radical democracy

A Review of Radical Democracy and Collective Movements Today: The Biopolitics of the Multitude versus the Hegemony of the People, edited by Alexandros Kioupkiolis and Giorgos Katsambekis

Panagiotis Sotiris

Independent Researcher



Radical Democracy and Collective Movements Today, edited by Alexandros Kioupkiolis and Giorgos Katsambekis, is an important volume bringing together contributions that offer a variety of readings of contemporary social movements. The opposition between those writers who insist on the biopolitics of the Multitude and those who emphasise the hegemony of the people, and the debate between neo-anarchist and neo-populist positions, offer an insight not only into contemporary readings of mass politics but also into the very complex dynamics of contemporary movements and their radical democratic demands.


Hegemony – Multitude – social movements – radical democracy – post-hegemony – Laclau – Mouffe – Negri

Alexandros Kioupkiolis and Giorgos Katsambekis (eds.), (2014) Radical Democracy and Collective Movements Today: The Biopolitics of the Multitude versus the Hegemony of the People, Farnham: Ashgate Publishing.


Recent social and political developments and, in particular, the impressive global cycle of protest and contestation from the beginning of the 2010s onward, have brought the question of collective subjects and their politics to the forefront. In particular, we have seen massive movements claiming that they represent the ‘people’ in the sense of the vast majority of society (exemplified in the ‘we are the 99%’ slogan), in contrast to movements organised around specific social groups and their demands. These forms of mass politics along with their new practices of equal voicing, democratic decision-making and self-organisation pose a very important challenge for radical social theory and also for radical and socialist politics. In particular, they call on us to question the various attempts at theorising collective action and radical politics today, and especially the debate around the notions of the Multitude, suggested by writers in the post-workerist tradition and the various attempts to redefine the notion of the people as part of an attempt to rethink the material, practical, antagonistic and performative character of politics.

The Multitude versus the People

Regarding the theorisation of the Multitude we have the positions suggested by Hardt and Negri in a series of books and interventions since 2000 and the publication of Empire.[1] In Hardt and Negri’s reading, the modern biopolitical multitude is not just a political concept: it is based on the ontology of the post-industrial, ‘biopolitical’ labour process and the creativity of labour that the ‘Empire’ attempts to subsume. The Multitude must be theorised in terms of immanence, of an immanent social potentiality, since the dominant aspect of the capitalist productive process is the creativity and the productivity of labour upon which the power of capital is imposed as a parasite. However, the only available path for a politics of the Multitude is that of nomadic lines of flight, not of the construction of collective subjects and hegemonic projects. Only later in the ‘Empire’ project, and in particular the 2009 work Commonwealth, do Hardt and Negri choose to talk about the necessity of the ‘becoming-Prince of the Multitude’.[2]

On the other hand, we have those theorists that insist on the centrality of the concept of the people, in their attempt to theorise the political consequences of social antagonism and radical difference in contemporary class societies, either in the sense of a reclaiming of politics for those that remain unaccounted-for in the dominant political configuration, the choice made mainly by Jacques Rancière in his attempts to see how subalternity can be transformed into a radical democratic demand,[3] or in the sense of the possibility of an endless relational discursive reconstitution of the people as the moment of a singular universality, the choice mainly associated with the work of the late Ernesto Laclau,[4] but also with Chantal Mouffe’s proposal for an agonistic democracy.[5]

It is in particular the work of Laclau that plays an important role as a reference point (and as a point of debate) in this collection, especially since both editors of the volume, Alexandros Kioupkiolis and Giorgos Katsambekis, are associated with the Populismus research project at the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki and are collaborating with Yannis Stavrakakis,[6] an academic well known for his attempt to use the conceptual framework of Laclau’s theory of populism and populist reason in the study of social and political movements today.

For Laclau, populism is not a particular political movement but a ‘political logic’.[7] According to Laclau, ‘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.’[8] This is also related to Laclau’s well-known insistence on a particular relational conception of ‘discourse’ and on his idiosyncratic use of the notion of hegemony as precisely the moment and aspect that enables the emergence of political projects, along with his rejection of traditional class analysis as the basis of political practices and political blocs. However, it is interesting to note that while in the 1980s, especially after the publication of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy,[9] Laclau was accused of a post-Marxist and post-socialist political turn, in fact there have also been more radical uses of his conceptual framework, and this collective volume stands as such an example. Moreover, it is important to note that Laclau himself in a certain way initiated this debate via his critique of Hardt and Negri’s conception of immanence. For Laclau, the problem is precisely this conception of the Multitude in terms of a homogeneous collective entity which leads to the position that ‘full realization of the multitude’s immanence would be the elimination of all transcendence’.[10] Moreover, for Laclau, Hardt and Negri’s identification of any notion of sovereignty with repression and their nomadic conception of a plurality of struggles in fact leave no room for the conceptualisation of the political action that could turn political demands into reality.

It is obvious that what we are seeing here are two opposing logics of political action, one that attempts to ground it in the contemporary ontology of labour and capitalist production, and one that attempts to think it in terms of a certain reclaiming of political space but also of central political notions. The first one projects the dynamics of a certain image of production, the other the transformation of democratic vocabulary into a contested signifying terrain. In a certain manner, it also represents the very evolution of political contestation during recent years, from the nomadic and/or anti-political character of the first wave of anti-globalist/anti-capitalist protests to the reclaiming of politics by those movements aiming at ‘real democracy’.

