The Politics of Identity and the Problem of Subalternity : on Laclau/Mouffe's Solution

Yohann Douet


A recurrent criticism raised against the identity politics is their incapacity to go beyond particular revendications, to promote a global alternative to the existing state of affairs. And insofar as the identities are defined by this established social order, they seem unable to evade subalternity (in the sense of Gramsci : the social groups in question are subjected to the initiatives of others, since they are not defined in their own terms).
Laclau and Mouffe, in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985), tried to resolve this problem. They elaborated the concept of « antagonism » in order to understand identity as constructed in the conflict, by way of the opposition against a political enemy (which plays the role of a "constituting outside"). As such, identities are not fixed, and are conceived in terms of relations to other identites. When they share a common antagonist, it is thus possible for different identities to be articulated in a political unity (and to be transformed by this articulation). The « collective will » thus formed seems to encompass a multiplicity of different demands, and to be able to advocate for another social order. But does such a politics really evade subalternity ?
Drawing on Gramsci, I would like to show that it is not the case, because there is no space in Laclau/Mouffe's post-Marxism for the notion of « structure » (which can not be reduced to a contingent articulation of « subject positions ») : they can not conceive properly the structural assignation of identities, particularly when it is rooted in the experience of exploitation or oppression. That is why they can not see clearly what an « hegemonic » project should look like : for example, there is no reflexion about what political program is required, and no reflexion about institutionalized power and how to overthrow it. For these reasons, even if we admit they haved highlighted some significant elements concerning collective subject formation, we can not learn much from their theory about the transformation of the objective structures of exploitation and oppression.

gramsci - laclau mouffe - antagonism - subalternity - identity politics