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hegemony & socialist strategy Arrow vol 4 no 2 contents
About borderlands Volume 4 Number 2, 2005


The Under-theorization of Overdetermination
in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy

William S. Lewis


1. Since its 1985 publication, Ernesto Laclau's and Chantal Mouffe's Hegemony and Socialist Strategy [HSS] has become one of the seminal works in "Post-Marxist" political philosophy. At the time of its appearance, the charms of Laclau and Mouffe's book to a demoralized intellectual left in Britain and the United States were many. Not only were Thatcher, Reagan and neo-classical liberalism ascendant, but also the theoretical tradition that had sustained the Left, Marxism, had been in a state of crisis and decay for at least a decade. Given this climate, it is no wonder that a political philosophy like the one proposed by Laclau and Mouffe was so welcome. Not only did their book incorporate post-modern and post-structuralist concepts into contemporary discussions about democracy, rights, and community, but it also did so in such a way that it accounted for all the past failures of Leftist theory and practice while simultaneously justifying the continued prosecution of a classical social democratic program. HSS was thus a perfect Post-Marxist text. By subscribing to its logic, those on the intellectual left no longer had to suffer the embarrassment of a past marked by failed revolutions, gulags, decaying housing blocks and tedious May Day celebrations. In Laclau and Mouffe's text, these were explained away as the fault of "Marxist essentialisms." Purged of these misconceptions and invigorated by the vision of a world organized by the malleable muses of discourse and hegemony and not by the obstinate fates of history and economy, Post-Marxists could now and with a good conscience look towards a bright future of social activism and theoretical production. Conveniently, this future ran along much the same lines as those with which they were already engaged (Hohler 1998; Sandilands 1995).

2. Both the New Left represented by the Green and Anti-globalization Movements as well as the Old Left represented by socialist politics and labor activism found inspiration in this text. Even such failed and abandoned modernist projects as the artistic avant-garde were re-invigorated by this theory and its promise to "develop a post-avant-garde democratic strategy" through the establishment "of a non-teleological progressivism" (Marchart 1995). For many political philosophers and especially to those on the left searching for alternatives to a theoretically discredited Marxism, HSS likewise provided a conceptual tonic, dissolving vexing problems like that of distinguishing between ideological and true ideas and supplying a critical tool, deconstruction, that collapsed and resolved perennial dichotomies (Couzens 1994; Best 2000). Its influence was by no means limited to political philosophers. Theory-hungry academicians in fields as diverse as ethnic and gender studies, economics, history, sociology, and law looked to HSS for methods and models that would resolve key issues in their disciplines (Artz 1997; Baldacchino 1994; Bantjes1997; Berns 1996).

3. But did Laclau & Mouffe's text really hold the key to the future for the political Left and for radical social theory? Almost two decades after its publication and at a time when scholars and activists friendly to postmodern ideas frequently cite the text as justification for their political and theoretical projects, it may be time to re-evaluate the book's central claims. Specifically, one wonders if Laclau & Mouffe were actually able to (a) identify the central flaw of all previous Marxist theory and (b) whether they were able to sufficiently justify an argument for political practice that has socialism and democracy as its goals. In order to answer these questions, this paper will critically examine not only HSS's argument as a whole, but also that move which will be shown to be a critical step, its appropriation of Louis Althusser's concept of "overdetermination." It will then advance the claim that not only do Laclau & Mouffe misunderstand and misappropriate the concept of overdetermination, but that this misappropriation fatally undermines the book's analysis of social space and of the possibilities for political action within that space, thus making the work of dubious theoretical and practical worth for political theorists and activists.

4. It is when Laclau & Mouffe make the transition in the third chapter of HSS from a genealogical critique of post-Second International Marxist theories to an exposition of the theoretical basis for their own "socialist" project that they invoke the Althusserian concept of overdetermination. In what seems a quintessentially Althusserian critical move, they argue that Althusser's concept is flawed because, in conceptualizing it, he makes the same mistakes as the other "classical" Marxist theorists Laclau & Mouffe consider in their book. However, finding the concept to be of much worth, Laclau & Mouffe undertake to reformulate overdetermination so that the mistakes of economic reductionism and historical necessitarianism in its conceptualization can be avoided. Once reconfigured, this concept is then used as the basis for Laclau & Mouffe's own articulation of the "true" character of the world and of the subjects who inhabit it. In order to simultaneously criticize Althusser for his mistakes and to appropriate the concept of overdetermination for their own use, Laclau & Mouffe thus find themselves in the position of insisting that, though Althusser was essentially correct in his definition of overdetermination, he himself did not realize the full ramifications of this concept. What's more, they argue, his system can neither tolerate nor take into account the idea of overdetermination that it originates. Laclau & Mouffe's criticism and appropriation of Althusser is the backbone of their argument. In one stroke, this move allows them to expose the fatal flaw of all previous Marxist theory (including Althusser's) and to appropriate his theoretical concept of overdetermination as the cornerstone and explanatory principle of their own system.

5. As Laclau & Mouffe re-interpret Althusser's term, overdetermination is a way to describe the world such that the link between infrastructure and superstructure, between economy and culture, is definitively elided such that it can no longer be said that the former determines or produces the latter (Laclau & Mouffe 1985: 97-98). Their hope is that a new analysis of the socio-economic whole, based as it is upon a hypothesis drawn from the concept of overdetermination that the world can only ever be known ideologically, will provide a proper base for renewed socialist/democratic political practice. It will do so, they promise, by correcting the fundamental error of all Marxist theory antecedent to their own: that of essentialism. Given the importance to their project of appropriating and critiquing Althusser, one would do well to examine the legitimacy of Laclau & Mouffe's thesis that, though the concept of overdetermination is sound, it is not commensurable with a system like Althusser's which insists upon determination in the last instance by the economy.

