DIALECTIC AND SOCIAL HETEROGENEITY IN ERNESTO LACLAU.

AuthorMihkelsaar, Janar
  1. Introduction

    When reading the works of Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx, one stumbles on an enigmatic figure of the lumpenproletariat, the very lowest segment of the proletariat associated with the set of figures such as vagabonds, nomads, prostitutes, petty criminals, and lazzaroni. From the world-historical perspective of the 'class struggle', the lumpen is denounced as an unfit, apathetic and unreliable ally, and because of that it is set outside of what is thinkable and sayable within the rational framework of dialectical materialism. Yet the philosophical and sociopolitical strategy of marginalization, which drives the totalizing logic of the Dialectic, runs aground when the (so-to-speak) 'real' interests and identity of the working class (including other classes) are not derivable from the logical contradictions of political economy. Then we have arrived at a point at which heterogeneity bursts forth at every corner and level of modern society, causing the greatest alarm and disgust. This trend toward growing fragmentation and globalization threatens to shatter the dialectical intelligibility of the world.

    Marx faces precisely this uncanny threat in his The Eighteenth Brumaire (1852), which recounts a story of the events leading from the revolutionary overthrow of the Orleans monarchy in 1848 to Louis Bonaparte's coup d'etat in December 1851. Bonaparte is described as playing cunningly against each other highly diverse social groups and interests, such as the proletariat, the petite bourgeoisie, the republicans, the aristocrats, the big industrialists, and the peasants. In his bid for power, Bonaparte successfully mobilizes diverse social strata. In such a situation, as Peter Stallybrass argues in his essay "Marx and Heterogeneity," Marx is forced "to look at the contingencies of class: class as an unstable yoking together, through political rhetoric, of heterogeneous groups" (Stallybrass 1990: 70; original emphasis). The main lesson to be learned from Bonaparte's usurpation of the state-power is the primacy of contingency and indeterminacy with respect to economy. A political rhetoric, and not an economic logic, shapes the identity and interests of all classes and, ultimately, a social totality in general.

    More specifically, Stallybrass sees Marx's exclusion of the lumpen "as a tactical maneuver to establish the dialectic," as a tactical maneuver to restrict the heterogeneity internal to the heterogeneous category of the poor and, in such a way, to organize the collective identity of the proletariat as a revolutionary and collective agent (Stallybrass 1990: 82; original emphasis). However, the exact impact of the lumpen is more controversial than it appears at first glance, since it is not at all clear in what way the explosion of social heterogeneity affects the integrity and coherence--conceptual homogeneity--of the dialectical logic. In Revolution and Repetition (1977), for instance, Jeffrey Mehlman addresses the question of revolution in Marx's political writings and French literature (Hugo, Balzac). In opposition to Stallybrass, Mehlman argues that the Dialectic breaks down when the transparent representation of the proletariat (and other classes) becomes opaque and precarious. Commenting on two opposing points of view, Ernesto Laclau acknowledges the constitutive role of heterogeneity in the moment of homogenization but, nonetheless, sides with Mehlman. For, when the process of social heterogenization can no longer be managed and delimited, there is nothing else to do but to conclude: "heterogeneity undoes dialectical totalization" (Laclau 2005: 263; my emphasis).

    However, the present article aims to argue that we do not necessarily have to decide whether the spectacle of social heterogeneity establishes or, inversely, terminates the dialectical intelligibility of the world. Both standpoints, taken separately, fail to hit the mark. To a certain degree, we may concede to the breakdown of the Dialectic, but not to conclude immediately upon it, insofar as a break in the issue does not have to be an absolute annulment. By drawing upon Laclau's style of reasoning, I suggest interpreting the moment of disruption and that of establishment as complementing and re-enforcing one another. Such double reading is imaginable, on the condition that the uncontrollable surge of social heterogeneity throws into question an objective relationship between what is a heterogeneous outside and what is homogeneous inside of dialectical mediations, and as a result, exposes the undecidablity of this relation. But, on the other hand, there arises the need of determining the undecidable. This determination is precisely what is at play in Laclau's populist articulation of the 'people.'