A Presentation of the Volume

The introductory text by Kioupkiolis and Katsambekis places the book in the perspective of a conjuncture marked by major popular movements characterised by forms of collective self-organisation and self-mobilisation. They insist that ‘[t]he horizontal, non-representative networks of autonomous multiplicities on the one hand, the struggles of popular blocs that claim to represent universal interests and strive to impose their sovereign will, on the other hand, offer two alternative ways to make sense of democratic agency and the strategies of social transformation’ (p. 5). In this sense, the opposing definitions of democratic agency in contemporary movements represent the main question that this collective volume attempts to answer.

Benjamin Arditi’s contribution to the volume attempts to revisit the contribution of Laclau and Mouffe to a post-Marxist conception of politics centred on the notion of hegemony.[11] Although Arditi praises the overall theoretical importance of the work of Laclau and Mouffe, he is critical of certain tensions within it. In particular, he stresses the fact that Laclau and Mouffe present hegemony as the paradigmatic or ‘universal form of politics or at least of democratic politics’ (p. 21). This conception sees ‘all politics as hegemonic politics’ (p. 24) without any outside. In contrast to this conception, Arditi introduces the concept of post-hegemony. He employs the example of the broad spectrum of protest in Argentina in December 2001, which saw mobilisations that were political, but which, according to Arditi, could not easily fit into the conceptualisation of hegemony. Arditi suggests that the same goes for new internationalist networks of solidarity. In contrast, the politics associated with a potential exodus of the Multitude, either in the form presented in Hardt and Negri’s theorisation or in the work of Virno, offer a way to think a politics that includes and does not cancel the singularity of each element. Arditi also refers positively to the Deleuzian themes of rhizomatic politics and the politics of becoming-minoritarian, and he discusses John Holloway’s conception of politics and Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zones[12] as attempts to delineate a politics of defection. He also turns his attention to what he designates as ‘viral politics’ (p. 38) associated with internet-based initiatives and campaigns. His conclusion is that there are indeed ‘ways of doing politics that bypass the Neo-Gramscian logic of hegemony and counter-hegemony characteristic of most of what is usually inventoried under the name “politics” today’ (p. 41). Consequently ‘post-hegemony is a well-placed wager that validates a range of formats of collective action that were either ignored or dismissed by the advocates of the theory of hegemony’ (ibid.), ways to do politics that ‘certainly bypass the liberal democratic framework and that can function to trigger enthusiasm for politics among the disenfranchised and those who have become disenchanted by existing vehicles for participating in the process of shaping their lived world’ (p. 42). Overall, in Arditi’s case we are dealing with a post-hegemonic conception of politics, based upon an emphasis on singularity and a certain distrust of universalising discourses.

The second chapter of the volume is by Richard J.F. Day and Nick Montgomery, and represents a neo-anarchist position[13] according to which contemporary mass movements can be explained as ‘neither the People, nor the Multitude’ (p. 47). The authors accept some of the premises of Hardt and Negri’s conception of Empire, such as the decentralised character of Empire, the importance of enclosures and privatisation and the biopolitics of control over life. However, they think that the concept of the Multitude is an ‘abstract and universalizing’ one and that Hardt and Negri are themselves engaged in a ‘stagist narrative’ of ‘altermodernity’ (p. 56). Day and Montgomery reject both the notion of the Multitude and the notion of the People, since they both ‘remain excessively hegemonic in their orientation; that is, they seek to subsume disparate forces under a single banner, they seek to provide coherence and a centre, even while apparently insisting on decentralization and multiplicity’ (p. 59). Through their reading of Federici, they suggest that the very notion of the Common has to ‘be indigenized’ (p. 61) and that we must think the Exodus from the Empire in terms of autonomies, deriving their inspiration from ‘non-sectarian, social anarchist traditions’ (p. 65), emphasising their plural character to avoid any conception of ‘transcendent totality’ (p. 69). What is interesting in Day and Montgomery’s contribution is precisely this combination of classical anarchist positions with a rejection of hegemony and any attempt towards universalising political interpretations, in contrast perhaps to the rather universalising conception of emancipation that historic anarchism shared with the socialist/communist tradition. By doing this, they also bring forward the limits of such anarchist positions, namely their inability to think of politics outside the terrain of movements and singular resistances.

Jodi Dean in her contribution[14] attempts to rethink the notion of the sovereignty of the people as part of her rethinking of communism. For Dean, the notion of the people is a ‘modulation of the idea of the proletariat as the subject of communism’ (p. 73). The sovereignty of the people refers to the dictatorship of the proletariat, ‘the direct and fearsome rule of the collective people over those who would oppress and exploit them’ (ibid.). Dean insists that the notion of the proletariat is relevant today, provided that we do not identify it with the traditional industrial working-class and take into account the shift toward the service economy. She supports her own conceptualisation of the people as ‘the rest of us’ by reference to Rancière’s notion of the ‘part-of-no-part’,[15] in order to think of the people as ‘a dividing and divisive force’, especially since, ‘[w]hile the people as the rest of us, as the part-of-no-part, is better than “proletariat” and “multitude” as a designator for the contemporary subject of communism, class struggle remains essential as the name for the fundamental antagonism through which society emerges – the division between the rich and the rest of us’ (p. 77). Consequently, the sovereignty of the people ‘points to a view of the state as what we use to govern for us as a collectivity. It is our collective steering of our common future for our common good’ (p. 79). Through a reading of Foucault’s theorisation of liberal governmentality, Dean suggests that ‘[l]iberal political economy is a limiting of the people as a collective force’ (p. 81).

