Brexit as an empty signifier

In his paper Populism: What’s in a Name?, Ernesto Laclau argues that it is a mistake to try and analyse populism (of whatever political persuasion) in terms of its contents.[1] Rather, it is more helpful, from an analytic point of view, to look at populism as a logic of articulation. What Laclau is getting at here is that many scholars and commentators on populism, and, I would argue, especially right-wing populism, tend to focus on the specific politics or ideology of the group that they identify as populist. So, for example, right-wing populist movements or parties are identified in terms of their negative attitudes towards immigrants or other ‘outsiders’; or their adherence to a national identity, especially if this is based on a particular ethnic grouping.

The problem here, according to Laclau, is that this is based on the idea that such political practices, for example, discrimination against immigrants, are simply an expression of the ‘inner nature’ of those engaging in such practices, i.e. populist subjects. But as Laclau notes:

The difficulties in determining the populistic character of the subjects of certain practices cannot but reproduce themselves in the analysis of the practices as such, as far as the latter simply expresses the inner nature of those subjects.[2]

The point Laclau is getting at is that this tells us very little about populist practices themselves, but rather focuses on the ‘inner life’ or (false) consciousness of the social agents who engage in such practices. And in relation to Brexit, this is precisely what happens. Although the political opponents of Brexit are relatively restrained in their views of ‘Brexiteers’ when speaking to the mainstream media, on social media many are quite open that they regard anyone who voted for Brexit as ‘ignorant’, ‘thick’, a ‘little Englander’, a ‘fascist’, ‘racist’, ‘bigoted’, and much worse. In other words, the focus of their anger is on ‘the type of people who voted Brexit’, rather than in trying to engage with the actual politics of the situation.

However, according to Laclau, there is another possibility:

…namely, that the political practices do not express the nature of social agents but, instead, constitute the latter. In that case the political practice would have some kind of ontological priority over the agent — the latter would merely be the historical precipitate of the former. To put it in slightly different terms: practices would be more primary units of analysis than the group – that is, the group would only be the result of an articulation of social practices. If this approach is correct, we could say that a movement is not populist because in its politics or ideology it presents actual contents identifiable as populistic, but because it shows a particular logic of articulation of those contents – whatever those contents are.[3]

Or, to put it another way, social agents are not populist because of what they think or feel, but rather because of the practices they engage in. And such practices are articulated by a particular logic, which is what I want to come onto now.

In developing his ideas of the logic of articulation of populism (which he explores more fully in his book On Populist Reason [4]) Laclau fully acknowledges that one of the central ideas of all types of populism is that of the ‘people versus the elite’. However, what he is more interested in is how this idea comes about in the first place and how it articulates itself as a particular form of political practice. In order to do this, Laclau begins with the idea that in any society, there may be a series of demands by the population which are, for whatever reason, frustrated or resisted by those in power. Although each individual demand may be quite different from the next one, they start to form a chain of equivalence, or, to use Laclau’s preferred term, an equivalential chain.

To illustrate this idea, Laclau offers the following example of a community requesting a new bus route for its members to get to work. The request (demand) is rejected, although in isolation this does not add up to much. However, if this is one of many frustrated demands then the situation changes dramatically. In fact:

…that multiple frustration will trigger social logics of an entirely different kind. If, for instance, the group of people in that area who have been frustrated in their request for better transportation find that their neighbours are equally unsatisfied in their claims at the levels of security, water supply, housing, schooling, and so on, some kind of solidarity will arise between them all: all will share the fact that their demands remain unsatisfied. That is, the demands share a negative dimension beyond their positive differential nature.[5]

What Laclau means here is that in situations where there are a series of demands that are met, on a case-by-case basis, by the authorities, then this constitutes a differential chain. In other words, there is nothing in the series of demands that marks an equivalence. On the other hand, where there are a series of unmet demands then there is an equivalence, because although each individual demand is unique, taken together, as a series or ‘chain’ of demands, it constitutes a totality of demand. Although it might be argued that a series of met demands might also constitute an equivalential chain, this is clearly not the case. Because each demand is being met on a case-by-case basis, which, according to Laclau, is what happens in a ‘normal’ democracy, then there is no opportunity for such an equivalential chain to develop in the first place.