6. To the end of pursuing this examination, some basic questions need be raised and answered. First off, we must ask why for their project Laclau & Mouffe would wish to appropriate the concept of overdetermination from Althusser and yet would reject his determinism? Necessarily, answering this question will entail a description of HSS's argument as a whole as well as a somewhat more detailed description of where their critique of Althusser fits into this argument. Second, we must inquire into the rightness of their critique. Is it the case that Laclau & Mouffe have identified a fundamental flaw in Althusser's theory which - once identified and corrected - would expose the flaw of all previous Marxist theory (including Althusser's own) and that would also lead to a new and better basis for socialist practice? Or, is it the case that Laclau & Mouffe have misunderstood or misappropriated Althusser and that the correction that they make to his theory reveals the untenability of their own project?

7. Although HSS is divided into four chapters, the book is best understood as consisting of three sections. The first is a genealogy that traces the movement of Marxist theory from essentialist to increasingly non-essentialist rhetoric. The second section is an exposition of Laclau & Mouffe's own synchronic, post-structuralist theory of the constitution of economy, society, and subjects. The concluding section of the text uses the theory exposited in its second to show how this theory can be used to justify and reinvigorate democratic and socialist political practice. Because this essay will deal mostly with the section where overdetermination is discussed , perhaps the best way to proceed is to briefly outline each part, show how they fit together, and then return to the second in order to demonstrate how the concept of overdetermination is essential to the logic of the book's argument as a whole. From this analysis, we should then be conversant enough with Laclau & Mouffe's argument to begin answering the second question this paper needs address: that of whether or not Laclau & Mouffe's reformulation of Althusser's concept is needed and whether or not this reformulation supports or allows an accurate description of the world and of the possibilities for socialist/democratic action within it.

The Genealogy of Hegemony

8. Choosing not to start with Marx and Engels, Laclau & Mouffe begin their genealogy of Marxist theory in the 1890's and with the theoretical debates of the Second International. Their reasons for starting at this historical juncture are at least two. The first is that their project is not based on a rethinking of Marx's philosophy but starts from the premise that there is something fundamentally wrong with Marx's philosophy and that this fault becomes manifest in the writings of Second International thinkers (Laclau & Mouffe 1985: 166, 177-178). The second is that the concept of hegemony (the linchpin of Laclau & Mouffe's politics) finds its birth in the reaction to Second International thinkers like Karl Kautsky and Georgii Plekhanov and its first tentative (if still nameless) expression in the work of Edouard Bernstein and George Sorel.

9. The problem that Laclau & Mouffe claim confronted Kautsky and Plekhanov and which drove their theory is the same one that confronted Bernstein and Sorel, together with all of the other theorists examined in their genealogy. This problem is the failure of the worldwide proletarian revolution to occur according to the schematization (attributed to Marx and Engels) in which a communist revolution is necessarily triggered by the polarization of the social body into working class and bourgeoisie. Laclau & Mouffe maintain that the theoretical reaction to this "failure to occur" is denial. Confronted by a world in which classes do not seem to be polarized but in fact appear to be diversifying, Kautsky and Plekhanov entrench themselves in Marxist dogma and argue that everything is happening according to schedule and according to necessity. For Kautsky this denial is relatively easy, he simply theorizes that the evident social and economic plurality is reducing itself into a simple division between proletariat and bourgeoisie (Laclau & Mouffe 1985: 15). Because he explicitly recognizes the persistence of a diverse social/economic body, for Plekhanov the denial is a bit more complicated. Thus in order to show that the revolution is proceeding on schedule, he resorts to a Hegelian argument in which the specific and diverse social classes (workers, artisans, managers, middle class, bourgeoisie, etc.) are shown to be only the outward and contingent forms of two essences: the proletariat and the bourgeoisie (Laclau & Mouffe 1985: 25).

10. Both Plekhanov's and Kautsky's arguments are conservative in that neither is moved by the failure of progressive class polarization into suggesting that political initiatives need to be made in order to "help" the revolution along. Instead, both believe that all one need do is ride out the necessary, economically determined historical development until the essential contradiction of capitalism plays itself out. The reason why these two theorists can take such a conservative position, Laclau & Mouffe argue, is that the political and economic situation at the time was such that it allowed this complacent theory. For example, Kautsky is able to claim increasing polarization of classes because this movement was occurring in Germany at the time in which he was writing (Laclau & Mouffe 1985: 17). However, Laclau & Mouffe contend, the apparent (in the case of Kautsky) or supposedly essential (in the case of Plekhanov) unity which allowed the conservative or "orthodox" approach to Marxist theory was not enjoyed by other theorists who saw that there really was a discrepancy between the theoretical and actual development of capitalism.

11. Bernstein and Sorel were two theorists who noticed such a discrepancy. For Bernstein, this inconsistency between the theoretical and actual development of capitalism was not perceived as a very large one and he believed that it could be remedied by political solutions. Thus he was among the first to propose a revisionist socialism in which a political party would hold together a fragmented working class into one ideological unit. Though this does not seem a radical suggestion, Laclau & Mouffe argue that this move was very radical in terms of theory. For not only did Bernstein suggest that socialism does not necessarily follow the collapse of capitalism, he also went on to suggest that socialism might need a little help. By arguing for political action that would unite and create a working class, Bernstein became one of the first theorists to consider that the political might be somewhat autonomous from the economic base (Laclau & Mouffe 1985: 32). As with Bernstein, Laclau & Mouffe show that Sorel was a theorist who also entertained the possibility of separating the economic from the political. However, Sorel did Bernstein one better by insisting on the power of the ideological to influence the economic and to bring about revolution through the creation of class "blocs."