However, there is the problem of the divisive character of the people in its ‘nonidentity with its sovereignty’ (p. 83). Through references to Susan Buck-Morris, Giorgio Agamben and psychoanalytic theory, Dean suggests that a way to think of this question would be to use the psychoanalytic distinction between desire (that which cannot be fulfilled) and drive as a repetitive process of not reaching jouissance.

The people as desiring have needs, needs they can only address together, collectively, active and in common. Their sovereignty can be reduced neither to their majority nor to their procedures. Rather it names the cause and reason for government: the collective people in their desire for a common good. The people as caught in drive are fragmented, dispersed into networks and tributaries. Stuck in drive’s repetitive loops, they pursue their separate enterprises even as they are governmentalized objects, a population. (p. 85.)

In order to theorise the conception of sovereignty as a ‘collective steering of our common resources and conditions’ (p. 87) Dean turns to Peter Hallward’s conception of popular will, which she defines as a dialectical ‘voluntarism’. According to Dean, ‘Hallward’s dialectical voluntarism suggests an understanding of the sovereignty of the people in terms of a collective egalitarian universalist desire’ (p. 89). This dialectical voluntarism can only be thought in terms of Marx’s ‘description of communism as the free development of each compatible with the free development of all’ (p. 90). In this sense, sovereignty is ‘unavoidably partial and incomplete’ (ibid.), but we must insist on this struggle as the condition of keeping the communist desire alive. In Dean’s case we are dealing with a very interesting attempt to combine the reference to the people and popular sovereignty with a class perspective and a communist orientation.

Saul Newman’s contribution attempts to theorise the new political terrain opened up by the politics of occupation of public space, a terrain of autonomous politics, that cannot be thought of in terms of the People or the Multitude, but rather ‘through the figures of exodus and insurrection as the reclamation of self’ (p. 94). Newman stresses the importance of the ‘deconstruction of the essentialism of traditional Marxist class identities’ (p. 95), which is necessary in order to theorise the plural character of contemporary mass movements, that are anticapitalist but at the same time against environmental destruction, state authoritarianism and enclosures. However, contemporary autonomous politics goes beyond the politics of hegemony, especially since hegemony ‘is a project of power, a project which aims to take over a position of power’ (p. 98). Contemporary movements do not ‘seek to participate in state power, or even to take it over in some revolutionary sense, but to foster autonomous relations and ways of being in the here and now’ (p. 99). Consequently, a politics of autonomy today can be better thought of in terms of ‘Miguel Abensour’s anarchic insurgent democracy’ (p. 100)[16] than in terms of the redefinition of populist politics suggested by Laclau and Mouffe. Regarding the conception of the Multitude offered by Negri and Hardt, Newman disagrees with what he defines as the ‘immanentist theory that underpins it’ and a ‘certain developmental logic […] in which the extension of global capitalism and its biopolitical processes and technological developments is welcomed as an inevitable stage before the coming of the multitude’ (p. 104). Instead, he suggests a politics around the concept of insurrection which ‘involves not so much the seizure of the apparatus of power, but rather a micro-political and ethical transformation of ourselves’ (p. 107), a politics of the transformation of the subject that is opposed to the notion of the revolution, which is associated with the imposition of a social and political order in contrast to autonomous self-arrangement. Again we have here the opposition between a politics of hegemony and an insurrectionary autonomous politics, a thread common to many interventions in this debate.

The contribution by Yannis Stavrakakis attempts to deal with criticisms against the positions of Laclau and Mouffe. He begins with Norman Geras’s critique of the supposedly idealist-relativist discursive conception of reality, as an archetype of this kind of criticism.[17] He also points to recent criticisms of the very notion of hegemony exemplified in positions such as Day’s. For Stavrakakis there are two variants to this argument. The first argument, which Stavrakakis attributes to Scott Lash,[18] is that hegemony was relevant within specific historical periods, but now we have entered an era of ‘post-hegemony’ (p. 116). The second argument rejects this temporal/historical aspect and instead considers hegemony as politically suspect, since it mimics ‘the power structures’ (p. 118). He attributes this line of criticism in particular to Jon Beasley-Murray,[19] and his insistence that it is not hegemony that secures social order but rather habit and affect. In contrast, Stavrakakis insists that ‘a multitude of autonomous struggles have become historically effective only when articulated within a common counter-hegemonic horizon of representation’ (p. 120), exemplified both in contemporary movements of indignation but also in the importance of populist (in Laclau’s sense of the term) parties such as ‘SYRIZA in the contemporary Greek situation [and] Kirchner’s Peronists in Argentina’ (p. 121). Stavrakakis rejects both the ‘quasi-eschatological structure’ (p. 122) of Lash’s passage to post-hegemony and the binary dichotomies associated with criticisms of hegemony – ‘inside/outside, before/after, hegemony/post-hegemony, representational/real, meaning/being, horizontality/verticality, discourse/affect’ – because they underestimate the extent to which these distinctions function ‘within a historical dialectics of mutual engagement and co-constitution’ (p. 122). Through references to Foucault, Elias, Bourdieu, Thrift and Lazzarato, Stavrakakis rejects this kind of exclusive binary oppositions.

