Laclau – Post-Marxist thinker theorising on SM


Gramsci – a great thinkers, gave us so much

What is Hegemony? and how can we rethink Gramsci’s idea of hegemony in todays theories on social movements? What are articulations and how can we think of finding a universalist movement without excluding particularities and finding a pendelum movement between the two logics: the logic of equivalences and logic of difference?



This paper will examine the validity of social movement theory in the context of the recent organic crisis of the neoliberal developmental discourse in Bolivia from its aggressive inception in 1985 to its disarticulation by a new hegemonic process interpellated by the Movimiento Al Socialismo (MAS) and its integration with its social movement base until 2009. It will pose as its main theoretical thread the ‘new social movements’ and overall emphasise the ‘populist’ theory (Laclau 2007. Mouffe 1988.), that is, the production of hegemonic processes, through which a particular demand of the plebs becomes hegemonic, disarticulating different particular demands, in a chain of equivalences, and rising up to a relative universal demand articulating itself as the enactment of the populous; the people. In the case of the MAS and the integrative role of its social movement base, it will be argued that the populist element integrated a hegemonic nationalist-indigenous populist articulation configured as the defence of the Patria (national sovereignty), inclusion of the indigenous groups (plurinational state) and having socialist redistributive aims (developmentalist state) versus and disarticulating the counter-hegemonic articulation, regionalist-conservative articulation, configured as the regionalist-autonomist (autonomist and secessionist, white and Camba), democratic (respecting civil, property rights and entrepreneurship) and neoliberal development articulation, the enemy (Errejón 2013).

In the case-study of the rise of the MAS in Bolivia, Mouffe’s new social movement theory in conjunction with Laclau’s populist moment as part of a larger hegemonic process will be favoured when contrasted with Statist, Marxist and post-Marxist approaches to social movements. As such, it will be demonstrated that a discoursive theoretical understanding of social movements as a ‘constitutive outsider’ (Laclau & Mouffe 2001: 127-34) will serve primarily to comprehend i) the rise of ‘new’ heterogeneous political identities, subject positions ii) the formulation of a non-class reductionist antagonist formation depositing the a priori privileged subject of the working class and its class interests to the side, as well as accounting for the rise of non-essentialists new social movements based on identity difference, accompanied with the rise of populist moments countering the “commodification of social life” iii) showcase that the formation of social movements are contingent and indeterminate elements in society (Laclau & Mouffe 2001).

Social Movement Theory

In this section, we will explore the main currents in social movement theory, classifying them into Marxists, institutionalist, and post-Marxists approaches. The Marxist approach is based on a conception of the totality of the capitalist structure, in that social relations are based on capital-labour power relations by which workers remain exploited and alienated from their species being by a capitalist class (Marx 1992: p. 329, Nilsen 2013). Furthermore, Marxists point at the growing proletarianisation (dispossess the subject of its creative nature; its symbolic substance) caused by the process of accumulation by dispossession and the idea that developmental outcomes determined by an elite and the instrumental use of the state apparatus as a neoliberal state retain and reinforce power to the capitalist class (Harvey 2007, Vergara-Camus 2009, Zizek 2010). In terms of the rise of social movements in Bolivia, Marxists would point out the internal contradictions of a determinate historical trajectory of post-colonial capitalist development leading to what Gramsci defined as organic crises: the rupture of a hegemonic articulation; breakup of the “common sense” underlying the neoliberal developmental framework. Teleologically, this would automatically lead social movements to challenge these contradictions through a critique that appropriates and hegemonises the enemy’s idioms, and, moreover, for instance, legitimate alternative developmental projects (Nilsen 2013). While highly integral and robust in its theoretical framework, Marxist approaches of social movement remain class-reductionists and do not take into account difference in-built in identity politics such as the indigenous element of the hegemonic discourse of the MAS in Bolivia. Furthermore, while neo-Gramscian analysis partially breaks with the dichotomy between the base and the superstructure, these analyses, nonetheless, retain an economicist outlook of an a priori collective interest of subjects, as well as a teleological lineage of Revolution and cannot, therefore, account for contingency and indeterminacy in social movements.