12. Though it did not yet have a name, with this double movement espoused by Bernstein and Sorel (of insisting upon the relative detachment of society from economy and of identifying the ability to bring about the proletarian revolution through the manipulation of the social) the Second International theorists had articulated the basic structure of hegemonic theory. This appellation finally came from Lenin when he attempted to solve the problem of how to create a communist society in a nation (Russia) that for the most part lacked a working class. The word and concept "hegemony" was thus fully developed and articulated by Lenin in order to explain the leadership role that must be taken by a vanguard of the proletariat in order to force Russian culture and economy to the stage where it can fulfill its proper historical role (Laclau & Mouffe 1985: 55). Thus, according to Laclau & Mouffe's analysis of Lenin, hegemony is that which must be exerted for all action taken in a political system to be directed towards the creation of the material and ideological conditions necessary for the historical progression to a communist society.

13. The theoretical development that Laclau & Mouffe describe in the first part of HSS is that of the evolution of the concept of hegemony. The "progress" of this concept is charted by showing how theory, responding to actual political conditions such as those present in post-1905 Russia and 1890's Germany, progressed from first insisting on the essential determination of the social by the economic to specifying that the social is relatively autonomous from the economic. As this separation became more pronounced and accepted, it allowed theorists such as Lenin (and later Gramsci) to suggest that, through leadership, one might have the power to consciously change the socio-economic structure and, thereby, bring about communist revolution. This concerted leadership is what Laclau & Mouffe identify as "hegemony" and it is for the efficacy of hegemony to change social conditions that they argue throughout the rest of their text. However, Laclau & Mouffe do not argue for the concept of hegemony as it is understood and theorized by Lenin. For Lenin, hegemonic practice involves the detachment of superstructure from infrastructure in the hope that these two might be re-attached through conscious action (thus constituting a revolution that might otherwise be indefinitely postponed). It is this re-attachment of the social to the economic through the medium of hegemony with which Laclau & Mouffe have a problem. They object to this eventual re-attachment (Lenin's dream of creating both an infrastructure and a working class) because they believe that this final movement and goal shows all hegemonic theorists who subscribe to re-attachment to be as paralyzed, blinded, and misdirected by Marxist dogmatisms as were Kautsky and Plekhanov. For, just as Marxist essentialisms like the "privileging of the working class" and "determination in the last instance by the economy" prohibited Kautsky and Plekhanov from seeing the true socio-economic situation and acting upon it, the same essentialisms also control and direct Lenin's hegemonic practice - albeit now as goal rather than as motor. Thus Lenin's hegemonic program - because it is directed by Marxist essentialisms - is, for Laclau & Mouffe, as likely to lead to anti-socialist results as were the conservative positions of Kautsky and Plekhanov (Laclau & Mouffe 1985: 57-59). Lenin and subsequently Stalin provide the most obvious and egregious negative examples of what might be enacted in the name of socialist hegemony and as such provide perhaps objectionable examples of a necessary relationship between Marxist essentialism and terror. However, Laclau & Mouffe maintain throughout their book that Lenin and Stalin were not exceptions and that any theory and practice which clings to Marxist essentialism not only has the potential to betray the cause of socialism, but that it actually always will betray socialism because it is not sufficiently flexible. Thus even Gramsci, who nearly totally dissociates the social from the economic and speaks of the social as simply a contest for hegemony, is liable on Laclau & Mouffe's account to fall into totalitarianism because he asserts that the contest for ideological dominance will always be between the bourgeoisie and the working class (Laclau & Mouffe 1985: 86).

14. At the end of the genealogy section of HSS, Laclau & Mouffe make three conclusions. Each of these conclusions is posed as a challenge to traditional Marxist tenets. The first conclusion contests the idea of economic determinism. As Laclau & Mouffe write: "there is no necessary relation between socialist objectives and the positions of social agents in the relations of production" (Laclau & Mouffe 1985: 86) Second, against the claim made by Marx, Lenin, Lukacs, and others that the worker, because of their position in the chain of production enjoys an epistemic privilege, Laclau & Mouffe argue that there are no privileged subject points for the unleashing of socialist political practice (Laclau & Mouffe 1985: 87). The third conclusion, like the first, challenges the traditional Marxist claim that subjects are created and controlled by their position in the economic field. This conclusion is more subtle than the first in that it introduces the concept of "overdetermination," a concept which explains how subjects are constituted and almost totally controlled not by the economy but by their particular position in the social field (Laclau & Mouffe 1985: 87).

15. Though the above three assertions would suggest otherwise, the genealogy that Laclau & Mouffe provide the reader with in the first part of the book definitively proves only two things. The first is relatively unexciting: it is that all Marxist theories even as they begin to embrace the concept of hegemony and move away from Marxist orthodoxy still accept various Marxist tenets as the truth and base their political action and theory upon these beliefs. The second item that Laclau & Mouffe prove is that much Marxist theory and practice was misguided and that it often has done more to set back the cause of socialism than to forward it.

16. Whether or not stronger conclusions such as the three outlined above can be made from the evidence shown in Laclau & Mouffe's genealogy is doubtful given that they do not show any necessary disjunction between Marxists tenets and reality; they only succeed in demonstrating that a long line of theorists have misinterpreted or over-interpreted these tenets. To prove decisively then that all previous Marxisms were misguided due to their essentialist bias, more than a genealogy is required. Thus it is necessary for their argument that Laclau & Mouffe move away from genealogical analysis in order to justify their conclusions about the relationships between subjects, society, and economy. For this reason, in the second part of HSS, they turn to synchronic and logical arguments intended to show how all other Marxist projects save their own are irremediably tainted by the mistaken assumption that there is a reality - be it logical, material or both - which exists beyond and beneath ideology.