Not only are Day, Lash and Beasley-Murray incapable of registering the constitutive interpenetration between representation and affect, the symbolic and the real, discursive hegemony and biopolitics – precisely what the work of Foucault, Elias, Bourdieu, Thrift and Lazzarato seems to allow and encourage. By sticking to a caricature of Laclau’s discursive theory of hegemony, they have also failed to take notice of developments within the terrain of discourse theory which have been following a similar direction. (p. 127.)

In particular, Stavrakakis refers to the evolution of Laclau’s thinking and his engagement with the ‘problematics of affectivity and jouissance […] [and] the more affirmative modalities of the Lacanian real’ (p. 127). Stavrakakis’s conclusion is that such criticisms of Laclau, in their ‘passion for the real’, in the end fail to stress contradictions which precisely have to do with the unavoidability of representation: ‘there is no repression without a return of the repressed; thus representation and discourse return to haunt post-hegemonic arguments. Leading them to one contradiction after the other’ (p. 130). In the case of Stavrakakis we are dealing with a defence of the relevance of Laclau for contemporary social and political developments, and in particular of the relevance not only of the notion of hegemony but also of Laclau’s conception of populism for the analysis of broad-left movements such as SYRIZA. In particular, it is important to highlight Stavrakakis’s insistence on the importance of representation as an unavoidable aspect of any attempt to articulate contemporary struggles into hegemonic projects.

The contribution of Paul Rekret returns to the debate between Laclau and Negri as a return to the question of an ontology of the political. He insists that ‘[i]f the broad claim articulated by post-foundational thinkers is that political philosophy and political science “displace” or disavow the political by seeking to eliminate dissonance, difference, conflict or struggle, then the widely shared aim of the ontological turn in post-foundational political thought might be defined as the attempt to think the being of the political in itself and not to confine politics to the juridical or regulative tasks to which it has traditionally been limited’ (p. 134). For Rekret the theoretical importance of Laclau lies in his ‘post-Marxist political logic of contingency’ (p. 135), and his reappropriation of the notion of hegemony from Gramsci along with his rejection of any ‘privileged agent of emancipation’ (p. 136). He also suggests that there are similarities with Hardt’s and Negri’s project which ‘can thus best be understood as an attempt to develop a post-Marxist political theory that would not reduce class struggle to the traditional notion of the working class but which engages with the variety of heterogenous actors engaged in political struggles in late capitalism’ (p. 137). At the same time he stresses their main difference, namely the fact that there is a distance between Laclau’s insistence on political contingency and Negri’s ‘focus upon the emancipatory potential contained in changes to the forces of production’ (p. 138).

One of the main points of Rekret’s contribution is that both Laclau and Negri display a certain ontological narcissism in the sense of an ‘understanding of the present as singular bearer of the ontological truths one holds’ (p. 139). In the case of Laclau this is evident in the centrality of the field of discursivity and its unavoidably antagonistic character, and in Negri in the centrality of the constituent power of the Multitude conceived as constant creativity and innovation. Consequently,

both thinkers shift the terrain of their arguments to the domain of ontological axioms. Thus, for Laclau class decomposition actualizes and confirms the possibility of antagonism in the abstractions of the absolute horizontality of the play of differences to which all phenomena are subsumed while for Negri the autonomy of the multitude against empire is grounded in the claim that the former is merely the embodiment of a generalized constituent power. Antagonism for both thinkers is thus premised upon the post-foundational move of locating the political in the ontological register. (p. 142.)

According to Rekret, in both cases, this kind of ontological grounding leaves no room for any other reference apart from the autonomy of the Multitude in the case of Negri and discourse in the case of Laclau. Thus there is no ‘criterion by which antagonisms can be evaluated and analyzed’ (p. 143). The result is that, although incommensurable, both ontologies lead to the same theoretical and political dead-end. In this sense, Rekret’s intervention is a useful reminder of both the persistence of ontological references to contemporary post-foundational political thinking but also of the limits of such an ontological approach.

This theoretical cul-de-sac of circular political debates is the direct result of the turn to the resources of post-foundational political ontology in the attempt to guarantee the possibility of political struggle in the absence or decline of a politicized working class. […] Sutured to ontology, political theory is caught in endless circles of self-reference. (p. 146.)

Alexandros Kioupkiolis sets out in his contribution to reject the commonly held assumption that contemporary movements ‘have ritually consigned hegemony to the dustbin of history’, suggesting instead that ‘hegemony should be radically recast beyond recognition, assuming a multitudinous form that can dismantle its hierarchical, homogenizing and ideological closures’ (p. 150). Kioupkiolis sets out to present both the main aspects of Hardt and Negri’s theorisation of the Multitude as an embodiment of contemporary capitalist biopolitics and of the emergence of new collective emancipatory collective practices. Then he presents the main criticisms against this conceptualization of the Multitude by Laclau and Rancière and their ‘charges of spontaneism, teleology and non-political nature’ (p. 155). However, he suggests that more recent interventions by Hardt and Negri, such as Commonwealth and Declaration,[20] in fact answer some of these criticisms, by their references to constituent processes emerging in the democratic forms of contemporary movements of indignation and by referring to the Multitude as ‘a political project for the institution of an autonomous, egalitarian and common democracy, whose rudiments are furnished by the new forms of biopolitical labour and new social movements’ (p. 156). At the same time, he stresses the still ‘ontological and historical-material guarantees’ (p. 157) in Hardt’s and Negri’s theorisation. In light of these, Kioupkiolis attempts to offer a theoretical and political project that moves beyond the Multitude/hegemony dichotomy. In his own words:

autonomous multiplicities should actively pursue hegemonic forms of political intervention if they are to gain the power to change the world in their plural images of collective freedom, toppling the ruling forces of today. However, in their re-enactments of sovereign hegemony, such multitudes should effectively contest, twist, distort and reconfigure its prevailing structures if they aspire to enhanced freedom and equality. (p. 157.)

