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).

Precisión sobre “Posthegemonía.”

En su introducción a Pasado y presente.  Cuadernos de la cárcel, por Antonio Gramsci (Barcelona: Gedisa, 2018), mi amigo José Luis Villacañas dice:

“Ese es el destino de una introducción, convertirse en una invitación.  El motivo no puede ser otro que extraer de él materiales para una genuina política republicana capaz de estar a la altura de los tiempos y de ofrecer un programa democrático emancipador.  Que eso pueda presentarse como una teoría de la hegemonía es una cuestión abierta, pero no por las objeciones que puedan surgir procedentes de la tesis de haber entrado en una época decididamente poshegemónica” (24).

Me permito usar este blog para expresar mi objeción a esas últimas líneas, que parecen una descalificación demasiado directa de nuestro trabajo y en ese sentido desde luego una invitación al debate, que recojo aquí.  No es posible saber qué alcance exacto le da Villacañas a eso de “haber entrado en una época decididamente poshegemónica,” pero si atendemos a otros momentos del prefacio, en los que dice que “la hegemonía, como sabe cualquiera [!!], implica disponer de un nuevo principio civilizatorio” (16), y además que es “la lucha por ofrecer un contenido ético al Estado” (19), y además que es la “lucha por la definición de la realidad” (23), entonces se comprende el disgusto de Villacañas: el “poshegemónico,” en paródica versión, es alguien que afirma no disponer de ningún principio civilizatorio, y menos uno nuevo, que duda de su capacidad de ofrecerle una ética al Estado (o que piensa que tal proyecto es ya históricamente obsoleto), y que también está algo perdido en cuanto a una definición de la realidad políticamente imponible.  No sé si otros partidarios de la hegemonía harían suyo ese programa un tanto maximalista, en el que retornan viejos temas de la filosofía de la historia.  En cualquier caso es verdad que alguien interesado en la poshegemonía lo está en la medida en que cuestione, o rechace, la posibilidad misma, o el interés, de tales pretensiones.

Pero Villacañas ahonda en la parodia, o la desautoriza como tal, para decir, con toda seriedad, que el poshegemónico vive, además o por lo tanto, en “ceguera voluntaria” (24), es decir, que es una especie de tonto intencionado.   Y eso ya no parece correcto desde ningún punto de vista.    No hay más ceguera voluntaria en el intento de pensar lo que hemos venido llamando “poshegemonía” de la que hay en el intento de rescatar la “hegemonía” como palabra para el presente desde su acotación y reinvención semántica, apelando a Gramsci o a cualquier otro autor del pasado.  En realidad, no son ejemplos de “cegueras voluntarias,” sino de opciones y estilos de pensamiento, y es claro que el pensamiento de la poshegemonía está en otro lado con respecto de cualquier intento de rescate unilateral del concepto de hegemonía.

El asunto se hace más confuso, quizás, cuando Villacañas repite que no está claro para él cómo debe uno pensar “la hegemonía apropiada para el republicanismo del presente” (24).  Lo único claro, parece, es que hay que pensar necesariamente “la hegemonía,” y que no conviene cuestionar la relevancia de tal concepto.  Y que para eso hay que leer a Gramsci.  Está bien.  Sin duda hay que leer a Gramsci.  Pero no como condición de pensamiento.

A mí me toca, por supuesto, como Villacañas sin duda imaginó, cuestionar no solo el concepto de “hegemonía” en su posición de concepto-fetiche para la izquierda contemporánea (eso está hecho muchas veces ya en los textos de este blog y en otros que seguirán), sino también su afirmación descalificadora de la poshegemonía como ceguera voluntaria o estupidez terminal.  No es que interese mayormente la precisión de la interpretación de Gramsci.  Diga lo que diga Gramsci, que al fin y al cabo no posee la palabra, lo que los “poshegemónicos” dicen de la hegemonía es obviamente algo otro, incluyendo desde luego una visión alternativa de lo que significa y ha significado históricamente la palabra “hegemonía.”   En cualquier caso conviene recordar lo que decía Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio de las palabras sagradas: “la palabra sagrada apaga toda virtualidad significante para adquirir poder performativo: no busca ser entendida, sino obedecida . . . no hace falta entender, basta acatar” (Campo de retamas).

Terminan estos días unas jornadas en la Universidad Complutense dedicadas a la obra de Chantal Mouffe y organizadas por Villacañas y su equipo.   Tengo entendido que se logró un alto grado de consenso y acuerdo en torno a “hegemonía.”  Es admirable, sin duda.   Por este blog no tenemos más remedio, sin embargo, que seguir exhibiendo nuestros reparos.  Sin ahogarnos en ellos ni permitir que llegue la sangre al río.   Y en plena admiración por la obra de Chantal Mouffe y de Ernesto Laclau y de Antonio Gramsci.  Pero lo cortés no quita lo valiente.

A veces parece que la hegemonía gramsciana, para algunos intérpretes, no es más que una idea consumada del estado civil hobbesiano: es decir, el imperio no ya de la ley, sino de la ley que ni siquiera es ley, solo sentido común; la ley justamente que queda vencida en el texto paulino, sublimada y superada en el amor cristiano tal como el comunismo puede lograr hacer con la ley burguesa.  Villacañas habla de un “nuevo principio civilizatorio” encomendado a la persuasión sin coacción ni dominación de la parte activa del pueblo, de la voluntad popular más genuina.  Ante eso, también es legítimo–igualmente legítimo al menos, pienso, sin “ceguera voluntaria” de ninguna clase–opinar que la hegemonía, en cuanto expresión final de una posición de poder, siempre incluye un elemento de despotismo. La hegemonía, en otras palabras, convierte a los ciudadanos en lo que dice Tácito en el libro I de su Historia que le dijo Galba a Pisón después de la muerte de Nerón: “imperaturus es hominibus qui nec totam servitutem pati possunt nec totam libertatem.” Todo el que va a imperar va a imperar siempre sobre alguien que ni es totalmente esclavo ni puede ser totalmente libre.  Para mí, es verdad que la libertad no se asocia al estado de naturaleza–pero tampoco al sometimiento hegemónico, por bueno que sea y por muy encomendado que haya quedado al buen pueblo elaborador de nuevos principios civilizatorios.   El republicanismo debe reducir el imperio, no amarlo, aunque sea del pueblo (que nunca lo es, por otro lado).

No sé por qué resulta tan hiriente para otros la noción de que sea importante para un republicanismo del presente y del futuro pensar “poshegemónicamente;” es decir, pensar más allá de la noción de que hay una hegemonía histórica por construir en la que una parte acabará imponiendo su visión sobre el todo.  Y de que más vale que esa parte sea la buena, claro.

Pero pensar más allá de tal noción es lo que la “posthegemonía,” con la te, qué diablos, busca.  Sin complejos ni disculpas. En cualquier caso, valga decir que, en mi opinión, un republicanismo del futuro habrá de ser un republicanismo poshegemónico, o no será.