17. To understand the transition between the book's first and second parts, it is necessary to see HSS 's genealogy as simultaneously a narrative of failure and of progress. Insofar as each Marxism Laclau & Mouffe critique is beholden to Marxist essentialisms, it is doomed to failure. However, insofar as each stage in Marxism's evolution progressively erodes the link between ideology and infrastructure by emphasizing hegemony, each represents a step forward and away from that flaw which dooms them to failure. Consequently, in the second part of HSS, Laclau & Mouffe take the concept of "hegemony" to what they believe to be its logical conclusion. This conclusion decisively removes socialist practice from any tie to Marxist essentialism, thereby correcting for its fatal flaw. Laclau & Mouffe justify this reformulation theoretically with an argument that, though they do not wish it to function as an ontology, is still meant to be an accurate depiction of the way in which the world works. Whether or not they are able to make this move is, in large part, the topic of this essay.

Social Ontology and Socialist Practice

18. Very briefly, here is Laclau & Mouffe's argument for the existence of a world totally ordered by hegemony: Laclau & Mouffe assert that the social and the economic cannot be separated one from the other. Because of the logic of overdetermination, this assertion does not, however, imply a fixed system. Instead of a fixed system, Laclau & Mouffe argue that the world is constituted by overdetermined (i.e.: ideologically pre-established and pre-positioned subjects) who, when antagonism arises through the consciousness of their oppression, have the opportunity to change their relationships to one another through the formation of hegemonic blocs (Laclau & Mouffe 1985: 111-113, 120-121). Through the deployment of these blocs, a subject - though overdetermined - can still somewhat determine both the way in which the socio-economic field is structured and the role they play within it (Laclau & Mouffe 1985: 134-137).

19. With the "nature" of the socio-economic order established, Laclau & Mouffe go on in the third part of their book to show how the socialist program which they derive from their conception of the social constitutes itself differently from past socialist theory and as an alternative to neo-classical liberalism. Given that Laclau & Mouffe's description of the socio-economic matrix disallows the possibility of claiming any epistemological or practical privileges based upon a relation to or acknowledgment of a relationship with the real (such as economic processes or natural right) they criticize competing neo-liberal and socialist theories for their recourses to essentialism (Laclau & Mouffe 1985: 152). Because Laclau & Mouffe deny any such recourse, they are forced to make an argument for socialism and democracy without justifying it by the traditional Marxist Humanist claim that we are alienated beings who need to be re-joined with the product of our labor in order to be what we essentially are or by the "anti-humanist" claim that socio-economic structures produce specific social arrangements and that capitalism seems to be producing socialism. They also deny the possibility of identifying any specific class or movement as necessarily endowed with historical agency (Laclau & Mouffe 1985: 159-160). So then, not basing their program on traditional socialist or liberal premises, they primarily argue for the necessity of a democratic politics. With the project of democracy foregrounded, socialism is relegated to the status of a desirable and necessary corollary to democracy's eventual achievement (Laclau & Mouffe 1985: 178).

20. Laclau & Mouffe's justification for the foregrounding of democratic politics is related to their analysis of the social whole: democratic politics, as open and malleable, reflect the non-closed nature of society. Democracy as a malleable and constructed political practice thus reflects a world that is malleable and constructed. Hedging their bets, Laclau & Mouffe do not rely on this reciprocity with democratic politics to anchor their praxis (indeed, it seems that such a link would be precluded by their epistemology). Instead, they also suggest that for at least three centuries there has been a democratic myth functioning (à la Sorel) that has provided the motive force for much political change (Laclau & Mouffe 1985: 152-171). Given this "democratic motor" and the overdetermination (and thus openness) of society and subject, they believe that a socialist hegemonic bloc can and should be achieved by persuasive manipulation. It is towards this goal that all three sections of their book (genealogy, theory, critique of contemporary politics) argue.

The Theorization of Overdetermination

21. Now that the three parts constituting the macro-argument of HSS have been outlined, we should be able to return to the second part of the book to see how Laclau & Mouffe use Althusser's concept of overdetermination to (a) bolster their critique of previous Marxist theory, to (b) justify their analysis of the social whole, and (c) to envision the possibilities for socialist/democratic practice within this whole. Laclau & Mouffe's reference to Althusser appears at the end of a discussion of Hegel. In this discussion, they object to Hegel's Idealism because of its insistence that the whole of social history can be understood as the progressive and logical manifestation of a simple and essential Idea. In contrast to this "literal narrative," they propose a conception of the social "which denies any essential approach to social relations [and which] also states the precarious character of every identity and impossibility of fixing the sense of the 'elements' in any ultimate literality" (Laclau & Mouffe 1985: 96). This statement is the closest that Laclau & Mouffe ever get to clearly articulating their model of the social structure. However, at this point in the book, this paradigm is scarcely justified. We do, however, find the beginnings of this justification in their discussion of overdetermination.

22. As do Laclau & Mouffe, Althusser explicitly posits his conception of society against that of Hegel. Specifically, Althusser rejects the notion of a "totality" which can be explained as a "plurality of moments in a single-process of self-unfolding." In contrast to this conceptually ordered totality, Laclau & Mouffe argue that Althusser sees society as a complexly structured whole which is ruled by the logic of overdetermination (Laclau & Mouffe 1985: 97). Whether or not Althusser saw society as a "complexly structured whole" is presently a contested issue in Althusser scholarship. Though many have argued that, especially in the first edition of Reading Capital (Althusser et. al. 1965), Althusser does identify such an over-riding structure, most references to this whole were erased by Althusser in the second edition of Reading Capital (Montag 1998; Althusser 1965: 636-661 ). However, given that Laclau & Mouffe choose only to cite the essay "On the Materialist Dialectic" (1963), there is reason for them to echo the definition of society found therein. Though his post-1966 work and even many of his pre-1966 texts provide explicit counter-examples to Laclau & Mouffe's claims about Althusser's determinism and his idea of structure, this paper will limit itself to the pre-1965 texts that Laclau & Mouffe choose to work with. Because of this, it will make use of the vocabulary of wholes, structures, systems, and parallel practices while recognizing that these terms are problematic. This noted, we can begin our exegesis of Laclau & Mouffe's use of the term.  