For Kioupkiolis, hegemony is still relevant for the analysis of contemporary movements. ‘Despite their explicit opposition to delegation, hierarchical organization, party partisanship and ideological unity, the core constituents of “hegemony” – representation, antagonism, uneven power and “chains of equivalence” which fashion collective identities around empty signifiers – stand out as building blocks of their political discourse and action’ (p. 159). Consequently, contemporary movements need first to ‘pursue hegemony as a struggle to reconfigure the existing composition of forces and replace it with a different power structure that will strain to minimize domination, hierarchies and exclusions’; secondly, ‘a variable degree of hegemony as collective unity-cohesion will be still needed to avoid mutually destructive collisions and incompatibilities’; and thirdly, ‘relations of representation and the dialectics of particularity/universality […] will be reproduced in any association in which the will of the many does not coincide with the will of all’ (p. 163). At the same time, contemporary mass movements as self-organised multiplicities of singularities will radically upset and reconfigure hegemonic politics through ‘variable hybridizations of verticality, concentration and horizontality’ (p. 164), the ‘affirmation of diversity and autonomous constituent practices’ (ibid.), a ‘composition of differences [that] will not be dictated by abstract, a priori laws’ (p. 165), and by making ‘representation accessible to the active engagement and the widening influence of the “represented”’ (ibid.). Consequently, this form of political association of the Multitude ‘could also fuel the relentless subversion of hierarchies, closures and new patterns of domination from within, holding out the prospect of a world beyond hegemony in a universe still bridled with it’ (p. 166). In the case of Kioupkiolis we are dealing with an interesting attempt towards a more transformative conception of hegemony, one that acknowledges its importance as part of the process of transforming movements into political forces of emancipation and, at the same time, stresses the need for collective political practices that subvert the reproduction of hierarchies and power relations.

Giorgos Katsambekis’s contribution attempts to think the Multitude/People cleavage in light of recent mass mobilisation in Greece, in order to go beyond this dichotomy. For Katsambekis it is possible to think of the politics of the Multitude and at the same time insist on the pertinence of the notion of the people as part of a ‘project of a radical and plural democracy’ (p. 171). For Katsambekis the best way to overcome this dichotomy is to think of a ‘multitudinous people’ that as a notion ‘can bring together in a single term at once the signification of the people’s constitutive internal divide and ambiguity, its irreducible heterogeneity and plurality, along with the multiplicity that characterizes collective action in the twenty-first century’ (p. 172). In this sense, ‘the “people” and the “multitude” mark certain potential crystallizations of collective/democratic agency and not empirical data’ (p. 177). The very emergence of a collective ‘we’ suggests precisely an act of representation and an assumption of universality that can be associated with the notion of the people. ‘The multitude can be seen, in these terms, as a state or metonymy of the people, or even as an internal moment/possibility’ (p. 179). Katsambekis uses the example of the aganaktismenoi movement in Greece, from May to July 2011, as an example of this collective performative production of the multitudinous people, emphasising its horizontal, democratic, participatory character and the emergence of a collective ‘we’. In this sense, Katsambekis insists ‘we can even go as far as to suggest that the aganaktismenoi constitute a form of progressive democratic populism in its purest form’ (pp. 183–4). Consequently, the notion of the multitudinous people expresses precisely this ‘inescapable slippage between people and multitude, already inherent in the conception of the “people”’. The people becomes less a reality and more a ‘constant political project […] advancing […] an endless struggle for democracy’ (p. 187). This is indeed an interesting approach in order to combine the multitudinous character of contemporary mass mobilisation and the emergence of a certain notion of the people as a collective subject. However, especially regarding movements such as the aganaktismenoi in Greece, more attention is needed regarding the class composition of such movements and how they represent an alliance in actu of the working classes, with youths, with petit-bourgeois strata, in their common struggle against austerity.

The contribution by Andy Knott attempts a comparison of the positions of Laclau on the one hand, and Hardt and Negri on the other, regarding representation and political space using UK Uncut and Occupy as examples. Beginning with a reference to the relation between political space and representation, Knott stresses the persistence of spatial references in the work of Laclau leading to ‘both a pluralization and a complexification of political space’ (p. 193). However, ‘such spaces are never purely self-contained – they are never a pure particularity – but, rather, attempt to establish relations with other political spaces’ (p. 194). It is here that the possibility of representation emerges, despite Laclau and Mouffe’s initial rejection of representation in favour of articulation. However, since for Laclau the end of representation is full emancipation and a powerless society, and given the impossibility of this, relations of representation are inevitable, although we must ‘speak of representations in the plural’ (p. 197), whose expansion means that alternative political forms, apart from the political party, also emerge, as exemplified in movements such as Occupy and UK Uncut. Regarding the work of Antonio Negri, Knott stresses that, although there are not so many spatial references, in fact the transition from the mass worker to the social worker is also a change of topos in the sense of an exit from the factory. Spatial references are more prominent in Empire, with its references to the deterritorialised space of the Empire and the metropolis as the site of bio-political production. In recent Hardt and Negri texts representation is linked only to a territorialising logic of sovereignty, meaning that in their work ‘[t]here are never representations in the plural […,] the concept of representation is necessarily associated with that of the transcendent One’ (p. 203). However, this means that ‘the application of a non-representational form of politics remains problematic’ (p. 204).

