Quotation 6: ‘On populist reason’ by Ernesto Laclau

From “Demands and popular identities”

“A first decision has to be taken. What is our minimal unit of analysis going to be? Everything turns around the answer to this question. We can decide to take as our minimal unit the group as such, in which case we are going to see populism as the ideology or the type of mobilization of an already constituted group — that is, as the expression (the epiphenomenon) of a social reality different from itself; or we can see populism as one way of constituting the very unity of the group. If we opt for the first alternative, we are immediately confronted with all the pitfalls that I have described in Chapter 1.[1] If we choose the second — as I think we should — we have to accept its actual implications: ‘the people’ is not something of the nature of an ideological expression, but a real relation between social agents. It is, in other terms, one way of constituting the unity of the group. Obviously, it is not the only way of doing so. There are other logics operating within the social, and making possible types of identity different from the populist one. So, if we want to gauge the specificity of a populist articulatory practice, we have to isolate units smaller than the group, and to determine the kind of unity that populism brings about.

The smallest unit from which we will start corresponds to the category of ‘social demand’. As I have pointed out elsewhere, the notion of ‘demand’ is ambiguous in English: it can mean a request, but it can also mean a claim (as in ‘demanding an explanation’). This ambiguity of meaning, however, is useful for our purposes, because it is in the transition from request to claim that we are going to find one of the first defining features of populism.

Let me give an example of how isolated demands emerge, and how they start their process of articulation. This example, although it is imaginary, corresponds pretty well to a situation widely experienced in Third World countries. Think of a large mass of agrarian migrants who settle in the shantytowns on the outskirts of a developing industrial city. Problems of housing arise, and the group of people affected by them request some kind of solution from the local authorities. Here we have a demand which initially is perhaps only a request. If the demand is satisfied, that is the end of the matter; but if it is not, people can start to perceive that their neighbours have other, equally unsatisfied demands -problems with water, health, schooling, and so on. If the situation remains unchanged for some time, there is an accumulation of unfulfilled demands and an increasing inability of the institutional system to absorb them in a differential way (each in isolation from the others), and an equivalential relation is established between them. The result could easily be, if it is not circumvented by external factors, a widening chasm separating the institutional system from the people.

So we have here the formation of an internal frontier, a dichotomization of the local political spectrum through the emergence of an equivalential chain of unsatisfied demands The requests are turning into claims. We will call a demand which, satisfied or not, remains isolated a democratic demand. A plurality of demands which, through their equivalential articulation, constitute a broader social subjectivity we will call popular demands – they start, at a very incipient level, to constitute the ‘people’ as a potential historical actor. Here we have, in embryo, a populist configuration. We already have two clear preconditions of populism: (1) the formation of an internal antagonistic frontier separating the ‘people’ from power; and (2) an equivalential articulation of demands making the emergence of the ‘people’ possible. There is a third precondition which does not really arise until the political mobilization has reached a higher level: the unification of these various demands — whose equivalence, up to that point, had not gone beyond a feeling of vague solidarity — into a stable system of signification.”

From “The adventures of equivalences”


Let us go back to the previously established distinction between democratic and popular demands. We already know something about the latter: they presuppose, for their constitution, the equivalence of a plurality of demands. But about democratic demands we have said very little: the only thing we know is that they remain in isolation. Isolation vis-á-vis what? Only vis-á-vis the equivalential process. This is not, however, a monadic isolation, for we know that if it does not enter into an equivalential relation with other demands, it is because it is a fulfilled demand (…). Now, a demand which is met does not remain isolated; it is inscribed in an institutional/differential totality. So we have two ways of constructing the social: either through the assertion of a particularity — in our case, a particularity of demands — whose only links to other particularities are of a differential nature (as we have seen: no positive terms, only differences); or through a partial surrender of particularity, stressing what all particularities have, equivalentially, in common. The second mode of construction of the social involves, as we know, the drawing of an antagonistic frontier; the first does not. I have called the first mode of constructing the social logic of difference, and the second, logic of equivalence. Apparently, we could draw the conclusion that one precondition for the emergence of populism is the expansion of the equivalential logic at the expense of the differential one. This is true in many respects, but to leave the matter there would be to win the argument too cheaply, for it would presuppose that equivalence and difference are simply in a zero-sum relation of exclusion of each other. Things are far more complex.


