Radical Atheism, Part 3: The Autoimmunity of Democracy

Originally Discussed on February 25, 2012

In the final chapter of Radical Atheism, Martin Hagglund spells out the political consequences of radical atheism and the desire for mortal survival.  He first argues that even the most democratic system is essentially corruptible, and so is always open to critique.  He then goes on to argue against Ernesto Laclau’s concept of radical investment: it is not the desire for a perfectly just society that drives political struggle, rather it is the desire for ourselves and our values to live on as finite and mortal.

Ernesto Laclau: Hyperpoliticization

Ernesto Laclau works towards a hyperpoliticization, for which “nothing (no set of values, no principle, no demand or political struggle) can be posited as good in itself.  Rather, everything is liable to corruption and to appropriation for other ends, which also means that no instance can have an a priori immunity against interrogation and critique.”  So everything – all the way down – is open to questioning.  Everything is a political question, because “Every political order is thus founded on exclusion and an exercise of power.  Rather than having an ultimate legitimacy, it can be challenged on the basis of what it does not include and must remain open to contestation because of its temporal constitution.”

For Laclau, politics answers to undecidability, which means no political ideal or decision can ever be final; they are all open to the effects of an unpredictable future.  If undecidability did not function, everything would be decided in advance.  No course of action follows from undecidability, but it is the necessary source of any decision.  Rather than precluding decisions, it opens the possibility of politicizing even the most apparently non-political institutions.  It goes all the way down; there is no room for something that would be exempt from contingency.

Philosopher Simon Critchley raises one possible problem:  “if all decisions are political, then in virtue of what is there a difference between democratizing and non-democratizing forms of decisions?”  The deconstructive point is that there is no such guarantee.  It is that lack of stable criteria that opens the space for democracy in the first place.  It is built into democracy that the power of the people can overturn or change what counts as democratic.  Critchley asserts that “democratic political forms are simply better than non-democratic ones – more inclusive, more capacious, more just.”  This assumes there are given forms of democracy, that the basic question of democracy – what forms it takes – has already been decided. It becomes a matter of authoritarian assertion.

The Hegemonic Body and Radical Investment

Every form of politics, then, requires a set of decisions and claims that compete with other decisions and claims: these decisions and claims are what Ernesto Laclau calls hegemonic articulation. For Laclau, hegemonic articulation is done through a chain of equivalence, a linking together of a number of particular demands.  One of Laclau’s basic examples is the “collective resistance to a repressive regime.  When workers begin to strike for higher wages, their particular demand can also be linked to other demands that are directed against the repressive regime (e.g., the demand for freedom of the press and for reformation of the educational system).”  Each of these demands is, in its particularity, unrelated to the others; what unites them is that they constitute between themselves a chain of equivalences in so far as all of them are bearers of an anti-authoritarian meaning.

For that chain of equivalences to acquire hegemonic force – that is, to be able to motivate and organize people – there must be one term that is capable of including all the others – i.e., a particular cause or idea that stands for all the others.  One example is the idea of justice; another example would be the rights of women and minorities.  The idea that assumes the representation of universality – he calls it the hegemonic body – is partial and historical, but is supported by what he calls a radical investment which turns it into the “embodiment of a fullness totally transcending it.”  The hegemonic body, which is actually as partial and particular as any of the particular demands it stands for, such as fair wages, is treated as if it is not partial or particular.  It is treated as the symbol of (social, political or ethical) necessity and absolute fullness.  So a radical investment is the investment of the desire for absolute fullness in a contingent and particular idea or group.  Although the hegemonic body is entirely contingent, that is, dependent on historical conditions, Laclau says “we support it because we believe that it will restore an infinite fullness to society.” To call for justice, equality or freedom “is ultimately to express the desire for an absent fullness.”

The Desire for Finite Survival and Politics

For Laclau’s Lacanian tinted notion of desire, every human and every society desires a lost object which can never be found.  This lack is the cause of desire for Lacan and the cause of political unrest/struggle for Laclau. However, the idea that the subject aspires to an absent fullness remains unquestioned.  Hagglund thinks this sort of desire is incompatible with democracy.  “The desire for democracy cannot be a desire for absolute fullness, since the very idea of democracy undercuts the idea of absolute fullness. . . a perfect democracy would cancel out democracy, since democracy must be perfectible and corruptible in order to be democratic.”