Statist approaches on the other hand, emphasize institutions: roles and norms through which social actors interact with a professional, rational-based and bureaucratised state elite, working in complementarity and within an embedded structure (provisioning subjects with social capital within embedded autonomy) for the furthering of synergistic developmental projects. That is, through the efficiency and regulation of the state elites (Evans 1996). The furthest these approaches tend to go are that social movements may claim greater access to the gains of development pushing state institutions to favour their demands and create spaces of empowerment (Nilsen 2013). However, what this approach fails to oversee is that there are social relations of power within society, built from the subordination of hegemonic articulations and from the correlation of forces in relation to the state, its institutions, practices and discourses (Gramsci, 2001). Moreover, this approach fails to account for conflict, antagonism and the activation of subjectivities within society as they depict subaltern groups as passive subjects and depict capitalists as benevolently acting with state elites. As such, this account does not foresee the creation of anti-systemic movements or democratic struggles as part of the social correlation of forces of the state derived from society.

For Mouffe and Laclau (2001), social movements express themselves as antagonists to hegemonic articulations, which can adapt itself to a variety of subject positions. That is, subjects are constituted by a language system; a signifying system, which are charged with power relations and which are always in relation to each other so that subjects can only come to understand themselves against that which they are not (ibid. 1987). Subjects therefore come to find meaning through discourse that come to define them in contingent political identities in relation to an ‘Other’, and by which, if denied, can create an anti-systemic antagonism. As such, they critique the class-reductionist approach of Marxism entailing an a priori “class position as the origin of the articulation of subjectivity” (Mouffe 1988). Moreover, they critique the notion of fundamental interests, because this notion entails fixing necessary political and ideological forms within determined positions in the production process (ibid.). This understanding of conflict, can then come to form unstable subject positions, or in post-structuralist parlance, a floating signifier, through which meaning can be fixed, a fixed signifier, and therefore constitute a hegemonic formation. That is, the successful fixture of the subjects to become governed by a certain articulation that co-opts, disarticulates differences and furthers the internalisation of a “common sense” that naturalises the existent social relations (Motta 2008: p. 308). For instance, an articulation such as the neoliberal discourse can become hegemonic so that we cannot come to understand ourselves as free agents in society, but come to see ourselves as “consumers” buying a “service” at an institution, thus eliminating or ‘disarticulating’ any other articulations such as ‘critical thought’ or radical articulations such as the ‘public, commons or autonomy’. However, since hegemony is partial and cannot be sutured they can always be contested to obtain different meanings. These contestations are formulated by New Social Movements, which represent expressions of resistances against the commodification of social life (where social needs depend on the market for satisfaction), bureaucratisation and institutionalisation of identities (intervention of the state into all areas of social reproduction) and cultural massification (resulting from the pervasive influence of the mass media that destroys or modifies existing collective identities) (Pichardo 1997). That is, through reaffirming their right to their difference, their specificity, be it through the exaltation of their regional identity or their specificity in some realms (Mouffe 1988). As collective subjects they can be constructed against an existing discourse that find its subjectivity negated by other discourses or practices. However, these antagonisms can take a variety of forms, and collective subjects can become interpellated as equal by other discourses. In the case of social movements these can take up a democratic direction in that its practices are mainly radical democratic struggles; the expansion of democracy into subordinated social relations. Any new social movements can thus become a locus of antagonism as long as they are in subordination, and can constitute a multiplicity of potential antagonisms (ibid.).

Laclau (2007, 2013) further argues for a specific subtype of hegemonic articulations corresponding to new social movements when referring to the coming of the people, so that a particular demand of the plebs, the constitutive outsider, or as Rancière (2009) would call it “the part of no part” comes into the political arena by enacting itself as the universal demand of the populous, the people, against an enemy. The basic steps for the formation of the people are through the nominative, the social demands, which if not absorbed through institutional canals can form solidarity relationships with other unsatisfied demands, and thus create a chain of equivalence against an enemy. That is, these social groups are not unified by an ontic content but rather are unified against a common enemy, through a frontier that separates the political camp into an “us” and “them” arrangement. This is followed by the crystallization around a common symbol either through a leader or popular identification, which constructs the people, a collective actor who can confront the regime with the purpose of demanding social change through anti-systemic means. This becoming of the particular into a universal demand can modify all the other identities and disarticulate difference partially to create a hegemonic articulation and embed difference within its relative totality proclaiming itself as the only legitimate populous (Laclau 2007, 2013).