23. The first thing of interest in this exegesis is that, after identifying Althusser's system as working according to its logic, Laclau & Mouffe fail to immediately give a definition of overdetermination. Instead, Laclau & Mouffe proceed to argue that the term can only be understood in terms of where it came from: the field of psychoanalysis. It is from this field, and not from Althusser's text, that we receive the definition of overdetermination. This definition is rather complex and involves several steps, not all of which are made explicit by Laclau & Mouffe but which will be made explicit in the course of this paper's analysis.

24. Their definition runs like this: after pointing out that Freud saw overdetermination as a process of metonymy in which one image comes to represent a plurality of unconscious concerns, Laclau & Mouffe ascertain that the "most profound potential meaning of Althusser's term 'overdetermination' [is] the assertion that the social constitutes itself as a symbolic order." From this "profound potential meaning" they then proceed to say that:

the symbolic or overdetermined character of social relations...implies that [these relations] lack an ultimate literality which would reduce them to necessary moments of an immanent law...Society and social agents lack any essence and their regularities merely consist of the relative and precarious forms of fixation which accompany the establishment of a certain order (Laclau & Mouffe 1985: 98).

25. With this quote, one can now see how overdetermination fits into and justifies Laclau & Mouffe's conception of the social as an open system comprised of largely determined but still open subjects (Laclau & Mouffe 1985: 114-122). Because, in describing the social as overdetermined, Althusser "borrows" the term overdetermination from Freud and the field of linguistics, Laclau & Mouffe conclude that he might have meant that the social functions like a language (Laclau & Mouffe 1985: 97). Rather than investigating what Althusser actually said or meant, Laclau & Mouffe choose to go with what they identify as the most profound potential meaning of overdetermination and argue that "the social functions like a language." By this, they mean that the social as well as the subjects that comprise it function entirely within a symbolic economy. Following Derrida's modification of Saussurean semiotic theory, this symbolic economy, or "discourse" as they call it, is explained as holding no relation to any real; it is just a space in which many diverse moments become overdetermined into one not quite sutured social whole and a plurality of likewise overdetermined subjects (Saussure 1996: 67-69; Laclau & Mouffe 1985: 107-108, 111-112). Though the two do not explicitly mention Lacan, he appears here unannounced when Laclau & Mouffe insert the additional claim into their definition of overdetermination that, because overdetermination is symbolic, essence can be assigned neither to individual subjects nor to the social as a whole. According to their definition of overdetermination, to identify any such essence would be to imply that there is a real, explicit, and literal connection that can be known between a subject or social whole and the relations that determine them.

26. Laclau & Mouffe's appropriation of Althusser's concept of overdetermination is a crucial point in their argument and it provides them with a picture of the world - and, subsequently, a political practice derived from that world - with no ties to the real. But the question remains of why, if Althusser developed this concept, he did not come up with the same conception of the socio-economic whole that Laclau & Mouffe develop in the second part of their book? As Laclau & Mouffe explain it, Althusser was not able to discern the necessary ramifications of his own concept because this original and startling insight became occluded in his system by his vehement insistence that the social is determined in the last instance by the economic. Following from this insight, Laclau & Mouffe's argument against Althusser is this: if Althusser insists that the economy is an object which determines all subjects and all societies in the last instance, then this determination will always be simple, definite, and one-way (Laclau & Mouffe 1985: 100). In contrast to Laclau & Mouffe's model of an overdetermined social which functions as a differentially ordered symbolic system with no relation to real objects, Althusser's subjects and social whole are everywhere determined by the real object of the economy. Thus the promise of Althusser's concept of overdetermination which for Laclau & Mouffe pointed out the possibility and necessity of the "critique of every type of fixity, through an affirmation of the incomplete open and politically negotiable character of every identity" (Laclau & Mouffe 1985: 104), is precluded by Althusser's insistence that the social and every subject in the social is fixed by the economy.

27. Hopefully, the first question that this paper promised to address has now been answered: Laclau & Mouffe wished to appropriate the concept of overdetermination from Althusser because they believed it to be an accurate description of the social and of the subjects who inhabit the social. However, this is not "accuracy" in the sense that the social can now, with work, be understood as a system and series of historically relative productive relations but is accurate in the sense that it appears to them as an adequate description of the way the social functions synchronically. This conception of overdetermination also appeals to Laclau & Mouffe because it has the distinct advantage of describing a system in which relations between subjects can be understood as not ultimately fixed but as fixed only in relation to a social body (or symbolic system) that is open, plural and negotiable. We also now know that Laclau & Mouffe reject the rest of Althusser's description of the socio-economic structure (and in fact deny that the system can include such a concept as overdetermination) because of Althusser's insistence that Marx was fundamentally correct when he said that economic relations determine social relations. According to this reading, Althusser, or at least this part of Althusser's "classical" theory, is as mistaken as the theories of Kautsky and Plekhanov.