Laclau argues against those who think that if we abandon the appeal to an ultimate foundation, we will lose the sense of community and the source of our engagement in the world.  His first argument against this is that the sense of contingency not simply negative freedom, a freedom from being constrained by an ultimate necessity, it is also the source of positive freedom.  The future is undetermined, so we have the positive freedom to make choices.  Second, the contingent character of our values – knowing they could be made extinct – will make us fight for them all the more.  Hagglund has two criticisms of Laclau’s defense here.

Laclau wants to argue that “freedom and consciousness of our own contingency go together.”  However, if what we really desire is an absent fullness, if what we desire is a full, positive freedom, than the freedom of contingency can only be disappointing.  The freedom I have can never be the freedom I want, so why defend it?

Because the theory of radical investment is supposed to explain why we engage in political struggle despite the absence of fullness, we must act and believe as if the hegemonic body is the sign of fullness.  The hegemonic body must be fully universal.  We cannot recognize it as an “empirically achievable second best vis-a-vis an unattainable fullness for which we wait in vain.”  This is a fusion between partial object and totality; this is exactly what Laclau criticizes elsewhere as totalitarian.  He says “the best prescription for totalitarianism” is the equating of justice with “what a certain society considers as just at some point in time.”  However, radical investment makes that equation inevitable.  To radically invest in an object is to “identify a particular content with the fullness of absolute justice.”  This makes the hegemonic body ultimately unquestionable. (Q6)

To summarize the two problems, if there is a constitutive drive for fullness, there are only two alternatives.  One, we must believe the hegemonic body is is fully universal, in which case we are committed to totalitarianism rather than democracy.  Two, if we refuse the universality of the hegemonic body, we will be perpetually disappointed.  Knowing that the hegemonic body is not a promise of absolute fullness, but only a finite and contingent construct, would certainly make many people – including Hägglund – question their investment in it.  Rather, the awareness of the fragility of the hegemonic body actually presupposes the desire for survival, not the desire for fullness: “If I did not want the hegemonic body to live on as finite, the threat of death would not be a problem in the first place, since only finite existence can be threatened by death.”

Hägglund’s alternative is to argue that the desire for fullness has never been operative in a political struggle or anything else.  The desire for either totalitarianism or democracy cannot be a desire for absolute fullness, since in a state of absolute fullness there would be no time for either.

For the same reason, the difference between democracy and totalitarianism is not that democracy affirms finitude.  The affirmation of temporal finitude is unconditional – everyone does it without exception.  If a dictator did not affirm their own finitude, they would never feel threatened and would have no need to oppress anyone.  This is not to erase the difference between democracy and totalitarianism, but to show that the difference between the two cannot be settled on an ontological basis, which would depoliticize the question.

The first consequence of a radically atheist thinking of politics: a hyperpolitical logic for which nothing is unscathed or unquestionable. Every desire is essentially corruptible and cannot be immune from becoming totalitarian.  The second consequence changes our conception of what is desirable.  Political philosophy usually sees corruption as an evil “that supervenes on something that precedes it or as a lamentable fact of life that ought to be overcome in an ideal future.”  But for Derrida, the essential corruptibility of democracy is not a privation “but the condition for even the highest good or the most ideal justice.”  Justice and the good are essentially matters of mortal survival.  He says “Without the affirmation of survival there would be no compassion and love (since one would not be committed to anything), but there would be no suffering and no hate (since one would not be threatened by anything).”

“Emancipatory struggle has therefore never been driven by a desire for absolute fullness but presupposes the unconditional affirmation of survival.  Without the affirmation of survival one would never care for a better future and be compelled to make decisions about what is more or less violent. . . Emancipatory politics does not aspire to a telos of absolute liberation, but must always negotiate an irreducible discrimination.  Whatever future one desires is both inherently violent (since it only comes at the expense of other futures) and is itself exposed to violence (since it may be negated by the coming of other futures).”


“This logic of radical atheism enables us to assess the problems of politics and the challenges of democracy in a new light.  It cannot, however, finally teach us how to live or how to act.  There is no cure for the condition of autoimmunity and every promise of change – every promise of a better future – only pledges to what is mortal.”

Let’s close out by giving Laclau the last word:  “The future is indeterminate and certainly not guaranteed for us; but that is precisely why it is not lost either.”


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