Symposium: The Contribution of Laclau’s Discourse Theory to International Relations and International Political Economy

Edited by Dirk Nabers and Frank A. Stengel

The symposium explores what “Essex School” discourse theory can contribute to our understanding of central concepts in International Relations. It focuses in particular on the works of Ernesto Laclau, although his co-authored work with Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, can legitimately be seen as the founding text of the Essex School. The reason for our focus on Laclau is that following the publication of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, Mouffe has concentrated on further developing the normative aspects of the theory, while Laclau has continued to work on the analytical framework. The Essex School was founded with the publication of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, co-authored by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. The symposium grew out of a workshop entitled “Laclau’s Contribution to IR: Rethinking Core Concepts” in April 2016 at Kiel University. The contributions to the symposium focus on:

Contributions to the Symposium

Frank A. Stengel/Dirk Nabers
The Contribution of Laclau’s Discourse Theory to International Relations and International Political Economy: Introduction to the Symposium

This symposium explores the value of Poststructuralist (or Political) Discourse Theory (PDT) for the analysis of world politics. PDT was originally developed by the late Argentine political theorist Ernesto Laclau and has entered the margins of International Relations (IR) in recent years, mainly by bringing in poststructuralist concepts that had previously been ignored by the more critical strands of theorizing. Against this background, the introduction (1) discusses the disconnect between PDT and research on world politics, primarily in IR, as well as PDT’s potential contribution, (2) provides an overview of PDT’s central theoretical tenets, in particular with respect to its social ontology and its theoretical concept of change and (3) introduces the contributions to the symposium.

Keywords: discourse; poststructuralism; social theory; International Relations; IPE; world politics; change; hegemony; practice; identity

DOI: 10.1080/07393148.2019.1596683

A pre-print is available here.

Dirk Nabers
Discursive Dislocation: Toward a Poststructuralist Theory of Crisis in Global Politics

In the discipline of International Relations (IR) and beyond, the concept of crisis is essentially contested, and one specific usage, it seems, is called into question by alternative uses of the term. The article develops the argument that that crisis must not be misunderstood as exogenous to social construction; indeed, the very notion of crisis only makes sense if understood as produced entirely in what we will later specify as discourse. In this way, it can be illustrated how allegedly objective crises are expressions of particular configurations of social forms of power. The discourse theoretical notion of dislocation will be introduced in order to develop an understanding of crisis as a qualitative as well as constitutive eature of the social instead of an understanding of crisis as ‘crisis decision-making’ or ‘crisis management’. Crisis can in this sense be seen as a permanent attribute of the social, not some transitory condition that appears from time to time.

Keywords: Crisis; dislocation; Laclau; discourse theory; International Relations

DOI: 10.1080/07393148.2019.1596684

Eva Herschinger
War as the Continuation of Hegemony by Other Means: How Contemporary Wars Reach into Societies

Much thinking on war has been inspired by von Clausewitz’ famous dictum of ‘war being merely the continuation of policy by other means’. Such politics/war dialectic conceives of war as being excluded from life within state and society; yet, contemporary warfare is in many ways constitutive for societies on and off the battlefield. Recent debates on war call for rethinking war in a more vernacular sense and from a critical perspective. The article joins this call and takes its cues from the theory of hegemony as developed by political theorist Ernesto Laclau. By embedding the analysis of war in a conception and political theory of society that rests on disagreement and conflict as reflecting a deeper ontological condition, it paves a theoretical avenue on how war reaches into society. Paraphrasing Clausewitz, I argue that war is the continuation of hegemony with other means, explaining how and why war has stabilizing and constraining effects on (democratic) political and societal life. Illustrating my argument with observations from the ‘Global War on Terror’, I am able to show how war is conceptually and ontologically entangled with society by focusing on war’s consequences in Western societies.

Keywords: war; hegemony; society; militarization; ‘suspect communities’; empathy

DOI: 10.1080/07393148.2019.1596685

Frank A. Stengel
Securitization as Discursive (Re)Articulation: Explaining the Relative Effectiveness of Threat Construction

This paper develops a poststructuralist framework for the analysis of the process of threat construction or securitization. Taking on-going debates in securitization theory about the securitizing process, the paper draws on the poststructuralist discourse theory of the Essex School to theorize what makes some securitizing moves (attempts to securitize a certain issue) more effective than others, which remains a persistent and crucial gap in the current literature.

Keywords: securitization; threat construction; poststructuralism; discourse theory; Essex School; Ernesto Laclau

DOI: 10.1080/07393148.2019.1596682

A pre-print is available here.

Joscha Wullweber
Money, State, Hegemony: A Political Ontology of Money

The paper develops a political understanding of the money-form, its relation to value, to society, and to the state. It argues that the value of assets is based on societal relations. These value relations are expressed in a general measure of value – money. Money serves as the equivalent for all asset values. This general equivalent is conceptualized as a master signifier. Based on Laclau’s political theory and theories of International Political Economy, the paper argues that it is the master signifier, which not only defines the assets’ value relations, but also constitutes the assets by assigning value. It follows that the value of an asset can only be determined when it can be expressed in money, and that asset values can only be made comparable when they can be related to this general money-form. Furthermore, the transition from a specific object or credit to the money-form is theorized as a political process. Money ultimately represents a specific political relationship resulting from hegemonic struggles. To conceptualize money as a master signifier makes it possible to understand money not as a neutral measure of abstract value but as a general measure of value relations resulting from political processes and social struggles.

Keywords: money; Ernesto Laclau; master signifier, IPE; discourse

DOI: 10.1080/07393148.2019.1596686

Lasse Thomassen
Representing the People: Laclau as a Theorist of Representation

While best known today for his theories of discourse, hegemony and populism, Ernesto Laclau also has a distinctive theory of representation, which is developed in On Populist Reason in particular. Going beyond conventional conceptions of political representation, Laclau takes representation to be a general category and not just limited to formal political institutions, and he takes representation to be performative in that it also brings about what is represented. This paper examines the implications of this conceptualization of representation for Laclau’s theory of populism. Laclau takes populism to be exemplary of his conception of representation because populism is a discourse that brings into being what it claims to represent: the people. This is important for current debates about populism and the crisis of democratic institutions, whether domestic or international. The aim here is to show how our conceptions of representation inform how we think about populism and liberal democracy, and specifically about populism as a threat to liberal democracy at the domestic or global level. I show this in the context of a reading of Jan-Werner Müller’s influential critique of populism.

Keywords: Ernesto Laclau; Jan-Werner Müller; populism; representation

DOI: 10.1080/07393148.2019.1596687

A pre-print is available here.

Fränze Wilhelm
An Ontology of Global Order? Heidegger, Laclau and Political Difference

The question of ontology in thinking about global order(s) remains largely unexplored in IR theory. By reviewing the Heideggerian ontological difference and Laclauian postfoundational outlook the paper reconstructs how to conceive of global order(s) from an ontological perspective. The logical conjunction of the strictly philosophical and the political in Heideggerian-Laclauian postfoundational thought leads to two central claims: (1) An ontology of order is impossible because order has not per se a factual side or an essence. Rather, order is always only a contingent manifestation of the historically specific investment of its ordering function. (2) There can be no ontologically prior universal order. Yet an always already failing structuration is not necessarily a failure in its negative connotation. Going beyond the confines of ontological fixity the failing global order(s) come(s) to terms with challenges of politicization, decision, responsibility and the need for political contestation.

Keywords: global order; ontology; difference; postfoundationalism; Ernesto Laclau; Martin Heidegger

DOI: 10.1080/07393148.2019.1596688