Contingency, contestation and hegemony: The possibility of a non-essentialist politics for the left

Philosophy and Social Criticism 35 (5):589-611 (2009)
Abstract
Two major developments of the last two decades have radically undermined traditional justifications of leftist politics: the failure of 20th-century `socialist' experiments, and what might be termed the deessentializing movement in contemporary philosophy. However, the social injustices that animated revolutionary thinkers in many respects remain, and some have arguably worsened in the era of globalized capitalism. This article investigates whether it is possible to articulate a new theoretical underpinning for progressive politics that nevertheless avoids the essentialist moves of Marxism. Ethico-political readings of Derrida — one of the most influential anti-essentialist thinkers — are compared to Ernesto Laclau's attempts at formulating a post-Marxist progressive politics built around the notions of `hegemony' and `radical democracy'. Laclau's intervention in the Marxist tradition is to deconstruct its traditional categories so as to take account of contingency; his intervention in deconstruction is to introduce what in this article is described as `contestation', so as to provide a more coherent account of the political. The article concludes that neither deconstruction nor radical democracy provides an adequate basis for poltical action, but that the latter's account of the political is a meaningful development of the theoretical schema articulated by the former and does point to the possibility of a non-essentialist progressive politics. Key Words: aporia • contestation • contingency • deconstruction • Jacques Derrida • hegemony • justice • Ernesto Laclau • Emmanuel Levinas • responsibility.
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