Knott then turns his attention to UK Uncut and Occupy as new forms of political space. He insists that ‘UK Uncut serves as yet another example of the expansion of the political space’ (p. 206) by subverting the role and function of retail outlets. In its turn, ‘Occupy sought to (re)appropriate public space, primarily through encampments which aimed to practice and promote open, participatory democratic forms and debate’ (p. 207). In contrast to the anti-representational positions of Hardt and Negri, and more in support of Laclau’s problematisation of representation, ‘these expanded political spaces, and their representative role, serve as an addendum to the traditional form of representation associated with liberal democracy’ (p. 209). What we have here is not only a defence of Laclau’s theorisation of representation, but also an important contribution to the importance of political space in the emergence of new collective movements.

The final contribution to the volume is by Marina Prentoulis and Lasse Thomassen, and attempts to consider the notions of autonomy and hegemony in regard to the 2011 protests in Greece and Spain. For Prentoulis and Thomassen the fact that the movements of indignation in Greece and Spain both rejected traditional party (and left-wing party) politics and sought new forms of representation implies that a ‘dialogue between hegemony and autonomy is necessary in order to grasp the movements of the squares’ (p. 214), overcoming the mutual suspicion of these two political logics, in both Marxism and anarchism. Beginning with the exemplification in post-Marxism of this opposition in the contrasting theorisations offered by Laclau and Hardt/Negri, they attempt to see the different interpretations of the movements of the squares either as emphasis on the need to transform themselves into a collective will, or as stressing their horizontal and leaderless character, or as bringing forward the fundamental antagonisms traversing contemporary societies. Consequently, the political challenge is ‘how these struggles can be connected or united, in a way that does not do violence to the singularity of the particular struggles, while also establishing some relation among the struggles’ (p. 218), something evident in the difficulties facing these movements regarding the creation of media forms that would not distort their voices or create centralised forms of communication. Regarding the movements in both Greece and Spain, they stress that in both cases ‘potentially universally inclusive signifiers’ (p. 224) emerged, enabled by the creation of an ‘antagonistic frontier vis-à-vis an “other”’ (p. 225), such as the Troika in Greece or national elites in Spain. However, in their organisational structure we can witness the ‘mutual contamination of horizontality and verticality, and of autonomy and hegemony’ (p. 226). Regarding the logic of hegemony, this emerges especially in the attempts to transform the social and political dynamics of the movements into electoral dynamics, exemplified in the metonymic displacements that led to the political and electoral prominence of SYRIZA, without reducing the reproduction of the tensions of the two logics. However, it is important to go beyond the simple opposition between autonomy and hegemony, since ‘in Laclau and Mouffe’s variant, the concept of hegemony can account for horizontal and autonomist struggles as the latter are always contaminated by vertical and representational relations’ (p. 231), while at the same time experiments in horizontality and autonomy also ‘influence the direction of democratic politics in a more radical direction’ (p. 232). Again, we have here a reference to the complexity of the collective politics of such movements that cannot be theorised by a simple dichotomy between autonomy and hegemony. However, again we face the question of the relation between the emergence of these movements and class relations, alliances and strategies.

An Assessment

It is obvious that we are dealing here with an important volume, not only because of the significance of the contemporary movements that form its reference point, but also because of the theoretical questions posed here. Of particular importance is this dialogue between, on the one hand, the problematic of hegemony, representation and populism in the work of Laclau and Mouffe, and on the other the new emphasis on autonomy in the work of Hardt and Negri but also in other recent neo-anarchist positions. The importance of this volume lies precisely in the fact that it does not only present the variations of a theoretical debate, but also engages in a dialogue with contemporary movements in their originality.

Moreover, the different positions presented here are not only expressions of different conceptual frameworks or theories but also of different directions within radical social theory when faced with the interpretation of such forms of mass-politics. On the one hand, we have all the emphasis on singular resistances and movements, in their insurrectionary potential that forms the basis of the interventions of Arditi, Day and Montgomery, and Newman; interventions that, at the same time, bring forward the limits of the negation of the hegemonic aspect of the politics of emancipation. On the other hand, the interventions that stress the importance of the hegemonic articulation of the notion of the people in contemporary movements, such as the ones by Stavrakakis, Prentoulis and Thomassen, tend to give less importance to the relation between hegemonic projects and class strategies. In his turn, Knott combines the reference to representation with the importance of the creation of political spaces, whereas Rekret’s intervention is interesting in this sense because it underlines the fact that a certain degree of ontological thinking is common to both approaches. Inside the dialogue between these different approaches, the interventions by Kioupkiolis and Katsambekis attempt a more complex approach that combines the emphasis on the singularity of resistances with the importance of the hegemonic instance and a certain notion of the people, whereas Dean attempts an interesting rereading of the notion of the people as part of a communist perspective.

