Affects in political crises: towards hegemony through populism
AN Original - UNPOP Series
By Camila Massaro Cruz de Góes, Cristiano Gianolla

The current crisis of neoliberal hegemony, the proliferation of political formations understood as ‘populist’ and the radicalization of new social movements on a global scale are elements of a political conjuncture that challenge hegemonic political theories and institutions. This crisis, in the case of hegemony theories, follows the first two decades of the 21st century, when a group of theorists who identified hegemony as an idea of ‘persuasion’ and ‘consensus’, began to question it as political practice as well as its ability to produce realistic analyses. The rise of the far right over the last decades has strengthened the debate, a phenomenon often understood by its populist formations and hegemonic challenges to the neoliberal condition, not to mention the concept of ‘consolidated democracy’, a hitherto widely disseminated idea, until at least the 2016 election of President Donald Trump. In that regard, struggling with the difficult objectives of finding explanatory hypotheses, combating authoritarianism and renewing hopes for a democratic path, antiquated categories and study routes are frequently revisited. In order to understand why populism rises and succeeds or fails, it is important to set the framework in which it operates and to assess the substance of political crises which makes it thrive. This also helps explain how populism constructs a new hegemony, when the existing one is collapsing.

Ernesto Laclau and Stuart Hall have contributed to understanding the relationship between populism and emotion through their ‘theories of hegemony’. Both the Argentine philosopher and the Jamaican sociologist developed their works in moments of paradigmatic political crises, which gave rise to neoliberal hegemony throughout the 1970s and 1980s. This timeframe is also characterised by the increasing relevance of ‘identity’ in defining struggles within ‘the political’. To limit and clarify the domain of analysis it is important to outline the post-structuralist distinction between politics – governmentality or administration – and the political – the symbolic space of hegemonic dispute. Chantal Mouffe has clearly made this distinction, whilst Jacques Rancière defines the first as police and the second as politics.  In order to analyse hegemonic construction, Laclau and Hall turned to Antonio Gramsci. The authors did not simply apply Gramsci; they drew on some of his writings to develop their own understandings of hegemony, rooted in the social and political transformations of their time, as shown by Colpani.

The resumption of Laclau and Hall's research agenda and the prominence of the word ‘hegemony’ in the literature have mobilised a lively debate among theorists around the so-called ‘post-hegemony’ and its relevance (or not) for thinking about the contemporary world. According to one of its most influential intellectuals, Jon Beasley-Murray, post-hegemony combines a historical observation that the theory of hegemony – as advanced by Antonio Gramsci, more recently refined and developed by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe and engaged by cultural studies in general – no longer helps explain the contemporary social order, with the more radical claim that it has only ever appeared to do so. In Peter Thomas’ words, ‘the need for this renovation of political conceptuality is claimed to consist either in the exhaustion of hegemony as a political practice and consequent transition to a “post-hegemonic condition” defining contemporary politics, or in the discovery of a theoretical failing at the heart of the concept of hegemony as such’.

There are, however, certain misconceptions in this debate, such as attributing the invention of the concept to Gramsci, as discussed by Peter Thomas, as well as crediting the Italian Marxist with a series of imputations that were actually elaborated by other intellectuals, with special emphasis on the space occupied by Laclau in this process of conceptual diffusion. Furthermore, readers of the Argentine's work noticed a process of conceptual rapprochement or even identification between the ideas of ‘hegemony’ and ‘populism’, which has since received critical evaluation.

According to Mazzolini, for example, ‘what lies of the dissatisfaction with the excessive conceptual proximity between populism and hegemony in Laclau is that not all political projects that launch successful bids for power via the populist route manage to alter the conformism that lies at the basis of the social formation that they allegedly attempt to outdo’. To illustrate this point, Mazzolini recalls what became known as the ‘pink wave’ in Latin America in the 2000s and early 2010s. Despite the alleged hegemonic offensive against neoliberalism, the author considers that electoral success in countries such as Argentina, Brazil and Ecuador, alongside the clear change of leadership with regard to public policies, were not accompanied by a similar capacity to institutionalise their victories and radiate a different political culture in an expanded form. In this case, the populist moment failed to create a hegemonic narrative.

