This conference celebrates the life and work of Ernesto Laclau, who died in April Originally from Argentina, his ideas about radical democracy and. Ernesto Laclau died in Seville on the 13th April By a sort of historical irony, the Argentinean political theorist missed by only a few weeks. Emancipation(s) Ernesto Laclau. Sarah Boyes posted 3 April It is fashionable to dismiss thinkers who claim to understand the world in terms of Theory (of.

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We all know this situation: You have just taken to the streets to protest against an unnecessary war, and already you hear speakers on the podium calling for a fight against the Jewish world conspiracy, with a response of euphoric acclamation from the neo-Nazis demonstrating there, too.

Or you exert yourself on behalf of a people that has been persecuted, oppressed and forced to flee for decades, and you automatically find yourself in the same camp along with religious fundamentalists, who treat emsncipation women worse than their enemies. Experiences like this are not rare. On the contrary, they have become a rule that inevitably accompanies our political engagement today. The result of this is that we can no longer completely identify with this engagement.

Boris Buden: Post-Emancipatory Concept of Emancipation |

We are still engaged, we still raise our voices where we find it appropriate or just, we articulate our protests and our solidarity, but somehow we only do it half-heartedly. We do it with an irritating feeling of discomfort, that we can never seem to get rid of. First of all, we have obviously become incapable of clearly and distinctly articulating our emancipatory interest – entirely in the sense of Descartes’ clarus et distinctus: That is exactly what we can no longer do – clearly distinguish our emancipatory interest from other interests and distinctly separate ourselves from the political positions and opinions that we do not share.

Naturally, one could say that this has always been the case. Did not the members of the Red Army that liberated Europe from Nazism also bring Stalinist totalitarianism with them?

And the successes of liberal democracy on the other side, has it not been accompanied by merciless neo- colonialist oppression? Yet there is a difference. We no longer live in an age of emancipation. At least, this is Ernesto Laclau’s thesis. The grand narratives of global emancipation that have essentially characterized our political life for centuries, are now dissolving entirely before our eyes. This disappearance of emancipation from the political horizon of our era coincides with the end of the Cold War, according to Laclau, which he also regards as the final manifestation of the Enlightenment, at least in the ideologies of its two protagonists.

How should we understand this diagnosis? And what does it mean to reflect on politics and act politically “beyond emancipation” [1]? Laclau principally distinguishes between two dimensions of emancipation, which are implicit in the traditional concept of emancipation: If emancipation is radical, then it must be grounded in itself and exclude that which hinders its completion as a radical otherness.

Hegemony, Populism and Emancipation: Remembering Ernesto Laclau

In this case, the moment of emancipation negates an order – let’s call it “repressive” – that is fundamentally alien to it. However, if emancipation is non-radical, then it has a deeper ground in common with its Other, which links the old, pre-emancipatory order and the “emancipated” order. An emancipation results here at the level of the ground of society, and it influences all spheres of society.

The emancipation inspired by Marxism is also characterized by these two dimensions. The class struggle between the proletariat and the capitalist class must be taken as a radical form of political antagonism, which can only be resolved in a total negation of one of its two sides – in the famous dictatorship of the proletariat.

However, these two antagonistic sides have a common ground, which lies in the material production of societal life, namely in the fundamental antagonism between social productive forces and production circumstances.

This ground simultaneously closes the rift torn open between its two dimensions by emancipation. What is crucial – and this is also Laclau’s key argument – is that a closure of this separation immanent to emancipation, is no longer possible emancipqtion. An emancipatory act can no longer resolve its logical contradiction, completely etnesto one of its incompatible sides – either the dichotomous or the holistic one.

For Laclau, an intrinsic indistinguishability between them has become the conditio sine qua non of every discourse of emancipation.


The rift between the two dimensions of emancipation, caused by the emancipatory act, remains open, just as society remains completely opaque to itself. The fact that a society is no longer transparent to itself means nothing other than that the ground of this society can no longer be imagined.

In this way, the universal also disappears from the historical terrain, in which the struggle for concrete emancipatory projects takes place. Struggles like this dissolve into mere particularism. Today, instead of the emancipation, we can only speak of a plurality of emancipations. The fact that we can no longer clearly distinguish and separate them from one another, is due specifically to their fundamental opacity.

In fact, we can no longer find any unified ground, to which all emancipatory struggles could be reduced. Without this grounding – without the ground of society being postulated – there is no exclusion, erneesto outside anymore.

The societies in which we live, can no longer be imagined as radically separable, and we can draw no clear line of division, through which our emancipatory interest excludes something in society that should be excluded. Nor can we identify with a subject that universally represents the ground of society.

This is the reason for the discomfort that constantly accompanies our current emancipatory engagement. The death of the ground, the universal, the subject, grand narratives, etc. I think, though, that we could also date it earlier, at least as far as the grand narrative of Marxist-inspired emancipation is concerned: Politically, the enancipation has never recovered from this shock.

The tragedy was not only that the working class refused to take over the key lcalau in its own emancipation, but also that it even defected to its class enemy. Instead of emancipating itself, the working class was suddenly willing to oppress itself. As reaction to this defeat – to the collapse of the entire construction emzncipation proletarian emancipation – it seems to me that a fundamental distinction needs to be made between two lines.

One of the first, which we can call strategically political, took place in in the famous speech by Georgi Dimitrov at the 7th World Congress of the Communist International in Moscow [3]: This represents an attempt at a fundamental correction of the policy of the radical class struggle, which had already been called into question in emancpiation face of the fascist challenge. The project of the emancipation of the working class thus distances itself from the dictatorship of the proletariat and aims for the broadest possible unity of democratic forces that are prepared to resist fascism.

