Social conflict / ontology

Oliver Marchant, Thinking Antagonism: political ontology after Laclau, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2018, pp. vii and 258.

Neither its author, Oliver Marchart, nor the publishers Edinburgh University Press, would make a claim that Thinking Antagonism is a book for the general reader. It is an extremely detailed consideration of a key aspect of the theoretical work of Ernesto Laclau, an Argentinian left-winger who taught for many years at the University of Essex, developing a post-graduate programme on ‘ideology and discourse analysis’.

Together with his partner Chantal Mouffe, Laclau developed a range of interconnected insights into the nature of political activity; the ways in which different political identities are formed; how efforts to develop political influence and power – ‘hegemony’ – bring together (or ‘articulate’) different demands and agendas in often unstable combinations; and the nature of ‘populism’.

Laclau and Mouffe have been influential in recent years: their interest in understanding and explaining populism was well-established long before this became a major and urgent issue in the mainstream press and academia, following the rise of nativist and right-wing parties across Europe, the election of Trump and the Brexit vote.

Before his death in 2014, Laclau had become a valued advisor to some of the left-wing leaders who held government power in Latin America during the preceding decade. Perry Anderson has observed that ‘this was no small achievement for [the author of] a theoretical system of often forbidding technicality’.

Mouffe is a well-informed commentator on the more recent phenomenon of left-wing populism in Europe. She has been directly involved in discussions about political strategy with leading members of Podemos in Spain, and in networks supporting Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party in Britain.

Marchant’s carefully written and clearly structured book sifts some of the philosophical underpinnings of these political interventions. His deep understanding of Laclau is based on long-standing engagement with his work: it was Marchant himself who identified a distinction crucial to the ‘post-foundational’ political thought which Laclau promoted. This sets out two broad ways to understand the political field: an ‘associative’ view, which sees politics as a space in which free and rational agents can act in concert, and could in principle arrive at complete consensus, and a ‘dissociative’ view, in which conflicts are seen as inevitable.

Marchant shows that Laclau’s analyses are of general interest – they are not only for those committed to left wing agendas. The book insists on the importance of ‘ontology’ – questions and issues about how things exist – in enabling us to properly understand the nature of political conflict and social contest. For those readers who are comfortable with such philosophical concepts as ‘epistemology’ and ‘essentialism’, the book repays careful reading. It shows how Laclau’s views are based on careful criticism of the work of a wide range of theoreticians, and how he arrives at his explanations of both major political struggles and ‘the force-field of micro-conflicts … that is our daily life’.

A key insight of Laclau and Mouffe is that the social world is both ‘contingent’ and ‘contested’. Any set of social arrangements which exists involves a mixture of factors that could be rearranged into a different settlement, which would also include and generate new factors. This means that social reality will always involve conflicts in some form. This cannot be otherwise – and any political project which imagines that it is possible to arrive at a world without contestation or challenge does not properly understand the nature of ‘the political’. The issue is how we handle and manage the differences, divisions and disputes that result from social ‘antagonism’.


Review published December 2018. Points in Marchant’s book will inform an original discussion paper to be published here in spring 2019, which will consider how points in Chantal Mouffe’s work on ‘agonistics’ can be of use to people working practically to address social conflicts.