Laclau sees the construction of the people as the ‘constitutive outside’, that is, firstly, that an identity is only possible if there is something that can negate it, that is, a subject can only exist and understand itself from what it is not, with and in relation to an external ‘other’. Secondly, it allows us to understand the formation of an antagonism, that is, conflict in society in that if an identity is denied then this automatically leads the subject to seek new discourses and new articulations, and as such, reverts to new hegemonic articulations constituting itself in contingent manners. In the context of capitalism, a working class identity can be denied and as such, the subject will seek to engage to struggle against that which is disallowing the constitution of his identity; an anti-capitalist antagonism. Thirdly, this constitutive outside can assert itself in contingent and radical historical situations, so that it is neither determinate nor expressed within the logic of necessity (Laclau & Mouffe 2001).

Certain post-Marxist accounts would object to the concept of hegemony such as Negri (2000) who accounts for the multitude as an outsider which falls outside the logic of equivalence and rejects the notion, as it would devalue the singularities of the single units. In the same manner, Deleuzian rhyzomatic enunciations or nomadism would compose practices of resistances counter to centralisation and uniformity differing from a counter-hegemonic strategy (Alcoreza, 2008. Deleuze & Guatarri 1988: p. 422). Day (2005) also proclaims the death of Gramscian hegemony as falling within the hegemony of hegemony, through which the state appears reinforced and whereby social movements become puppets for a populist strategy based on a leader and a hierarchical organisation, rather than proclaim the Newest Social Movements dissecting the political into a collection of spontaneous direct actions by fluid movements. While not completely in discord with these accounts, the populist moment is not the primary function of doing politics, but a radical form of hegemony, where Mouffe’s idea of social movements as democratic revolutions can also take place, in terms of differentiation rather than the creation of the people. Nonetheless, I would argue that this interpretation is merely reductionist and do not take into account that the social does not fully close with the coming of the people, but rather remains a contestatory space, whereby anti-institutional antagonisms, in this case NSMs can be enacted and come to take part in politics giving shape and form to different organisations of the people (non-hierarchical and symbolic).

Organic Crises

In the 1980s Bolivia was forced into the neoliberal hegemonic articulation of the World Bank and the IMF tightly allied with the domestic elites, whereby rampant privatisation, deregulation, liberalisation policies and Structural Adjustment Policies were implemented. On the one hand, it did bring economic growth at the cost of massive social disparities and the removal of public subsidies and state intervention in the economy (Morales 2012), relying merely on its repressive apparatus, while on the other hand, it provided spaces for resistance as it decentralised and passed popular participation laws through which previously subaltern classes had no access to (Morales 2012. Postero 2005). So that by the end of the 1990s Bolivia had succumbed to neoliberal hegemony by commodifying and stratifying the workers trade unions from the mining export sector, forcing many to migrate to the agricultural sector and joining indigenous groups, as well as providing sites of resistance for the emergence of new social movements against neoliberalism, redefining citizenship, developmental aims and the role of civil society (Postero 2005). In post-structuralists terms subjects were interpellated by the neoliberal hegemonic articulation through which they came to subordinate themselves in contingent articulations, forming an identity, which came into conflict with the commodification, bureaucratisation and massification of capitalism.