Laclau goes onto argue that the subject that is constituted by the logic of equivalence is a populist subject. But this is only part of his argument. The equivalential logic constructs an ‘internal’ frontier between those making the demands and those frustrating them, and it is this frontier that creates the division between the ‘people’ and the ‘elite’:

It is our contention that the first precondition for the representation of the equivalential moment is the totalisation (through signification) of the power which is opposed to the ensemble of those demands constituting the popular will. This should be evident: for the equivalential chain to create a frontier within the social it is necessary somehow to represent the other side of the frontier. There is no populism without discursive construction of an enemy: the ancien regime, the oligarchy, the Establishment or whatever.[6]

Perhaps the most important thing to notice here is that this internal frontier is the product or effect of a (growing) series of unsatisfied demands; it is not something pre-existing. In fact, this is a key part of Laclau’s argument: in a ‘normal’ democracy there will always be a multitude of demands from the populous; however, as long as these are all negotiated and, in some way or other, met by the ruling administration, then no such internal frontier will arise. The problem starts when a number of demands remain unsatisfied and start to form an equivalential chain; at this point the internal frontier emerges with the ‘people’ on one side and the ‘elite’ on the other.

There is still a theoretical problem however: how can such an equivalential chain be represented? As Laclau points out, each individual demand cannot be said to represent the whole series; therefore, there needs to be something that does encapsulate the totality of demand, and this is achieved when one particular demand starts to function as representative of the whole chain. Laclau defines this type of demand as an empty signifier:

The equivalence proceeds entirely from the opposition to the power beyond the frontier, which does not satisfy any of the equivalential demands. In that case, however, how can the chain as such be represented? As I have argued elsewhere, that representation is only possible if a particular demand, without entirely abandoning its own particularity, starts also functioning as a signifier representing the chain as a totality (in the same way as gold, without ceasing to be a particular commodity, transforms its own materiality into the universal representation of value). This process by which a particular demand comes to represent an equivalential chain incommensurable with it is, of course, what we have called hegemony.[7]

Laclau cites the example of Solidarność (Solidarity), the Polish labour union founded in 1980 and which grew into a broad social movement that played a key role in the fall of communism in Poland. Solidarność’s demands started:

…by being the demands of a particular working-class group in Gdansk, but as they were formulated in an oppressed society, where many social demands were frustrated, they became the signifiers of the popular camp in a new dichotomic discourse.[8]

There is still the problem, however, of explaining exactly how a particular demand also functions as universal one. This becomes even more of a problem as the chain of equivalence gets longer and longer, i.e. the list of demands ever increases. Laclau fully recognises this difficulty and argues that “…the construction of a popular subjectivity is possible only on the basis of discursively producing tendentially empty signifier.”[9] Although, in my view, this is a somewhat unusual use of the word ‘tendentially’, which usually refers to bias, what Laclau appears to be getting at is that the particular signifier in question, i.e. which is going to function as representative of the total chain of signifiers, is essentially drained of its meaning. It is not truly ‘empty’, because it still retains a vestige of meaning, but such a meaning is ‘weak’ enough to allow the particular demand to function as ‘universal’ one. And, argues Laclau, this ‘weakness’, this ‘poverty of meaning’, is actually its strength:

The so-called ‘poverty’ of the populist symbols is the condition of their political efficacy – as their function is to bring to equivalential homogeneity a highly heterogeneous reality, they can only do so on the basis of reducing to a minimum their particularistic content. At the limit, this process reaches a point where the homogenising function is carried out by a pure name: the name of the leader.[10]

This seems to chime very closely with Cas Mudde’s argument that populism is based on a ‘thin ideology’, which makes it very adaptable to different political circumstances.[11]

Although Laclau goes onto develop his argument even further, both in this paper and in his other writings on populism, at this point I would like to turn to the question of Brexit, which I made a brief reference to earlier on. I would argue that Brexit is a good example of an empty signifier in the way that Laclau defines it. It seems to mean all things to all people, and yet is essentially devoid of meaning. ‘Get Brexit done’ is a completely vacuous statement and yet appears to chime with most, if not all, of those who voted to leave the EU.

