Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Essentially Inarticulate: slouching "towards a radical democratic politics"

It is precisely this polysemic character of every antagonism which makes its meaning dependent upon a hegemonic articulation to the extent that, as we have seen, the terrain of hegemonic practices is constituted out of the fundamental ambiguity of the social, the impossibility of establishing in a definitive manner the meaning of any struggle, whether considered in isolation or through its fixing in a relational system. -- Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics
Clearly I'm not… that’s not where I am, because, you know, people... like... leave high school and go to college and they like… [inaudible, interviewer talks over] -- Marissa Johnson on Sarah Palin
For reasons unknown (but time will tell) Sandwichman's ear instinctively hears Laclau and Mouffe's monologue being spoken by the character Lucky from Waiting for Godot.

"Articulation" plays a privileged role in Laclau & Mouffe's analysis, in opposition to -- or, one might say, as the antithesis of -- "essentialism." Essentialism was reductivist (bad); its "last redoubt" was the economy. By elevating class struggle as the presumed locomotive of history, so the story goes, Marx and Engels had sidelined other differences such as gender, race or nationality.

Essentialism and articulation remain key terms within the burgeoning academic-activist intersectionality complex. Instead of presiding as the determining difference (even if only in the "last instance"), class -- often relabeled as poverty -- has been demoted to the status of a residual effect of the other, formerly subordinate, differences, which are, of course, legion.

The logic of Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza's complaint about "some weirdo populist economic determinism" follows from the critique that an economic class analysis inherently subordinates other forms of oppression to the presumably primary difference of class. The characterization tends toward the hyperbole that class analysis is inherently reductivist and thus must be eschewed in favour of some other analysis of (more essential?) categories of difference. This game of identity musical chairs is not debatable as any and all objection can be disallowed as "condescending weirdness."

There was a Polish joke about how under capitalism man exploits man but under communism it is the other way around. One might paraphrase that to say that under orthodox Marxism, class struggle subordinates all other differences but identity politics does just the reverse. Another variety of essentialism enters through the back door because the framing concept of "articulation" has proven to be incoherent -- it is essentially inarticulate.