Equivalences can weaken, but they cannot domesticate differences. In the first place, it is clear that equivalence does not attempt to eliminate differences (…) — if the particularity of the demands disappears, there is no ground for the equivalence either. So difference continues to operate within equivalence, both as its ground and in a relation of tension with it.


I have shown that equivalence and difference are ultimately incompatible with each other; none the less, they require each other as necessary conditions for the construction of the social. The social is nothing but the locus of this irreducible tension. What, in that case, about populism? If no ultimate separation between the two logics is possible, in what sense would the privileging of the equivalential moment be specific to it? And, especially, what would ‘privileging’ mean in this context? (…) on the one hand, all social (that is, discursive) identity is constituted at the meeting point of difference and equivalence (…). On the other hand, however, there is an essential unevenness in the social, for, as we have seen, totalization requires that one differential element should assume the representation of an impossible whole. (The Solidarność symbols, for instance, did not remain the particular demands of a group of workers in Gdansk, but came to signify much wider popular camp against an oppressive regime.) Thus a certain identity is picked up from the whole field of differences, and made to embody this totalizing function. This — to answer the previous question — is exactly what privileging means.

The difference between a populist and an institutionalist totalization is to be found at the level of these privileged, hegemonic signifiers which structure, as nodal points, the ensemble of a discursive formation. Difference and equivalence are present in both cases, but an institutionalist discourse is one that attempts to make the limits of the discursive formation coincide with the limits of the community. So the universal principle of ‘differentiality’ would become the dominant equivalence within that homogenous communitarian space. (Think, for instance, of Disraeli’s ‘one nation’.) The opposite takes place in the case of populism: a frontier of exclusion divides society in two camps. The ‘people’, in that case, is something less than the totality of the members of the community: it is a partial component which nevertheless aspires to be conceived as the only legitimate totality.


…the rejection of a power that is very active within the community requires the identification of all links in the popular chain with an identity principle which crystallizes all differential claims around a common denominator — and the latter requires, of course, a positive symbolic expression. This is the transition from what we have called democratic demands to popular demands.


At this point I can deal with two aspects of populism to which the literature on the subject frequency refers but for which, as we have seen, no satisfactory explanation has been provided. The first concerns the so called ‘imprecision’ and ‘vagueness’ of populist symbols. (…) The empty character of the signifiers that give unity or coherence to a popular camp is not the result of any ideological or political underdevelopment; it simply expresses the fact that any populist unification takes place on a radically heterogeneous social terrain. This heterogeneity does not tend, out of its own differential character, to coalesce around a unity which would result from its mere internal development; so any kind of unity is going to proceed from an inscription, the surface of inscription (the popular symbols) being irreducible to the contents which are thereon inscribed. The popular symbols are, no doubt, the expression of the democratic demands that they bring together; but the expressing medium cannot be reduced to what it expresses: it is not a transparent medium. (…) [I]n a local struggle I can be relatively clear about both the nature of my demands and the force against which we are fighting. But when I am trying to constitute a wider popular identity and a more global enemy through an articulation of sectorial demands, the identity of both the popular forces and of the enemy becomes more difficult to determine. It is here that the moment of emptiness necessarily arises, following the establishment of equivalential bonds. Ergo, ‘vagueness’ and ‘imprecision’, but these do not result from any kind of marginal or primitive situation; they are inscribed in the very nature of the political.


A second problem that is not completely solved in the literature on populism concerns the centrality of the leader. How do we explain it? (…) We already know that the more extended the equivalential tie is, the emptier the signifier unifying that chain will be (that is, the more specific particularism of the popular symbol or identity will be subordinated to the ‘universal’ function of signifying the chain as a totality). But we also know something else: that the popular symbol or identity (…) does not simply express a unity of demands constituted outside and before itself, but is the decisive moment in establishing that unity. That is why I said that this unifying element is not a neutral or transparent medium. If it were, whatever unity the discursive/hegemonic formation could have would have preceded the moment of naming the totality (…). But if – given the radical heterogeneity of the links entering into the equivalential chain — the only source of their coherent articulation is the chain as such, and if the chain exists only in so far as one of its links plays the role of condensing all the others, in that case the unity of the discursive formation is transferred from the conceptual order (logic of difference) to the nominal one. This, obviously, is more the case in situations where there is a breakdown or retreat of the differential/institutional logic. In those cases, the name becomes the ground of the thing. An assemblage of heterogeneous elements kept equivalentially together only by a name is, however, necessarily a singularity. The less a society is kept together by immanent differential mechanisms, the more it depends, for its coherence, on this transcendent, singular moment. But the extreme form of singularity is an individuality. In this way, almost imperceptibly, the equivalential logic leads to singularity, and singularity to identification of the unity of the group with the name of the leader.”