Dimitrov counted the most diverse classes of people and social groups among the possible members of an alliance like this, including youth, women, farmers, Blacks in the USAmanual laborers, Catholic, anarchist and unorganized workers, “the entire working population”, social democrats and independent socialists, churches, intelligentsia, certain sections of the petty bourgeoisie, “oppressed nations of the colonies and semi-colonies”, national liberation movements, but also those he calls “democratic capitalists”.

In Dimitrov’s view they emancipahion opposed by a kind lcalau fascist alliance: The second reaction to the Nazi-Fascist threat is of a more theoretical nature: The Studies on Authority and Family are the result. Authority, as analyzed by the theoreticians of the Frankfurter School, is no longer the old authority of the patriarchal family, which characterized the patrimonial capitalism of the 19th century, though, but rather the authority of anonymous social institutions, the authority of the old fordist modes of production, capitalist rationality, so-called instrumental reason or the violence of the authoritarian state organizing and protecting it whether in the form of the industrial cartel in Nazi Germany, the five-year plan in the USSR, or the New Deal Economy all the way to the Keynesian welfare state.

In its later phases, this analysis developed into a critique of the cultural industry and a critique of the so-called authoritarian personality. A practical-political culmination of this critique of modern authority took place in the protest movements of the sixties.

Anti-authoritarianism is the common denominator of these protests.


If we attempt to understand these two reactions to the Nazi-Fascist challenge against the background of the concept of emancipation in Laclau’s analysis, the following picture results: Fascist pressure once again emanclpation open the same rift between the two dimensions in the already closed totality of proletarian emancipation. Whereas the People’s Front uncovers the dichotomous dimension of emancipation, the critique of authority animates the holistic dimension of its ground.

What Dimitrov specifically invokes with his anti-fascist strategy is nothing other than a new split in society, which runs along the postulated fundamental antagonism between the proletarian and the capitalist class. In a sense, he dissolves the emancipatiom of society – expressed in its class character – in a new political antagonism between the democratic people and its emanclpation Other. This new separation emanciaption results as a radical exclusion, which implies no common ground between the two opposing parts of society.

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The anti-fascist people, however, is certainly capable of giving itself a radical foundation [5] in the battle against its fascist Other, specifically as the subject of its own emancipation and carrier of sovereignty. In this respect, the people emancipating itself is also capable of forming a political community, specifically a state, and hypostasizing itself as the ultimate authority of ernetso state.

In addition, Dimitrov’s strategy of the policy of the People’s Front – which we could regard as a kind of democratic radicalization [6] of the proletarian project of emancipation – prepared a revolutionary-democratic legitimacy for the future people’s republics, which were the primary model for the political order of real-socialist states until their collapse in Anti-authoritarianism – from the Studies on Authority and Family to the New Social Movements – is actually based on the other dimension of emancipation, that of the ground.

The dialectical antagonism between free subjectivity and authoritarian domination that emancipatioon it lies in the structure of modern rationality. For this reason, the emancipation can never be radical. Even at its historical apex, which Marcuse described as an outbreak of mass surrealism immediately after in An Essay on Liberationin its main form, the battle against authority remains a kind of – at most, mass – cultural subversion.

Hardt and Negri’s multitude concept comes from the same theoretical and historical source. It is a new incarnation of the old autonomistic strategy, the goal of which was liberation from the existing structures of authority. In his attempt to re-theoretize this strategy during his imprisonment in Italy, Negri came across Spinoza’s distinction between potentia and potestas.

According to Spinoza, the power of God potentia in the sense of a creative force, creative activity is his essence. Potestashowever, is that which seems to be in his power authority, power of command, sovereignty. For Negri, potentia is the productive essence of multitude, and it is superior to sovereignty, authority. Agamben, who commented on this thesis by Negri [8]translates it to the difference between the constituting force and sovereign power.

He notes, though, that Negri does not find a criterion anywhere for distinguishing the two concepts from one another. Nevertheless, Negri insists on the conceptual distinction between constituting and constituted force.

Multitude can never be reduced to a form of authority or constituted order. It may be regarded as a heterogeneous mass, but not in the sense of the heterogeneous masses of the anti-fascist policy of the People’s Front. The multitude can never become a people, a demos. It can never form a political community, but can only subvert it. That is why we have no feeling of political belonging within the multitude and can develop no sense of binding solidarity with the other “members”.

We are in the process of doing so, but in a completely untransparent and uncanny way.


For this reason, our emancipatory engagement in this process remains being only opaquely present. The irruption of fascism and its initial political victory in the ‘s have fatefully sundered the once unified grand narrative of proletarian emancipation. On the side of its political representation, where it founded political communities and new orders, such as that of real existing socialism, it became increasingly older, uglier and weaker, despite its political victories, until it finally passed away.

On the other side, that of anti-authoritarian subversion, it succeeded in surviving not only its political defeats, but also the death of the subject and of the ground. Here, in the constantly exploding sphere of culture, from which it can no longer be distinguished today, emancipation has remained strong, beautiful and forever young.

It only rarely casts an eye back at its old political portrait; even more rarely than Dorian Gray did with his famous portrait. Ernesto Laclau, “Jenseits von Emanzipation”, in: Ernesto Laclau, Emanzipation und Differenz, Wien: Turia und Kant, The fascists, on the other hand, saw the essence of a people in its unity.

This is why what was fascist had to excluded from the people, because it negated the people’s authentic heterogeneity.