Laclau and Mouffe's theory of radical democracy and political identity in contemporary Europe
The rapid social and political transformation of post- Communist Europe has necessitated a re-examination of the question of political identity, particularly in relation to democracy and the nation-state. Laclau and Mouffe's post-Marxist notion of 'radical democracy', incorporating a non-essentialist conception of hegemony, promises much in this regard. Their work on the contingent nature of political identity and their understanding of the range and importance of the political and social changes in contemporary Europe is especially valuable. Although their work is a significant contribution in this area their project is ultimately more applicable to post-industrial Western Europe before the collapse of Communism than it is to post-'89 Europe. Laclau and Mouffe's work can be divided into 'early' and 'later' periods. Their 'early' work includes their Marxist and post-Marxist formulations, while their 'later' period, influenced by post-Communist events, is characterised by a growing liberalisation of their thought. As a result of the epochal changes stemming from the fall of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe the question of Europe becomes crucially important in this 'later' period. Mouffe holds to a notion of Europe that is constituted through its democratic heritage. It is argued that this constitutes an exclusive identity and that European identity should not be dependant upon such a narrowly defined sense of tradition. Laclau and Mouffe place great emphasis on the constitutive role of antagonism in the construction of both identity and democracy. Throughout their work it is possible to identify a tendency towards a politics of 'us and them'. An emphasis on the role of exclusion in identity formation is particularly marked in their 'later' work. The case of nationalism highlights a problem with Laclau and Mouffe's approach to conceptualising collective identity. This stems from their reliance upon democratic political identity as the sine qua non of democracy. Against this it is argued that the construction of national and ethnic identity cannot be understood in this way. The nation-state has been the single biggest factor in shaping European political identities in the post-war period. Challenges to the primacy of the nation-state from regional or ethnic separatism are having a similarly important influence in the contemporary context.