From “Naming and affect”

“I have talked about the name becoming the ground of the thing. What, exactly, is the meaning of this assertion?


For descriptivism, the operations that naming can perform are strictly limited by the straitjacket within which they take place: the descriptive features inhabiting any name reduce the order of the signifier to the transparent medium through which a purely conceptual overlapping between name and thing (the concept being their common nature) expresses itself. [Every name has a content given by a cluster of descriptive features. The word ‘mirror’, for instance, has an intentional content (the ability to reflect images, etc.), so I use that word whenever I find an actually existing object which displays such a content. (…) Difficulties arose within this approach in relation to the plurality of descriptions which can be attached to the same object.] With anti-descriptivism we have the beginning of an autonomization of the signifier (of the name). [Words refer to things not through their shared descriptive features, but through a ‘primal baptism’ which does away with description entirely. Gold (…) would remain gold even if it were proved that all the properties traditionally attributed to it are an illusion. In that case we would say that gold is different from what we thought it was, not that this substance is not gold.] This parting of the ways between naming and description, however, does not lead to any increase in the complexity of the operations that ‘naming’ can perform, for although designation is no longer ancillary to description, the identity of what is designated is ensured before and quite independency of the process of its being named. [The basic problem of antidescriptivism is to determine what constitutes the identity of the designated object beyond the ever-changing cluster of descriptive features – what makes the object identical-to-itself even if all its properties have changed (…) What is overlooked, at least in the standard version of antidescriptivism, is that this guaranteeing the identity of an object in all counterfactual situations — through a change of all its descriptive features — is the retroactive effect of naming itself: it is the name itself, the signifier, which supports the identity of the object.] It is only with the Lacanian approach that we have a real breakthrough: the identity and unity of the object result from the very operation of naming. This, however, is possible only if naming is not subordinated either to description or to a preceding designation. In order to perform this role, the signifier has to become, not only contingent, but empty as well.[2]

These remarks, I think, show very clearly why the name becomes the ground of the thing.


Our whole approach to populism turns, as we have seen, around the following theses: (1) the emergence of the ‘people’ requires the passage — via equivalences — from isolated, heterogeneous demands to a ‘global’ demand which involves the formation of political frontiers and the discursive construction of power as an antagonistic force; (2) since, however, this passage does not follow from a mere analysis of the heterogeneous demands themselves – there is no logical, dialectical or semiotic transition from one level to the other — something qualitatively new has to intervene. This is why ‘naming’ can have the retroactive effect I have described.


I have now introduced all the theoretical variables needed to attempt a first and provisional conceptualization of populism. Three aspects should be taken into account.

1. First, it should be clear at this stage that by ‘populism’ we do not understand a type of movement – identifiable with either a special social base or a particular ideological orientation – but a political logic.


2. …If the construction of the ‘people’ is a radical one — one which constitutes social agents as such, and does not express a previously given unity of the group – the heterogeneity of the demands that the popular identity brings to a precarious unity has to be irreducible.


3. …Since any kind of institutional system is inevitably at least partially limiting and frustrating, there is in any society a reservoir of raw anti-status-quo feelings which crystallize in some symbols quite independently of the forms of their political articulation…”

* * *

By Ernesto Laclau in On Populist Reason (2005).

Emphasis in the original. I have tried to present the key elements of Laclau’s argument by selecting various passages from chapter 4 of his book. In the preceding chapters, he provides a criticism to support the need for his own argument. The following chapters essentially are an expansion and elaboration on his parsimonious basic model.

[1] In chapter 1 Laclau surveys existing attempts to define populism through common substantive denominators and concludes that they do not succeed in finding a suitable definition.

[2] I have added key phrases from the preceding paragraphs to clarify the summary of this concluding paragraph. The following passage is a quote in the text by Slavoj Žižek:

What is overlooked, at least in the standard version of antidescriptivism, is that this guaranteeing the identity of an object in all counterfactual situations — through a change of all its descriptive features — is the retroactive effect of naming itself: it is the name itself, the signifier, which supports the identity of the object.

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