If we try to reflect upon this debate we can see that there is a tension running through it. On the one hand, there is the need to ground the formation of social agents in the dynamics and antagonisms of capitalist production, both in the sense of the classical Marxist emphasis on class determination and of Negri’s conception of an immanent political potentiality of the forces of labour. On the other hand, there is the realisation that political mobilisation is never simply a reflection of the antagonisms at the level of production, but is always formed through forms of political metonymy and condensation, or what Althusser already in the 1960s defined as overdetermination.[21] It is here that the dialogue with the Gramscian conception of hegemony enters the stage.

At the same time, this volume brings forward the limits of remaining within the framework of this tension. I am not denying that in a certain sense this tension can be found even in classical Marxism exemplified, as Étienne Balibar has shown, in the discrepancy between the proletariat as potentially political collective force and labour as part of the constitutive antagonistic relation at the heart of capitalist production and reproduction.[22] However, to take this discrepancy as given and remain within its contours can only lead to dichotomies such as the one between the Multitude and the People. These dichotomies cannot be superseded by simply subsuming one term to the other, either by treating the People as a simple reflection of the forces of labour in contemporary capitalist production or by treating the Multitude as, basically, a politically performative concept. The reason is that such a dichotomy only reproduces the limitations of both perspectives. On the one hand, any attempt towards thinking in terms of an immanent grounding of collective subjects in the antagonisms of capitalist production runs the risk of essentialism and leaves no room for political practice other than simply helping the emergence of teleologically determined eventualities. From classical Hegelian-Marxist or Stalinist narratives of the primacy of the forces of production to Negri’s conception of biopolitical production, there is always the danger of a theorisation of a teleology inscribed in capitalist production as the constant production of its inescapable opposite, precisely something that represents historicism in the negative sense that had been the target of Althusser’s critique.

On the other hand, the complete delinking of politics from production-based social antagonisms, especially in the case of the work of Laclau, runs the risk, despite Laclau’s numerous warnings, of treating politics as a fully autonomous sphere, with no other determination than the constitutive lack and antagonism in social practices as discursive practices. It is true that Laclau tried at length to insist that his own notion of discourse refers mainly to the relational and articulated character of social practices, but still the problem of treating politics as a signifying process remains. Or to put it differently, the fact that politics includes signifying practices does not mean that politics is a signifying process. In this sense, Rancière’s conception of the People as the part of those that are not part has the theoretical advantage of including a reference not only to political non-representation, but also to class domination and exclusion. Moreover, the tendency to treat forms of collective mobilisation, such as the ones that we have experienced in the past few years, as mainly processes of political performativity and signification indeed runs the risk of obliterating the importance of class analysis and of class strategies in contemporary debates regarding the politics of both movements and left-wing fronts.

Moreover, this book brings forward some crucial theoretical and, in the last instance, political problems. One is the opposition between hegemony and post-hegemony. Here the very notion of hegemony in a large part of the debate misses all the complexity of the Gramscian notion of hegemony.[23] Instead, hegemony is either identified with the emphasis on consent alongside coercion, or with the relative autonomy of the political, or with its necessarily metonymical, symbolic and discursive character. Consequently, post-hegemony is identified in fact with anti-politics, with the return to the real of social antagonism and the potentiality of the Multitude. What is missing is precisely the relational and strategic character of the notion of hegemony as an attempt to think political power, class antagonism and transformation in class societies. In its original Gramscian formulation, hegemony cannot be reduced to the terrain of discourse, or ideology, or of politics as representation. Gramsci’s constant references to the grounding of hegemony in all aspects of social praxis, including the antagonisms within capitalist production, his attention to ‘molecular’ social and political practices, his interest in the hegemonic aspects of emerging capitalist regimes of accumulation as exemplified in his interest in ‘Americanism’ and ‘Fordism’, all these attest to the limits of treating hegemony in discursive or performative terms.

In this sense, it is still necessary to retrace what Balibar defined as Marx’s theoretical short-circuit between production and politics, which did not imply a simple grounding of politics in the economy or a conception of politics as the epiphenomenon of the economic essence but rather a different conception of both economy and politics. Within this context, the economy becomes a terrain of political struggles, the political a terrain of antagonisms that have to do with class strategies that in the last instance relate to antagonistic positions on the terrain of production. Moreover, a different conception of political practice emerges, a new practice of politics, a politics of labour, a politics that suggests: ‘(1) the political power of the workers (or better, of citizens in as much as they are workers); (2) the transformation of the forms of labour through political struggle; and (3) the transformation of forms of “government” by the recognition of labor-power’s capacities to expand (unlike productivism which represses such capacities)’.[24] This new practice of politics, based upon this ‘short-circuit’ between the economic and the political in capitalism, is – in a certain way – the answer to the dichotomy between stressing the political instance, as the terrain of the emergence of hegemony, and stressing social potentiality at the level of social production. What this conception of a new practice politics offers is, in a certain way, a combined socialisation of politics and politicisation of the social that enables us to think movements of emancipation as at the same time processes of political constitution and social transformation.