    All in all, I believe, Laclau fails in thinking of heterogeneity non-dialectically, because it is not simply enough to oppose the static and fixed form of objective relation to the undecidability of relation. In the final section of this article, I argue that the question of a non-dialectical heterogeneity is a point or a 'blind spot' where the post-structural theory of a populist politics subverts itself and goes beyond itself. A testimony of this is Laclau's concise essay "Bare Life or Social Indeterminacy?" that engages with Giorgio Agamben's seminal work, Homo Sacer: Sovereign and Bare Life (1998). What Laclau's critical reading misses, in my view, is that the enigmatic figure of homo sacer paves the path for the conceptualization of a nondialectical heterogeneity.

  2. Relationship between the dialectic and a heterogeneous exteriority

    Throughout his writings, but especially in his On Populist Reason from 2005, Laclau holds a view that the trend towards the growth of social heterogeneity shatters the foundations of the Dialectic. In order to uphold the dialectical vision of a totality, Laclau maintains that it is required to establish and sustain the clear and strict line of demarcation between the homogeneous interiority of the Dialectic and what is heterogeneous to it. In the present section, I argue that this form of relation is an objective relation.

    The dialectical train of thought requires demarcations of what falls within the realm of the dialectical transitions (formally, a thesis-antithesis-synthesis structure) from what falls absolutely outside of it. The Dialectic, in spite of itself, rests on "the static assertion of a binary opposition": the objective positivity of a homogeneous inside and that of a pure outside (Laclau 2005: 149). The movement of dialectical transitions toward the final reconciliation or synthesis of all contradictions asserts itself in opposition and over against the otherness of a non-dialectical outside in the figure of a heterogeneity. The figures of a heterogeneous other are marginal residues which (should) bear no relevance whatsoever to the conceptual homogeneity of dialectical mediations, the dialectical intelligibility of actuality. Examples are easy to come by.

    Take, for instance, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, where Hegel describes the historical unfolding of the world-spirit from the Orient to its final self-realization in the Occident. In the narration of such universal history, we come across 'grey areas' (e.g. Africa) that have no substantial significance for the self-assertion of reason and freedom. On the wayside of a historical and metaphysical people, there are the 'people without history' (Laclau 2005: 149, 148; see also Hegel: 1986: 129). Criticizing Hegel's idealism, Marx delineates the contours of historical periods in accordance with their specific 'mode of production' (i.e. tribal, ancient, feudalism, capitalism) and corresponding 'relations of production' (i.e. the owners of the means of production and the sellers of labor-power). But ultimately, the intelligibility and cohesion of history is established and maintained in relation to the 'parasitic' scum of the working class, that is, from "the absolute 'outsider': the lumpenproletariat" (Laclau 2005: 144; my emphasis). The lumpen is initially taken to have a negligible and peripheral presence vis-a-vis the forward march of world history, defined by the class warfare between the labor and the capital.

    According to Laclau, Marx gives to the class struggle a dialectical explanation. "The dialectical explanation [...] presupposes that if there is an antagonistic (that is, contradictory) relation between A and B, I have within the concept of A everything we need to know that it will be negated by B and only by B" (Laclau 2005: 148). Hence, the dialectical contradiction may be deduced purely from the "determinate negation" of A's identity by B. Ideally, B is nothing more than non-A. Purely through a conceptual and rational analysis, we may ascertain that the propositional content of A is logically incompatible with B. This form of contradiction illustrates the relation of the capitalists and the workers (Laclau 2005: 149). Analytically, one can easily demonstrate that the conflict of interests necessarily follows from the predatory working of political economy. The identity of the proletariat exhausts itself in being the negative side, or 'determinant negation,' of the bourgeoisie's aspiration to maximize profits and accumulate capital. And from capitalists' desire to keep wages close to a subsistence level and to appropriate the 'surplus-value,' one may conclude in a logical manner that the workers cannot but resist their exploitation and, consequently, from engaging in the class war to put an end to injustice. These inner contradictions of capitalism are eventually reconciled dialectically into the higher stage of development--a communist society.

    In contrast to the esteemed productivity of the industrial workers, the lumpen is viewed as the underclass of a non-productive force, and for that reason it is excluded from the dialectical logic of historicity. Living by the wayside, the lumpen is a form of heterogeneous...

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