28. But what about the second set of questions which this paper promised to answer? Was Laclau & Mouffe's critique of Althusser needed and does this reformulation support an accurate description of the world and of the possibilities for socialist/democratic action within it? Are they justified in borrowing the concept of overdetermination and subsequently insisting that the system that originated it can neither explain nor tolerate it? Or is it possible that, with this borrowing, they reveal a fundamental flaw in their own theory: that just as it may be impossible to remove the concept of overdetermination from its base in the real, it may likewise be impossible to remove socialist theory from such a base and still identify an impetus for socialist practice. Given that the term "overdetermination" implies the existence of determinants, logic would suggest that removing such referents would render the term meaningless. Indeed, if we examine closely what Althusser means by overdetermination and show how this concept fits into his system, we will see that it is the case that Laclau & Mouffe cannot remove this concept from Althusser's philosophy without depriving it of sense and that the concept of overdetermination that they attribute to Althusser has very little to do with his actual definition of the term. Of course, the fact that "overdetermination" as Laclau & Mouffe re-define it has nothing to do with Althusser's definition of the term is not a reason to reject their redefinition. After all, Althusser reformulated Freud's notion to come up with his own concept. Instead, the standard for rejecting or accepting a reconstructed philosophical concept must be the concept's accuracy and, as this is Marxist theory, its utility. Given these criteria, there are reasons to reject Laclau & Mouffe's reformulation of overdetermination. With this rejection, there is also reason to be suspicious of the theoretical and political programs built upon this reformulated notion. To make these judgments, however, we need to understand a bit more about how both Laclau & Mouffe and Althusser understand overdetermination. We will start with Althusser.

The unevenness of overdetermination

29. As Laclau & Mouffe correctly point out, when Althusser uses the term "overdetermination" in "On the Materialist Dialectic," he acknowledges in a footnote that he is borrowing the term from psychoanalysis (Laclau & Mouffe 1986: 97). However, just because he borrows the term from psychoanalysis does not mean that the word remains unchanged from psychoanalysis or that, in using the term, he is suggesting anything like Laclau & Mouffe's assertion that overdetermination = symbolic = not tied down to any real. This assertion is nowhere to be found in Althusser's work and the concept that Laclau & Mouffe appropriate thus seems little beholden to him. In fact, Althusser says in another essay published just before "On the Materialist Dialectic," titled "Contradiction and Overdetermination" (1962) that he "is not particularly taken by this term" but that he chooses "to use it [overdetermination] in the absence of anything better, both as an index and as a problem ... (Althusser 1977: 101).

30. Taking Althusser seriously and trying to understand what he means by "overdetermination," we need to examine the concept precisely as index (that is as something which allows us to organize and understand certain phenomena; in this case, socio-economic effects) and as a problem (that is, as something that is not yet understood or fully explained). Looking at the text where it is introduced, it is apparent that the concept of overdetermination cannot be understood, as Laclau & Mouffe would have it, apart from the related Althusserian concepts of uneven development and contradiction. These three establish the context which gives the term its meaning and allows it to be understood. Taken together and defined, this trio of notions: overdetermination, uneven development, and contradiction define the relationship between infrastructure and superstructure, between economy and the social.

31. Contrary to Laclau & Mouffe's suggestion that there is no analytic or ontological divide between infrastructure and superstructure and that the "whole" functions as a determined yet malleable superstructure, Althusser's conception of the "whole" is one marked by a complex and sedimentary structure. This structure is complex not only because a distinction is maintained between economic, political, ideological, and scientific practices (Althusser 1977: 229), but also because the whole, unlike Hegel's totality, is not merely the complex and varied expression of a simple Idea. Instead, Althusser insists with Marx that real difference exists. By "real difference," Althusser means that the differences constituting any social formation are real expressions of a socio-economic structure that has a material basis which is not the expression of an antecedent essence but which constitutes its own essence (Althusser 1977: 93). Freed from Hegelian jargon and from Hegelian dialectics, Althusser argues that there exist real and diverse material conditions. This means that one society can simultaneously contain and be characterized by multiple modes and levels of production: social, political, economic, philosophical, scientific, etc (Althusser 1977: 183-187). Taken together, these practices constitute the socio-economic structure according to Althusser. Further, these real modes of production cannot be reduced to the expression of one bare essence or principle. Rather, in their real and material specificity and diversity, these conditions constitute the "essence" of a certain structure or society, not in the sense that they are antecedent to it, but in the sense that they are all that that society is. The recognition that any whole will necessarily include in its totality the sum of these differences is what Althusser terms "uneven development" (Althusser 1977: 212).

32. Uneven development describes the diverse reality of a complexly structured whole. The reality and materiality of uneven development determines the social formation as a site of differences or contradictions. All this is to say that the contradictions in any society's structure can be understood as the effect of the unevenness of that structure. This is not a simple relation. Though the economic gives rise to some contradiction, given that it is itself uneven and structured according to relations of dominance, the contradictions that the economic manifests will never be simple and heterogeneous. It is not even clear that economic practices need be dominant in every epoch. Other modes of production such as religious practice may at certain times and in certain places dominate economic practices. Further, every contradiction of a given social formation is also a necessary manifestation and reflection of every other contradiction that the structure contains. A contradiction is thus: "inseparable from the total structure of the social body in which it is found, inseparable from its formal conditions of existence...and determined by the various levels and instances of the social formation that it animates" (Althusser 1977: 101).

33. Because every contradiction is both inseparable from its formal conditions of existence (conditions which include not only its economic determinants but also the consort of other material contradictions which compose the social formation: ideology, laws, ethics, politics, family structures, etc.), Althusser states that every contradiction is "overdetermined." By overdetermined he means that every contradiction - whether this contradiction is embodied by the social whole, a State, a class, or a subject - is not simple and can thus not be reduced to such categories as "capitalist state" or "true proletariat." A specific contradiction is always overdetermined and "specified by the historically concrete forms and circumstances in which it is exercised" (Althusser 1977: 106). Overdetermination thus can be said to be the point at which the ensemble of contradictions that make up a "whole" system are reflected on an individual contradiction. For example: a State is overdetermined in that it is an individual contradiction that focuses and represents the contradictory expressions of both its internal uneven development (its domestic contradictions) and its external uneven development (its relations in dominance to other States). Thus the individual contradiction that is a State is made actual by the "forms of the superstructure (the state, dominant ideology, religion, political movements, etc.) that determine it on the one hand as a function of the national past and on the other as functions of the existing world context (what dominates it)" (Althusser 1977: 106). Insofar as it is determined by a multiplicity of specific and real differences, a State, a subject, or any other "individual" can, for Althusser, be said to be overdetermined.