New Social Movements erupted resisting the subordination of the neoliberal hegemonic articulation (the privatisation of water and the sell out of hydrocarbons that gave birth to the Water wars and the Gas wars in 2000 and 2003 respectively) that denied, in particular the indigenous identity, creating solidarity linkages with the urban poor, students and peasants through a chain of equivalences against a common enemy; the neoliberal economic model (Laclau & Mouffe 2001, Postero 2010, Morales 2012). Accounting for the contingency and indeterminacy of articulations, social movements acquired a variety of identities countering the subordination of capitalist hegemony from a working class identity to an indigenousness identity, in the post-fordist era, contesting citizenship beyond the political rights discourse into the economic, and the social arena; the formation of ‘citizenship from below’ (Postero, 2005). This non-class and non-essentialist social movement which emerged reinvented indianness as a subject of emancipation and transformed into a political project, as well evolving as a plebeian organisation through guilds and peasant organisations rooted in local spaces and concerns bringing together people and groups in affiliational relationships and assembly style democracy (García Linera 2008, Laclau 2007, Postero 2010).

The MAS was the only party capable of articulating the main elements deriving from the anti-institutionalist antagonists proclaiming itself as constituting the collective body, the people, that is, the universal demand that hegemonised all of the other differences. As it did so, it constituted itself as the political instrument and a federation of social movements rearticulating three main elements that movements called for: i) the defence of the patria against transnational corporations, US and the oligarchic elites ii) inclusiveness of indigenous identity to be reconstituted in a plurinational state against the white Camba elite iii) socialist redistributive policies versus neoliberal development. As such, the MAS managed to successfully complete a nationalist-indigenous populist articulation through a hegemonic process breaking with the “common sense” of neoliberal developmental discourse (Errejón 2013: pp. 399-512). Referring to the ‘constitutive outsider’ produced by the resistance of social movements, the coming of the social movements formed a political frontier between us and them; between the nationalist-indigenous populist articulation vis-à-vis their counter-hegemonic regionalist-conservative articulation deriving from the Orient; composed of the prefectures and the departmental civil committees of the so-called ‘Media Luna’ claiming secessionist aims (autonomous from the central state), neoliberal developmental goals and democratic goals emphasising civil and property rights leading to a governmental crisis in 2008 (Tapia 2011). Nonetheless, the nationalist-indigenous populist articulation consolidated itself as its hegemonic expansion grew rearticulating the demands of the neoliberal elites in the Orient through its “autonomy” element inscription for a “proceso de cambio” within the newly founded constitution, while at the same time increasing the inclusiveness of allied social movements against disarticulated regionalist opposition (Errejón 2013: p. 426).

Bolivia and the MAS

Bolivia and the MAS


This paper analysed the validity of social movement theory approach on the case study of the Bolivian social movement’s resistance against the neoliberal hegemonic articulation from 1985 to 2009. It was firstly argued that new social movement theory (Mouffe 1988) corresponded to the rise of democratic struggles against the commodification of social life, bureaucratisation of identities and cultural massification. These configured themselves in two primary manners: as a hegemonic articulation expressing difference (Mouffe 1988) or the enactment of the people into the political stage (Laclau 2007), through a chain of equivalence, creating an antagonism confronting a ‘constitutive outsider’. The populist hegemonic subtype, that is, the rise of the plebs to a relative universal demand, the people, was favoured to understand the hegemonic articulation of the MAS. Furthermore, it was argued contra the orthodox Marxist and institutionalist approaches to social movements that the New Social Movement theory accounted for the heterogeneous composition of the various political identities correlated with its nominative social demands, its non-class and non-essentialist account against the a priori constituted revolutionary subject and its collective formal interests, as well as the contingency and indeterminacy element involved in the formulation of antagonisms during an organic crisis.

As such, the organic crises of the 2000s in the Gas and Water Wars against the neoliberal hegemonic articulation, and the expansion of citizenship gave rise to the nationalist-indigenous populist articulation interpellated by the MAS and its social movement (traditionally excluded and impoverished subaltern group) by which it rearticulated the normative social demands into three main components: i) defence of the patria against the neoliberal elites ii) inclusive plurinational state against the regionalist-secessionist aims of the neoliberal elites in the Orient iii) socialist redistributive development against the neoliberal developmental paradigm. As such, during the brief governmental crisis in 2008 generated by neoliberal elites, the MAS, and, most importantly, the integral role of the social movement’s base, consolidated its hegemony over the neoliberal hegemonic articulation, expressed over the counter-hegemonic regionalist-conservative articulation in its inscription for a “proceso de cambio”.

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