Andy Knott identifies such populist mobilisations as competitive attempts to dispute the hegemonic order, however only one of these populist mobilisations can constitute a new hegemony. Knott also shows to what extent populism emerges out of a political crisis, whilst Benjamin Moffit, Yannis Stavrakakis and colleagues have disentangled crises from its materiality, spelling out the way in which a symbolic dimension – affectively narrated in political discourse – is constructed. In this sense, for Knott, populism is counter-hegemonic, as it emerges in opposition to an existing hegemony that faces a material and performed crisis. Transition from populism to hegemony is however rare, Stuart Hall demonstrated that Margaret Thatcher operated a successful populist intervention building on the materiality of the crisis of the post-WWII welfare state, as generated by 1970s neoliberalism, to create a hegemony of neoliberal populism through the symbolic resignification of British politics. This generated a new ‘common sense’ neoliberal, hegemonic discourse that was able to impose itself on the political culture of Great Britain (and spread elsewhere).

While populism would constructs an ephemeral political meaning that is mainly concerned with the total contestation of a political regime, hegemony would encompass a much subtler and diffusive form of political and social normativity, as already suggested by Mazzolini. Furthermore, hegemony would also define the ability to go beyond the superficial domain of ‘passion’ for a political project and reshape socio-political habitus. A new hegemonic order instils a molecular change that transforms subjectivities and stimulates far-reaching moral and ideological reform.

The place of habitus and affections in maintaining a social and political order has been one of the main lines of discussion among those who proclaim ‘post-hegemony’. They highlight the novelty of their elaborations as opposed to an insufficient version of hegemony. Jon Beasley-Murray reinforces that ‘post-hegemony’ would entail a shift from conscious discourse to unconscious affect. That is to say, a shift from a rhetoric of persuasion to a regime of affective investment in the social, if by affect we mean the order of bodies rather than the order of signification. It would require, therefore, another kind of methodology, one that would be appropriate to the understanding of affect. But these two approaches are not irreconcilable, particularly when reading the elaboration of (counter-)hegemony in a Laclaudian sense, as generated by affects. For instance, Emilia Palonen has constructed a formula to identify the creation of us-them frontier on different ranges of affects.

Thomas has argued that it is a mistake to understand the ‘theory of hegemony’ as established by the debate of the 1970s and 80s, especially by the work of Laclau and Mouffe, as maximal development of Gramsci’s initial idea. According to Thomas’s critical view, the ‘post-hegemony’ perspective would simplify Gramsci’s idea of hegemony by identifying it with a ‘generic notion of ‘consensus’ conceived in terms of subjectivist consent to power, which is projected from the individual level to that of social classes and groups’. Rather than mistakenly criticising Gramscian writings for neglecting the role of affects, Thomas indicates what is really neglected by post-hegemony theorists is Gramsci's extensive discussion in his Prison Notebooks of: the organization-disorganization function of common sense (Quaderno 11, §12); the impact of ‘molecular’ transformism on the person (Quaderno 15, §9) and; the integration of social, economic and affective organizations (for example, in the analysis of the novelty of Americanism: Quaderno 22, §11). It is based on the attention he gives to these themes that Gramsci correctly emphasized the need to conceive the political not in a limited, administrative/governmental sense, but in terms of a process of simultaneous and expansive ‘intellectual and moral reform’ (Quaderno 8, §21, Quaderno 12, §1). In Gramscian politics, there is no place for a dualistic vision that separates thought from feelings, since it is attentive not only to conjunctures, but also to the molecular transformations of actions, habits and affections, conceived all at once.

A new reading of Gramsci that emphasises the affective element of hegemonies, therefore attempts to overcome a binary framework based on habit and opinion, instead prioritising how affect and persuasion can contribute to the development of nuanced theorisation about populism and hegemony, which can also help develop a better understanding of the ‘emotion narratives‘ structure that conduce them. This endeavour we aim to bring forward in forthcoming research.