34. Above, it was suggested that "overdetermination" is an index that allows us to organize and understand certain phenomena. However, it is more accurate to say that overdetermination is precisely the organization of certain phenomena as these are embodied in an individual contradiction. Therefore, if we were to fix on any individual contradiction (whether this individual be subject, State, or the whole) and examine the actual relations that it reflects and embodies, we could begin to decipher the whole which constitutes it. It is with this type of examination that we find the link between the psychoanalytic term "overdetermination" and the use Althusser makes of it. For, just as in psychoanalysis where a dream image is said to be "overdetermined" by the many unconscious impulses and events that it comes to represent, so is an individual contradiction said to be overdetermined because it is constituted by the many contradictions of the social formation it reflects and embodies.

35. Contra what Laclau & Mouffe maintain, the reason that Althusser borrowed the concept of overdetermination from psychoanalysis is not because the "symbolic" or "social" functions like a language totally removed from the real. Rather, Althusser borrows the term overdetermination because overdetermination expresses the cumulative effects of social determination that are parallel to economic determination. Though he will later abandon parallelism for a messier model of practices, this thesis regarding structural determination is a consistent one. For Althusser, the uneven development of the socio-economic structure - like the "drives" in psychoanalysis - is the real or essential that produces diverse phenomena. These phenomena are focused and reflected in an individual contradiction that is overdetermined by them. Overdetermination, contrary to Laclau & Mouffe's definition, is thus always tied to the real even if it is primarily in relation to and can only be known through the phenomena that the real produces. To remove it from this base is to fundamentally misunderstand the term and lose its meaning.

36. To extend the analogy between psychoanalysis and overdetermination even further and to demonstrate why, on his own terms, he would choose to make such an analogy, it is important to note that, for Althusser, just as the overdetermined dream image can be interpreted in psychoanalysis, so too can the overdetermined individual be interpreted. Now Laclau & Mouffe would not reject the hypothesis that this interpretation can take place. Nonetheless, they would reject the thesis that this interpretation could ever give a definitive "why" and answer the question of how an individual must of and necessity be constructed in relation to a structure or logic that is antecedent to and productive of itself. However, it is just this type of interpretation that Althusser argues on behalf of and as part of a method of concrete political analysis. He does so because overdetermination - interpreted in relation to all those practices that produce it - is that which allows for the possibility of correct socialist political practice (Althusser 1977: 215). It does so by allowing for the correct identification of those factors which produce the individual as capable or incapable of precipitating change. This knowledge is, of course, fallible and rests on the discursive interpretations of (somewhat) non-discursive practices. It is also very difficult to obtain and requires much scientific inquiry. However, in that it recognizes and takes into account a plurality of diverse factors and determinants (including the economic), it rests on a firmer basis and is more complete than those epistemologies that, insisting these determinants cannot be known, abandon their pursuit (Lewis 2005). Though the justification for this last claim is fairly complex, it should be sufficient to note that Althusser takes seriously the idea that, insofar as the superstructure is determined by the structure as a whole, every idea is a product of a society's modes or relations of production. Therefore, if the State, as a superstructural element, is overdetermined by specific instances of the structure (which are themselves overdetermined by superstructual elements), we should be able to investigate and describe the way in which it is overdetermined by a specific pattern of uneven development and by the class struggles that are this uneven development's expression. Though this knowledge will only ever be partial and fallible, we may then judge whether or not and to what extent that individual is amenable to change and by what means. Contra Laclau & Mouffe, we may find that the discursive encouragement of discursive change is, in itself, insufficient to produce desired subjective and political effects.

Problematic borrowings

37. It should be obvious now that Laclau & Mouffe's conception of overdetermination is very different from that of Althusser. Whereas Laclau & Mouffe triumph their borrowed concept of overdetermination as that condition which potentially removes the social from any determination by the real, overdetermination as Althusser defines it is precisely the way in which the diverse manifestations of a society's productive relations embody themselves in an individual. The preceding discussion should have shown why Laclau & Mouffe wish to specify overdetermination as that concept which removes that social from any determination by the real: they do it because they wish to avoid essentialist reductions and they do it to reinvigorate democratic and socialist practice. However, as we examine their project's theoretical underpinnings more closely (underpinnings which both justify their political project and explain Marxism's failures chronicled in HSS 's genealogy) we see that Laclau & Mouffe do not have a strong conceptual basis for this anti-essentialist, pro-hegemonic democratic position, at least according to the criteria for conceptual strength given above. They argue that they obtain such a basis from Althusser and his concept of overdetermination. But, as has been demonstrated, Laclau & Mouffe fundamentally misread Althusser, taking liberties with his concepts that are not justified by the text, by their own arguments, nor by experience. For, whereas Althusser develops overdetermination as an index which is essentially determined by a material real and which reveals that real, Laclau & Mouffe offer a definition of overdetermination as a symbolic order with no essential ties to any determining objects or practices. However, they never justify in their text how overdetermination is to be thought apart from a real that determines it; their reader is only told that it is a "profound potential meaning."

38. The actual basis for their anti-essentialist position and for the definition of overdetermination Laclau & Mouffe provide comes, as Robert Paul Resch points out, "from the most specious aspect of Saussurean linguistics (there is no social reality, only the reality of discourse) [and from] a perverted form of Lacanian psychology...." in which Lacan's hypothesis that a subject's inability to know her real desires except through language is taken by Laclau & Mouffe to mean that there is no real - desiring, economic or otherwise (Resch 1992: 389n). These two "insights" are combined and interpreted by Laclau & Mouffe in order to explain the concept of overdetermination. This concept, in turn, provides the theoretical basis of their description of a social whole having no relation to a determinant real and existing as an independent system, almost totally fixed by the relations between its elements, yet always susceptible to hegemonic manipulation and change. Yes, it is the case that Laclau & Mouffe argue for the materiality and reality of discourse and they do include the economic in their account of subject formation (Laclau & Mouffe 1985: 108, 110,120). Nonetheless, because for Laclau & Mouffe discursive relations are identical to political relations and because political relations are, at base, analytically indistinguishable from political relations, both their materialism and their realism seems to have all the trademarks of idealisms and spiritualisms wherein our thought about the world constitutes the world.

