? Hegemony can stand as a superstructural element above it, but it can also become the principle of legitimacy itself to renew democracy. Mouffe is not explicit about this, except when she considers the Gramscian notion of the ‘integral state’ as significant to remake the contract between state and society (Mouffe 47). It is curious that this formulation coincides with José Luis Villacañas’ recent preface to Gramsci’s prison notebooks [2]. Let me briefly turn to Villacañas’ text.

For Villacañas, hegemony does entail a substitute of the legitimacy principle, now in crisis, which can open a transformative epoch beyond the domination of economy. Villacañas and Mouffe converge on this point: the essence of hegemony juxtaposes the political region against the economic region. But where as for Mouffe hegemony operates to defend and radicalize the principles of democracy, for Villacañas, hegemony is a “civilizational principle” that secures an ethical state in the form of a passive revolution (Mouffe 49, Villacañas 19). But, can legitimacy be resurrected from a political will unified under hegemony? There are two possibilities here. If we say that hegemonic populism is a struggle to politize a post-political scenario, then hegemony is merely a temporal stand-in to the current legitimacy. On the other hand, if we say that hegemony is a principle of legitimacy, what can guarantee its force is the cathexis between the political leadership (“clase dirigente”, says Villacañas) and the People. In reality, neither of the two options have the capacity to offer a social contract to reform democracy.

Mouffe claims that hegemony stands for identification via “different forms of subjectivities” (Mouffe 76-77). In other words, hegemony is a form of subjection. This means that in order to partake in hegemony you must necessarily be subjected to it. The civilizational drive of hegemony repeats the same step that led to the crisis of democratic politics in the first place, since it reduces democracy to a legislation of demands for recognition. It is not surprising that the minimal unit of equivalency is the demand. Thus, hegemony is first and foremost the demand to be a subject of hegemony. This is why leftist democratic politics based on hegemony is a self-defeating mechanism: it promises conflict but it reduces it through an empty signifier; it promises to displace the historical subject but it relocates it through equivalent subjective agglutination; it cares for legitimacy but it offers management not very different from the liberal paradigm. In this way, hegemony reintroduces politics as administration cloaked under political cordiality [3]. But we know that no effective politics were ever created on the basis of love or good intentions or unity.

If neoliberalism upgrades the “totalitarian” aspiration onto its economic indexation of life, as Argentine psychoanalyst Nora Merlin has argued, then the concept of hegemony runs the risk of absolutizing political domination as its substitute principle [4]. By reminding faithful to principle of unity and equivalence, the logic of hegemony tends to reproduce the results that it attempts to avoid. In other words, hegemony merely displaces the technique of the economy to a technique of the political. Is there a different position without discarding populism and moving back to liberal technicity? It is interesting that Mouffe mentions in passing posthegemony, which she reduces to an “affective turn” that ignores the lessons of psychoanalysis (Mouffe 74).

I would like to argue, on the contrary, that posthegemonic populism is the mature position that avoids the closure of conflict internal to hegemonic rationality. In fact, if psychoanalysis were to be taken seriously, hegemony would amount to yet another master discourse that aims at administering singular desire through a two step procedure: vertical cathexis and horizontal agglutination. The hegemonic recentralization of conflict leads necessarily to the closure of other potential conflicts and risks. Posthegemony, on the other hand, names the political position that aims at liberating the conflictive nature of politics within any democracy. It comes as no surprise that at the very end of her essay, Mouffe comes full circle to posit faith in “certain forms of consensus” once hegemony has been accepted as the logic of the political (Mouffe 93). By insisting on the optimization of conflicts, rather than in its verticalization, posthegemonic populism would allow turbulence in politics beyond the dead end of consensus.

A hegemonic alternative to legitimacy not only fails to renew democratic life, but it taxes life on behalf of the political. In this sense, by becoming a technique of dominance hegemony is incapable of transcending the antinomies of state and civil society, politics and economics at the root of the crisis. In broader terms, we know that the disintegration of the modern state form is neither an economic nor a political problem, but one of a deeper symbolization as a result of the primacy of legality over legitimacy, something that Carl Schmitt noted in his later works [5]. Hegemony can only offer a political legislation out of the crisis, but not much more.

Legitimacy is vital for democracy. But hegemony cannot do the work, except as faith. Democratic politics, however, is precisely what is incommensurable to beliefs. By positing hegemony as integration from within, Mouffe leaves us with an alternative political theology. This political theology works solely on behalf of its believers. The posthegemonic position concedes Mouffe & Laclau’s formula a winner for democratic politics, but it prefers to recognize conflicts at face value; that is, not as a question of principles, but rather of optimization beyond the intended precautions. It seems that this is the mature position for populism if it wants to be successful today.


  1. Jorge Álvarez Yágüez. “Retorno a Gramsci” (2017). https://dialnet.unirioja.es/servlet/articulo?codigo=6135405
  2. José Luis Villacañas. Pasado y presente: Cuadernos de la cárcel. Prefacio de J. L. Villacañas Berlanga. Barcelona: Gedisa, 2018. See also, the debate between Villacañas and Moireras on hegemony & posthegemony: https://infrapolitica.com/2018/06/23/respuesta-de-jose-luis-villacanas-a-precision-sobre-posthegemonia/
  3. Antoni Puigverd, “Hegemonía de la cordialidad” (2018): https://www.lavanguardia.com/opinion/20180709/45776820190/pedro-sanchez-parlament-torra-cordialidad.html
  4. Nora Merlin, “Neoliberalismo, el retorno del totalitarismo por otros medios” (2018): https://www.eldestapeweb.com/neoliberalismo-el-retorno-del-totalitarismo-otros-medios-n46759
  5. For Carl Schmitt’s critique of values and a self-critique of his concept of sovereignty, see The Tyranny of Values (1996) and Glossarium (2015).

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