In my previous writing on Brexit I argued that it could be seen as a form of nostalgia, although perhaps not as simplistically as it might first seen. It is probably too easy to argue that Brexit is simply a longing for a lost Empire or the expression of the political marginalisation of the white working class. On the other hand, Brexit does seem to represent a whole series of frustrations with the way British politics is currently operating, and with the wider (liberal) establishment. Perhaps it could even be argued that Brexit represents ‘unfinished business’, which can be traced back to at least the First World War, and possibly much further.

But what is this ‘unfinished business’ and, more to the point, how does the signifier ‘Brexit’ function to represent it? Put very briefly and simplistically, my argument is that the British people, and even more so, the English people, never got over the Great War. In fact, in many ways, it could even be argued that the War is still going on today.[12] Elsewhere I have referred to Samuel Hynes’ idea of the Myth of the (Great) War, which is essentially that of the lost, traumatised and totally disillusioned generation.[13] This can also, in my view at least, be linked to the wider narratives of Britain’s ‘managed decline’ and ‘end of Empire’. Taken together these narratives portray a nation wrecked and deeply traumatised by war, and which has spent the last hundred years trying to find a new place for itself in the world. This applies not only politically and economically, but also, and perhaps even more importantly, socially and culturally.

The problem with this narrative, however, is that it is an attempt to give meaning to a situation that perpetually eludes meaning. Of course, this applies to all history, but this doesn’t make the ‘managed decline and disillusion’ narrative, for want of a better term, any less problematic. In many ways it is more comforting to have a narrative of ‘managed decline’ and ‘disillusionment’ then to confront the fact that the Great War was a genuinely traumatic moment which we’ve never recovered from. At least it makes some kind of sense to view the legacy of the Great War as one of greater democratisation, of letting go of imperial ambitions, of an increasing awareness of the horrors and futility of war, of growing political, economic, cultural and social liberalisation, of a shift from nation to globalisation, and so on.

The problem here, however, is that not everyone buys into this narrative. And this brings us back to the idea of Brexit as both nostalgia and as an empty signifier that represents a total rejection of the ‘managed decline and disillusion’ narrative. I don’t think it is going too far to argue that the equivalential chain which the signifier Brexit tries to represent is the toxic accumulation of decades (and perhaps even centuries?) of anger and resentment, of impotence, anxiety, insecurity, and pure hatred towards the political and cultural establishment…

References and notes

  1. Ernesto Laclau, ‘Populism: What’s in a Name’, in Populism and the Mirror of Democracy, ed. by Francisco Panizza (London: Verso, 2005), pp. 32–49.
  2. Ibid, p.33, italics in original.
  3. Ibid, p.33, italics in original.
  4. Ernesto Laclau, On Populist Reason (London: Verso, 2005).
  5. Laclau, ‘Populism’, p.37, italics in original.
  6. Ibid, p.39.
  7. Ibid, p.39, italics in original. Laclau is referring to his paper ‘Why do empty signifiers matter to politics?’(2004) in Ernesto Laclau: Post-Marxism, Populism and Critique, ed. by David Howarth (Abingdon: Routledge, 2015)
  8. Ibid, p.39.
  9. Ibid, p.40, italics in original.
  10. Ibid, p.40.
  11. Cas Mudde, ‘The Populist Zeitgeist’, Government and Opposition, 39.4 (2004), 541–63.
  12. Of course, ‘the Great War’ could itself be seen as another empty signifier, in the sense that it could represent not just the war of 1914-18, but a much longer and deeper conflict, which stretches back to the Civil War, the Reformation, the Hundred Years War, the Norman invasion, and beyond.
  13. Samuel Hynes, A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture (London: The Bodley Head Ltd, 1990).