39. To go along with this idealism and to hypothesize with Laclau & Mouffe that overdetermined individuals exist without their determinants is not only logically and ontologically suspicious, it is also to remove any possibility of correctly interpreting these overdetermined individuals. The problem Laclau & Mouffe's theory leaves one with is thus much more severe than that identified by Marx in The German Ideology regarding the difficulty metaphorically illustrated with the Camera Obscura (Marx & Engels 1989: 47). The Camera Obscura merely needed its image reversed in order to accurately depict its represented object. The problem of philosophy and of revolutionary practice thus became one of how to reverse this image. Classically, this reversal was done by recourse to the material real, identifying it as the primary determinant of the ideas we hold about the world and about ourselves. Althusser, of course, famously complicated this notion while still insisting that accurate resolution was possible (Althusser 1977: 90, 116). In Laclau & Mouffe's re-interpretation of Althusser, the promise of such accurate resolution and the justification of revolutionary practice that this understanding might provide is foreclosed: the image has no relation to its object.

40. In a critique published not long after HSS 's publication, Michael Rustin succinctly points out what Laclau & Mouffe's reformulation of Althusser's concept of overdetermination finally does to Marxism:

Viewing Marxism as a discursive practice, they [Laclau & Mouffe] see Marx as not having searched for understanding of the material constraints on human life, but instead as having devised a new social imaginary, new terms of social cleavage...historical materialism does not, on this view, explain class conflict but merely legitimates it (Rustin 1988: 155, 170, 158).

41. With this point, Rustin echoes and deepens the claim made repeatedly over the last eighteen years by critics of HSS . This claim is that, with the privileging of discourse as sole experiential medium, Laclau & Mouffe end up espousing a thoroughly idealist political philosophy (Veltmeyer 2000). Though Laclau & Mouffe's notion of discourse is a richer concept than many of these critics have made it out to be and though it includes many structures such as habits and institutions that would usually be labeled as "non-discursive," it is still the case that, insofar as all of these structures function to determine subjects symbolically (rather than, say, nutritionally or economically), the charge of idealism sticks. Even as complex and full-bodied account of Laclau & Mouffe's notion of discourse as Anna Marie Smith develops falls prey to this charge. Certainly, one may wish to argue that all of our relations with the world are symbolic (Smith 1998: 87-90). However, to capture the complexity of these relations one needs to develop a semiotic that recognizes the class of signs we respond to where the relationships between signifier and signified are not arbitrary and conventional but natural and necessary. Working with the limited semiologies of Saussure, Derrida, and (late) Wittgenstein causes Laclau & Mouffe to make the mistake that, because some signifiers and the relationships they entail appear arbitrary, all signifiers are arbitrary. As many have pointed out, this has ramifications in terms of the theorization of class (which must now be understood in terms of sympathy rather than in terms of structure), and in terms of the excessive attribution of autonomy to agents unfettered by material constraints (Shoom 1995; Dallmayr 1987). Ironically, it may also remove the possibility of agency altogether as the agent - awash in discourse - has no objective means of deciding between competing alternatives for political organization (Shoom 1995: 14; Ebert 1995). Each of these deficits results from an overemphasis on discourse as opposed to an experientially warranted emphasis on ideological, political, and economic analyses (Fields 1988). All this is not to maintain that discourse as Laclau & Mouffe construe it plays an unimportant role in political and subject formation. However, if one follows the logic of HSS and accepts discourse as constitutive of all structure, the political philosophy that results is a typical left-Hegelian idealism, albeit one purged of philosophical anthropology.

42. Recognizing that the theoretical basis for Laclau & Mouffe's anti-essentialist project is flawed and that it is the result of a misreading of Althusser and a misapplication of Saussurean semiotics, it might still be suggested that Laclau & Mouffe's concept of overdetermination might have some utility in that it could well serve to reinvigorate a moribund socialist practice. For the sake of argument, if we were to accept overdetermination as justifying the conclusion that there is no connection to the real which can be known, then we might see our way to arguing with Laclau & Mouffe against political practices which make an appeal to the real (communism, neo-classical liberalism) and to volunteer our own political wills towards the creation of a hegemonic block which would further the acceptance and instantiation of the mythic ideals of democracy and socialism.

43. However, if there is truly no real to appeal to, then why should we believe these specific myths and be won over to this specific hegemonic position? What can possibly justify political action towards the creation of socialism and democracy if there is no real reason to proceed in this direction? Why should we not equally believe the myth that laissez-faire capitalism and multi-national technocracy is the best form of government (Rustin 1988: 173)? The lack of impetus provided by the material real is the fatal flaw in HSS 's argument and it is a direct result of its dubious theoretical underpinnings. If, in addition to building hegemonic blocs, we choose to pay attention to the economic, political, and ideological practices that have led to the disappearance of democratic practices over the last two decades, we might be able to marshal stronger suggestions than Laclau and Mouffe are able to do in HSS about what is to be done to alter these specific practices in order to make radical egalitarian democracy a possibility.


William S. Lewis is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Skidmore College. He has recently published his book Louis Althusser and the Traditions of French Marxism and an essay on Althusser in Rethinking Marxism.

The author wishes to thank David McInerney, Jacinda Swanson, and the paper's anonymous reviewers for their perspicacious and useful comments about how to revise the tone and to improve the substance of this essay.


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