Ernesto Laclau in his article “Subject of Politics, Politics of the Subject” deals with the clash between universalism and particularism which -he thinks- occupies a central place on the current political and theoretical agenda. The main argument of the article is that a pure culture of difference is impossible and hybridization of cultures, political identities are inevitable except for ghettoized, marginalized groups. In other words, although subjectivities and subjects are present in today’s world, their survival highly depends on their openness and universalization. Having said the main point of the article, I am going to explain how Laclau constructs his theory.
The struggle between universalism and particularism is one of the most controversial issues of our globalizing world according to Laclau. In his view, post-modernism and cultural relativism can be seen both as the weakening of the imperialist foundationalism of Western Enlightenment and as the rejection of today’s universal values (Laclau, pg 147). Laclau asserts that a pure culture of difference is never possible and self-defeating for several reasons. First of all, a pure culture of difference can only evolve only in a culturally pluralist environment. For claiming to be different than others, you have to know others and form a system that would allow you and other groups to live in isolation. Even a complete isolated life, a “monadic existence” can only be possible through the establishment of a common system accepted and formed by different groups. Thus, even complete isolation, particularity of groups needs universalization of these groups’ principles, norms and laws up to a degree. “There is no way that a particular group living in a wider community can live a monadic existence, on the contrary, part of definition of its own identity is the construction of a complex and elaborated system of relations with other groups. And these relations will have to be regulated by norms and principles which transcend the particularism of any group” (Laclau, pg 147). In his idea, the more particular a group is, the less it would be able to control the global political domain in which it lives and operates (Laclau, pg 148).
Secondly, in order to claim to be particular you have to know others and their differences from your own culture. In Laclau’s idea, this means the inclusion of other cultures, identities as well and that is why it cannot be considered as particularism. “To assert one’s own differential identity involves, as we have just argued, the inclusion in that identity of the other, as that from whom one delimits oneself” (Laclau, pg 148). According to Laclau, only when all groups are different from each other and none of them want to be anything more than just themselves the pure logic of difference would govern their relations. Otherwise, groups’ claims would not be particular but rather universal. Laclau also claims that a group may be marginalized if it asserts its particularity in a hostile environment where universal norms are dictated by dominant groups. In this case, the group would face the danger of assimilation. However, when a group engages in struggle for its particularity within the global community as a part of the system, it would have chance to protect its particularity and not to become ghettoized.
Laclau believes that since complete particularism is not possible, hybridization would be inevitable for all cultures and groups. He gives the example of the transformation of revolutionary syndicalists into social democrats. Since the idea of violent proletariat revolution (pursuing the particular interest of workers to establish the dictatorship of the proletariat) marginalized workers from the system, they had become social democrats and have been trying to protect their rights by participating into the system (Laclau, pg 149). He claims that although revolutionary Marxism did not cause workers to earn rights, social democracy and democratic syndicalism gained many rights for them (doubtful here).
Turning back to his main argument Laclau believes that groups cannot preserve their particularities and even their existence by acting in a particular way. They have to adopt a universal perspective in order to be able to protect their own characteristics. Adopting a universal approach may lead to the loss of some particularities but it will also provide the protection of many other particularities. Finally, subjects and subjectivities are not dead in today’s politics for Laclau unlike Agnes Heller and we are dealing with subjects.
- Laclau, Ernesto, “Subject of Politics, Politics of the Subject”