The other crucial problem is the danger of reducing the political alternatives to the opposition between a neo-anarchist emphasis on social movements, in their nomadic horizontality and refusal of political mediation, and a neo-populist conception of radical democratic politics aiming at the formation of broad political movements organised around the reappropriation of signifiers such as democracy, dignity and sovereignty. What is missing in this opposition is precisely the class-strategic character of (counter)hegemonic projects, its relation to the contradictions of capitalist accumulation and contemporary forms of imperialism, the necessity to rethink radical democracy in its relation to socialist transformation. And this can also have serious political consequences. The example of Greece and the experience of SYRIZA show that the simple translation of social dynamics into political representation by means of a broad anti-austerity front, based upon the new discursive constructions of the people emerging from the movement, does not of itself constitute a new hegemonic project. This would have required a more ‘organic relation’ to particular social movements and class practices and a programme that transforms the demand for democracy or dignity into a new narrative antagonistic to the dominant capitalist strategy and the embedded neoliberalism of the European integration process.

But what about the People, this ‘we’ that emerges in contemporary movements, if we avoid treating it as a simple metonym for the Multitude, or the Labour Force, or the Proletariat, and also refuse to treat it as the contingent outcome of the interplay in the chain of political signifiers? I think that it is here where the very notion of hegemony in its Gramscian sense arises. In contrast to the version of hegemony offered in the work of Laclau, which in a certain way presents hegemony as simply the political/discursive aspect of social relationality, Gramsci’s concept of hegemony refers to the complexity of political power and its strategic relational character while retaining the connection between hegemonic projects and class positions and antagonisms. In this sense, the People, at least as regards capitalist societies, is not just a metonym for the plebeian or excluded social strata, but instead refers to the potentially hegemonic role of the working classes and their ability to forge a broader alliance of the subaltern classes around a common project that attempts to undermine bourgeois hegemony and open up new possibilities of socialist transformation. To this we could also add another strategic concept: that of the historic bloc, that refers precisely to the combination between a social alliance, a hegemonic project and new forms of organisation, of doing politics.[25]

In light of this, the particularity and the importance of contemporary movements is that they are not simple expressions of social and political contestation. Nor can they be described in terms of simple nomadic practices and resistances. The references to social majority, not only the reclaiming of public space but also the demand for a central political role, the demand for radical solutions, the demand for dignity and democracy as active opposition to neoliberalism, the demand for popular sovereignty as a class project, all these attest to the emergence of potential new historical blocs. Rethinking hegemony requires us to think of the historical bloc as a strategic and not descriptive notion. It points to the need to rethink the political programme as radical alternative, to the importance of forms of collective organisation of the subaltern classes, to the necessity of political forms that can help the emergence of new forms of mass-political intellectuality.

Consequently, the challenge is not simply to oppose the horizontal to the vertical forms of organisation, or to think in terms of oppositions between the new forms of democracy of struggle and the potential political or even electoral translation of the new movements, or in terms of an opposition between politics and anti-politics. What is needed is to think in terms of a new practice of politics. One that could combine the challenge of political power with the emphasis on autonomous democratic forms of popular organisation which could offer the surplus of force ‘from below’ to counter the capitalist strategies that are inscribed in the very materiality of state institutions and practices, thus extending the potential of contemporary democratic practices in the movements. Moreover, this also requires strategic answers to the question of political strategy and programmes, in order to make sure that we are not dealing simply with a list of grievances but with elaborated alternative anticapitalist narratives for our societies. The contradictions and shortcomings of any attempt to simply translate movement dynamics and demands into electoral dynamics without autonomous forms of popular organisation and without elaboration of the conditions for an alternative programme were more than obvious in the Greek case. This also requires that we treat contemporary movements as learning practices, both in relation to the elaboration of alternative social configurations and in relation to the emergence of new democratic practices.

However, these points should not be read as an attempt to underestimate the scope of this collective volume. In contrast, they point to its importance and usefulness, as a contribution to an open debate that is not only theoretical but also political.


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[1] Hardt and Negri 2000; Hardt and Negri 2004; Hardt and Negri 2009.

[2] ‘Instead revolution must simultaneously be both insurrection and institution, structural and superstructural transformation. This is the path of the “becoming-Prince” of the multitude.’ (Hardt and Negri 2009, p. 367.)

[3] Rancière 1995; Rancière 1999; Rancière 2001; Rancière 2006.

[4] In particular in Laclau 2005.

[5] Mouffe 2013.

[6] For Stavrakakis’s theoretical contributions, see Stavrakakis 1999; Howarth, Norval and Stavrakakis (eds.) 2000; Stavrakakis 2007.

[7] Laclau 2005, p. 117.

[8] Laclau 2005, p. 110.

[9] Laclau and Mouffe 1985.

[10] Laclau 2015, p. 216.

[11] For Arditi’s positions, see also Arditi 2007.

[12] Bey 1991.

[13] For Day’s neo-anarchist positions, see Day 2005.

[14] Which is based upon a chapter of her Communist Horizon (Dean 2012).

[15] Rancière 2001.

[16] On the notion of insurgent democracy, see Abensour 2011.

[17] For the dialogue between Geras and Laclau & Mouffe, see Geras 1987, Geras 1988, and Laclau and Mouffe 1987.

[18] Lash 2007.

[19] Beasley-Murray 2010.

[20] Hardt and Negri 2012.

[21] Althusser 1969.

[22] Balibar 1994, pp. 125–49.

[23] Gramsci 1971; Buci-Glucksmann 1980; Thomas 2009.

[24] Balibar 1994, p. 141.

[25] On this reading of the historical bloc, see Sotiris 2014.