Theory After Practice: Revisiting Populism and Hegemony

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This article reflects on Laclau’s theory of populism in the light of recent populist practice. The past ten or fifteen years have witnessed the ‘explosion’ and ‘global rise’ of populism, a development which at the very least has the potential for radicalizing politics. It is radical in a dual sense: in its opposition to the existing system, and in its conditions of possibility, whereby crisis presents an opening for radical rupture. The article underscores two crucial concepts within the recent literature on populism: the context of crisis, and the role of performativity. These are highlighted in order to insist that it is the context of crisis that is crucial for understanding populism, whereas performativity only emerges within such a context. The context of crisis and the notion of performativity are considered through a critical engagement with three aspects of Ernesto Laclau’s approach to populism: the interpretation of the master category of hegemony vis-à-vis populism; the account of the political; and, the designation of populism as a logic. The argument takes these three aspects in (paradoxically?) different directions. It insists, first, on the importance of the distinction between hegemony and counter-hegemony in understanding populism, and then argues that Laclau’s contrast between the political and administration is too stark, in order to suggest that the attribution to populism the conceptual status of a logic is inadequate. Instead, this article argues that populism is better understood as a phenomenon because its logic shines in specific historico-political contexts. It proposes, in addition, that Laclau’s account of populism can be read in this light. This is achieved by associating populism with the specific context of crisis, and introducing the notion of non-populism. It concludes by identifying elements of a research agenda that follows from the analysis developed which, in turn, sheds light on populism’s link to crisis conjunctures that opens up possibilities for radical change.
Original languageEnglish
Article number4
Pages (from-to)39-56
Number of pages18
JournalJournal for the Study of Radicalism
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2022


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